First Person

And Then They Came for My Cousin, Vickie Lee Jones


Our nationalist administration's incitement to racist violence had a direct impact on our writer two weeks ago when her cousin was murdered at Kroger's in Kentucky. Her message to readers: VOTE!



I’m fairly sure that it wasn’t a matter of thinking it could never happen to me. In truth, I’ve lived through some horrific experiences. The external ones like working at the World Trade Center in New York City when 9/11 occurred. The personal ones like car accidents, sexual assault, and childhood traumas. And I’ve certainly had my fair share of racist encounters and microaggressions. But on October 24 this year, my family was changed forever by a level of hatred that I’d only really seen demonstrated on graphic internet clips and in the stories of my elders.

On a seemingly ordinary Wednesday nearly two weeks ago, my cousin Vickie Lee Jones drove to her neighborhood Kroger grocery to pick up some things to take to her ailing mother. She was shot dead in the parking lot by Gregory Alan Bush, who, according to the implications of a witness, decided to end her life because she was Black. This was shortly after he’d shot and killed a grandfather, Maurice Stallard, who’d come to the store with his grandson to shop for school supplies.

This not only hit home for me because I grew up in Jeffersontown, the suburb of Louisville where the hate crime occurred. Nor was it because that particular Kroger is across the street from my parents’ home. Nor was it because Bush had tried to enter my parents’ church prior to shooting my cousin and Mr. Stallard when they’d just been there an hour earlier. This shreds my insides because, like never before, I’ve had to reconcile with the fact that if something doesn’t change soon, hate-crime shootings like the one that took these two precious lives, and the lives of 11 people that same week in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue, will be as commonplace as a daily social-media scroll through a millennial’s life.

If we, during these midterm elections, do not do all we can to put a stop to the kind of racist, xenophobic, patriarchal, oppressive dog-whistling coming from our politicians and “nationalist” leaders, then we are ensuring our own demise. As the oft-quoted Niemoller poem ends, “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” More hate crimes are coming if we don’t actively vote out those who support the oppression and suppression of Black and Brown people, women, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and other marginalized groups either directly with racist ads and policies or tangentially through their spineless inaction.

Trust me, when Dylann Roof shot nine African-American members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, all in the name of white supremacy, I was angry and hurt. I wrote lots of essays about it, trying to use the power of my pen to help people see the trajectory of this country and how the seeds of hatred planted at America’s founding had not been all dug up because of the relative success of the Civil Rights Movement—despite what many MLK-quoting white folks tended to think. But, if I’m honest, that horrific mass murder was still something that happened over there. To someone else. I now write as someone who has become intimately acquainted with the piercing pain and grief that comes from losing someone to this kind of violence. I’m now crystal clear that, if we continue down this road paved with gold-plated egos and short-sighted agendas, then not only will my cousin’s death be in vain, but it’s likely that yours or a member of your family’s will soon be also.

Not voting in ways to protect the marginalized means that not only will these shootings become more frequent—imagine a constant, normalized fear even worse than what is slowly burgeoning now—but will also continue to not be prosecuted properly. These terrorists, mostly white men, will continue to be treated with care and delicately apprehended. Law-enforcement agencies will continue to resist prosecuting these murders as hate crimes; their actions supported by politicians who put in place asinine laws such as the one in Kentucky that limits hate crimes to only covering “crimes such as assault, arson and rape but not homicide.”

Sure, this isn’t new. Especially for Black folks. We’ve been on this slippery slope of violence for a while. Guns are too accessible. Racial disparities exist across the board in our judicial system. And a general culture of overt and obtuse hatred has reemerged at the prompting of our country’s leadership. There is a desperate attempt by many in the dominant culture to retain their power to the detriment of everyone else. They are actively suppressing votes for this very reason. And yet, these midterm elections can be a first step in stripping them of that power. Their hearts may not ever change. To be frank, I have no hope of that. But my hope that somehow the Gregory Bushes and Robert Bowers of the world will learn to love themselves enough to love Black or Brown or Jewish folks is not necessary or warranted. Forget hope—VOTE. Yes, the system itself is broken. Vote anyway. Yes, the system wasn’t designed with the marginalized in mind. Vote anyway. Vote to at least try to keep people out of office who proverbially give birth to the laws that make the Bushes and Bowers and Roofs possible. Vote so that maybe, just maybe, a simple trip to the grocery store by another 67-year-old Black woman will not be her last.

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