John L Estrada was well-dressed – he was even wearing a nice sports coat – as he made his way down a quiet Florida road a few years ago on his way home after spending some time at a marina on his boat.
When he saw the eight sheriff’s cars, with their lights flashing and parked on the side of the road, he knew it was for him and he knew they would not care how well he was dressed or how nice his car was or that he was returning from his boat.
And when Estrada, 64, a 34-year military veteran who rose from private, first class, to become the 15th sergeant major of the US Marine Corps until his retirement in 2007, was stopped and pulled over, his first thought was, “Am I going to die?”
“I put my hands up and got out of my car. They told me that somebody had called and said I had waved a gun and threatened them. I stayed calm and I said, please search my car,” he told Newsday.
Still scared and waiting, he could hear them talking amongst themselves when one officer, a former army veteran, finally noticed the tags on his car’s licence plate showing a military insignia denoting Estrada’s rank. Recognising what that meant – and who Estrada was – he told his colleagues to stand down.
“You’re free to go,” the policemen told him. Still, he insisted they search his car – wanting to prove that he had nothing to hide – but they waved him on.
Estrada, who was born in Laventille and moved to the US when he was 14, was at the time of his appointment as sergeant major only the second black man in the US Marine Corps’ 244-year history to lead the elite military unit. He has campaigned for president Barack Obama, and served as US ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago from March 2016-January 2017. He’s a quintessential American hero, serving in the Gulf War and the Iraq War, and has numerous awards for distinguished service. Yet, as a black man, it has not been enough to spare Estrada the indignity of being negatively profiled as some sort of threat because of his skin colour.
Racist and insensitive comments
This is why he was angered and frustrated by insensitive and racist comments on social media, particularly by businessmen Michael Patrick Aboud and Gerald Aboud about the protests in the US over the last week after the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis, Minnesota policeman.
When some of the mostly peaceful protests in the US turned in instances of looting, burning and rioting, Michael Aboud made comments on social media that suggested that African-Americans inherently turn to violence. “Burning and looting is not protest for any good. They use the Floyd matter to do what comes natural. An excuse!”
Gerald Aboud, who two years ago also came under fire for incendiary comments saying Indian Arrival Day and Corpus Christi were “stupid holidays,” said in a social media post that “racism is one thing and the right to have an opinion is another,” suggesting that racists were entitled to their sentiments. He added: “Black people…we see your plight and we feel for you…however what you need to do is rise up from this state of mind…every time you go steal a sneakers…you make it much worse for yourselves. Killing your people everyday (sic), does blacklives (sic) matter then?”
Both men offered lengthy public apologies, also via social media, stating they were not racist and did not intend their comments to be viewed as such. Over the last week, there have also been controversies over comments from former national footballer Christopher Birchall, businesswoman Dianne Hunt and baker Michelle Sohan, who, in response to the protests, part of the Black Lives Matter movement, said on social media that "all lives matter" – a phrase often seen as a white supremacist response to the movement. The posts have been removed and the three have since apologised, also claiming they meant no offence.
“Michael Patrick (MP) Aboud’s (initial) comment really struck me. His use of ‘they’ was insensitive and racist because he’s basically saying (this is what black people do). His words offended me,” Estrada said. What MP Aboud failed to see was that the protests this time were different, spurred on because of the many men and women killed by police.
“What he fails to see, though, is that there are many white Americans who have joined the protest.”
Estrada noted the apology.
“I will take his apology that he is sincere, but the only one who will know that is him in his heart. Is he apologising because he was called out or does he really mean it?”
Regarding the statement by Gerald Aboud, Estrada said these comments indirectly suggested that black people loot.
“What I would suggest is that Gerald Aboud should listen to Rev Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s first memorial about how, systemically, American institutions keep knees on the necks of black people (a reference to the way Floyd was killed).”
Instead of simply condemning both the Abouds’ statements, Estrada said what he would prefer to do is educate them, and encourage them to learn and understand the systemic racism inherent in the US, and how black Americans have been unfairly and disproportionately affected for 401 years, starting with enslavement – something these men would likely never have had to experience.
“They were totally insensitive and off-mark.”
People like the Abouds and others with these views who have come from a lot of wealth have never walked in the footsteps of those who are protesting, Estrada said, and he encouraged them to read up on race relations in the US and the Caribbean to understand the underlying factors, as well as note the differences in the way both societies were influenced. Slavery, for example, was abolished in the British Empire on August 1, 1834. In the US, slavery was abolished in 1865 – after the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War – but it was only in 1964 – nearly 100 years later – that the Civil Rights Act was passed, making discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin illegal.
Solutions to systemic discrimination
Even today, Estrada noted, there’s still discrimination inherent in the system – including education district zoning, voter repression, economic hurdles and a criminal justice system that punishes black people more harshly than white people.
The police system – which is coming under particular scrutiny – needs an overhaul.
“Not all police are bad. But the ones who are should not be on the police force. They need to be held accountable and there should be proper psychological testing.”
There also needs to be more diversity and community engagement among the police force, as well as better and consistent training.
“One thing that disturbs me is seeing the police becoming militarised. It sends the wrong message,” he said.
Estrada was clear that he was speaking as a private citizen, and not on behalf of the Marines or the government as a former ambassador. Rather, he said, “I have to speak out because I have had these experiences of being a black man in America. In any one of these police or racially-motivated killings in the US right now causing outrage, I always think this could have easily been me or Lorenzo or Cliff – my two closest black male friends.”
There are times when he has been grateful for his military tags to get him through these discomfiting and uncomfortable encounters with the police.
“I get nervous. Me, a sergeant major and former ambassador. Unfortunately, I’m just another black man until they find out who I am.”
But it’s not just police he has to contend with, but racist neighbours – he’s had the police called on him for standing in the driveway on the way to see his daughters, and once, in Maine, where he now lives, he was accosted by a man at the supermarket.
“He called me a n----r and said I was a black immigrant Muslim and he was sure I was on welfare. I had to correct him with a few choice words.”
And there are some places where he just won’t jog unless he has a white friend with him. Racists, he believes, have felt more empowered in the last few years to show themselves more openly.
Every black parent must have the talk
Estrada is also the father to young twin girls. His daughters are biracial (their mother is white) and even though they are five years old, they have already had to face racism. He’s been very open with them to try and teach them about the world they live in and encourage them to grow up with a strong sense of personal identity.
“Every black parent has had to have that talk with their children. My daughters are biracial, but in America they are black, and that’s how I’m bringing them up.”
And they are already having to deal with racism. He recalled a time when they were in kindergarten in Boston, children taunted them, asking why their daddy was so black, because black is bad.
“These are children who are just about five years old. Where are they getting that from? Their parents.”
Regardless, Estrada is hopeful. He sees a change happening and he has already started talking to his girls about what’s happening.
“I support the protests fully. I do not support looting, burning or any of that, but we cannot focus on that and not focus on what has brought us to that point: innocent black men who were not resisting.”
He recalled watching the video of George Floyd’s death as a white policeman held a knee to his neck, suffocating him. “I heard him say, 'I can’t breathe.' He called out for his mother. I cried. I was disgusted. His six-year-old daughter will never know the joy of her father – the most important man in her life.
“Where’s the humanity of those folks who are saying he deserved this, or people should not be in the streets protesting in the US and across the world? They need to check their consciousness, and not make insensitive comments if they have not walked in the footsteps, and experiences of those this tragic issue affects.
"I have empathy. I walked those footsteps. I live it. All lives cannot matter until black lives matter.”