Political Issues

A Black Lives Matter Protestor Sacrificing Sleep for Activism (for Right Now)

Saanya Ali

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Photo: Saanya Ali/W+G Creative

In these diaries, we’ll look at how those working in this current climate and protesting for the rights of Black Lives are getting by—what self-care rituals they do, what they don’t, and how they take time for their mental health.

Here, we have Well+Good’s own associate video producer Saanya Ali, 24, who graduated with a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and has been at the company nine months, but has been photographing protests and unrest around the world since she was 19. She’s actively been a part of (and helping to organize) protestors for Black Lives Matter protests in NYC. 

HOW DO YOU DEFINE SELF-CARE?: Being your own best friend. Advising yourself and talking to yourself in the calm, thoughtful and kind way you would talk to a loved one. Also, taking a bath while listening to a Harry Potter audiobook or watching Gossip Girl after a run.

DO YOU THINK YOUR SELF-CARE HAS BEEN LACKING BECAUSE OF CURRENT EVENTS?: 100 percent. Running on adrenaline and feeling weighed down by frustration, anger, fear, and hurt has definitely meant that the whole eating, sleeping, and showering part of life has fallen by the wayside, but I am working to be better. Not just for myself. I won’t be able to be out marching and shouting if I get sick or mentally crash.

WHAT’S YOUR MOST OFTEN USED FORM OF SELF-CARE?: Online shopping (or just scrolling), watching shows that I’ve seen a thousand times, cooking, and running.

I’m still figuring it all out. I’m still checking my ego every day, working every day, learning every day—but I’m getting better.

5 A.M.: My day begins at 5 a.m. God knows why because I couldn’t sleep till 2 a.m. But really, if anything, I should be grateful. Sleep is rare these days. I’m not sure what it is exactly that keeps me up the most…the scrolling through post after post of things to do and places to donate and petitions to sign and books to read and tips to be a better ally, and feeling like I’m not doing enough. Or the more physical part. After being shoved against a wall, face-first by a ‘grab anyone and everyone for no reason’ police officer last night at a protest, my cheek hurts so I can’t sleep on my sleeping side. Even after ice and various lotions it’s still sore and a bit bloody on the inside.

But the restlessness is more than that, I’m mad at myself because, although I understood on a cerebral level the privilege of being a non-black POC, it wasn’t until now that I’ve fully come to understand the immensity of that privilege. How unfair it is that as a South Asian woman, I got to be surprised and confused by the way that police officers, and in particular the one from last night, treated me when so many Black children have to be taught how to behave when stopped by the police before they can even spell the word. How I have the luxury of going up to an officer when harassed, with the utmost confidence that he or she would help.

8 A.M.: I toss and turn trying to figure out how to process all of the emotions of the past nine days and it gets harder and harder as I lock them tighter and tighter into the “deal with later” box. I can’t seem to quiet the officers’ voices replaying in my head, remixed with new ones each night. I stay in bed five minutes longer trying to think of someone to have a crush on to give me a moment of solace or what I formerly referred to as “normalcy.”

9 A.M.: I head to the kitchen to figure out breakfast. I usually love to cook. I tend to play an audio book or scroll mindlessly through YouTube while making one of my too many saved recipes on Pinterest and it relaxes me. It makes me feel competent and grown up and frankly, good at something. But lately, my appetite hasn’t been great. So I grab a piece of bread, and call it a meal. I gnaw on the stale crust while desperately trying to run my fingers through my hair before a 10 a.m. Zoom call with the Well+Good editorial team, and dab some makeup on my cheek and under my eyes. I showered for the first time in four days last night but there’s no rinsing away bruises, stress pimples, and under eye bags. I turn the camera on anyway.

10 A.M.: This morning, I lose track of time reading last night’s records on the police scanner and don’t log on on our daily editorial pitch call until 10:03 a.m. Hearing all of the pitches about allyship and diversity, inclusivity in the wellness and fitness worlds that we work in, gives me hope. Everyone is fed up, but changes are being made. I pitch about Black beauty brands and the white-washed art industry. I don’t feel like these were particularly meaningful contributions, but yesterday I cried while trying to make a point about performative protesters, so I played it safe. Maybe a little too safe. I get distracted by the police scanner again.

11 A.M.: I’m usually punctual to a fault, but I find myself making coffee at 11:02 a.m. as I’m about to join an 11 a.m. meeting. This one is about writing this piece. So meta. I’m grateful to be able to talk to another non-Black POC at the company. There aren’t many, but her insight and understanding without having to say it all out loud helps. I realize how few POCs I have in my life and how as much as my friends may try, they’ll never really get it. Whatever “it” is. I log off feeling heard and wanting to write. I’ve been painfully blocked lately so it feels like I’m vomiting words onto paper… or into a Google Doc, but the message still stands.

12 P.M.: I map out my day, while uploading a video about eating in quarantine to YouTube. Multitasking while sleep deprived is a new skill to add to the resume.

I stop writing. I’ve mentioned sleeping and eating and pitching and talking, but I hadn’t yet faced an hour where I’ve actually had to address the feelings about all that’s going on. I migrate to my fire escape, dress it in the mat and pillows that I have used to “city camp” and sleep outside so many times, and look across. I’ve been attending and photographing protests and human rights crises around the world for five years, but I can’t figure out why this time is so different. Why I have this visceral, internal, painful feeling inside that I can’t shake. Why I feel guilty during the moments that I’m not outside shouting and fighting and marching. I make a second cup of coffee. My Nespresso has been the true hero these past few days.

1 P.M.: I set my status to a small pizza emoji and take a break that should be “lunch” but isn’t, being that I’m still rather full from the bread. I change my status back after fifteen minutes and log on to another Zoom call for the video team at 1:30 p.m. For the past nine months of being at the company, I was never sure that I fully fit in or if anyone really knew me at all. I tried my best to integrate myself into the community and get to know everyone, but it wasn’t until yesterday when a co-worker ordered food to my door and my boss and the VP checked up on me and reminded me to take care of myself, that I realized that I really am part of this community. I’m beyond grateful for that.

2 P.M.: It’s hard to stay focused. I can hear the Union Square protesters from my bedroom window and the Washington Square ones from my living room, and in an NYC apartment, there aren’t really any other rooms to go to unless I decide to take my calls from my bathtub. I sit on my bed, plug in my computer and pitch ideas about how we can recognize and act on the racial inequities in the fitness world using our video content. As an associate video producer, I help come up with ideas for videos and then handle all logistics of a video shoot—including research and coordinating with talent.

3 P.M.: Technically I have another call now, but after two hours on Zoom, both my boss and I decide to take our call outside. Masked, still in pajamas, wearing tattered Ugg boots that have barely fit since the 7th grade, my feet direct me towards Washington Square Park. The protest had migrated up 5th Ave so it’s peppered with empty water bottles and a vigil of flowers and candles and assorted other memories to honor George Floyd. I return home, and sit down to work. I get a bit done, but my brain is still with the vigil so I write some more. I kind of want tea, but I really don’t want to walk on blisters for the nine whole steps that it would take to get to the kitchen and make it. I have my water bottle with lemon instead.

4 P.M.: I’ve been a sprinter my entire life, so this is what I call the final push. I power through and productivity turns into high gear. Brain rattling with caffeine, and heart pulsing with a heightened anxiety that comes with it, I force myself to quiet the cacophony of shouting voices in my head and work on gathering the week’s blended metrics for the Audience Development meeting. I bring my laptop to the tub so I can sit on the toilet seat and work while soaking my feet in epsom salts (yes, city apartments are that small). I get the analytics reporting done quicker than I ever have.

5 P.M.: I’m counting down the minutes till I can go back out. My shoes are on. The police scanner is open on my phone as I send my final emails for the day. I’m heading out to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I take off any makeup because I learned my lesson at a previous protest in Germany about how much tear gas hurts when you’re wearing mascara and call my work day quits at 6:02 p.m.

6 P.M.: It’s the hottest day this year and my back drips under my bag of gear and camera lenses. I love being a photographer, but the backpacks are always comically heavy. I stand and record for a few moments before getting on the train to Barclays. I can hear the clamor from inside the station. The chants that have been ingrained into my subconscious grow louder. I pick up the pace. I need to be there now.

nyc blm protest
Photo: Saanya Ali

7 P.M.: I’ve been shouting for eight days straight, but somehow my voice knows that it has to keep going until something changes. I lead the chants and cries for action. I’m 5’5″ and fairly small. I had no idea my voice could go that loud. One thing that I love about going to protests alone are the people you meet. I walk with others in the front, with the help of the bikers. The bikers are the true leaders, rushing ahead to check for cop cars and then picking our direction and reporting back. Making barricades of their bikes to protect us. We keep marching. Everyone tells stories about the previous days. The things they’ve seen and gone through. We’re all going through this together. Everyone is exhausted and blistered, but no one is backing down. People have even migrated past passing out granola bars and water bottles to making full lunches with sandwiches in brown paper bags, juice boxes, and freshly baked cookies.

8 P.M.: Curfew comes and goes and no one leaves [Edit note: NYC’s curfew has since been lifted.] I band together with six others to de-escalate any interactions with the police and link arms to put our bodies between the marchers and the cops. This is a peaceful protest and we intend to keep it that way. Somehow we become the leaders of the march. Thousands of people follow our lead, and our Signal apps—an encrypted messaging system very popular amongst protesters—blow up with people asking where to go and how they can help. We link our arms together to keep the pace in “turtle steps” as one older woman shouted, so no one gets picked off by the cops in the back.

9 P.M.: We keep marching through the streets of Brooklyn. Families, older couples, and others who haven’t been able to come out to join physically hold signs out their windows and bang pots on their stoops. Car horns blare through small neighborhood streets.

10 P.M.: Officers surround us and push us closer from all sides, wielding batons, riot gear on, bullying us into instigating. I try to move towards the sidewalk. One officer shoves me to the ground, forcing me to land on my knee. He doesn’t help me up. A passing bike then meets my sprawled limbs and he falls too. His arm bleeds. Fellow protesters band together to shield us as we get up and they shuffle us to the sidewalk to get us out.

11 P.M.: I find myself on a stoop, with a bruised and aching knee and tired legs, planning my next move. After a few moments, a group of medics walk by. It turns out that the fall had partially dislocated my kneecap so they had to lodge it back in. Using humor and nimble fingers, they did and wrapped it up. It hurt worse than before. Still unable to walk, the next challenge was figuring out how to get home. With trains barricaded by officers, bridges closed to any non-essential workers, I was stuck. One of the people who helped me, a nursing student, has a brother who lives nearby. In a moment of extraordinary kindness, she wakes her brother, who drives to come get me and got me all the way back to the West Village. After four attempts at crossing bridges and a few wrong turns, I get home. I am so grateful to them.

12 A.M.: Home safe. Exhausted, but empowered. Sore as hell, but activated. I get ready for bed to recharge for day nine. Just as I begin to fall asleep, I get a call from one of the protesters helping de-escalate situations this evening. We need to figure out a plan. A series of specific asks to chat to NYC Council Member Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams about tomorrow. A set of actionable ideas that move past the protesting for the sake of protesting, anger fueling anger which was a good catharsis for a few days but won’t be sustainable for much longer as the city begins to open back up. I’ll shower tomorrow. I have another piece of bread, but this time with peanut butter and jelly. We stay up till 4:30 a.m. planning, before my head finally hits my pillow.

I’m still figuring it all out. I’m still checking my ego every day, working every day, learning every day—but I’m getting better. We know what we want and at least now we have that written down on paper. I’m breathing a little easier. If we can keep up the activism, focus our emotions, keep fighting for change, maybe one day we’ll all be able to breathe.

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