A riot is the language of the unheard. -Martin Luther King, Jr.
To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice. -Confucius
If you want peace, work for justice. -Pope Paul VI
There is a whole lot of blame to go around. We can finger point at the police and the media. We can blame the looters. We can cast very well-earned aspersions on the President and the minions who make him possible. And all of that would be very true. But we should be careful to draw some distinctions as well. Protesting is not looting and most of the people lining the streets of the major cities of this country expressing their outrage were not looters or vandals. And it should be noted, but won’t be, for the most part the protestors appeared masked. But as has always been the case in this media moment of a society which we live in today, the squeakiest wheels will always get the oil, or in this context the video bytes. The protestors were angry, they were passionate, they were justified, and they were mostly, peaceful. It is an important distinction to make because in the hazy aftermath of these current times you can bet there will be forces attempting to conflate their marching with the completely unjustified and chillingly casual homicidal actions of now former Minneapolis PO Derek Chauvin.
The fact of the matter, which should have been painfully obvious to anyone taking in oxygen in either this or the last century, is that people of color have always been treated with something less than the established justice ensured in the preamble to the document so many seem to worship when it suits their own needs. This is not our first dance. The brutalities inflicted upon Rodney King were nearly thirty years ago. Eric Garner was deprived of his life in 2014, for the brutal crime of selling loose cigarettes on the streets of a poor neighborhood where this is common practice. Like George Floyd, whose death ignited cities this weekend, he too alerted officers that he could not breathe. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 23- year old Guinean immigrant, was hit by 41 shots fired by police officers for the sin of pulling out his wallet while black. All four officers involved were acquitted. One was eventually even promoted. But the city did have to pay the Diallo family $3,000,000 in the wrongful death suit that followed. Considering all that went before that, in the hood, this would be called “chump change”.
African American men are not alone in their continued victimization by the nation’s police, although they certainly lead the data sheets. Black women are victimized too often as well. Louisville, Kentucky blew up after the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT in her own home. At first, much of the focus was placed on the fact that Kenneth Walker, Ms. Taylor’s boyfriend shot at and hit one of the police officers who rammed the door to Ms. Taylor’s apartment as they slept. Mr. Walker, called 911 to report the break-in. His act of self-defense got rewarded with a pair of wrist bracelets and a trip through the Louisville police system. The no knock warrant search produced no drugs and the suspect police sought was already in custody. It is also more than interesting to note that not one of the supposed “gun rights” groups showed up in support of Mr. Walker who used a legally owned gun to protect himself and his girlfriend from an apparent home invasion. If you have to ask why that is, then you have not been paying attention. Neither Ms. Taylor nor Mr. Walker had any prior criminal history. And it appears no one will ever really know what led to the eventual suicide of Sandra Bland in a Texas cell after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction.
I could go on, but you have heard this all before. I am not bringing anything new to this table. I don’t know that anyone can. I don’t believe a perspective exists at this point that hasn’t already been offered in one way, shape, form, or another. What chills me to the bone is the realization that this type of thing is so commonplace that I often think, why bother? Everyone is writing about this , what can I say that brings anything new to the discussion? It seems like this weekend we moved past discussion and into action. But when legitimate chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives matter” devolve into “NYPD suck my dick” along with looting and the destruction of property; the real message becomes camouflaged in the digital mist and the opportunity for discussion risks evaporation. And action devoid of discussion can only result in chaos. If that is the case, we are in for more of what transpired this weekend in the long hot summer which awaits us.
The problem is not just the police. Indeed, it should not be lost on us that most police officers are decent people doing a job necessary and beyond the capabilities of most of us. But the police as an institution are rather the most obvious, dramatic, and potentially dangerous symptom of the real problem. In June of 1998 in the town of Jasper, Texas James Byrd Jr. was leaving his parent’s house when he was offered a ride by three white men, one of whom (Shawn Berry) he knew and trusted. The ride ended with James Byrd Jr. murdered. The other two men, John King and Lawrence Brewer were white supremacists. James Byrd was tied to the back of the car and dragged for three miles, a torturous journey which, according to medical examiners he lived through, until his eventual decapitation . His body was summarily dumped in front of a black cemetery. None of these three less than solid citizens were police officers, but they came from the same pool of potential recruits which too often produces citizens who are more than glad to protect some and serve holy hell onto others under the protection of a badge and a gun. That pool of potential recruits is all of us.
The problem began centuries ago and if by that you believe I am referring to the slave trade in North America, you would only be partially correct. Before Europeans began bringing slaves to these shores, they also brought diseases which effectively diminished the indigenous populations of the Americas. Then over time they took their land as well. As for Africans, even when they won their “freedom” as a result of the bloodiest war ever fought on this soil, they were never truly free. A fellow named Jim Crow and a bunch of pointy headed hooded creeps made sure of that for a very long time, as strange fruit hung for too long from the poplar trees in the American south.
For a nation that espouses in its pledge “liberty and justice for all” the hypocrisy rings loud and clear and it is far past time that we have that discussion. All of the negative isms, racism, antisemitism, sexism are alive and well in America in 2020. As are their kissing cousins from the phobia clan, homo and xeno. The family tree is larger than that, but I am too overwhelmed by it all at this point to itemize them all. For a nation which claims to be the land of the free and the home of the brave it is becoming more and more obvious that it is neither.
I didn’t always feel this way. Once upon a time, not too long ago actually, but which now seems like a lifetime, we offered something to the world, something to ourselves. It was something aspirational, no matter which rung on the ladder we occupied. For at least there was the idea that we could all be on the ladder. And by being on that ladder, one could begin to climb it.
But it is difficult to climb a ladder when it is kicked away from you. When opportunity never knocks because of your skin color or your gender, or your sexual persuasion or your gender identity or your religion, then it is impossible to open the door for it. When you can no longer perpetuate change in a society for yourself or your community because your right to do so has been permanently cancelled for being a “perp” then in a very real sense you no longer exist .
A few weeks ago, the bankrupt businessman who would be king sat in the shadow of the 16th President of the United States and carped that he was treated more unfairly than his 19th century predecessor who guided the country through its greatest struggle and who literally took a bullet for it. Now, in the middle of a viral pandemic and the most serious challenges to the nation regarding race and our institutions, instead of promises of malice towards none and charity for all, we are offered the Molotov cocktails of division. I have every faith that eventually we will defeat the coronavirus. The vaccine for the other virus cannot be developed in a lab. No governmental task force can fix this. We must develop it ourselves, because at its root, we ourselves are the causes of it.