A 15-year old black teenager is shot and killed by a police officer.
Here’s how it happened, as far as we know: The manager of an apartment building, apparently tired of teenage men hanging out under the stoop, assuming they were up to no good, finally snaps and shouts a racial slur at the boys. The boys start throwing rocks and bottles at the manager and at the apartment windows. A 15-year old black teenager who happened to be walking by joins in the encounter and goes into the building. The evidence is increasingly convoluted and contradictory here. According to the officer, the boy ran in after the manager, with a knife in his hand. Other witnesses deny it. The officer claims he shouted into the building for the boy to drop the knife and come out. Then, according to the officer, the boy came at him with the knife, they struggled, and he shot when the boy raised his arm with the knife at him.
According to witnesses, the teenager never had a knife and only threw his hand up–not to attack, but in defense, as the officer pulled his gun.
Peaceful protests and not-so-peaceful riots, mostly driven by students, spread throughout the city. Several police officers are targeted for attack. 500 people, officers and civilians, are injured.
The riots have been highly destructive. Mobs are seeming to target whites to harass or beat up and some are heard shouting out slurs: “whities!”
A progressive racial-equality student group held a rally, originally intended to discuss other topics. But a student gave an impromptu speech: “This shooting was murder!” The group decides to march to the police precinct to demand the suspension of the police officer.
The police department issues a statement claiming the shooting is a consequence of crime, not a matter of racism. The officer is eventually charged, but found not guilty.
In the midst of this, so-called “activists,” are condemned for stirring up racial hatred, for disturbing the relative peace between blacks and whites, for encouraging violence and racism against whites. The riots are pointed to as an example of immature thugs creating a false narrative of oppression out of self-inflicted woes.
This sounds strikingly familiar, like a situation that could happen in any American city this week.
But our story is not from 2016. The year is 1964.
The city is not Charlotte, Ferguson, or Tulsa. It is Harlem.
During this dark week of the Summer of ’64 riots Harlem and Rochester, Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to comment. Many were maligning the civil rights movement for stirring up racial hatred and anti-white sentiment, criticized for constantly constructing “race problems” out of nothing. Civil rights leaders, including MLK had been accused of being part of the cause of these and other riots for their harsh and critical rhetoric against white America, and for not condemning riots more definitively.
After all, Dr. King had spoken quite harshly about police brutality, discrimination in job-hiring, economic disparity, unequal access to education, and condemned white Americans for not dealing with, or actively assisting in, solving these problems. This is the man who would say things like this, after all:
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn… These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
–Where Do We Go From Here, 1967.
In response to the riots, MLK reiterated his commitment to non-violence but bristled at any attempt to condemn riots without condemning their cause, or allowing the violent reactions of some to be used as an excuse to dismiss the legitimate injustices fueling anger and activist fervor: “In short we must be as concerned to get rid of the environmental conditions that cause the riots as we are in condemning the violence.”
Throughout the riots of the ’60s Dr. King was accused of being responsible. As one piece of mail reads: “Hang your head in shame. You are responsible for all of these riots and havoc in this country today.” He was accused of stirring up antagonism by his harsh criticism of white America: “You don’t point out any FAULTS at all of your own people, just the whites.” He was accused of being anti-patriotic for his criticisms of America: “How can you be a minster and have such hatred in your heart for the ‘white’-race and the Nation in general?Do return that ‘Nobel-peace-prize’ that we bestowed upon you.”
Many whites maintained that things were more or less okay, they certainly were not responsible for the hardships of the black community. They saw peace, and the likes of Martin and Malcom alike brought a sword.
They offer superficial treatments
for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
when there is no peace.
-The Prophet Jeremiah
We are still atop this nightmarish merry-go-round. The same cycle, the same script, is read on repeat. Black America continues to feel the weight of old housing policies that left them in ghettos, government handouts given to “up-by-your-bootstraps” whites in the form of the GI Bill that was used to build white suburbs that left blacks in decaying and under-resourced urban spaces, abysmal education options, black men more often stopped, arrested, convicted, and more harshly sentences than whites for the same, or no crimes. They face the burden of realizing that, as seems to have happened in Charlotte, innocent black men are more likely to be mistaken for a suspect and have to face the choice of defending themselves in what could be a dangerous and life-threatening situation of unconstitutional harassment, or submitting to the risk of being attacked regardless. Even when a black man is ‘at fault’ for his shooting, the encounter is less likely to be thoroughly investigated or lead to changes that can prevent these encounters before they happen. Indeed, even when there’s a gun involved, officers are less likely to exhaust other options and de-escalate situations when it is a black person, rather than white:
Unarmed black men are more likely to die in encounters with police than armed white men.
Let that sink in. There are clear policies that have discriminatory, even if unintended, consequences. But also, the existence of clear conscious (i.e., the explicit racist propaganda discovered in some police department email servers) and unconscious bias (that every human has) resulting in unequal treatment, is well attested.
And the relationship of this treatment to crime is un-substantiated. Car-searches disproportionately happen to blacks in many cities, but come up with contraband less often than for car-stops of whites. Some areas with high crime have low police shootings, and vice versa. And where there is a correlation, there is reason to believe that decades of bad policing and criminal justice itself perpetuates crime: A population that doesn’t trust the licit mechanisms for justice will turn to gangs and revenge for protection and justice.
These frustrations have been bubbling under the surface for decades, especially in cities with well documented histories of explicit racial profiling that has gone on for a long, long, time.
Just as in the ‘60s, the response from people of color is harsh criticism of white America for their ignorance, despite their egalitarian values, of their role in perpetuating these disparities and the responsibility they have to help resolve them. There is lots of disruptive activism. And, sometimes, there is violence. And whites continue to refuse to take the criticism and descend into defensiveness and downright slander. Just as in the ‘60s, outbursts of anger, peaceful or not, are used to malign black Americans or political movements as anti-white thuggishness, instead of recognizing their context as a reaction within a long history of ongoing oppression. This moralizing finger-pointing is an attempt to turn our attention away from what is truly rotten and shameful underneath. We absolve ourselves of any sense of guilt or responsibility if we can point out the faults in the angry black man. We are more concerned with what the black man does when he is angry (whether peaceful or violent) than what made the black man angry.
“In the Scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah denounces false prophets for crying “peace, peace when there is no peace.” We cannot condemn the violence of a small minority of protesters without also condemning the overwhelming violence that millions suffer every day.” –Charlotte Pastor, William Barber II
Despite the fairy-tale image of white Americans in the 1960s as hateful Klansmen, an image that serves to absolve our own consciences, white Americans largely believed themselves to be generally tolerant, kind and believed in some sense of equality; blacks were responsible for their own problems. With each passing decade, white America came to reluctantly admit that blacks were indeed grossly mistreated in housing, criminal justice, and education and not largely to blame for their station, back then, but not now…. We always come to this conclusion a decade or two too late, and the same problems are never fixed.
Our black brothers and sisters find it remarkable that we do not in turn get angry about what is at the root of their angry reactions; that black bodies are still deeply unsafe, are mistreated by the criminal justice system, and left in hopeless situations because of decades of economic injustices that have kept the best schools and resources in white America and out of their hands, despite decades of hard work. These are issues which we have the power and responsibility to help rectify, but choose to ignore. Our indignation is spent elsewhere. It is spent on the battered wife who in a moment of exasperation slaps back, and not the battering husband. This is easier than taking responsibility. This is easier than having compassion on our neighbor.
It is dangerous to compartmentalize and over-simplify the Civil Rights era, making it into an image that does not demand something of us today. I often hear generalizations along these lines: Today’s riots and retaliatory violence in response to situations of alleged police brutality are evidence that the current movement is one of hateful and violent anti-white thuggery, entitlement, and unbridled criminality; unlike the peaceful, upstanding, hard-working, moralistic, and color-blind values of the civil rights era. These false generalizations, and our historical amnesia, undercut our ability to resolve our recurrent crisis. It was not so simple then, and it is not so simple now. What irony that the exact same criticisms of the civil rights movement are used today. Black Americans have longer memories, that’s why they don’t buy it. They just hear the same lines being read off of a paper from eyes that have not bothered to look beyond the page. We can afford to be apathetic or to pass the blame, we have nothing to lose, while our black brothers and sisters have everything to lose.
Dr. King found this game of passing-the-blame onto rioters to distract from the real problem, morally reprehensible, and I believe it still is today.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” –MLK, “The Other America.”
“And I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.
…The mood of the Negro community now is one of urgency, one of saying that we aren’t going to wait. That we’ve got to have our freedom. We’ve waited too long. So that I would say that every summer we’re going to have this kind of vigorous protest. My hope is that it will be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive. I would hope that we can avoid riots, but that we would be as militant and as determined next summer and through the winter as we have been this summer. And I think the answer about how long it will take will depend on the federal government, on the city halls of our various cities, and on White America to a large extent. This is where we are at this point, and I think White America will determine how long it will be and which way we go in the future.” –MLK, interview on “60 Minutes.”
I fear we are in significant danger of perpetuating the sins of our ancestors. We pay lip-service to peace and brotherhood, we condemn the angry black man who disturbs our safe, disconnected, and relatively ignorant, peace. But there will be no peace without true equality, there will be no brotherhood without difficult truth-telling, there will be no reconciliation without those who are safe exercising their power to help protect the unsafe. Returning to the mantras much-beloved by white Americans: There will be no freedom without personal responsibility. This must begin at home, in our relationships to our community and our neighbor, especially the neighbors our parents left behind in the ghetto to fly to the suburbs, because they didn’t want to share schools.
Black America is begging for our help. They have spent decades working to prevent crime, build stronger communities, increase education options, but keep getting thrown back time after time by both ignorant and explicitly nefarious policies, and factors put in place in the past, largely outside of their control; sometimes by deliberate racism, often by (still inexcusable) ignorance. Instead of opting for violent revenge, most blacks are still trying to peacefully demand our attention and invite us to work together to build a better country, the one Dr. King dreamed of, which still has not yet come to pass. Will we accept the invitation?
There is a Divine voice inviting us. Will we listen?
“They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them.”
–The Prophet Jeremiah
Well I go to my brother,
and I say brother help me please,
and he winds up knocking me
back down on my knees.
“Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed;
save me and I will be saved,
for you are the one I praise.”
-The Prophet Jeremiah