“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The famous quote above from Martin Luther King Jr. sprang to mind for many last week as we watched yet another video of yet another black man dying in police custody, for no good reason, and the unrest across America that ensued.
George Floyd, a suspect in a nonviolent crime (forgery) in Minneapolis, was shown on videos and in photos not to be resisting arrest. But white police officers stayed on him, the lead one bearing his knee down on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes and ignoring pleas by Floyd and onlookers to let off. Floyd died in the street without justification. He was another black man in America who couldn’t breathe. Even after Eric Garner, we haven’t learned the lesson.
Now, former Officer Derek Chauvin has been arrested and charged in Floyd’s death. But as with the Ahmaud Arbery case in Georgia, that’s only a small first step on the long road to justice, and many families like Floyd’s, even some who had video evidence, have had the rug yanked out from under their feet before by a criminal justice system that doesn’t always work like it should. Just saying, “let the jury of their peers decide,” not only disregards the fact that Floyd will never have a chance at that same due process or to stand before a judge; it also dangerously ignores the most painful parts of our country’s history where the rules of law and justice have not been applied equitably.
With that in mind, we also saw last week videos and images of ensuing protests in cities across the country, including Atlanta, that went from peaceful at first to the burning of property and the looting of businesses.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, I saw a significant number of white people on my social media feed, and the President of the United States, direct their ire and outrage more toward the latter rather than a demonstrably depraved act with utter disregard for a human life.
Understand this: I do not condone the burning of police stations or the destruction of small businesses that had nothing to do with a murder, especially in the middle of the greatest public health and economic crisis in a century where so many people are on the edge of losing so much. It also needs to be acknowledged that there is photographic and video evidence that much of this violence and destruction was coordinated and carried out by anarchists and far-right extremist groups.
But with all of that aside, humans have a breaking point. And when you see a professional athlete called a “son of a b****” by the most powerful person in the country for an act of peaceful protest — a bedrock American ideal — and you’re ignored, and ignored, and ignored, what is the alternative to grab someone’s attention?
White people, we have to wake up. I said it in the Arbery column last month, and I’ll say it again. We have to be loud and unequivocal in our repudiation of acts like this. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we reckon with the awful things that are still happening to people of color.
There has to be a better way than picking up a torch, but we need to ask ourselves this: If this kept happening to people that looked like you and me, and we were met with excuses and inaction, wouldn’t you be ready to burn it all to the ground, too?
It’s important to examine King’s famous quote during the 1967 speech in more context. He, too, disapproved of rioting and dedicated his life to peaceful and nonviolent techniques. But he noted it was irresponsible to address that without recognizing the circumstances that brought about those desperate actions, the cries for help and action, then and now, that too often have rung hollow.
“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, 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 plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
Some things obviously have changed since 1967; others have remained the same under the surface and have increasingly bubbled up in recent years. People are frustrated, angry and tired.
And yet the best the president could offer to a weary nation was to channel former Miami police chief Walter Headley: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He also tweeted that the Minneapolis protesters were “THUGS,” all caps, which stood in contrast to how he labeled the armed white protesters of coronavirus restrictions in Michigan as “very good people.”
The distinction was intentional, and the racist dog-whistling has been the essence of his presidency and the focal point of his political career. And it will be at the core of his re-election message. In the midst of a tough fight for another four years in power — complicated by a global pandemic, economic turmoil and a sustained track record of abuse of his office — the man who has previously called on law enforcement to rough up people and protesters will exploit the rioting and other issues that provoke white angst to wage a culture war and stoke increased division among us at a pivotal point in history. It’s Richard Nixon and the “Silent Majority” all over again.
At the end of the day, it’s incumbent upon all of us to work toward a more just society and a better tomorrow.
A reflexive reaction to those of us who have spoken out against police brutality is that we are attacking law enforcement. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most people are aware that most of us wouldn't be willing to do the job with such high risk and often crummy pay for those on the front lines, knowing that anything can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye.
We need police officers. We need heroes. But we want and need them to be at their very best at all times. Working to ensure that we really are placing our finest in these positions and making sure resources for governments across the country are aimed at trust-building between law enforcement and communities is paramount.
But there is a rot in the system today that cannot be ignored and that will spread if we don’t work to stop it. And even people with good intentions can get swallowed up in it.
We saw the beautiful and the ugly at work with law enforcement in news footage this past weekend. There were horrific videos — two HBCU students in Atlanta being ripped from their vehicle by roughly a dozen cops and tased just for driving home a few minutes past curfew; a reporter sheltering in a gas station, screaming "Press!" but being held down and pepper-sprayed; Minnesota National Guardsmen firing high-velocity paint canisters at people on their porch who were not in violation of any order; a CNN crew being arrested for doing nothing wrong; a news crew in Louisville being fired at with rubber bullets without provocation. And there were rays of light, perhaps none more powerful than the sheriff in Michigan laying down his weapon and walking with his people. Let him be an example everywhere.
If rioting is the language of the unheard, the first step we can take is to actually listen to those voices. Otherwise, the fuse will remain lit, waiting to explode, again and again.