There’s Something I’ve Been Trying To Tell You
What White America misses every time there is civil unrest in Black communities due to police violence.
By David Todd McCarty | Sunday, May 31, 2020
In the wake of the 1968 Detroit riots, a 33 year old FCC commissioner named Nicholas Johnson wrote a guest column in Variety magazine, critical of the political attitude in Washington that considered the demonstrations incompressible and self-destructive. Many politicians blamed the media, and still others blamed agitators, instigators and a criminal element bent on opportunistic looting. Johnson himself claimed that the uprising was not senseless, random violence, but rather that a riot was, in fact, a form of communication.
“A riot is somebody talking,” Johnson wrote. “A riot is a man crying out: ‘Listen to me, Mister. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you, and you are not listening.’”
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”John F. Kennedy
The civil unrest that America is experiencing is not simply about the inexcusable murder of George Floyd. That was merely the spark that ignited the piles of fuel that have been accumulating for decades—centuries even. Riots are never a single data point, but a culmination of years of failed policies, institutional racism, economic inequality, hopelessness and violence inflicted on poor communities of color. While we’re at it, let’s be clear, in America, it’s almost always black communities.
“The main participants in riots, my research shows, are usually young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods that have been virtually occupied by police; they usually feel powerless in the face of police brutality,” wrote Cathy Lisa Schneider. “When riots erupt, the balance of power momentarily inverts, and youths normally cowed by police experience a heady sense of efficacy and freedom.”
Activists rarely participate in riots she reported, as they tend to be “more confident in their ability to effect social change, experienced activists tend to channel community anger into nonviolent forms of collective action. Their presence actually makes riots less likely.”
Despite the obvious cost of life and property that civil unrest brings, can they produce renewed attention to long-simmering social ills? Do riots work?
“From the Boston Tea Party to the Los Angeles riots to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, violent resistance has sometimes led to positive social change,” writes Sherry Hamby, director of The Life Paths Research Center. “Most often, rioting has drawn attention to oppressive authoritarian rule (sometimes by kings, sometimes by police). In some cases, it has also spurred investigations into law enforcement or other government systems. Occasionally, it has even forced corrupt or incompetent leaders to surrender or resign.”
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia then spread to Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, and Yemen. It began with Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire after his fruit stand was shut down by police one time too many. So far, five leaders have been overthrown: Egypt (twice), Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya. Syria is still in the midst of a bloody civil war.
“Riots are not great solutions, but riots are usually caused by real injustices,” says Hamby. “Thousands of people do not take to the streets for no good reason. That was true during the American Revolution, and it is true today. Riots are often the desperate response of people who feel they have no other recourse.”
The original sin of American slavery has never really been dealt with in any meaningful way. We’ve simply moved on to our version of Apartheid, a largely silent system of inequality and legalized oppression that we don’t talk about at dinner parties.
In South Africa, Apartheid had been in place for decades, depriving blacks from equal work, education, and civil rights. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 forced racial segregation in academic facilities. As an answer, groups like the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Students Organization were mobilized. On June 16, 1976, after the Afrikaans language was made mandatory, tens of thousands of students took to the Soweto streets for a non-violent march. The police responded with tear gas and live ammunition, killing between 176 and 700 people, mostly students. Riots and strikes ensued across the country. After serving 27 years in prison for defying Apartheid, Nelson Mandela, was released in 1990 and was elected as the country’s first black President in 1994.
The reality is, it’s not relevant whether or not riots are an effective tool for change. They are not designed as a logical strategy, but are in fact, a fairly reasonable reaction to human beings being pushed beyond the limits of human suffering.
White America has to stop reacting to them in the structured terms of a rulebook. “These people are breaking the rules, defying the social construct that keeps the peace. They are, therefore, troublemakers and miscreants.” This logic is too obtuse, even for over-privileged white America. No one can be that willfully ignorant of racism in America without a great deal of effort and mental gymnastics, or straight up, open racism.
For many white Americans, the riots of the past few days are an outsized reaction to the unfortunate death of a single black man in Minnesota, who may or may not have just committed a minor criminal offense. For black Americans, it was yet another spit in the face after a lifetime of oppression and fear and violence, often at the hands of white police officers. A not so gentle reminder that their lives may one day hang in the balance on the whims of a single, white, well-protected man and his friends.
Colin Kaepernick knelt, quietly, respectfully and defiantly, and black America watched as he was nullified by his employers, his teammates, his countrymen and his President. This was a rich, famous black man with a national presence and a Nike contract. What was your average 23 year old black man supposed to do to protest being accosted and killed by police in their own neighborhood? If kneeling on television didn’t work during a Sunday football game, what more could possibly get your attention?
Apparently breaking the windows of a downtown Gap or burning a Starbucks was what it took to get your attention, but everyone knows it won’t be enough to affect real change. So how far will this need to go, before we decide we’ve all had enough and that change is inevitable?
America has chosen to ignore the problem but we are running out of time. We are like a sinking ship, oblivious of the people drowning at the low end, because we are sitting high up in the sun, wondering what all the fuss is about and why the troublemakers can’t keep it down.