Dr. Darron T Smith explains that four hundred years of violence and oppression cannot be assuaged by a few public appeals.
The eruption of violence unfolded on national television Tuesday night after the city of Ferguson learned that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted by the grand jury for the murder of Michael Brown, Jr., yet another young, unarmed, black male. Eager for answers throughout this painstaking ordeal, the black citizens of Ferguson and other voices from across the nation were calling for an unbiased due process into the investigation of the shooting of their “son.” Attorney Benjamin Crump, representing the Michael Brown family, implored Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to assign a special prosecutor to the case—one that is not intimately involved with the Ferguson Police on a day-to-day basis. He called for, at the very least, an appearance of fairness. And yet his pleas fell on deaf ears.
Michael Brown’s own stepfather, attempting to console his wife after the announcement by the prosecutor that there would be no indictment of the man who killed her son, became visibly overcome with grief and unbridled his passions. Unleashing his pent up anger, he bellowed, “Burn this b—- down!” A war cry known well among the dispossessed, this demand for justice is born out of the black struggle against the preponderance of everyday forms of institutionalized white racism. The media news outlets have tried to characterize his words as the ignition that incited a weary crowd to violence.
Whether you believe his cries to be literal or figurative, the rebellion was inevitable regardless of his statements because what is hidden beneath this sound bite are decades of black rage and frustration over blocked opportunities and equal access denied to decent jobs, high quality education, health care and other resources that white Americans ignorantly take for granted. Instead, what black Americans have come to expect from their homeland is continued discrimination and the subsequent white denials in virtually every sphere of society. And for these subjugated peoples, Mike Brown’s death stands as a symbol for black youth who have ever found themselves accosted by our racially exclusive social structure. In this case, the criminal justice system has been woefully unfair and outright hostile to the concern of black Americans and other Americans of color.
The African American experience of North America was born from violent encounters by elite white men and their unrelenting quest for power, control and economic supremacy in what would later evolve into our free market capitalist empire. This monumental achievement by such a young nation came by way of genocidal campaigns against Native Americans for their land and the enslavement of Africans for their labor power. Today most Americans underestimate the foundational and destructive nature of systemic white racism and how it is reproduced with each proceeding generation. Black folks have had centuries of violence inflicted upon them by their nation and each other. The people grow tired and impatient and, left with few other options, they ultimately dissent.
It was almost 50 years ago when the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles went up in flames. The 1965 Watts riots marked the turning point in the civil rights movement when black Americans chose to stand and fight violence with violence. Though the initial incident began with an act of civil unrest between the police and a few citizens, the California Governor recognized that the main source of the riots stemmed from high unemployment, poor schooling and inadequate housing for blacks in the city. Not much had changed 27 years later when rioting once again erupted following the acquittal of the four officers who brutally beat the late Rodney King in plain view of their dash cam. And not much has changed now some 49 years later. An extended history of violence exacted on black Americans has found its way to the millennial generation. This modern-day riot is a continuation of such events as expressed in Baynard Rustin’s utterance when he said the unequivocal purpose of the Watts riots was to “no longer quietly submit to the deprivation…”
Just as Rodney King was called upon to appeal for peace in his famous remark, “Can’t We All Just Get Along,” Michael Brown, Sr. had a similar request of the people of Ferguson. But in the end, these urgings fell silent because the riot was bigger than this one moment in time. The unrest is ultimately due to systemic inequalities, which have long determined African Americans’ standing in society, relegating them as America’s most disenfranchised group.
Four hundred years of violence and oppression cannot be assuaged by a few public appeals. The request for calm and peaceful demonstrations is a strategy that eventually runs its course as an effective means of being heard. Black Americans are repeatedly expected to exercise restraint and show patience in the face of white brutality—this, after years of long-suffering and oppression. But after a series of tragedies of black men and boys at the hands of white law enforcement (or community watchmen), very little has been done. Black folks remained calm through Oscar Grant and remained calm through Trayvon Martin. They remained calm through Eric Gardner and Dante Parker and John Crawford. And still no action was taken. At what point do these communities have to institute violence to have their voices heard?
What is happening in Ferguson is a result of the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement. The process is unjust, and laws have been systematically stripped away, undoing many of the provisions that protected minorities from white terror. Blacks feel they have been denied all legitimate means of civic redress; thus, they have no other appropriate venue to express their angst. Malcolm X warned a generation ago in his speech “It is either the ballot or the bullet.” It is not merely coincidental that the rioters’ first act of defiance was to set two Ferguson patrol cars on fire—this aggressive act epitomizes the deep mistrust that the citizens of Ferguson and other cities have for their own police force who is supposedly sworn to “protect and serve” its residents. Gone are the days of the community police that were are a part of the people. The real perpetrators of violence in US society are those with white skin privilege who disproportionately target young blacks on the presumption of guilt. It is not a surprise then, that anarchy is the inevitable outcome of the voiceless.
And still at every juncture, modest attempts at societal transformation are typically met with stiff white resistance and rancorous political partisanship. Blacks are blamed for their own circumstances in life under a regime of white supremacy, and if they fail to pull themselves up by their non-existent bootstraps and carve out a piece of the “American Dream,” it is their own fault. As Dr. King forecasted, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” What did you expect would happen, America?
AP Photo: Jeff Roberson