When I first read the title of Dr. Kane’s blog entry last week: The New Basic Skills in America: The 3Rs: Rage, Ravage & Rioting In Ferguson, I had to stifle a groan. Raging and ravaging and rioting are now the new basic skills? How on earth is that the new reality?
I was relieved to see that the blog itself wasn’t a diatribe against those who were rioting, but more of an attempt to explain the reason for it, by understanding what those people wanted, and how rioting was one of many methods to get to that desired outcome.
However, what prompted me to reach out to Dr. Kane and to register my disagreement with his writing is that like most of the older African-Americans I know, Dr. Kane still chose to focus on those who were rioting (which were in the minority and had nothing to do with the peaceful protesters), and also focused on the fact that the political and civic leadership in Ferguson were mostly members of the white minority, who were responsible for the safety and management of a town that is 67% percent African-American—a “disaster waiting to happen,” in his words. And thankfully, after hearing me rant and rave, he graciously invited me to write a response (not a reaction) on his blog.
I know that this isn’t the intent of his piece, but what it feels like reading it is a little bit of “blaming the victim” here. Sure, the black folk of Ferguson would be well served to have more racial representation in their city council, school board, and law enforcement, but does that mean that they sat there waiting for this “disaster” to happen? Were the killing of Michael Brown and the other indignities that preceded and followed that tragic moment things that the community brought on itself because they didn’t take a greater role in governing themselves? Does that mean that having more black people on the force would have kept Brown from being killed because white people cannot be trusted to protect and serve black communities without mistreating the citizens?
It’s a common sentiment, particularly among older black people, and honestly, many of my peers, including myself, hold that opinion as well. And honestly, the evidence that Dr. Kane laid out—Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and so many others—bears it out. Disproportionately, African-American men are assaulted and killed every year for reasons that are murky at best and concealed at worst. And most of the explanations include a white police officer feeling like his/her life has been threatened by something that person did, which invariably had nothing to do with their actions, since all of them are unarmed.
However, I believe that it is lazy thinking to conclude that black people must insure that they control the government and law enforcement in their communities in order for them to feel safe in those communities. It places the responsibility for injustices like that which happened to Michael Brown squarely on the shoulders of the community that mourns him, it reduces the responsibility of the person who actually did the shooting, and it perpetuates the idea that white people, if given the chance and the power, will indiscriminately kill those who are different from them. That last part is the most damaging, because if you accept that premise, then the preceding two naturally follow, and trust would never be established between the two.
In fact, it’s the very reverse—the idea that black people, if given the chance and the power, would rob, murder, or otherwise mistreat white people, that leads to the shoot-first-investigate-later mentality of some police officers. It’s these two absolutes that are at the root of the problem, and that, among other things that I will discuss in this post, should be the things that we focus on. It’s this mental model that we carry around with us about others that lies at the root of the cancer in this society, and that’s what we should focus on curing, not the symptoms of riot, ravage, and rage.
When I think back on history and reflect on the slave trade, Reconstruction, and segregation, I often thought as a teenager that I would have rioted and revolted and died rather than be subjected to such cruelty and abuse. As I grew into my 20s, I learned to respect those who chose to survive instead, because if it wasn’t for them, my generation wouldn’t exist, and I thought that perhaps I would have instead knuckled under and just focused on making it through like they did.
However, as I look at what’s happened in Ferguson and all across the country, what I’m realizing is that I’m falling into the trap of lazy thinking as well—living in absolutes. There was no wrong way to navigate the slave trade as a slave—if you fought and died, you pushed it that much further towards its end, and if you just survived, then you gave birth to the generation that would strive to end it and so on.
I think that the same can be said here. This is a situation in which many of our elders would exhort us to go home, to be safe, to pick another battle for another day—and many of us would, and that wouldn’t be wrong.
However, the fights today are not only the same as they were in the 50s and 60s, but they are even more important because the country, in some cases, feels like we are in a post-racial society—that this shouldn’t happen anymore because so much has changed, when in actuality, it really hasn’t—it’s just taken a different form. We no longer fight and protest and demonstrate for state-sponsored equality—that is the fight of our forebears.
Today, I believe that we fight against a less obvious threat- the idea that we as people CANNOT live together, that white communities should not trust black police officers, and black communities cannot trust white government officials to advocate for their interests the way they would if they governed a white community. I believe that we fight against the idea that somehow, mass violence and a militarized police force is justified against a community that exercises its right to free speech and its right to assemble, simply because some people are acting undesirably. I believe that we demand higher standards of those who are supposed to enforce the laws that they do not automatically jump to the gun when they feel that a situation is slipping out of their control. I believe that we fight against the idea that this is the new normal, and that we should just accept it instead of taking our rightful place in society, as true EQUALS to our neighbors of other colors, creeds, and religions.
And I believe that this is our generation’s fight. In order for this country—OUR country to survive, we cannot accept its fracture and its polarization. We cannot accept that white people in power will kill us—we must demand that they act as professionally as we demand of ourselves. We cannot let the vandals and looters in a demonstration reduce the importance of the demonstration.
It’s not just peace we want. It’s equality. It’s the knowledge that the rights of this country extend to ALL people, and not just the well-behaved ones or the ones with guns, and the right to live is not conditioned on the color of your skin, or how much you scare someone with a gun by just walking down the street.