A young black man is walking down a street somewhere between his home and a convenient store. He has purchased a bottle of iced tea and it dangles from his hand in a plastic grocery bag. He is doing one unusual thing. He is wearing a mask. If it had been a few weeks later this would not have been at all unusual. Someone calls 911 and says that there is a man acting suspiciously walking down their street. Except he was really just walking, walking with a mask on.
The police pull up and he asks what he has done. They reply that he is acting suspiciously, obviously just taking the word of the 911 caller. This young man is not a criminal, he gives massages and plays a violin. He is shy, he explains that he is not bad, just different. He is an introvert. He pleads with the police not to do this. He tells them he has no weapons. He does it all peacefully and politely. They inject him with ketamine and later he dies.
This is not an isolated incident. It happens over and over. Black people are being apprehended for the simplest of infractions or no infractions at all, simply walking while black, or having a broken taillight while black and they, inexplicably, end up dead. This should not happen in America or anywhere.
Finally there is one incident too many. It happens to come at a time when news is just breaking that Black folks are more likely to die from the coronavirus, when Black unemployment is high. What would you do? How would you get the police to solve this problem they have in their ranks? Finally there is a protest, a protest that sticks, that plans to continue until the police promise to stop letting this particular pattern play out over and over again; until the police promise to police their own when their racism becomes obvious, before they can kill someone. The police are the ones with the problem. The solution must come from our police.
On Facebook white people are freaking out. There’s rioting they say, judgmentally, fearfully. These Black people are out of control they say. They agree that the authorities should clamp down on these people right now. They want this stopped right now. But they are wrong again.
Yes, there are three groups of people on America’s streets right now. There are peaceful protestors. Should peaceful protestors be met with police or troops in riot gear, shooting rubber bullets and throwing tear gas. It is legal to protest in America. There are reasons to protest right now in America. Racism is real. There really are police who seem to target minorities, most often Black people. No one should have to die for possessing a BB gun while 12-years-old (Tamir Rice). No one should get stopped for a broken taillight and end up dead when they have committed no other crime. No one who resists arrest very mildly and has no weapon, or admits they have a permitted weapon but it is shut away, should end up in a choke hold and then dead, or get tazed to death. There is a long list of these incidents – too long. It’s documented. We’ve seen the video.
Finally, during a pandemic, without jobs, people have been pushed too far and they exercise their right to protest peacefully. What should bother white people is that this happens most often to Black people. Why isn’t that what bothers us? Perhaps because segregation is still built into American culture, so they don’t know any Black people and all the stereotypes they believe about Black people seem to justify their xenophobia.
Then we have other people who use the distraction of legal protests to create chaos, to break glass, burn down cars and buildings, steal and harm police. They are violent and scary. Perhaps even the police are scared. There may even be crossover people who belong to both groups, protestors and rioters. But criminal behavior by some does not make peaceful protests by others any less legal.
The third group we have in our streets is the drug dealers and the gangs who, sadly, feel they must defend small areas of “turf” that belong to them, that other gangs must not invade. These lines may be lines of “entrepreneurship” – “I do business here, you do not.” They may be lines of ownership. Gangs are as old as time and they do tend to crop up in groups that feel sidelined, that are consistently excluded from the “goodies” others possess and who decide ‘to get them some of that.’
There are cultural reasons for all of these behaviors from peaceful protesting, to rioting, to gangs and gang warfare. We have robbed Black communities of opportunity by keeping them on the lowest levels of our budgets, by not making sure that people, even in our poorest neighborhoods, receive lots of positive attention and plenty of funding. There are people in every community who give and give and give, but they never have access to enough resources to actually turn things around. So when people riot I just see it as our stinginess coming back to bite us. Given greater equality there might even be no need for gangs and drug dealers.
How do those tasked with keeping law and order tell one group from the other, people ask? We have respect for law enforcement in the abstract and don’t like to see police officers placed in danger. But when one group of citizens has needs that are pitted against the needs of others, people get hurt.
Curfews help, most violence seems to happen at night, but protestors are tempted to defy curfews. These matters are usually handled locally by cities and counties and states. Local authorities know the people in their community, or they should. They know better than strangers who is likely to be in which group on the streets at any given time.
If we had a real President and he saw the sorrows of some of the people he would work with Congress to come up with suggestions for ways we might tackle the patterns of senseless death at the hands of “bad” police; we might get some gangs off the streets if police weren’t worried that everyone has a gun; and we might come up with some ways to tackle stubborn poverty that seems related to the color of one’s skin.
But instead we have this president, who sees citizens as lawbreakers who must be beaten into submission, intimidated and threatened by faceless men in army camo, in unmarked SUVs, who grab them off the streets and even put hoods over some of their heads. These authority figures do not identify themselves. No one was read their rights and the mayor was not even aware that this lawless President, who believes he has the power to do whatever he wants, had sent these “troops” into their city. And then that President says (not in these exact words), yes I did it and I plan to go into other cities in the same way because the mayors are not doing a good job. The states are on their own to handle the pandemic, but I will invade cities with my bully boys and I will show these law breakers what terror really is and show these mayors how to handle thugs.
That’s fascism, that tramples all over laws protecting the rights of citizens, and it will never, ever solve our racism. But it seems to be making some white people very happy – and that is, after all, the point. What it should make us all say is that line from Hamilton, “he ain’t never gonna be President now.”