9 Minutes, 6 Days – The Spark That Ignited Revolt in America

Note: I can’t even look at this post anymore, my eyes are crossing – but it is likely to be edited later, and more sources added.

Yesterday I wrote a somewhat lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek post just to get myself back into the swing of blogging. A bit of an exercise for my creaky, rusty brain. It was a brief summary of this fantastical year to date. But the most recent, frankly grotesque May 25th killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the events it has sparked were something I left off, because this is something I can’t joke about.

Today’s date: May 31st. On this day in history:

George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man died after being brutally pinned to the ground by an officers knee, bearing a grown man’s weight on his neck, for nearly 9 minutes. The officer refused to lift his weight off the man even when he became unresponsive, and continued to pin him for nearly 3 more minutes. Three other police officers stood by and acted as crowd control, ignoring their colleagues deadly action, even as bystanders pleaded for officers to check Mr. Floyd for breathing and pulse.

Today, we are 6 days past the sickening actions of these officers; 6 days past a man losing his life completely unnecessarily, disrespectfully and in an appallingly dehumanizing way – all over suspicion of passing a $20 counterfeit bill; 6 days into protests and riots; 6 days into the hand-wringing, ridiculing, and dismissive “look, just be reasonable” by rote, white responses. I’ve even encountered people who believe all of this is some sort of liberal conspiracy to discredit Trump, along the lines of cries of “crisis actors” in years past – further diminishing the very real loss of life, the very real frustration of the black community, the very real oppression that they continue to face.

It’s enough, already. No, it’s too much. Too damn much, for too damn long.

So many people seem to believe that education is something left behind in school, but as John Dewey said “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Ladies and gents, let’s learn a bit together.

Black American History & Unrest

The majority of North Americans know, and have a basic understanding of the history of black slavery in the US. From boats to slave trading to cotton fields to the 13th Amendment abolition of slavery in 1865 – we have all learned about it.

But then what?

There are 155 years spanning then to now.

As a child, I learned about these things in school – even as a Canadian. I felt, as I’m sure many do, that the abolition of slavery meant the death of systemic racism in North America. Sure, there were the Nazis and their sympathizers, sure there were the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), there were skinheads, evil people who didn’t reflect the rest of us. Then there were the run of the mill bigots, the ones who joked and laughed, or had outdated notions of superiority but they weren’t hurting anyone, right, as long as they kept their opinions to themselves and other white folks. But I held the notion for many, many years that systemic, societal racism was a thing of the past. We’ve evolved, I told myself. We understand people are equal. But I was truly blind, and as I’ve chipped away at that belief over the years – learning new information, history I wasn’t aware of, and put myself in the shoes of people from other races – I came to understand that we, unfortunately, have a long way to go. It has been baby steps, always baby steps, for the past century and a half.

Following the freeing of slaves, we like to imagine that African Americans were finally seen as equal in the US. A beautiful, magical Lincoln fairy wand swept over the land, everyone held hands and were imbued with the knowledge of inherent human equality, and enlightened minds everywhere built America into the Utopia that we see today.

Life after slavery did indeed bring some relief. African Americans were no longer required to be subjected to the brutalities and indignities of slave life, things like whipping, sexual assaults, selling and forced relocation of family members, denial of education, wages, legal marriage and homeownership, to name a few. These things were celebrated within the African American community.

But it was a small victory in many ways. Though slavery was no longer legal, white racial prejudice persisted. Governments in the south instituted laws known as “Black Codes.” These laws granted certain new rights – rights to own property, marry, and sue in court. They also made it illegal for blacks to serve on juries, testify against whites, or serve in state militias. They required black sharecroppers and tenant farmers to sign annual labor contracts with white owners, and if they refused they could be arrested and hired out for work.

Most southern African Americans lived in desperate rural poverty. Having been denied education and wages as slaves, they were often forced by the necessity of their economic circumstances to rent land from former white slave owners. These “sharecroppers” paid rent on the land by giving a portion of their crop to the landowner.

From the late 1860s, white supremacists in the KKK terrorized African American leaders and citizens in the South until, in 1871, the US Congress passed legislation that resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Klan leaders and the end of the Klan’s terrorism of Americans for a time. But over the course of the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s, the federal government’s military presence was withdrawn from various southern states, and with the Compromise of 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the last federal troops in the South to withdraw.

With no troops to enforce the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments, Reconstruction was at an end. Across the South lynching, disenfranchisement, and segregationist laws proliferated. Jim Crow laws, state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the south, were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries specifically to disenfranchise and remove political and economic gains made by blacks during the Reconstruction period. These laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities and extended to public transportation, including coaches of interstate trains and buses, using the legal principle separate but equal.

Facilities for African Americans and Native Americans were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to the facilities for white Americans; sometimes, there were no facilities for people of color. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans and other people of color living in the South.

The name itself was taken from the character of Jim Crow, a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted black slave played by white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice beginning in the 1830s. He later appropriated the Jim Crow persona into a minstrel act, donning blackface and performing jokes and songs in stereotypical slave dialect – the act became quite popular with white audiences.

Jim Crow – the laws, the character… all enactments of the name were dehumanizing, racist and fully intended to keep African Americans second class and the laws persisted until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, riots broke out in Los Angeles, Detroit and New Jersey due to racial tension, segregation, forced black poverty and a largely white police force which black populations saw as an army against them rather than a force to protect them, and rampant police brutality.

In 1967 in Detroit, about 60,000 low-income residents were crammed into the neighborhood’s 460 acres, living mostly in small, sub-divided apartments. The white population worked in their neighbourhoods and then commuted home to affluent areas outside the city. As the automobile industry moved from the city center and shed jobs, widespread unemployment worsened conditions, leaving the city gutted and impoverished.

Similar scenes unfolded throughout metropolitan areas in the US, where “white flight” reduced the tax base in formerly prosperous cities, causing urban blight, poverty and racial discord. In mid-July, 1967, the city of Newark, New Jersey, erupted in violence as black residents battled police following the beating of a black taxi driver, leaving 26 people dead.

Los Angeles had racially restrictive covenants that prevented specific minorities from renting and buying property in certain areas, even long after the courts ruled such practices illegal in 1948 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.

By the 1940s, 95% of Los Angeles and southern California housing was off-limits to certain minorities. Minorities who had served in World War II or worked in L.A.’s defense industries returned to face increasing patterns of discrimination in housing. In addition, they found themselves excluded from the suburbs and restricted to housing in East or South Los Angeles, which includes the Watts neighborhood and Compton. Such real-estate practices severely restricted educational and economic opportunities available to the minority community.

The Watts Riots of 1965 occurred when Marquette Frye, an African-American motorist on parole for robbery, was pulled over for reckless driving. A minor roadside argument broke out, which then escalated into a fight with police. Community members reported that the police had hurt a pregnant woman, and six days of civil unrest followed. Nearly 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard helped suppress the disturbance, which resulted in 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage.

Within my own lifetime, almost exactly 28 years ago in late April of 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the previous years savage beating of Rodney King. I turned 10 and 11 in 1991/92, and though I wasn’t at all interested in the news back then, I couldn’t avoid hearing about the riots that followed the acquittal. That’s pre-internet, word of mouth, newspapers and TV.

The Rodney King riots took the city’s “worst unrest” title, previously held by the Watts Riots. Rodney King’s name was synonymous with police brutality in the 90s, and the incident shone a light on the issue so brightly, and brought it so far into the mainstream collective consciousness, that nobody could pretend not to know anymore. Whether people agreed with it or not, the fury of the black community at decades, centuries of oppression, was there and they were making themselves heard.

Civility & Human Rights

When I first heard of the riots happening, I took a stance that I’m now going to shoot down – that behaving badly, causing destruction, property damage, blocking services and fighting are counterproductive and not fit for civilized society. I understood the frustration, I understood the anger, I understood the rage, but I still hedged it all with a “this isn’t the answer either…”

After paying attention to what so many white folks like me have to say, white people with privileges, white reasonable people, white sympathetic people, but… I feel differently.

As much as I want things to be peaceful, they aren’t. They haven’t been for a long time, and we’ve only had the luxury of pretending they have been by virtue of our skin colour. Because we don’t experience it day to day. Because from our narrow scope, these things happen rarely. But they don’t happen rarely, these things are just rarely deemed newsworthy. I bristled against the “white privilege” term for a lot of years too, because I was never privileged. But the truth is, I simply wasn’t underprivileged simply because of the colour of my skin, and that’s where I am more privileged than many people of colour. And as the discussion moves toward the privilege men have simply for not being women, I understand it more and more. Men don’t have to be afraid to walk alone, to turn down advances, to rebuff a person, to have a dissenting opinion. Men don’t need to worry about how they dress, how they are perceived, whether they’re “nice” enough, simply because of their gender. And likewise, as a white person, I don’t have to fear ridicule or harm from racists, I don’t have to worry that I will be wrongly pegged as a criminal, I don’t have to be afraid of police simply because of my skin colour. These things should be basic human rights – but compared to the disadvantage of others, the baseline is, indeed, a privilege for many. This isn’t about a victim mentality, this is about understanding that we need to fight for the same rights others enjoy, that it is a battle that needs to be fought in the interest of fairness, until the baseline is no longer a privilege but a given.

It’s easy to view the “fight for rights” as a metaphor; a metaphor for perseverance, for hard work, for conviction. Many of us are so far removed from the realities of these historical moments to really put much thought into what the fight meant.

Very few human rights and dignities were granted because of politeness, civility, silent or peaceful protest. Those in power have rarely wanted to give that power away, so long as they felt superior. For African Americans, those hard won rights have gone from the right to their control their existence, to the right to their own livelihoods, to the right to be treated equally, and to this day, the right to their dignity and very lives.

I’ve watched racial inequality happen for my entire adult life. I’ve been watching and waiting for the better part of two decades for uprising, revolt, riots. Frankly, they came later than I anticipated, the restraint and peaceful efforts of the black community have been far stronger than I think I could be. They are living through brutality at the hands of their communities and the police. They are increasingly unsafe in the midst of a new and shameless breed of white power movements. They make up a disproportionate number of prisoners in American prisons. There are those who are living in slums and given little opportunity to do more with their lives than join a gang to protect themselves and their families, they are generations into their previously forced segregated neighbourhoods.

They are angry.

There have been years of silent protests by high profile African Americans, and those protests were at best ignored, at worst ridiculed and lashed out at – most recently by no less than the Vice President on orders from the President, who walked out of a 49ers game when they chose to take a knee during the national anthem. Trump was proud enough of giving this order that he tweeted about it, as usual. This was the most silent, yet the loudest protest of late – if a picture is worth a thousand words. Furthermore, it was well considered and thoughtfully planned – as Colin Kaepernick originally sat during the anthem but later took advice from a retired veteran that he compromise. He wanted to sit to protest racial inequality, the veteran would have preferred he stand – this was their compromise. This was the source of so much Republican vitriol, yet now these same people would chastise the black community for rioting as if they’d tried nothing else first, for years, to no end.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

Excerpt from “The Other America” March 14, 1968 – Martin Luther King Jr.

The need to rise up against oppression is deeply ingrained in us, as humans, it is part of the key to our survival. When all other avenues have been exhausted, and the options come down to giving in or fighting back – given the opportunity, most of us would fight tooth and nail against the injustice we live with.

This is a quote, once more, from my friend Marcy Toms who has much more lived experience than I, and is nothing if not well-considered and thoughtful on the issues of human rights and behaviour:

“I have given some consideration as to the use of writing anything at this time, when nothing is new. Not murder and not burning and not the rage that flows from and because of those. I bear in mind that for decades the modern American civil rights movement was, indeed, well armed: white shirts, respectable ties, creased trousers, dresses, high heels and hats. Everyone wore a hat. There were peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters, marches across bridges, planning meetings in church basements, long bus rides to break the law quietly by crossing state lines, big rallies and uplifting gospel songs and speeches that Kings David and Solomon might have – rightly – envied. In fact, I’m sure they made contributions here and there. Those well-armed campaigners and their requests and pleas were, indeed, answered, time and again: Lynchings, Assaults by dogs and fire hoses, Bombings, Kidnappings, Beatings until the blood ran black on black and white TVs. Murder. I spent my entire career teaching kids, so today I remember these 5 kids. All dead now more than 50 years. Emmett Till, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Carol Denise McNair. Five of thousands.”

Now…?

Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

John Stuart Mill

We cannot allow these riots, these rebellions, these protests to come to nothing. Have we learned nothing from the past? These are not the first, and they won’t be the last until real change happens. And if we solely blame protestors, rioters, fire starters – we neglect entirely the larger issue of what brought them to this point. I guarantee that hundreds of people did not wake up one day hoping to riot, just itching for a reason – but they were driven to that point out of desperation. Before any comments start, no, I don’t believe all motives are decent here and some involved don’t care about the issues at hand, undoubtedly. There will be some who only want to wreak havoc, some who only want to loot – psst: a quarter of Americans are out of work and being given next to no support by their government, so there might be a reason for that… But none of that discredits all the people who are simply, rightfully fed up.

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable. - John F. Kennedy

We all need to look long and hard at ourselves, at our society, at the injustice that may not happen to us but nonetheless requires action. We can’t be silent, we must not reject our part in all of this.

Be an ally. Speak up. Examine your prejudices and put yourself in another’s shoes.

The system is broken in so many ways, this one way is glaringly obvious and ugly. It’s not a good look on anyone.

We can be so much better than this.

PS: Folks tend to make all of this about guilt and blame. It is absolutely not. The only people who need to feel guilt are the ones who likely won’t – racists. We can, however, feel sorry for the system that has benefitted some of us but not others. In Canada, we use the word “sorry” so liberally that 3 provinces (mine included) have legal definitions for what an apology means. In Ontario, in 2009, The Apology Act was passed which states that an apology is not necessarily an admission of guilt. We can be sorry for the situation as it is without feeling personally to blame, and that’s exactly what we should be doing.

One thought on “9 Minutes, 6 Days – The Spark That Ignited Revolt in America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s