Friday, May 29, 2020

We Can't Breathe

The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.
The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.
The people in Minneapolis are NOT rioting.

The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.
The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.
The people in Minneapolis are ANGRY.

The people in Flint, Michigan have been drinking bottled water for years because their tap water is contaminated. There are people in Louisville, Kentucky who gathered to demand justice for an EMT who was killed in her home by police officers. There are people in Brunswick, Georgia who cannot leave their homes for a jog through their own neighborhoods without arousing suspicion.

Meanwhile in Michigan and Kentucky, there are other people who have stormed the State Houses armed for battle. And in Georgia, there are people who have heaped praise on their Governor for his swift calls to action...but those people are not demanding clean water or justice. They just want hair cuts.

In the midst of this crisis when front line medical workers were begging for more personal protective equipment to shield them from the possibility of contracting this disease, there were protestors gathered in Denver to yell and scream at them. That was in April, just a month into the global shut down. At no point were any of those protesting the inconvenience of sheltering-in-place turned away with tear gas. No one got arrested. The police presumably had more than enough protective gear and face shields. No shots were fired.

But this week when a Black man got his throat crushed on tape and folks got angry about that, y'all are more upset that a Target got looted.

I used to ask the same naive, self-righteous questions about looting and burning shit down in our own neighborhoods. Never got a satisfactory answer, until I thought long and hard about my own lived experiences. My parents lived through the '68 riots, and they lamented the damage that was done in certain parts of the city--economic and physical blight that remained for decades until the gentrifyers came. Then I witnessed the Atlanta Riots in 1992 (an offshoot of the Los Angeles riots that captivated the nation). I was forced back behind Spelman's gates by an angry boyfriend and then cussed out by an angry Grandmother, so I was indoors when my friends took out their frustrations on our conjoined campuses. I still remember the stench of tear gas.

I was years removed from New Orleans by 2005, where I had lived in the late 90s. I had lived through a flood my first year of law school that trapped me in my third floor apartment for a day or two. But in 2005, I saw the Black people whom I had known to clean hotels, serve food, work the tables at the casinos, and who proudly lined the streets during Mardi Gras to cheer on their babies...I saw them drowning while abandoned pets were ferried away from the city on air-conditioned buses.

Thus while grandparents lay dying alone in nursing facilities, while under-paid essential workers are compelled to expose themselves daily, while the unemployed are trashed by public officials as lazy, while small business owners wade through mountains of bureaucracy for pennies, the DESPOTUS worries more about his ability to prevaricate and incite his followers on social media.

The people in the Twin Cities are NOT rioting. Nor are the people in Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Columbus, or Louisville. The people in the Twin Cities, Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, Columbus, and Louisville are ANGRY.
We are NOT rioting. We are ANGRY.

We burn shit down in our communities because we can't get across town to burn your shit down. We are surrounded. We are caged in and confined to impoverished or chronically underserved red-lined neighborhoods. Those invisible boundaries are enforced by over-policing. We can't march to the State House or to the Governor's mansion with tiki torches and assault rifles without encountering armed resistance and violent suppression. The jobs in our neighborhoods pay less than unemployment insurance. We can't vote without encountering time-consuming and discouraging barriers. We drink lead-poisoned water, eat processed foods, drink cheap liquor, die younger, assume that our white overlords can't continue to ignore our pleas, and our air is so polluted that we can't breathe.


I heard a pundit say this morning that his ability to empathize with the protestors was slipping away as the violence continued; apparently, we need his consent to express our outrage in more respectable ways. Does it matter if I write down my grievances on this blog instead of taking to the streets? Did the anger of my parents in 1968 result in better jobs and economic investment in the inner cities? Did the frustration of besieged college students in 1992 produce more freedom for the residents of the West End community or did that merely hasten their displacement? Do you even remember why Los Angeles was on fire back then, or have you reduced Rodney King to a soundbite, pleading for calm (instead of crying out for justice...can we all just get along)? As New Orleans flooded again during this pandemic, did you mourn the loss of Ellis Marsalis and the 100,000 others who perished this spring, or did you lament the cancellation of your summer plans?

Spike Lee's brilliant 1989 movie Do the Right Thing illustrates the precise moment when the powder keg of communal rage ignites. We've spent years debating the morality of the scene when Mookie hurls the trash can into the window of Sal's Famous. But we've missed the point of it all if we judge his actions without recalling everything else that led to that moment. If that was a weekday, how come nobody was at work? Why weren't the kids in camp or at the pool? How were the patrons being treated at the businesses in their neighborhood? How come nobody seemed to know that the guy in the Larry Bird shirt had bought a brownstone (and why didn't he seem to know any of his neighbors)? Why did the police come twice to protect white property owners, but were gone when the mob was set to turn their attention to the Korean store owners? Do you know why they were chanting Howard Beach? Is this the first time you have contemplated any of these questions?

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, "a riot is the language of the unheard." I'm sure that someone has already countered with a quote about his commitment to nonviolence, because the pacifist MLK is more palatable for shaming us into believing our rage is unfounded. Surely, his peaceful protests never devolved into disproportionately violent encounters with the police...

Frederick Douglass once said that power concedes nothing without a demand. He didn't say how that demand should be presented: on a silver-plated tray served by a tuxedo-clad butler, in a strongly worded letter to the editor, by calling the manager and shedding a few strategic tears, with a bayonet or an assault rifle, or by burning shit down when the other approaches fail to make the point.



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