“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I see the images coming out of cities like Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York, I am deeply saddened. What started out as peaceful protests over the execution of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office, quickly deteriorated into riots that spread across the country and have, to date, resulted in countless injuries and millions of dollars in property damage.
Like most Americans, I was outraged that once again another African American died that didn’t have to. The institutional racism that has existed in this country since its inception has become an international embarrassment. The world looks at the United States and shakes its head in disbelief. The words “To Serve and Protect” might as well be a punch line as far as blacks are concerned.
We do not as of yet know what factions, if any, lit the fuse that led to the destruction we’ve seen, but this much we do know. The fuse has been primed for quite some time. As an old sales manager once told me, nobody sells something that someone isn’t willing to buy. Whether it was right-wing extremists or left-wing extremists or a combination of both, that acted as the provocateur, it’s obvious they found a receptive audience. When you’ve had the shit kicked out of you as long as the black community has, something eventually had to give.
But while stores in urban areas were looted and burned, in the relative safety of white America, the reaction was mixed at best. Most agreed that what happened to George Floyd was a crime, but many drew the line at the carnage that ensued. They did not or could not relate to the grief and anger that motivated so many people to take to the streets in protest.
“Don’t they know they’re destroying their own neighborhoods?” “How could they do such a thing?” “This is counter productive and has to stop.” “This only helps Trump.” “This dishonors the memory of George Floyd.” We’ve heard these and similar statements from well-intentioned people. It should be noted that many of these same so-called well-intentioned people were also protesting the “tyranny” of having to wear masks to protect other people from catching the coronavirus, so perspective isn’t exactly their forte.
To be honest, I don’t know how I’d react if I saw members of my race being gunned down in broad daylight while jogging, strangled on a street corner for selling cigarettes, blown away in the “sanctity” of their own home due to a mistaken identity, followed around a department store because of an assumption they were there to steal something, being incarcerated at twice the national average for the same charge, and disproportionally dying from the worst pandemic in over a century.
Would I be as reasonable as the majority of the white population wants the black community to be at this time? Or would I be one of the many protesters who took to the streets? I’d like to say I’d be the former, but that’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one laying in the morgue. When hope is a luxury you can no longer afford, desperation becomes your closest friend. You could say this flash point has been a long time coming. Two centuries, in fact.
Let me be as clear as I can. I do not condone the destruction of private or public property. That being said, I am in no position to lecture anyone on what the proper response should be to a system that indiscriminately kills them, economically depresses them and treats them as second-class citizens based solely on the color of their skin.
Empathy is a powerful emotion. It allows us to understand the pain others feel. But before any of us can do that, we must first be willing to walk a mile in their shoes. Knowing the fate of so many African Americans these days, a mile might be asking a lot.