By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, June 19, 2020)
The calculated murder of black people in the United States have captured the attention of the entire world.
People are shocked into a reality that black people are forced to live every day. They saw Ahmaud Arbery running down a street and shot to death by two white men; they saw George Floyd strangled to death by a white police officer, even as he beseeched him to remove his knee from his neck, with the plaintive plea, “I can’t breathe”; and they saw pictures of two black men hanging by the neck from trees in Texas in the year 2020.
And even as the protests and demonstrations gain momentum and international reach with people of all races and genders marching and picketing to express righteous indignation, police officers still don’t get it. A few days ago, white officers in Atlanta Georgia woke a sleeping Rayshard Brooks, took him from his car, and shot him dead as he ran away from them.
It is easy to think that these killings are new and out of hand, but they are not. As early as 1951, a group of African Americans took a petition to the United Nations in which they charged America with genocide. The petition said:
“Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”
This was 1951, 79 years ago, and the killings have not stopped. They have only become more visible because police are required to wear body cams and citizens are armed with cell phones.
By the 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King had had enough of America’s criminality towards African Americans. Addressing the eruption of violent protests in America’s cities, Dr King said:
“I am not sad that Black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely. Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity. Except for the Reconstruction years, they have never in their long history on American soil struggled with such creativity and courage for their freedom. These are our bright years of emergence; though they are painful ones, they cannot be avoided.”
Bright and painful years of emergence cannot be avoided, said the prophetic Dr King. He did not condemn the protests or violence, he celebrated it. He knew that Black people were not burning their own neighbourhood, the so called American “melting pot” was burning us alive.
Dr. King would have certainly supported basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar in saying, “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.”
“As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.”
We must keep shining the light. We must create our own narrative and fight like hell to make it popular. This is what Dr King had in mind when he said, “Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, but they are also the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed.”
Black people are not destructive by nature. We are not self-defeating in our actions. We instinctively know that certain things, structures and institutions must be torn down so that a better foundation and superstructure can be erected in place of the old exploitative system of oppression.
The demands of the young black people are clear. They want an end to racism, police abuse, and violence; and the right to be free of the economic coercion of poverty and inequality. But the very refusal or inability of this society to engage the question of how to meet those demands, is a big part of why protesters now swell the streets with clenched fists and expressive eyes nationwide.
These protests are different than the others because for the first time, a significant slice of the white population has joined in solidarity with African American youth in demanding justice and fair play, an end to police violence and for equal opportunities. Where this new upsurge will lead is still to be decided, but we seem to be turning a corner in the right direction.
In the past, too many Americans, especially white citizens, preferred to cling to brutal and unjust systems than to give up political power, the perceived benefits of white supremacy and an exploitative economic system.
Some of these white citizens are developing a new consciousness as is reflected in the number of white young people joining the protests and demonstrations.
However, polls and surveys still show that most of the white population continue to frown on the protests. They still think that African Americans are creating unnecessary strife. They maintain that if only we could wait our turn, things will be better.
Well a new day is dawning. If the United States and indeed the world do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance to create a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy.
African Americans may lose patience and decide to fight fire with fire. Today African Americans are fighting for human rights and equal rights. All of America should shudder to think of a day coming when some African American citizens include revenge as a motivating factor in their fight for redemption.
Next week race and class in SVG.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].