Updated: Jun 2
SEVERAL years ago, I asked myself, whether Americans were witnessing the rise in status and appreciation of black men. I had seen a few black-themed films and then-President Barack Obama had launched his “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” Statistics suggested an uptick in education, employment and income achievements of African American men.
Those factors made me hopeful and suggested the answer to the query was a resounding yes. However, the socioeconomic decline of African Americans under the presidential leadership of Donald J. Trump and the overall increase in racist activity, including the recent murder in broad daylight on an American city street of an unarmed black man whose only crime may have been the passing a counterfeit $20 bill, have forced me to reevaluate that conclusion.
George Floyd died with Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin’s knees pressed against Floyd’s neck for a full 8 minutes and 46 seconds. As I watched the video in the reporting by The New York Times, my mind kept returning to photos I had seen in books and documentaries that captured the lynching, usually in some southern town, of a black man.
Back then, when lynchings were as common as picking cotton, the body would hang from a tree while crowds of whites looked on with pleasure. In Minneapolis, four police officers, including Chauvin, seemed unfazed by Floyd’s pleas for help; his call for “mama;” his assertion that “I can’t breathe.” Even after, he passed out, near death, we later learned that Chauvin kept his knee firmly on Floyd’s neck, as if the man, already face down on the ground were some superman capable of jumping up to kick butt and take names.
Floyd’s death came only days after Americans learned of another daylight murder of a black man, Ahmaud Arbery, by father-son duo Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael in Glyn County, Georgia. In March, during an alleged botched raid Louisville police killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.
The blood of black people runs ceaselessly through American streets.
The protests around Floyd’s murder are not surprising. He has become a symbol for all the other wrongful deaths of black and brown people at the hands of rogue police officers inside institutional racism.
People are angry. Their anger also represents a collective soul that is in pain, wondering when will the killing of black people end. The country was built and has survived on the backs of African Americans. When will black people be treated with the respect and humanity they have earned and deserve?
For many years, I lived in one of the most notorious public housing complexes—The Desire Project—in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was a four-acre stretch of redbrick, two-story, garden-style apartments. Railroad tracks and a smelly, open sewer canal boxed in everything. There was no father in our home. Often, just to make ends meet, my mother was forced to work two or more jobs. Our lives mirrored those of countless African Americans, caught in the margins of mainstream society. We were perceived as rejects: people whose circumstance predicted their failure. Many of us—myself included--believed such an assertion and the disdain for the place where we lived--the place we called home.
Not unlike the Breedloves in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, people in The Desire did not live there solely because “they were having temporary difficulty adjusting” to some economic crisis. “They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly.”
We suffered the hard and dark side of America created by racism. Thus, I cursed most things white and nearly all things American. Racial discrimination, I concluded then, was a fundamental element of America’s DNA. I blamed all whites for the ills that affected the collective, commonly called black America.
A disciple of the Black Power Movement, my animus was converted into a theology, practiced with unbridled passion and fervor. I adhered to the bundling strategy created by our leaders that dictated African Americans maintain themselves as an inseparable, cohesive unit. Under that strategy, all things white were bad and all things black were good.
My formative years were filled with serious racial strife and division. The Black Panther Party was at war with America, as was the Republic of New Africa. The Nation of Islam, not unlike the RNA, wanted several southern states to which African Americans might escape, leaving the rest of the country under the control of whites and others. Given the centuries of discrimination African Americans have faced, the horrific deaths many have experienced, and the pained lives they have lived, it’s understandable that they--we--e embraced various aspects of these movements, even if we were never members of those organizations.
Somewhere along the way, however, the view of everything white being a villain began to yield diminishing returns. I cannot situate the precise moment when I began to reexamine the racial theology that had served as the foundation for my development. But by the 1980s, I had become a bridge locator and crosser. I came to believe our common ground appropriately exploited could lead us to a better society, where each person is treated with dignity and equality.
Walking that path, especially for a person with my history, has not been easy. Others and I with a similar mission have been labeled every despicable name in the book from both sides of the street by those who reject the notion that blacks/people of color and whites can ever live in harmony. Still, we persist.
Trump has made the task of finding and creating common ground exhausting. He has created, through his words and actions, an environment that has invited open racism as expressions of free speech. He has condoned violent acts against innocent people. He is as responsible for Floyd’s death as those Minneapolis police officers.
I have never condoned violence. In my lifetime, I have seen the transformational power of an organized and determined people acting nonviolently, without malice but love. The Southern Civil Rights Movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. provides the most recent example.
During those protests, the majority of black men possessed an unblemished, sturdy dignity and integrity. Look on the scene of the 1963 March on Washington and discover a sea of black men, wearing Fedoras and Porkpies, sporting jackets—sometime ties—peacefully defending their communities and exhorting mainstream society to measure them by their deeds and contributions to America.
Despite the unadulterated brutality they suffered--whips, firehoses and vicious attack dogs—those men projected a powerful masculinity. In his book, Why we Can’t Wait King asserted that militants couldn’t “solve the problem they face because they offered no challenge but a call to arms. They cannot solve the problem because they seek to overcome a negative situation with negative means.”
It is hard for me to embrace the needless destruction of property. Too often it has exacerbated the economic plight of poor and working-class people.
Still, I know that anger is the voice of a soul screaming in pain.
Collectively, African Americans have been oppressed and distressed for more than a hundred years. They are not alone, however. Native Americans have an equally horrific history as victims of murder and oppression.
More recently, young whites and others have joined in the fight to change the worst of America while advancing the best the country has to offer. Consequently, the protestors are not a monolithic group, representing one race, class or ethnicity. They are the face of an enraged America, ready, maybe impatient, for change.
A murder happened before our very eyes on the street in a major American city.No one can turn away from the scene where a police officer who supposedly swore to protect a community, deliberately, with malice and expressed pleasure, buries his knee into a man’s neck long and hard enough to kill him.
That black man, Floyd, has become emblematic of what people of color have endured in this season of suffering: a disproportionate number of us have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Blacks and Hispanics are the frontline essential workers in restaurants, stores, transit systems, transportation departments and other places from which middle- and upper-income whites have long departed. Adding insult to injury, too many blacks and people of color lack adequate health insurance. That has left them vulnerable to the devastating effects of the disease.
There also has been a widening socio-economic inequality with many people, including young whites with degrees being unable to fully support themselves, to say nothing of the under-educated, many of whom are black and brown.
Americans have watched in horror as young children of color have been ripped from the arms of their parents only to be abused and neglected by white adult men at the behest of the federal government; they have seen themselves become prey of a political party that would feed the rich while starving them, targeting public programs that provide meager sustenance; they have been assaulted by racists tweets and taunts, and they have watched boys and men with guns slaughter children and innocent adults in schools and churches with no pro-active, protective program advanced by the president or any of his crew.
Given this recent history of only three years, is there any wonder the pain has turned to anger.
“I empathize with the public. There have been lots of heavy things happening all at once,” DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday during a press briefing. “People are also very torn. They feel so sad and very angry about the killing of George Floyd.
“But also they don’t want our city torn up,” added Bowser, who discussed the extensive damage that had been doing to the nation’s capital during what she described as “rioting and looting” but crowds of protesters.
On Sunday there was extensive damage to downtown structures, including an historic church near the White House and the building that serves as the headquarters for the AFL-CIO. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham acknowledged that nearly 90 people were arrest and charged with federal felonies. Bowser ordered a 7 pm to 6 am curfew that would be in effect in the city Monday and continue through Wednesday, colliding with the primary election where Sen. Bernie Sanders remains on the ballot.
Speaking earlier in the day on the NBC Today show, Terrence Floyd said his brother would want the protesters to “do something positive.” He also said that much of the violence that had transpired was “not what my brother was about.”
Other than a general call for criminal justice reform, there has not been a specific demand presented by the protesters. No one has called for the Minneapolis police department be placed on probation, although the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division has indicated it is reviewing the case as a possible civil rights violation. None of the protestors in any of the states, including in DC has called for a commission to hear the grievances of the wounded, the injured. And while the Congress had been considered yet another COVID-19, no one has demanded money related Floyd’s death.
The absence of a clear proposal of solutions, makes the entire episode even more tragic. It signals that despite the dramatic protesting, it may all end as it has before: fires, arrests, loud noises but no significant change. The country desperately needs real, responsible national leadership that can affect change, attacking racism while making America and its people whole.
Photo of MPD Chief Peter Newsham provided by Marcus Goodwin, a candidate for DC Council, seen speaking with the chief. Photo of Mayor Muriel Bowser by AP.