“If any other country had a police force that was systematically beating and killing members of a minority group, the US would already be over there liberating their oil.”
“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.” Dr. Martin Luther King said in a speech several weeks before his assassination. That great man lived and died a peaceful man whose dream was to make the voices of his people heard without raising a hand in violence. A few days ago, riots erupted from the peaceful protests in Baltimore, MD. These words have become their mantra, their battlecry, as they struggle to be heard over the admonitions of those who couldn’t ever understand their lives or their struggles. Contrary to the dichotomy expressed across the traditional and social media of either peace or violence, in the end, both paths are often essential to ignite change.
Race has long been at the forefront of the social and political spheres in America. To build our great nation, we systematically purchased and enslaved a people from the other side of the world and kept them in shackles for generations. Those shackles were made of iron and steel, but also of words and rhetoric that shackled these people both physically and spiritually. We infused them with the idea of punishment after death for disobeying until there was no need for the physical shackles. When you own the soul of a person, you have no fear that they would try to escape. Then came the abolitionist movement, and there was hope for these people. They began escaping the South and heading north, until eventually the nation itself went to war for their freedom.
For a moment, the blacks of this nation were free. Then came Jim Crow, “The pattern of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua” (King Selma). The mantra was “separate but equal” and was more rhetoric than reality. In truth, there was no real equality. With the Jim Crow laws, the oppression of blacks went from overt to systematic and became more insidious and hard to combat due to its ambiguity. This brings us to the four great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement who helped shape the views and the methods that we see in Baltimore today. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin were men of peace and preached nonviolence as the best route to freedom. Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael cauterized their people into a nation and infused them with the ideology that they held their own power in their hands and were meant to use it.
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Dr. Martin Luther King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963 after being arrested during peaceful protests. He was writing to the white clergy that had attempted to admonish him for even being involved in the protests. You see, Dr. King knew something, or I should he understood something, that these men never could. He understood oppression and the responsibility of moral people to combat it. This is the crux of the problem we see even now, in the wake of Baltimore, when even the white liberals of the nation admonish the violence of the black protestors. In a country where the power system places privilege in the hands of white people, those white people, even those whose intentions and ideologies are noble, cannot understand the oppression that is the day to day life of the black person in America. They have no point of reference with which to gain real empathy and understanding.
“A segregationist is a criminal. You can’t label him as anything other than that. And when you demonstrate against segregation, the law is on your side. The Supreme Court is on your side.” said Malcom X in his speech The Ballot or the Bullet. Malcom X understood something, as well. He understood that when oppression is so deep seeded, so systematic and ingrained in society that it’s infused to the very core of a nation, then you need to cut it out from its roots. You see, he spoke a lot on government in that speech, and how the government, the Democrat run government at the time, was put into power by black votes. He spoke on how the blacks of the nation put them in power to they could fulfill all those promises to give back to that community. He spoke of how they failed in those promises.
Today, we don’t call it segregation. It doesn’t have defined lines and labeled drinking fountains, like it did in the Jim Crow era. The power systems in America have ensured that the racial divide has become entwined intrinsically with the income divide. This makes it easier, after all, since poverty breeds desperation and desperation breeds crime. This way, when an impoverished black person commits a crime, it only enforces the stereotype in the minds of the white middle class that black means criminal. They’ve coined a new term today, “thug.” It’s the new derogatory term, since the old one is no longer acceptable in polite conversation. They mean the same thing, though. They mean that segregation still exists. We’ve simply found new ways to hide oppression until the point that it boils over and the voices of the unheard get so loud that the entire nation shakes. When Malcom X said “You talk about a march on Washington in 1963, you haven’t seen anything.” he didn’t know how right he was. The protests of 2015 shake the nation, and they’ve only just begun.
Bayard Rustin spoke to this shift from overt segregation after the Civil Rights Act to the insidious caste system that had forced the blacks in America into a lower economic class, allowing for systematic and hidden segregation. “More Negroes are unemployed today than in 1954, and the unemployment gap between the races is wider.” he said in From Protest to Politics, and those words spoken today would still ring true. “I believe that the Negro’s struggle for equality in America is essentially revolutionary. While most Negroes – in their hearts – unquestionably seek only to enjoy the fruits of American society as it now exists, their quest cannon objectively be satisfied within the framework of existing political and economic relations.” he goes on. The status quo is always a point of contention between the “equality minded” and actual revolutionaries.
I suppose the distinction should be made here, between equality minded individuals and revolutionaries. Today we can see the equality minded as the liberals and progressives in general. These are people who often have no reference point to really understand oppression, but they agree that it’s a bad thing. They don’t really know how it’s bad, though, but they’re on board. Well, they’re on board so long as it doesn’t affect their shopping habits, their work, their taxes, their daily lives. They’re on board so long as it doesn’t affect the status quo. Revolutionaries have two major differences that make all the difference. First, they typically have a reference point for oppression. Usually, they’ve lived it or watched other live it, and simply can’t stand for it anymore. Secondly, they’re willing to not only step outside the status quo, but tear down the status quo in order to force the necessary change in the world around them. Whether for peace or violence, and all the nuanced spectrum in between, every one of the Civil Rights Movement leaders from then and now was and is a revolutionary.
Stokely Carmichael, the final leader that I’ll cover here, didn’t mince words. “The concept of integration had to be based on the assumption that there was nothing of value in the Negro community and that little of value could be created among Negroes, so the thing to do was to siphon off the ‘acceptable’ Negroes into the surrounding middle-class white community.” (Carmichael). This ideology still persists today, only I think it’s even worse, as many in the black community seem to think that doing better means moving into the surrounding white middle-class neighborhoods. This thought has been reinforced in the media and in film and in everyday life. The idea that black means inferior permeates the very soul of white culture in this country and is seeping into communities of color more and more each day. I think Carmichael understood this dynamic in a really fundamental way, and sought to empower the black people to where they would never think that again.
This brings us back to today and the events unraveling across the nation. Baltimore wasn’t the first to progress to the status of riot, and it won’t be the last. Ferguson erupted around a police killing, as did New York City. More and more, the levels of police violence towards people of color in this country are being brought to the light. More and more, people are getting fed up and taking to the streets to protest the systematic oppression towards anyone who isn’t white in America. The words of King and Rustin that speak of peaceful protest against overwhelming resistance have rung out across the nation and sparked more protests than we’ll ever see in the media, and those protests, those voices joined together as one, are spreading like a wildfire of change. The words of X and Carmichael that talk of the power of a great people joining together as a nation of their own to forge their way in a world set against them are rising up from the lips of revolutionaries in every corner of this country.
The oppression of the black communities in America is subversive today. It’s not the Jim Crow era or the era of the slave. It’s the era of the system of oppression that hides in the shadows. Today, we don’t segregated by order of the Supreme Court. We segregate using the excuse of the free market. We don’t kill black people for being black. We kill them for being criminals. Of course, those that actually commit a crime before being killed are all too often shoplifters or vandals. The white voices in America do their best to make it clear that these killings are justified because of the crimes of the victims, while ignoring that these crimes have never and should never be punishable by the death penalty in a civil society. We force a people into poverty, then excuse our oppression by blaming them when they need to steal bread to eat.
There’s a pattern that we go through in this country when it comes to the oppression of minorities. We do horrible things to them, like the systematic killing of people by a militant police force. They report the problem up the chain and ask for it to be stopped, but we ignore them. They take the problem national and ask for it to be stopped, and we ignore them. They protest peacefully and ask for it to be stopped, and we ignore them. Then they riot, and we admonish with “How dare you! That’s not the solution! You people are so violent!” We push people to a last resort through oppression, then we use those actions to continue to justify oppression.
The common admonition heard from the equality minded and the overtly oppressive alike is that violence is never the answer. They call out the protestors for destroying property and fighting back. They call them thugs. They ignore that there is far more violence and destruction of property by white people after they lose a sporting event than in any protest against the killing of people. But there’s hope, in the end, because the words of King and X, of Rustin and Carmichael ring forth and shake the very foundations of a nation, because it’s not a matter of peaceful resistance versus violent revolution. Each path has its place and is necessary when you’re trying to change the world in such a profound way as those taking to the streets are today. In the end, what matters is that the world changes, and so it has, and so it will again.