As we have witnessed in the past, claims that 'outside agitators' provoked violence were made when a demonstration against police violence turned ugly in Baltimore on Saturday. It is a common and knee-Jerk reaction when property damage occurs during protests against injustices. Immediately, critics, and even 'progressives,' evoke the civil rights movement to shame rioters in an attempt to defend 'mostly peaceful' protests. It is an understandable gag reflex meant to defend the more reasoned individuals who peacefully assemble.
What is lost in our criticism of those who resort to acts of violent protest is the very real limit of humans to endure oppressive conditions. The eruption in Baltimore is a reaction to decades long living under abysmal economic and social conditions. If parties not resident in Baltimore were involved in the skirmishes, chances are they have experienced similar degradation in their communities. Black suffering is universal and Black people have reached the limits of their tolerance of inhumane treatment.
Blacks in the United States have repressed their anger over their second class existence for decades. It is why I believe we experience such high incidence of intra-group violence: hurt people hurt people and they hurt people closest to them. And it is why when situations arise to vent that anger outward; we see what occurred in isolated incidents in Baltimore over the weekend. The property losses are insurable and the damage done pales in comparison to a history of police abuses in that city. I know having attended college in that city and living on its tough west side for a couple of years after graduation. Freddie Gray is the latest victim in a city with a history of police violence; not unlike many of America's large cities and increasingly outer suburbs.
Our condemnation of episodes of violence serves only to distract us from the central issue - the second-class existence of the mass of Black Americans. I know the image of protesters out of control is contrary to the call for justice, and I know we have been conditioned to be critical of those who apparently lack self-control. Yet, without even knowing the personal circumstances of those involved in recklessness on the streets, my conscious restrains me from criticism because I know too well the broader challenge of living Black for young women and men. If that sounds like an excuse; charge me guilty.
The prince of peace himself, Dr. King, reconciled his commitment to nonviolence with the violent outburst of the oppressed. While King did not condone violence, the Nobel laureate explained that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” It was a profound reflection; a powerful reminder to the nation that it cannot expect peace in the face of systemic racism and oppression, and that those who feel they have no other way to change conditions, will resort to violence. At some point the oppressed will be heard and they will express their outrage in ways that may not be socially acceptable but practical from where they exist.
What has been nothing short of a miracle has been the quietude of Blacks after an American experience that has included enslavement, living under legally sanctioned terrorism and segregation, and the dehumanizing impact of institutional racism. The absence of intense and sustained violence to combat racism can only, in my estimation, be explained by the presence of a white majority. The contrast of course is the South African experience where the African National Congress (ANC), while using systemic channels to fight for the political and legal rights of Blacks and oppose the apartheid state, maintained a paramilitary wing that sought to liberate a Black majority. There exists no parallel in the United States but if conditions persist in our march to a Black-brown majority we may see a similar response.
Liberation is a gradual process, even when pursued with force; as we have witnessed around the world. The urban unrest of the mid 1960s, the riots after the assassination of Dr. King and later unrest in Miami and Los Angeles were cries of desperation; anger unleashed spontaneously on the back end of injustices. What we may begin to see is a more organized rebellion, aided by social media and real outside agitators who exploit America's indifference to its Black and brown progeny. In fact, we may already see evidence of the latter occurring.
We will commit a grave error if we overlook the depths of anger in the Black community and the sense of hopelessness that many young Blacks feel. There is an invisible hand at work that has them in their grip; plotting against their very mortality and cutting off every possible path to a self-sufficient and constructive life. Young people feel the weight of injustice, even those we deem on the path to success, our best and brightest. They carry the weight every day and see little evidence that we have the means or the will to fight back. When we evoke the civil rights movement it is to the present generation what discussions on slavery were to mine – history. As much as we might try, the connection to the fight against Jim Crow has been severed by decades of a new brand of racism that is like gas; we can smell it but its source often is invisible but just as deadly as the hate of decades past.
What Blacks in Baltimore and other oppressed communities should be concerned about is not 'outside agitators' but instead outside apologists who attempt to discount the harm done to Black people in America. I am not alluding to well-meaning individuals concerned with the safety of protesters and the public. My concern is the element in America that will use the violence of a handful of protesters to obscure the daily atrocities committed against Black people. The imagery of young Black men damaging cars is conveniently used to spur a rallying cry for yet more police brute force. Irresponsible and purposefully deceitful news media will inflate these minor incidences of violence to incite an already biased public and validate theories of Black lawlessness.
Meanwhile, the catalogue of daily offenses against Black people - in the denial of a quality education, being subject to job discrimination and mass incarceration, housing bias and unsafe living conditions, and the loss of basic civil liberties - is dismissed as minority whining. A recent New York Times editorial opened a window into the plight of Black people. It detailed society’s offenses against Black men; though a more exhaustive case for justice can be made if Black children, women and institutions are considered.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement resonates across generations because it is the antidote to the apologists, both white and Black, for America's racism. It is a self-affirmation that puts the interest of Blacks ahead of the materialism and trivialities of the state; and treats Black lives, like that of Freddie Gray, as far more important than the value of a police cruiser. It is a seismic shift in the value we place on our own lives relative to how this nation treats us. There will be other protests, in Baltimore and points across this country and some will surely explode in bursts of violence. We have a choice to focus on the minor breaches of decorum or the institutional forces that work to preserve the status quo and the continued oppression of Black Americans. Let us make the right choice.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.