Having lived through the 1968 riots, sparked in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the 1967 riots in Newark, following the arrest of John Smith, a black cab driver charged with improperly passing a police car; the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of police officers who beat the hell out of Rodney King; and the riots that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old teenager in Ferguson, Missouri -- this past week had an eerily familiar feel to it.
But the magnitude of the demonstrations (the vast majority of which were peaceful) could mean that this time, the pledges to retrain the police, raise their sensitivity and restrict their more dangerous tactics, just might survive dawn’s early light.
Like you, I have listened to and read scores of differing opinions, examinations and commentaries each trying to make sense of it all. Some of them are powerful self-examinations, such as this blog post by Michael Hubbard, a media-buying business owner in downtown Raleigh whose office was trashed by rioters. Rather than place blame, he acknowledges systemic racism and looks within for how he (and others) can achieve lasting change.
If you feel guilty for having sat on the sidelines and watched everything on TV, here is a handy list from Medium of “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” But as my generation proved time and again after the other protests, we are long on talk but can be short on concrete action.
When I was born, my grandmother in South Carolina had a houseful of black cooks, cleaners and nannies who lived in destitution away from her house. There were restaurants that refused to serve them, and they couldn’t use most “public” restrooms. They couldn’t afford taxis, which would not have picked them up anyway. Schools were segregated.
By the time I was in college, the civil rights movement was headline news. If we were not marching against the Vietnam war, we marched against racial inequality. It was the first time that millions of kids my age realized the power in protest.
Some of it resulted in positive changes like affirmative action and voter rights, vocational training and low-income housing. Eventually, we elected the first black President in U.S. history. But the police all over the country kept using tactics that killed innocent black people.
It is not my place to analyze why this past week unfolded the way it did, other than to join the national repulsion at the murder of George Floyd. Personally, I think that two months of self-quarantine and the collapse of the economy probably helped accelerate the destruction.
The reaction from That Idiot in the White House was predictably childish and unhelpful. And I would be stunned if even one evangelical voter bought that pathetically transparent photo op with the Bible (which he has never read) in front of a church (he has never attended). Nor has he any inclination to follow the advice that emanates from either.
There has been the usual analysis of media coverage and complaints that the protests didn’t do enough to help mitigate the situation. False rumors (such as “bused-in looters”) were repeated over and over, and many news outlets used language in headlines that generated fear while downplaying the largely peaceful nature of most demonstrators. And yes, you can be mad as hell and still be peaceful.
If Americans continue to stay in their media echo chambers, there is a very real chance they won't learn anything about the black experience, which forces parents to teach their kids how to interact so that they too are not killed when stopped by the police: “Make sure they can see your hands at all times..." Not a lecture that white kids ever hear.
But, if you can move beyond self-selection of information, you have an opportunity to challenge your upbringing, your bubble. You can say that you’ve only had positive encounters with police officers as a white man in Oklahoma, but all it takes is a few minutes of thoughtful scrolling on social media to understand that your experience is not representative of many millions of your black and brown peers.
If you are looking for someone to educate you, or complaining that you don’t know better, you’re just being lazy. Do the work to challenge and educate yourself.
The entire arena of political activation has been shifted digitally. While the discourse is messy and sometimes too abstract for some to make sense of, it is giving birth to a more optimistic, activated generation that could use it to implement real change in our society.
I would be thrilled not to relive this week in another five or 10 years.