Four dead in Ohio

Many people watched in horror as the Michael Brown affair played out in Ferguson, Missouri so many months ago. Having lived in St. Louis for a number of years, we watched in shock from afar as the events from our rather insignificant midwestern city gripped not only the nation, but the world. I can’t blame our friends and colleagues here for asking us so many times “just what is happening in St. Louis?” thinking that we somehow have an insight into what was transpiring in that suburb only about twenty minutes north of where we had once lived. While they looked on here with their mouths agape unable to comprehend the scenes being shoved in their faces by cable news rebroadcast on the international wires, I could only shake my head in shock and shame.

Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.

But with tragedy comes hope for change. And even if the media focused on the one square block of downtown Ferguson that was on fire instead of examining the cause of the protests, which was the actual problem (i.e. racial injustice), I was at least relieved to see that in the following weeks and months that more attention was given to similar events in other cities.

I am forced to shamefully admit however that after so many more similar events across the US in the ensuing months my disgust with the reaction to events by my fellow US citizens somehow became greater than my outrage at the cause of the events themselves. Reading about a sizable percentage of the populace that willfully just doesn’t want to understand or address the problems that are the cause of the riots made me take advantage of being disconnected from the US news cycle. When Wolf Blitzer’s reaction to the Baltimore riots was actually to say that he had never seen such images before less than six months after reporting on Ferguson [0], I stopped paying attention.

But living in the 21st century one has to work much harder than I am willing in order to be truly cut off. After the most recent events, I was bombarded on Facebook by co-opted photos of prominent civil rights champions such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr with the text similar to “changed the world without violence” and Rosa Parks with “…refused to give up her seat on the bus… she didn’t burn the bus.” How disgusting.

I am not proud to say that what ultimately enraged me about these protests was not the needless loss of so many lives to an institutionalized discriminatory criminal justice system, but rather the willful ignorance and dismissiveness of such a large percentage of our nation to the events.

What is the message of such uninformed memes? Nothing less than self-righteous finger-waving and a cop-out rather than addressing the problem of racial inequality. This is social laziness at incomprehensibly dangerous levels.

Sure Rosa Parks didn’t set the bus on fire. We all learned the story in school. However there are those of us who paid attention in history class and also learned about the tense social backdrop of the sixties as well as the Jim Crow south with domestic terrorism of blacks and civil rights leaders, police brutality of protesters, unwarranted mass-arrests, lynchings without repercussion, and bombings by the KKK. Rosa Parks might not have trashed the bus, but there was plenty of violence happening around her with its roots in a history of racial abuse.

Does that make it right? No. Am I justifying violence? In no way. However it is beyond naïveté to suggest that necessary and massive social change against such an entrenched system can be achieved with no violence. It is simply the byproduct of a legacy of anger and resentment towards an unjust system.

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld after the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rioting and looting by the populace:

… while no one condones looting, on the other hand one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who’ve had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. [1]

So why is it so hard for us to understand the anger and pent-up feelings of our fellow citizens? Or to use a quote from a civil rights hero that is actually constructive to addressing the situation at hand:

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. 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. [2]

That is an MLK quote that is strangely absent from indignant Facebook postings and tweets about the recent riots.

Instead of looking down our long noses on those protesters, can’t we try to understand them and their stories? Do we really believe that so many people in Ferguson, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore and so many other cities are simply violent opportunists? Can it not even occur to us that these events are actually the effects of a much, much larger problem and there is a grander story to be told and hopefully understood?

Is it so hard to understand how anger over decades of mistreatment by the police can erupt on the streets? Considering the magnitude of the systemic abuses faced by the protesters and rioters, the results are tame when one considers that similar scenes can be seen when the wrong team merely loses a football game, albeit without the police brutality and race-baity narrative by the media. [3]

I recall when I went to my first Neil Young concert and heard him perform his seminal 1960s protest piece “Ohio” which was written in reaction to the killing of Kent State student protesters by the National Guard. When I first heard the song as a kid I found it hard to believe that our government would indiscriminately kill protesting students, even if the protests were turning violent. However upon learning about the Kent State protests my reaction wasn’t to dismiss those riots out of hand since violent protest was the tool. Instead I wanted to better understand what caused those unprecedented mass student protests. And though they were manifold being part of the complex interwoven history of the late sixties and early seventies, much was due to a tone-deaf government, a dismissive public, and even government officials who days before the tragedy referred to the protesters as “bums” [4] and whose words of consolation after the killings were “when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.” [5] Even polling immediately after the event showed that 58% of the public blamed the students. [6]

Any of this sound familiar?

In the end, I am just a middle-class white kid from the midwest, which is evidenced by the fact that I used Neil Young to partially frame my understanding of these events. I can’t claim to really know or understand the grievances of the protesters in Ferguson et al. There is no way that I can comprehend the challenges and racial injustice that they face.

But I try. We as human beings have to at least try.

Since we can only seem to communicate in pictures with inspiring words, let’s try this one [7]:






One Comment

  1. Shocked by the events sadly no, ashamed yes. I am pleased at your astute, intelligent and eloquent response. People in general have been lulled and dulled into believing that racism and injustice no longer exist. Ignorance of people different from us and indifference of who they are can be where we need to begin to heal. Making sure our lives include people that seem to have little in common with our own could be a way to break down barriers. The known might feel safe but the unknown is rich and rewarding, so let’s go for the adventure that awaits.

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