A bit of a history lesson before we get to the topic at hand.
Some thousands of years ago (roughly 13 century BCE) a powerful empire held a minority population in slavery for some 400 years. The slaves were abused and disregarded and forced into labor. According to the legend, God heard the cry of his people and unleashed terror upon the oppressors and their leader, the Pharaoh of Egypt, when he refused to free the people. The Egyptians suffered terribly. First, the Nile’s water (the key to Egyptian survival) was turned to blood rendering it unusable. Next, the people were subject to waves of frogs, then gnats that bit man and animal alike, and then flies that filled the houses and land and afflicted the people. Then all the livestock was made to die. Then the people and the animals that remained were subject to festering boils followed by hail that destroyed all the crops, killed the people and animals left in the fields, and all the fruit on the trees. Then a plague of locusts ate everything left standing. Then the sun was made to disappear.
With all of that affliction, the Pharaoh remained obstinate. Those people had always been slaves and would remain so. And then, God sent the Angel of Death into Egypt and every firstborn son of Egypt was killed. This got the Pharaoh’s attention.
Twelve centuries later, a slave named Spartacus escaped a gladiator school and formed an army of escapees that eventually numbered some 70,000 and existed by ravaging the latifundia all across what is now Italy for a number of years. This got Rome’s attention and Roman leaders sent many legions against Spartacus. Spartacus’s army managed to kill tens of thousands of Roman soldiers in a number of large-scale engagements before being defeated by Crassus and the legions assigned to him. Crassus, by the way, then proceeded to crucify some 6,000 survivors of the Spartacus led resistance. Even in a losing cause, Spartacus got the Roman’s attention.
A millennia and three-quarters after Spartacus, the American colonialists, being oppressed by their English overlords, dressed up as Native Americans, broke into English trading ships and dumped a fortune in tea into Boston Harbor. This got the attention of the English and may be considered the titular beginning of the American Revolution lasting from 1775 to 1781 with the English surrender at Yorktown.
And now to the present. Imagine, if you will, living in a country where your ancestors were held in slavery for hundreds of years, emancipated only 155 years ago, denied basic civil rights for the next 100 years, and discriminated against economically and socially to this very day. Imagine as well that your grandparents and your parents and you have been discriminated against, in every imaginable manner every single day of your life, with the realistic expectation that it will be the same for your children. Imagine seeing your people incarcerated at many times the rate of the majority population, judicially executed at many times the rate of the majority population, educated in inferior schools, and earning less doing the same work as the majority people.
Imagine having to tell your son or daughter that you can’t ride your bike at night, or get a speeding ticket, or jostle someone at a bar, for fear that when the police show up, you will be a target. Now add to that watching news of the constant stream of folks like you, who are, unarmed but entirely visible, killed by self-styled vigilantes and the militarized police who are supposed to protect and serve. Think about all the other instances. Killed by vigilante for looking suspicious by wearing a hoodie, killed by a police while having hands up in the air, killed by police because they had a no-warning warrant and broke into the wrong house, killed by police while being arrested for selling individual cigarettes.
Add to that your personal experiences of being pulled over while driving time and time again, being followed around in retail stores, of being seen as the help rather than as the customer, of having people cross the street as you walk towards them. What would your reaction be?
How about watching some of your fellow Americans fly the Confederate flag? That’s right, white people, even in the north, waving the flag of the traitors who killed over 600,000 US soldiers in a war fought expressly to preserve the institution of American slavery. And then, listening to the President call those Confederate flag wavers “very fine people.” That flag – implicit or explicit, a veiled reference or bald bigotry, in your face every single day of your life. Think about that. How would you feel?
And then, on video in all its nauseating clarity, four armed police filmed holding down a black man in handcuffs by putting a knee on his neck until he is dead. His “crime?” Suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. What would your reaction be?
I can tell you what mine would be. Unbridled, barely controlled, if not totally uncontrolled, anger and rage. A desire to tear down the system supporting the institutional and inbred racism that my family and I have been forced to endure our entire lives. That is what my reaction would be.
So, for those of you (like me only days ago) who believed the killing of George Floyd, while heinous and disgusting, deserved peaceful demonstrations but believed the cause weakened due to the destruction of property or violence against the oppressors, think again. Think hard about this.
Peaceful demonstrations do not get real attention. Peaceful assembly does not cause the President of the United States to seek shelter in his underground bunker. Peaceful assembly does not cause societal change. It does not get “their” attention. Pharaoh knew what Jews wanted. They wanted their freedom. The Romans knew what their slaves wanted. They wanted their freedom. The British knew what the American colonists wanted. They wanted their freedom.
Thus, there is a burning need (pun intended) to get “their” attention. So far, past and present, peaceful demonstrations have not done the job. No doubt there are a few “outsiders” fomenting violence (like white nationalists or perhaps some antifa extremists and even simple unprincipled looters) but make no mistake, “they” will pay more attention if the protests are not peaceful.
We know what our fellow African-American citizens want. They want their freedom. Freedom from the fear of being killed jogging while black, being killed when arrested while black, and being killed walking in their own bedroom while black. Add to that being hassled and perhaps killed when being pulled over for speeding while black, or shopping while black or bird watching while black.
They want freedom from any of the hundreds of other soul-killing, ego-eating injustices meted out to our African-American citizens every day which are, quite frankly, virtually unimaginable, and unfathomable by those who are not people of color. They want the freedom that comes with equal pay, equal opportunity, and equal education. In short, they want the same things we all want for ourselves and our children. Freedom from fear and freedom from want and freedom from oppression.
Now ask yourself, what is it going to take, after 400 years, to get our attention as a nation? 245 years ago, white American colonists started a revolution to gain their freedoms. If we do not pay attention to the injustices this society has continued to commit to this very day, there is going to be another one.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
― attributed to Edmund Burke but actually said by John Stuart Mill
From Martin Niemöller’s tombstone, modified by Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (UK).
First, they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me