By Dr. William Small, Jr.
The demonstrations for social justice, sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, has generated a new series of conversations about racial and social justice across America and in many other parts of the world. Having actively supported social justice and Black empowerment causes for over a half a century, I nevertheless, have also been surprised at the scope and intensity of the protests that continue to take place. As the media, the pundits and the social commentators search to explain the reasons behind this phenomenon , let us not forget that this global response, to another public lynching, is a reflection of the universal fatigue with the political injustices, physical abuse and the expanding denial of human rights experienced by people the world over. This fact suggests, or perhaps more strongly implies that the underpinning’s of western civilization that are reflected in the lies and mythology that have sustained the notion of white supremacy for centuries, can no longer support the weight of a changing world.
The media coverage given to the brutal killing of George Floyd, served as a reminder to me and my now adult children of the time in March of 1991, when I brought them to the television to see the brutal beating that Rodney King received at the hands of the Los Angeles police. My intent at the time, was more than to give them “the lecture” on how not to behave around police, my intent was to have them see and understand at an early age, how viscous and how evil unbridled racist power could be. It was also important for them, as young Black men in America, to see how little regard the law, in general, often has for Black life and the wellbeing of Black people. This was not about hatred; it was an effort to reinforce a conversation about their value and the fostering of responsible love for our “collective self”.
The killing of George Floyd, even more so that the killing of Eric Garner, who initially uttered the death rattle “I can’t breathe”, brought my sons back to that Rodney King moment in time. It was they who reminded me of our shared earlier television viewing experience that took place almost 30 years earlier. Perhaps it was because this execution in “style and in substance”, and the boastful image of the super arrogant disregard, for the life of Mr. Floyd and for any sense of accountability for the unapologetic display of racism and contempt for Black life. The image of four police officers, restraining a handcuffed Black man, while one patiently kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes-choking the life out of him- was a “wake up call”. That image has taken us and the entire world black, white, red, and yellow, back to a time when the lynching of a black man, woman, or child was little more than a public spectacle. This was a time in United States history, when advertisements would-be run-in local newspapers announcing a scheduled lynching, giving families time to show up to ogle, consume refreshments and buy body parts from the remains of the corpse. If possible, the spectators would often buy post cards, thus announcing to their friends and relatives that they had attended such an event. This was clearly a season when Black lives did not matter. Three weeks ago, that season ran out of time in a little over eight minutes. The world declared, at least for another moment in history, that there is no longer a market for that “Strange Fruit” that the lynching enterprise persists in markets as “law and order”.
My children, with their children and the chain from generations past are now involved in their local communities, demanding an end to police abuse; and encouraging the enactment of policies and programs to insure the establishment of social justice and equal treatment under the law. My oldest Son used his Church pulpit to preach eloquently and passionately about the outrage, the insult and the multi-century old pattern of injustice that continues to trail and derail the efforts of Black America and African people throughout the Diaspora as we seek be extended the simple courtesy of human respect. Needless to say, I was proud of all of them and their efforts in what has now become and intergenerational struggle. I was proud that my children had not forgotten, and I was proud that they also had prepared my grandchildren to under-take some measure of engagement and corrective action. I view their action and the noble actions of the millions involved around the world to be an effort, as Bobby Seale once wrote “To Seize the Time”, define the present and build a better future for self and others. Perhaps I was most proud of all, over the fact that my children, in spite of the advantages that are in their lives are more than symbolically obligated to “being their brother’s keeper”
Over the past few weeks, the news media have exhaustively covered the national and global response to excessive use of illegal power and authority by law enforcement and by the Executive branch of the government of the United States. We saw the police in various cities abuse peaceful citizens and virtually start riots. We saw Attorney General Barr establish a unitary police force to riotously break up a peaceful demonstration, with horses, helicopters and unidentified troops so that President Trump could, come out of his bunker and do a “perp walk” to a church in order to hold a Bible upside down for a photo op. What we saw, was the unmasking of the raw philosophy and intent that was and perhaps continues to be the Counterintelligence Program operating in “modern drag”.
There is no question that America is in a precarious and special place at this moment. However, history and particularly the history of Black people in America will not let me forget that these special moments and the benefits they portend often evaporate rather quickly or when public fatigue sets in. As a Vietnam veteran, I am quite familiar with the exuberance and energy of the anti-war demonstrations, led by young predominantly white college students and returning veterans, that once defined the American political landscape. I remember the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago when young people protesting in concert with urbanites and sharecroppers and others to reform politics in the American democratic system, were met with extreme violent resistance. The protest were subdued and today the average citizen cannot name all of the places in the world where the United States is engaged in or actively supporting military operations.
Presently, systemic voter suppression initiatives designed to restrict democratic political participation rival, if not surpasses, voter registration and related efforts to expand opportunities for political participation. I remember the sense of accomplishment felt when major pieces of legislation were signed into being. The civil rights acts, voting rights acts equal housing acts, the war on poverty, affirmative action legislation and programs- all were major programs and achievements signifying the progress that the nation was making to becoming the America that so many had died to create. This is not the first time in my life where I have seen Americans, young and old, Black, and white align themselves forthrightly with the cause of human respect, freedom, and decency.
In my opinion, it is not only fair, but responsible to observe that within a few short decades virtually all of those accomplishments had become watered down to the extent that we have returned to “status quo ante”. We eagerly celebrated the cure without killing the virus, and the virus has quickly returned again “in spades”. If this recitation of the list of non enduring accomplishments of the so called “Civil Rights” era is not persuasive to the point, there is always the experience of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the two world wars and more.
Most alarming is my sense that the focus of the demonstrations, that we are currently witnessing, is beginning to narrow and almost singularly address the issue of police misconduct. Police are violent against Black people and our communities because we and our communities are marginalized and politically weak. Police are violent against Black people and our communities because they have been assigned the authority to oppress and insure the maintenance and perpetuation of our marginalization and weakness. The police have been legitimized by the courts, labor contracts and white fear, to become the intimidators and in many instances the modern” lynch mob”, who safeguards predominant white societal interests.
To eliminate police violence and police brutality in Black communities, as important as that is, is not a remedy to compensate for the injury done or a substitute for a plan to put Black people in a recovering competitive posture. The gaps in infrastructure , wages and consequent opportunities will continue to exist and serve as barriers to unduly restrict the development of opportunities for competitive advancement. What have we learned from the four hundred years of struggle? Our challenge as Black people is not to learn how to live with racism and political oppression; our challenge as Black people is to learn how to eliminate racism and oppression as destructive and illegitimate constraints on our lives.
Legislation from the Democrats and the CBC, which cannot get out of committee or to the floor for a vote or discussion or approved by the Senate is not a remedy. Voter registration and voting efforts that are less focused and less strategic than the many strategies and techniques to ensure voter suppressions that abound is not a remedy. While we talk primarily about police brutality, the brutality associated with the Trump administration efforts to have the courts destroy the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic continues pretty much unnoticed. Similarly, where is the conversation or plan to provide aid to the States in light of the expanded economic burden they have assumed because of the pandemic. These targeted and irrational policies and practices that the current administration is pursuing, in light of their negative predictable impacts and consequences, are too dangerous to be ignored. Fixing the community policing problem will not repair any of these issues or many of the other issues that will disproportionately impact and insure the perpetual marginalization of Black America.History shouts to remind us the Black problem in America, will require special and problem specific remedies. One size does not fit all, it never has, and it never will.
Black leadership must demand more from America, and Black people must demand more from our leadership and of ourselves. We cannot afford to accommodate our perpetual oppression with faith and patience. Neither can we continue to digest and recite the notion “that change takes time”. How much time did it take for the immigrant groups who came here after 1619? How much time did it take to l lynch over four thousand Black Americans or to build a prison industrial complex with Black spirits who tire young and simply yearn to be free?
Who in our Black Leadership group will carry the brief for “the total and comprehensive repair of Black America”? Who in our elected leadership group even dares, at this critical moment, to call for the conversation about Reparations? What happened to HR 40? Our collective response to the current crisis is “silo based” and embarrassingly weak.
During this month of June, while we lament the perpetual expansion to the list of names belonging to Black lives to whom America has politically, socially and judicially, refused to assign a full measure of human significance and value; let us also remember Greenwood and let us remember Medgar Evers and let us have our prayers end with the question: If not now, then when?