It is a familiar scenario, seemingly happening more frequently now, in this season of politicized race rhetoric—from Donald Trump’s call to “build the wall” to keep out Mexicans to Colin Kaepernick’s stand (or sit, or take a knee) against police violence. An African-American is stopped in traffic, or confronted over a warrant at home, or arrested for a minor and petty transgression. Something—no one ever agrees on what—happens, and the African-American does not survive. Regardless of the circumstances, the simple summation of events is: the police killed him.
Sometimes there is video of the events, almost always blurry and from a distance, and no matter what it looks like, family and friends of the deceased insist he was innocent, and the police either stay silent too long, or jump to a defense so soon it looks like a closing of ranks to protect a killer.
Often, politicians get involved, community organizers, professional race hustlers, agenda-driven media on both sides. And things just get worse. This year, a year of polarized politics and Twitter-driven self-righteousness, the parties themselves got involved. At the Republican convention, the speakers bellowed about “law and order” as though America was still mired in the daily, inescapable global violence of the 1960s. The Democrats showcased (though not during the time covered on the broadcast networks) the “Mothers of the Movement,” mothers of young people who died as a result of contact with the police. In the end, the person who pulled the trigger is rarely punished—and never enough to satisfy the families of the dead.
And the media bemoan the dire state of race relations in America, and each side of the political and racial divides blame the other.
And everybody’s wrong.
America has a long history of rioting based on racial incidents. From the German Coast Uprising in 1811 in what was not yet Louisiana—which ended with the rebelling slaves’ heads on pikes to intimidate others who might get similar ideas—through six days of rioting in 1992 triggered by the acquittal of police in the Rodney King brutality case—to the recent spate of anti-police resistance that started in Ferguson, Missouri, and flares up continuously to this day. It happens over and over again.
Let’s start, arbitrarily, in East Harlem, with the 1964 police killing of James Powell, a ninth-grader shot in an altercation with a police officer. Proving nothing ever changes, there was uncertainty as to what started it, why it happened, and whether he was armed. Powell had a history of minor vandalism and petty theft. The police officer shot three times—one warning shot, one to the heart, and one in the stomach. The community reacted with six days of rioting. Two months later, a grand jury cleared the police officer and all charges were dropped.
The same year, in Rochester, New York, police tried to arrest an African-American teenager drunk at a block party. The police arrived with dogs, and unfounded claims of police brutality spread. Three days of rioting ensued. In Philadelphia, false rumors that police had beaten a pregnant woman to death led to two days of rioting.
There were six days of unrest in The Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 over perceived police racism. The following year in Chicago, police shot a Puerto Rican man during the Puerto Rican Day parade, leading to seven days of rioting. The following year, violence exploded in Newark and Plainfield, New Jersey, after a number of events of perceived police violence against African-Americans. Both lasted six days, an urban nightmare of arson and violence. When, also in 1967, Detroit erupted in five days of rage following a police raid on an unlicensed bar, President Johnson created the Kerner Commission to, as Donald Trump might put it, find out what the Hell is going on.
The Commission concluded that, whatever the precipitating events, the underlying cause of urban rioting was economic frustration on the part of African-Americans. White racism and housing segregation were causing this lack of economic opportunity in urban neighborhoods. And—as any modern conservative can probably guess—the prescription was more–and more expansive–government programs.
New spending, however, didn’t create noticeable improvements. Urban residency continued to concentrate in housing projects, where there was never any serious effort at desegregation. Increased social spending bred dependency. Diversifying police departments led to suspicion in the African-American community of peers that had “sold out” and joined the other side. Whites seeking jobs in policing felt they were being unfairly kept from them by a system aimed at hiring based more on skin color than qualification.
And the periodic uprisings didn’t stop. In 1966, incidents between minorities and police led to rioting in: Cleveland; Waukegan, Illinois; and Benton Harbor, Michigan. The summer of 1967 saw violence in 8 cities, and in 1968 the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led to ten days of race riots in cities across the country.
Invariably, rioting gets blamed on the economy, or poverty in general. Yet time after time after time, the precipitating event is the officer-involved death of an African-American.
This is why, in the current atmosphere of racial tension, it is incumbent on all of us to have restraint and compassion. Maybe a national talk-show host could lay off referring to the Congressional Black Caucus as the “Congressional Black Caucasians”. Maybe uninvolved white people on Twitter could avoid posting their uninformed self-righteous claims of genetic superiority. Maybe both sides could stop cheering death or advocating murder.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for both “sides” to acknowledge that something is wrong with the way police and minority populations interact. Time for strangers to stop taking it upon themselves to stand up for or rail against people they’ve never met in situations they know nothing about. Because, guess what? A Twitter password isn’t a Ph.D. in Sociology, a 20-year tenure with a police force, or the death certificate of a felled officer or a dead child. In short, access to social media isn’t any of the things that would make it appropriate for a stranger to tell a parent or a community in mourning anything more than “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
When someone dies early and violently, it is a tragedy. Decent people mourn. Police investigate. Communities seek answers. Statesmen call for calm.
So the next time one of these sad events takes place, ask yourself, “Does what I’m about to post calm or comfort anyone?”
If not, hit that “x” in the corner and get on with your day.
Image: By Laurin Rinder; shutterstock_441280438-jpg