Despite the last decade being the era of Black Lives Matter, the reality is that Black pain and death have become normalized to the point of almost being entertainment, thanks to social media.
How often have we scrolled past videos of Black people being killed by law enforcement or vigilante white people? How often have we seen videos of Black people being mistreated? So much so that we are “grateful” when the victims are still alive despite the personal trauma to them—and collective trauma to Black people in general. Rarely in these videos that some white people deem informative (because apparently Black pain is a learning tool to realize that racism is still real) do we ever see anyone coming to the aid or rescue of the Black person being harmed. Instead, we are “grateful” for bystanders that record the harm. Certainly, there are times when these videos have allowed for some modicum of “justice,” but is it really justice when too often, there are no immediate consequences for white people who inflict harm upon Black people?
In fact, too often white people who inflict harm upon Black people are folk heroes in certain white spaces, à la Kyle Rittenhouse. No, aside from the momentary internet shaming, possible job loss, and occasionally an arrest that leads to conviction and jail time, what are the real consequences for white people who harm Black people?
Which is why this past weekend’s story out of Montgomery, Alabama, has the internet and racial justice world abuzz. Because for the first time in a long time, white people who attempted to inflict harm upon a Black man were met with immediate consequences in a display of Black community unity that has Black Americans feeling a collective sense of pride and joy.
On Saturday, August 5, at the Montgomery riverfront, a Black dock worker told a white group of boaters they had to move their pontoon boat as the riverboat was coming in to dock. The group of white boaters—instead of moving their boat as requested—escalated and started to physically assault the dock worker. By all accounts, there were four or five white men and a white woman attacking the lone Black worker. To be clear, they could have seriously harmed the man or killed him.
But what happened next was a display that not even the writers of Black Panther could have imagined.
A young Black man who was on the riverboat and witnessing the attack jumped off the boat and swam to the dock to aid the lone Black man. It turns out he was a 16-year-old riverboat worker. At the same time, as he was swimming to assist his fellow worker, a group of Black men in the area descended upon the dock and, well…they came to the aid of the Black man being attacked.
What started off as a white lynch mob that could have seriously harmed or killed the dock worker, who was just trying to do his job, became a large group that laid hands on all the racist white people.
The jokes and memes on social media, especially Black Twitter—which it turns out is not dead yet despite the decline of Twitter (I won’t call it X, no matter how much Elon Musk wants me to)—captured the moment. Long story short: a lot of white folks got their asses beat and, well, I am not mad.
On a historical note, historian Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the famed 1619 Project, pointed out that the dock where the pontoon boat was docked in this recent melee is literally where they marched enslaved Africans from steamboats to the center of town. Montgomery itself has a wretched history when it comes to the treatment of Black people. Which might explain why this white group felt comfortable not complying with the Black worker’s request and instead resorted to craven violence.
In the end, a number of arrests were made, and while some Black people were arrested, a number of white people were arrested—including the original troublemakers.
There are some who believe that violence is never justified, and that maybe some of the Black people went too far. While I was once a pacifist, I am no longer a pacifist and I do believe that there is a place and time for violence. The majority of social movements that created lasting change involved violence, whether it was innocent lives being taken (Dr. King, for example) or revolutions that required blood be shed.
As I think about the current racial justice movement and the ever-increasing pushback that we are seeing, I think especially in the next 18 months the potential for violence is real. What happened in Montgomery is a snapshot of what is to come. It’s too easy to laugh off what happened in Alabama as a product of the South, and as an anomaly.
As I write this, though, a news story came across my inbox discussing the neo-Nazi training camp that is happening in Maine. Those Nazis aren’t training to fight each other. At some point, they will take their show off their compound and on the road and I doubt they will be looking for fellow white people to attack.
While the Black community in Montgomery rose up and protected one of their own, I have little in the way of confidence that such a thing would happen in Maine. Too many are still having academic and heady conversations on race and doing far too little in the way of taking the theoretical learning into practice. With that in mind, are they willing to go an extra couple steps to square up against other white people on behalf of Black folks? I’m dubious.
Montgomery is a reminder that the war started in the South and spilled over and we would be wise to take heed now and plan ahead even in our “safe” Northern states. The South has always led the way when it comes to organizing and action and I’d like to see that same energy to the north and to the west. Rather than good whites simply separating themselves from the bad whites. I want to know what your plan is for concrete action beyond when they start getting even more violent.
In places that don’t have large Black communities, it is fearful to think about the possibility of emboldened white folks getting physical. Even in my beautiful island paradise in 2019 in coastal Maine, I was verbally accosted by a Southern racist. Like his comrades in Montgomery, he went too far, and while he couldn’t be arrested for calling me a nigger, he was arrested for swinging on the police who were trying to de-escalate the situation. This happened before Jan 6, COVID, and the escalation of racism nationally in the Biden years, so I have no doubt that we will see more of these incidents. At the very least, I want to know there is enough unity in my own local Black community that folks will jump in or that there are some non-Black allies who will rumble and, if need be, go toe-to-toe with a racist white person.
Back to Montgomery though: The “Rumble at the Riverboat” could have been avoided if only those white people had complied with the Black worker’s request.
Isn’t that always what racist white people say when an unarmed Black person is killed by law enforcement? They should have complied. Well, it applies here. If they had moved their damn boat instead of escalating and beating on a Black man doing his job, they would not have incurred the wrath of a community of Black people on the spiritual grounds of where our people’s humanity was literally stripped away from them.
Sometimes justice doesn’t always look like justice, but on August 5 in Montgomery, a group of white people learned there is a legal justice as well as a moral, ethical, and spiritual justice—and they danced with all of them. I salute my brothers and sisters in Montgomery who remembered we are family and we should always look out for our own.
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