“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”– James Baldwin
Last week I sat on a panel as part of the YWCA’s national Stand Against Racism event and the question was posed by our moderator, “Why do Black people riot?”
It was an interesting question, as several of us pondered whether a riot is a riot or if it is an uprising. Personally, I see riots/uprisings as the result of too many years of ill treatment and too much stuffing ourselves down to survive in a society that views us through suspicious eyes. I don’t know much about public rioting but I do know about coming home after a long day where the weight of my Blackness and thus “otherness” threatened to overtake me and my rage reached that critical peak where the toxicity needed to come out and I picked up a dining room chair and started beating it across the floor and wall in an attempt to let that toxic stew out before it stole my soul.
Considering that I am a middle-aged Black woman now living a middle-class existence and thus “respectable” in the eyes of many whites, it may seem as surprise to some that I have those moments when the rage comes bubbling out and spilling over. However, James Baldwin’s words above remain true, even in 2015. Which is why I am not surprised that as I write this, yet another American city is dealing with the aftermath of unchecked systemic racism and white privilege.
Another young Black man has lost his life at the hands of law enforcement. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who was arrested after running and in possession of a switchblade. Now, while people will argue you shouldn’t run from the police, a lot of us Black people are afraid of the police these days considering what they seem to think they have a right to do to us once we’re in their clutches, and it isn’t at all evident that Gray was doing anything that deserved being eyed by the police to begin with (which might very well have added to his fear). As for the switchblade, it wasn’t like the police had X-ray vision, so let’s not be calling that probable cause, nor have I heard anything about him trying to use it on anyone. Somehow, this apprehension that never needed to be ended up with him being beaten and then cuffed (but not seatbelted, despite the rules that require it) in a police van, so that he could be tossed all over by the vehicle’s starting, stopping and turning, these combined abuses leaving him with a severed spine and crushed voicebox when he arrived at the police station. He died several days later and now Baltimore is in a state of emergency after several days of demonstrations which did include some incidents of violence.
Of course, the usual narrative as created by the mainstream media in these situations chooses to focus on the pockets of violence rather than on the circumstances that push people to this point. America suffers from an especially dangerous form of amnesia when it comes to racial matters. The average White American believes that Martin Luther King Jr. only dreamed of a world where kids of all colors played together, instead of knowing that he also uttered these words as well:
“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.”
America’s racial amnesia has reached the critical point of no return where the stark inequalities in our so-called post-racial era are shredding the very threads of this nation; racial inequities intersect with economic inequities, creating a toxicity for far too many Black people. Today’s younger generation of Black folks are tired of being tired and seeing a system that is rarely fair and just when you wear Black skin. This year alone, 104 Black people have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Last year 26% of people killed by the police were Black in a nation where Black people are roughly 13% of the population and 40% of those Black people killed by the police were unarmed. The criminal justice system (like many institutions and systems in America) is stacked against Black people, and I’ve only been talking right here about those who end up dead. Those already grim numbers say nothing about the incessant stops while driving or walking (a few weeks ago, an older Black woman who lives in a wealthy community in Massachusetts spoke to me about how when she is pulled over while driving, the police approach her with hands on their guns…stories such as this are a norm, regardless of one’s social class as long as one is Black).
Yet every time another Black life is lost or another demonstration is broadcast, Black pain is put on display to be consumed, dissected, judged and commented on by people who rarely have interest in creating the systemic, long-term change that is needed to right the scales of justice in this country. Nor do many of those gazing upon Black pain and anguish understand the divisions that sustain a separate and largely unequal America that exists along racial lines: That what white America takes for granted often is not the same experience for Black Americans and consists of things largely denied us. As long as Black pain is permissible and Black bodies are not seen as fully human and deserving of the full humanity that white Americans take for granted, I suspect that this cycle will continue to play itself out. The collective pain of Black bodies is simply too much to stuff down anymore and when that breaking point is reached it must come out by any means necessary. Whether the breaking of chairs or unrest in the streets, it must come out.