My Dear Friend,
The Baltimore uprising has prompted you to ask, “How is rioting and looting going to solve the problem?” My colleague Jeff Langstraat offers a concise answer: “No, burning down a CVS won’t solve the problem. Neither does focusing solely on the folks burning down the CVS, to the exclusion of other protesters, or of the simmering issues of economic disinvestment and ongoing police brutality.”
Many public officials and a majority of Americans still think that African-Americans themselves are the problem. You argue that riots and looting “are an insult to human intelligence and dignity.” That assertion is one that only privileged bystanders have the luxury of making. Perhaps you need to re-examine your idea of what is an insult to dignity. For those who are murdered, brutalized, humiliated, exploited and segregated by American Apartheid, riots are the terrifying scream of a people living in 21st-century bondage. Think of these actions as latter-day slave revolts.
You speak of “human rights.” In these times, that concept is an empty abstraction. In occupied and oppressed urban neighborhoods, mere survival is the first order of business. These riots are the visceral voices of a long-silenced people. Remember, you cannot solve a problem until the majority population and public officials recognize what the problem really is — and it ain’t rioting.
The last time this centuries-old problem was officially acknowledged was during the 1965-68 riots in Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Washington, Baltimore, etc. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission. Its report was scathing: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
What Martin Luther King said in a 1968 speech, “The Other America,” still echoes true today:
Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence. … But 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. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Make no mistake, I neither condone nor condemn the Ferguson and Baltimore riots. I seek only to awaken the sleepwalkers among us. As the Old Testament’s Jeremiah admonishes us, “Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, Who have eyes but do not see; Who have ears but do not hear.” When called upon to seek justice, all too many of us have a self-satisfied response — I am not my brother’s keeper.
Your steadfast friend,
” ‘I heard your call for no justice, no peace,’ the state’s attorney said.” — Politico
Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University. He stars in “An Interview with Martin Light,” which is playing in the Brooklyn Film Festival, and is a character in “The Dinkytown Uprising” playing May 8-14 at St. Anthony Main Theatre.
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