Since his death, the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been remade into that of a pacifist icon. There are those that quote him now that despised him then. They like the quotes from the, “I Have a Dream” speech where he talks about unity:
“I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Mostly forgotten and rarely cited are the first parts of that speech where King spoke about racism and police brutality.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”
“As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Three months later in his far less quoted, “Other America” speech, he said:
“But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few 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, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
Protests and violence broke out in Minneapolis after the senseless murder of George Floyd by a police officer while three others watched. Protests and violence broke out in Louisville, KY after the senseless shooting death of Breonna Taylor, protests broke out in the Atlanta area after a video surfaced Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery being killed. Don’t be misled that these wereisolated incidents only affecting these specific communities. Black America is tired, they’re angry, and for as long as I can remember, they haven’t been heard.
Minneapolis is a microcosm of America, it’s the largest city in Minnesota, a state that promotes itself as, “Minnesota nice.” That phrase suggests politeness, reservedness, and modesty. Those traits have never applied to the policing of black people, particularly in the urban areas of Minneapolis and the capitol Saint Paul. I grew up in Minneapolis. Because of the “Minnesota nice” reputation and it being about as far north as one can get in America without being in Alaska. Minnesota isn’t associated with the racism associated with the South. Those thinking the North isn’t racist as well would be wrong.
One of my early residences, when I lived in North Minneapolis was at 909 Aldrich in the Sumner Field projects. They were built over a creek bed on the least desirable land in the city, the original inhabitants were blacks and Jews although by the time I lived there many, of the Jews, had already taken flight. In the middle of Sumner Field was the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center which provided daycare and numerous community activities. I was unaware of its historical importance.
Because of segregated hotels, it was the only place visiting black people could stay. Mr. A. Phillip Randolph often met there while organizing the Pullman porters which included my grandfather. Marian Anderson the opera singer stayed there a few weeks just prior to her being barred from singing at a venue in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group and invited Ms. Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Marian was the spark for demonstrations in Minneapolis also when she was denied accommodations at the plush Dyckman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Protests were led by the all-white Women’s Christian Association (WCA) joined by the Phyllis Wheatley “Trailblazers”, the Phyllis Wheatley youth and the local NAACP. The WCA ultimately negotiated for Marian Anderson to stay at the Dyckman ending her stay at the Phyllis Wheatley Center. I was not conscious at that time of race or poverty, though I can look back at my circumstances and realize the impact of both. At the time I was just another kid and the Phyllis Wheatley Center was where I spent my afternoons after school until my mother came home.
By the time I was 11, I lived in a home in South Minneapolis at 4220 Oakland Ave., about six blocks from where George Floyd was killed. I rode my bike to a drugstore at that intersection and played football and baseball at Phelps Park a block away from there. Across town, after a black woman was manhandled by police at the annual Aquatennial Parade, three days of unrest ensued primarily around Plymouth Avenue, which was in 1967. By 1968, the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) had begun patrols near Franklin Avenue to protect Native Americans from the police.
When I first got my driver’s license at 16, one evening I was riding around with some friends, (Shawn Hayden (RIP), and I believe Bob Stone), a patrol car began following me and ultimately pulled us over. They separated us and began grilling us as to what we were doing and where we were going. There was no pretense of a reason for the stop, our answers must have been satisfactory as we were sent on our way without a citation.
You may have noted the large percentage of white people protesting George Floyd’s death, standing and marching alongside Black folks. Minneapolis has a fairly well-deserved liberal reputation. White and Black people marched together there in protest of the Vietnam War. The University of Minnesota which just canceled their contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department has long been a hub for liberal protest, but don’t confuse that with the Minneapolis Police Department which has never strayed from its unstated purpose of controlling the populace, especially the city’s minority population.
Fast forward to July 6, 2016, not to suggest that policing was better between the 1970s and then, just that there were no major uproars. Minneapolis even had its first Black Mayor, Sharon Sayles Belton who served two terms between 1994 and 2001. Don’t think because Minneapolis had a Black Mayor that policing was any less targeted against black people. Police Chief Robert Olsen increased staffing and used a computerized program from New York City to target “high crime areas.” They renamed New York’s “Broken Windows” program where arrests were made for the most minimal offenses in minority communities, CODEFOR, which meant stop and frisk had come to Minneapolis. After complaints from the Black community, police officers were instructed to ease racial profiling and in retaliation they significantly reduced making arrests at all, causing a rise in the overall crime and murder rate. The police rallied behind a new Mayoral candidate, R.T. Rybak who ousted Belton in 2001. A year later, Police Chief Olsen was asked to resign, “for the good of the community.”
On July 6, 2016, Black motorist Philando Castile was stopped along with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Mr. Castile informed the officer that stopped him he had a gun which he was licensed to have. Moments later, Officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Castile, claiming the now rote, “I was in fear for my life.” Castile’s girlfriend who was outside the car began live streaming and describing the incident which went viral, seen by most of the nation. There were multiple days of protests and Yanez was ultimately arrested and charged with Castile’s murder. Almost a year later in June 2017, he was acquitted. Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said:
“Because if the government can take your life and no one is held responsible, you are a second-class citizen, if not fully dehumanized in the eyes of the law. That is the devastating message this verdict, along with all those similar acquittals before it, sends to communities of color across the nation.”
Thousands of protesters filled the streets of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and Saint Paul) and among other things blocked lanes of an Interstate Highway and targeted the Mall of America. Eventually, things calmed down, but apparently, no lessons were learned as we find ourselves in the same situation once more.
George Floyd’s death was captured on video including his famous last words so reminiscent of Eric Garner of New York who died after being placed in an illegal chokehold by police, his crime selling selfie cigarettes on the street.
“Please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man, please.
I can’t move. Everything hurts. Give me some water or something, please. I can’t breathe, officer.
They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me, man.”
Days after the initial video showed Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was shown with his knee on the throat of the victim for several minutes. Another video from another angle showed at least three officers with their knees pinning the handcuffed Floyd down as he begged for his life. People from the gathering crowd shouted, “he can’t breathe!” One of the officers threatened them with mace. It wasn’t a case of not being literally heard, the officers simply didn’t care.
Minneapolis is a microcosm of America. I submit there is no major city with a significant minority population that doesn’t have a history of racism and police brutality and oppression. Anxiety and unrest aren’t limited to Minnesota, and Kentucky, and Georgia where recent killings have come to light. In Florida, I was approached three times today by other Black people with different variations of, “What the hell is going on?” Almost every Black family I know has had to give some version of “the talk” to their children, especially Black boys about what to expect from the police and how to respond. George Floyd in the video consistently addressed the four policemen as “officer,” and “sir” to no avail. They killed him anyway.
America is sitting on a powder keg. In the late sixties, violence erupted in several cities across the nation after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Local rioting has happened here and there, for example in 1992 in Los Angeles when the officers that brutally beat Rodney King were acquitted. In 1985, Philadelphia dropped two bombs on a home where the MOVE Black liberation organization was headquartered which ultimately killed 11 people with the ensuing fire destroying 65 homes. Not always but way too often, police have indiscriminately killed black men, women, and children, many of them unarmed.
There was once a time, as late as 2017 when local police departments were subject to oversight by the federal government. Dozens of cities with poor track records entered into consent decrees which included monitoring and measurable steps toward behavioral change. Consent decrees were in force for cities like Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD, and Cleveland, OH. Minneapolis was not among the cities operating under consent decrees despite having 10 questionable fatal police encounters in the same number of years with Floyd now making eleven.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, the United States under first Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then Attorney General William Barr has done all they can to get out of the consent decree business. They ended those they could and relaxed the rest. Local police departments were given the clear signal they can do what they like and the feds don’t care. Trump himself gave a speech in which he advocated the rough treatment of suspects by police. He added fuel to the fire in Tweets by suggesting protesters be shot if looting. His language copied directly from the enemies of Civil Rights during the 1970s. Soon after taking office, President Bided began restoring consent decrees but still hasn’t been able to undo what Trump did.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” — Donald Trump
The former President didn’t know enough to realize that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, originally intended to keep federal troops that left the South after protecting former slaves from ever returning, prevents him from deploying the military for that purpose on American soil but there’s no need to nitpick. He’s the same man who advocated for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, and when they were exonerated by DNA evidence years later, decried the settlement they received from the City of New York.
There’s no evidence despite the protests, that anyone is listening. The movement to “Make America Great Again” is just the latest in a decades-long (centuries-long?) movement to suppress Black people and other minorities. The entity that used to provide some small measure of hope, the Justice Department, is now the most likely to pile on. No one is listening while the anger grows.
To be Black in America is inherently unsafe. It has to do with a number of systemic factors including high poverty, insufficient healthcare, mass incarceration (on the rise in the current administration), and some self-inflicted woes. The threats also include being killed by those supposed to protect us. In a press conference, Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman bragged about being one of the few prosecutors to successfully convict a police officer for murder on his watch. He didn’t mention that officer was black. I’m wondering if he’ll have the ability to convict white ones?
Black America is still unheard, justice is both deferred and denied, the few potential safeguards have gone away. There is much condemnation of the behavior of the continually oppressed. They weren’t meek and passive enough in their resistance. King knew what happens when a people cry out and are unheard. What will it take for this nation to understand?
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM and is republished with permission.
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The post ‘A Riot Is the Language of the Unheard’, Martin Luther King, Jr appeared first on The Good Men Project.
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