What is it that America fails to hear?

What we’re witnessing is not riots but an uprising

Image for post
Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez

“Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. 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 promises of freedom and justice have not been met. 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. As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

Image for post

When Martin Luther King Jr. made this statement in his “Other America” speech over 50 years ago, it was not an attempt to justify rioting, but to explain it as a natural response to oppression by a people who have been oppressed for over 400 years. Lana Guinier from Harvard Law School echoed King when she wrote, “Poor black people are throwaway people. And we pathologize them in order to justify our disregard.” Before demonizing individuals who lash out in frustration, anger and pain, first try to understand them.

We are tired of being forced to inhale daily the virus of racism. It chokes the life out of us just like George Floyd’s was by the officer in Minneapolis.

We are tired of having “the talk” with our kids — the list of do’s and don’ts every black person, but especially boys and men, must follow if they want to avoid being singled out by police, which too often means being humiliated, wrongly charged or killed. The truth is, almost anything we do can draw the kind of attention that can cost us our dignity, freedom or life.

Image for post

We are tired of being treated like subhumans — harassed and abused like we are some kind of mongrels just because of the color of our skin.

In King’s time, we marched and we prayed. You told us then that our voices were too loud, and so you didn’t listen. Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness for police brutality, and because you didn’t like him mixing politics with your entertainment, you demonized him and caused him to lose his livelihood.

We are tired of seeing people go free who should be in jail. When I was arrested for being an accomplice to murder, I was detained behind bars while they investigated my case. I was not the shooter, but I knew what was going down. The same was true for Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, who looked on while Derek Chauvin asphyxiated Floyd. I am so very gratified to learn from Minnesota AG Keith Ellison (a black man, and the first to hold state-wide office there) that these three will be charged as well; they should wait for justice in jail like I was forced to do.

Image for post

I am also glad to hear that the charges against Chauvin have been elevated to include second-degree murder. After all, does anyone really believe he wasn’t malicius in his intent to kill George Floyd? He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The video shows Chauvin didn’t remove his knee even after Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe, blood began running from his nose, and he lost consciousness. Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for a full minute after paramedics arrived at the scene.

We are sick and damn tired of being scolded when our anger at such injustice erupts into action. Pundits and armchair critics merely shrugged in disgust when white people armed with assault weapons stormed the state house in Michigan because they were frustrated with the COVID lockdown. Yet they are quick to castigate and condemn the anger and pain behind the uprising of a people who have struggled for so long under the boot of oppression.

Note that I say “uprising” rather than “riot.” Wording is important; calling these massive actions a riot detracts from the root cause, reduces them to a bunch of thugs and niggers running around looting and stealing. It makes us fit the prevailing caricature of our role in society.

An uprising is a spontaneous mass action that says, “We’re fed up with being dehumanized and we’re fighting back with the only means we have, our bodies.”

Subconsciously, African-Americans understand that property is valued more than our bodies and our lives. That feeling was reinforced when Trump tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a statement made infamous in 1967 by Miami police chief Walter Headley. Even progressive supporters wagged their heads, clucking that the protesters were destroying their own neighborhoods. But what they don’t understand is that this anger comes mostly from people like those with whom I grew up, who have never owned anything of that kind of value and have no prospects of doing so. It’s kind of like criticizing Nat Turner for destroying the plantation on which he was forced to work when he led the slave rebellion in 1831. It wasn’t his plantation. He was trying to win his freedom and equality.

Image for post

It really does seem like it’s only when we “riot” that we’re heard. It’s always been like this. Every time we riot, commissions are formed and officials try to figure out what went wrong and why it happened.

These uprisings should be used as an x-ray of society, exposing all the lives broken and shattered by oppression and racism. Instead of focusing on the looting, look at the systemic inequality that forces black people to live in dilapidated houses and neglected neighborhoods, underfunds our schools and funnels so many of us straight into prison. If you don’t, you’ll have to deal with our “rioting” every five or so years.

It would be easy to settle for “small” changes such as convictions for all four police officers and a law against chokeholds. However, what we really need is systemic change — of the type that MLK began with his Poor People’s Campaign in 1967 to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children. He was assassinated about five months later, and I doubt that was coincidental. But until we confront and eradicate the racism that infects our overall culture and so-called democracy, we will continue to rise up.

What seems to be lacking in these protests is a specific demand that is bigger than the arrest and conviction of the four officers who killed George Floyd. One suggestion: Why don’t we each demand that the governments of our cities and counties convene a town hall on racism in our own neighborhoods? Can we do anything without first acknowledging and talking about the scourge among us?

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I partner with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor and publisher. You may contact her at paminprogress@gmail.com.

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store