Martin Luther King Jr said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The language that is unheard seems all too often, “I can’t breathe.” It is kneeling on one knee during the national anthem. It is hundreds of marchers saying, “Black lives matter.” It is raising arms above your head and begging, “Don’t shoot.”
I can’t watch the footage of George Floyd being killed by a cop. And, I can’t watch our cities burn. It is too much.
All I feel, truly, is a numbness that started in my stomach and spread to my chest. The numbness is coating the fear that my country, my fellow white people are engaged in a kind of genocide against African Americans.
As a white woman, I don’t feel the terror that Black women feel when their sons and daughters leave home and face the possibility of dying at the hands of cops. Or dying because a cop kneeled on their necks until they couldn’t draw another breath.
None of us is innocent. None of us is without sin. We all break laws, perhaps every day. We speed, roll through stop signs, and we refuse to wear masks to prevent the spread of a pandemic. We may even commit crimes.
But in this country, this land of the free and home of the brave, we have due process. We have a justice system, as deeply flawed as it is. We have the right to lawyers. We have the right to stand innocent until proven guilty. Those rights are for all of us, but all too often have become a luxury that only whites can count on.
If America is exceptional, as we white people are raised to believe, then we are exceptional more for our brutality to people of color than we are for our representative democracy that seems too often to represent only whites.
Numbness is spreading to my heart and is breeding depression and hopelessness. Underneath it all is disgust and outrage and anger and sorrow and grief and fear. Racism is ugly, a systemic force that empowers violence and murder. I wonder if it is a force too great to stop or change.
King didn’t advocate riots, but he understood the impulse.
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. 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. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
We must fight this status quo, as white people, and commit ourselves to justice, equality, and humanity.
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