I begin with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hoping you’ll keep reading. Despite our tendency to sanitize the raw and radical truths Dr. King spoke, if I can pull out a quote, I can usually get folks to listen for a minute. After all, he was all about nonviolence.
“… a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Last night, I was rendered mute by the images and predictable “reporting” coming from my television. Hours passed and I couldn’t move. “It’s too much,” I tell myself. “Not again.” The internal conversation continues. “Yes, again, Lecia. Pay attention.”
And, so it begins. This soul-piercing experience of acknowledging, again and again, what it means to be black in these United States. That’s me on the screen. That’s me you’re talking about. I can’t turn away. I can’t.
I was living in Los Angeles during the rebellion that followed the verdicts in the Rodney King trial. That time, I got up from the television and went to the gathering place. The need to go, to be there was so strong. I had to be there. I couldn’t sit, immobilized, and watch it play out on the news.
The fires began just as the program in the church ended. The flames were blinding and illuminating at the same time. The smoke was choking an already strangled voice. Yet it felt right to be there. It was as if the collective brutality visited upon us all these years was resting, like a weight, in the pit of my stomach. I could tell others felt it, too. It was so strong and became stronger still as we walked together toward the fire claiming our pain and demanding justice.
We cried out together, “No Justice, No Peace,” and meant it. Some began to illustrate the point by destroying property and looting. Others did not. None of us “thugs,” “criminals” or “hoodlums” exploiting another injustice thrown at us to swallow. Each of us survivors of years of systemic oppression.
Ask someone who has willingly placed themselves on the other side of riot police what they were feeling. Ask them why they were there. Ask them want they want. Even ask someone why he or she looted a store or destroyed a store in their own neighborhood. Ask, and listen.
Back to what Dr. King, in 1968, said about why people riot:
“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 12 or 15 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.”
Lecia Brooks is director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., and outreach director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke