The Language of the Unheard

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 27: Baltimore Police form a parimeter around a CVS pharmacy that was looted and burned near the corner of Pennsylvania and North avenues during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, who was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A black 12-year-old boy in Cleveland is shot by police, who claimed he was brandishing a gun that lacked the distinguishing features of the toy that it was.  Video showed that the boy was not holding the gun when he was shot.  It also showed he was shot before the responding police car had even come to a stop.  The police handcuffed his 14-year-old sister and threatened to arrest his mother if she didn’t calm down.  First aid was not administered until a police detective and a FBI agent responded to the scene 4 minutes later.

Tamir Rice died the next day.

A black man suspected of selling illicit cigarettes is approached by New York City police.  Using a chokehold – verified by the medical examiner but denied by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, probably because chokeholds are illegal – the man is brought to the ground.  While four officers attempt to restrain the man, he repeated, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times while lying facedown on the sidewalk.  After losing consciousness, officers turned the man on his side to ease his breathing.  Officers and EMT’s, who arrived 7 minutes later, did not perform CPR, thinking he was still breathing.

Eric Garner was pronounced dead on arrival an hour later.

A black man is arrested in Baltimore for possessing what the police believe was an illegal switchblade.  While being transported in a police van, the man fell into a coma and was taken to a trauma center, having suffered injuries to his spinal cord.  He was left paralyzed.

Freddie Gray died a week later as a result of his injuries.

A white man walks into one of the oldest black churches in the United States in a state that still flies the Confederate Flag on its capital grounds.  He sits down and participates in the church’s Bible study for almost an hour.  Then he stands up and shoots 10 black people – killing 9 – while proclaiming, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.  And you have to go.”  The man is found and arrested the next day.  At his bond hearing, the judge declared that the shooter’s family were victims as well.

Dylann Roof was arrested without the use of force.

I’ve listened to people proclaim that cops aren’t racist, they’re assholes.  I’ve heard it said that it can’t be that hard to be a black person in this country because the president is black, Oprah Winfrey is the richest person in entertainment and Will Smith is the biggest movie star.  I’ve heard friends say that the race card ended the day Barack Obama took office.

I didn’t think any of these things were particularly outrageous when I heard them.  I’ve probably said things equally ridiculous.  I know I have my own prejudices.  I’ve laughed at and probably said some things that should never be said in polite company.

But I don’t know of anyone – outside of the police associations defending the appalling actions of their members – who think that the black men killed while in police custody deserved to die.  And as much as I’d like to be politically correct and pretend this isn’t a black/white thing, it’d be insane to pretend that whites have to deal with problems such as these.

Twenty-three years ago, large swaths of Los Angeles burned after four police officers were acquitted of beating a motorist they had pulled over, despite a damning video proving that an acquittal was idiotic.  Fifty-three people died.  A stupid 14-year-old me said, “Let it burn, they’re doing it to themselves,” when a teacher asked our class what we thought of the riots.  I was too dumb to understand the underlying racial tones of me saying they were doing it to themselves.  I was also too dumb to realize that the Rodney King situation was hardly an isolated incident.

I’m not much smarter now, and I can’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be black in this country, but I couldn’t help but watch the “unrest” in Ferguson or the riots in Baltimore in the last year and be sympathetic to the protesters.  Things don’t change by starting a dialogue on the cable news networks.  They don’t change at the voting booth.  They change by taking a seat at a Woolworth or refusing to sit in the back of a bus.  They change by standing up to armed police on a bridge in Alabama.  They change by burning Los Angeles to the ground.  Martin Luther King might have been the nonviolent leader in the civil rights movement, but he didn’t say that riots were the language of the unheard for no reason.

I bought into the Hope & Change bullshit we were fed in 2008, and I sat there that November night thinking, “We did it” (as if I did anything aside from go out and vote and telling everyone who listened that Sarah Palin was a nonstop idiot).  It wasn’t until years later that we realized that the president had focused his campaigning on major metropolitan areas where huge numbers of Democrats would provide him the votes he needed to win the election, while Republicans focused on the rural areas that would provide them the House and the Senate.  It’s easy to blame the country’s problems on the president, but it’s hard to think that the party that inherited the racist South when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act would have much motivation to let a black president achieve anything on his agenda.

People will tell you that Tamir Rice was shot because he pointed what looked like a gun at the police.  That Eric Garner protested his arrest because he was tired of the police “harassing” him.  That Freddie Gray was a 25-year-old man with 20 arrests on his record.  They’ll tell you these things as if they’re relevant in their deaths.  They’re not.  None of those facts justified the use of deadly force.

And the tragedy is that no one will do anything about it.  The Rice, Garner and Brown cases were hardly the first cases in their cities’ histories.  But the police unions are so powerful that no politician will publicly call on them to change the behavior of those in their ranks.  The police believe they’re in mortal danger every day they go to work.  Of course, when you look at protesters going up against police units in riot gear with military equipment, not many people are going to think the protesters are the modern-day Goliaths.

Nothing will change as long as the police unions continue to defend the worst of their ranks and blame the victims.  Nothing will change as long as we call protesters thugs.  Nothing will change as long as the Confederate Flag flies at full mast while the murder of 9 blacks within that state’s borders begins a “dialogue” over whether it should continue to fly.  Nothing will change as long as we continue a drug war that disproportionately targets minorities, despite the fact that whites use drugs at around the same rate.

And yet, as easy of these fixes sound, I can’t help but think that it’s going to be a long damn time before anything changes.

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