Thousands of people, mostly young, confronting police lined up three deep. Cops in body armor, brandishing assault rifles. Newspapers and political pundits warning that the very fabric of the nation is being torn apart.
St. Paul? Ferguson? Baton Rouge? Baltimore? Sure. But if you came of age as a political activist in the 1960s, as I did, the upwelling of resistance from the Black Lives Matter movement is not new.
Once again it is a generational struggle: youthful protesters pitted against protectors of the status quo.
Even the rhetoric in defense of the cops is eerily familiar: “It looked like he had a gun … We were just doing our job.” The Baton Rouge police came up with a truly old chestnut in trying to dismiss protesters as outside agitators. Outside what? The United States? These confrontations are occurring all over the land.
In Baton Rouge, the horror last July began with the police killing Alton Sterling, a man who sold CDs in the street. Retaliation was equally horrific, the murder of three Baton Rouge cops and the wounding of three others by a self-styled vigilante.
The vigilante was from another state but those from “outside” were far fewer than the locals — many of them L.S.U. and Southern University students. They were joined by Tulane students and young people involved with European Dissent, an anti-racist collective with chapters around the country, and SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism). And not all the protesters were young. Some had the gray hair of lifelong movement people, black and white. The crowd spilled over into people’s yards and many property owners were glad to welcome them.
The protesters’ message was terse, to the point: The killings of young black men and women (often unarmed) by cops (usually white) must stop. Once again the politicians and the police denied there was problem. Same refrain. Echoes of the Sixties.
The protesters were there to hold the police accountable for the slaughter in cities across the nation.
Well, don’t hold your breath. As a nation, we will never begin to take responsibility for the ways in which we perpetuate racist violence until all of us — whites and blacks alike — come to understand how deeply rooted racism is in our history, as well as in our economy and in our contemporary social and governmental institutions.
There is a new set of actors, but the script was written long ago and the play is the same. A century and a half ago, it was slave catchers chasing black people through the swamps of the South. Today, it’s cops busting black people for minor offenses in numbers wildly disproportional to the arrest of whites for the same offenses. Not even a hundred years ago, lynchings were common; now we uphold “law and order” through the mass incarceration of restive youths and extrajudicial execution by police.
Black Lives Matter grew out of this reality. Not because of one such killing or even two. In the past two years alone, so many black sons have been killed by police that we no longer can call all their names. We’re lucky if we can remember the cities where the slaughter occurred. Oh, yes, add Chicago to the list above, and Staten Island, and Charleston and Cleveland.
Black lives still don’t matter. Never have. This has been going on for decades, even centuries, if we are honest about it. We are a nation in denial and always have been.
The routine killing of black people by the police needs to be seen as a symptom of a national psychosis — only more so when, in the face of this continuing atrocity, we can only muster the same old bromides.
We excuse individuals — but not ourselves — for the slaughter by blaming the institutions that structure our world: the court system, police departments, work places. We pass the buck by gesturing vaguely toward “systemic” issues. Yes, racism is “systemic.” Yes, it is “institutional,” but what does that really mean?
The horror of cops summarily executing civilians is not really offset by the relatively rare death of a cop — the five officers killed by a deranged sniper in Dallas, for example, or the three who went down in Baton Rouge. Cops killed vs. killer cops are different trend lines, symptoms of related but distinguishable sicknesses, and we must not be taken off course.
Don’t cops’ lives matter? Certainly they do and it is proven every time the criminal justice juggernaut returns a no-true bill, thereby exonerating a police officer caught on camera pumping bullets into the flesh of a black suspect — even one whose hands were in the air, even with multiple videos recording what really went on.
Let’s be honest: Those killed by the police — the Alton Sterlings, the Philando Castiles, the Michael Browns — elicit far less attention. And to judge from the ugly talking points and poll numbers swirling through this most repulsive presidential campaign season, a great many Americans side with the police in this ongoing bloodbath.
What must we do? How do we prove as a nation that black lives do, in fact, matter? For starters, we obviously need to train police recruits and senior officers to de-escalate a situation rather than raise it to the level of firing a gun. These shootings resolve nothing. Indeed, and quite obviously, they only make matters worse.
Clearly we must vet those who apply to be peace officers much more carefully than we currently do. We must come to understand and acknowledge that for centuries white people, cops included, have feared black people — young black males in particular. Why bother denying it?
And for all the good intentions of people trying in progressive ways to cross lines of race and class, we need to reckon with the reality that most whites who work in black communities do not know these communities well enough and may not know at all the sorry history of their dealings with the police.
I hasten to say that police work is not the only profession in denial. Education plays a large role in the perpetuation of structural racism. So does religion, social work, and mental health services. None of us in any of these professions is adequately prepared to confront the realities of race in America.
Diversity trainings are not enough, nor are multicultural workshops. They’re a start. But this is a war zone and we need to acknowledge how and by whom this war was started if we’re ever going to come up with ways to end it.
In sum, we must begin to understand the ways in which racism has been embedded in America since the birth of our nation.
This should not be a blame-game. Slave masters flourished a long time ago. Their successors are better disguised. More to the point, it’s an attempt to explain why extrajudicial execution by police happens to the young black men in our society.
We need to internalize not just the history of racism in this country, but to see exactly the role it plays in police shootings, the current focus of attention. We will fail again and again until we strip away the illusions that allow those of us who are white to deny we have a role in the carnage.
David Billings is a native Mississippian and, since 1983, an anti-racist trainer with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. His book, “Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in United States History and Life,” has just been published by Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Press.