People can’t breathe

By: - December 10, 2014 5:00 am


Why the national protest movement is growing and why much of the Right just doesn’t get it

I did my usual turn on a conservative radio show in Raleigh last Friday afternoon and despite my efforts to direct the conversation toward North Carolina state government matters, it quickly turned to the growing national protest movement against police violence toward people of color. It was, to say the least, an interesting experience.

For a large share of the population – myself included – it’s not at all surprising that so many people in so many places are frustrated and angry at the recent decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict police officers who killed unarmed men of color. Setting aside the obvious point that grand juries – which are historically notorious for doing pretty much whatever prosecutors want them to do – would, all of a sudden, decide in these particular instances to turn defendant-friendly, there was the other obvious fact that the people in the streets have seen this movie before.

In other words, while critics of the protesters may want to argue the intricate details of the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson and experts on both sides make compelling cases (even the hard Right has trouble defending the Eric Garner killing in New York – more on that below), what seems to strangely elude the critics is the environment in which these killings have taken place. That hard reality, of course, is that the Brown and Garner killings are just the latest in an endless series of such events that go back, for all practical purposes, to the beginning of American history.

The grim backdrop

For centuries, white men in uniform have been killing unarmed men of color in America. Now, that’s not at all to say that many unarmed white men haven’t been killed by white men in uniform or that, on exceedingly rare occasions, unarmed white men haven’t been killed by men of color in uniform OR that many of the killings – whatever the race of the individuals involved — weren’t justified. It’s also not to say that things aren’t better than they were a hundred years ago or fifty years ago. It is, however, to point out the incontrovertible and inconvenient fact that these killings are disturbingly numerous and regular and that they have taken their toll on the psyche of American society – especially for people of color.

Indeed, for a huge proportion of people of color in America – whatever their background or socioeconomic status – unwanted and unwarranted interaction with law enforcement officers is simply a regular and maddening fact of life. They watched it happen to their parents and grandparents and now they experience the effects virtually every day themselves.

If you are white and doubt this, ask a friend of color or read the unending news stories of middle class and well-off people of color who have repeatedly found themselves detained by police for “looking out of place” in particular neighborhoods or “matching the description” of a criminal suspect.

Now, try to imagine the humiliation, stress and anger that the constant specter of such unfair and even life-threatening treatment would produce – especially if you lived in a place with a large population of people of color and an almost all-white police force.

Now imagine if it was your child who had to endure such treatment. Heck, just the other day, the Mayor of New York – a white man with a biracial son – said that he found himself fearing for his son’s safety at the hands of the police on the streets of the city over which he presides!

Imagine if you were the parents of Lennon Lacy.

Responding to the defenders of the status quo

Sadly, as the anti-protest campaign waged by numerous right-wing media outlets, advocacy groups and politicians makes clear, empathy for those impacted by the legacy and present-day reality of such deeply-ingrained discrimination is hard to find these days amongst many conservative Americans. You’ve probably heard the arguments:

  • If someone is innocent, why in the world would they resist arrest or talk unkindly to a police officer?” (Yeah, why would anyone resist or talk back to police when the American justice system continues to crank out example after example of poor men of color wrongfully convicted of (and even sentenced to death for) crimes they didn’t commit?)
  • It’s just a fact of life that men of color commit a disproportionate share of crimes. The police have no choice. Some of these guys who got killed had long criminal records.” (Actually, it’s often not “a fact of life.” In many areas, for instance, illegal drug use by whites far exceeds that of African-Americans. Moreover, the mere fact of previous arrests are not yet grounds for summary execution.)
  • The African-American (or Latino) community needs to get its act together and take care of the problem so white cops don’t have to.” (Uh, excuse me, since when did things in America start working that way? What is this, Iraq? The Balkans? Is the “white community” responsible for the nation’s numerous white serial killers?)
  • These protesters are just looking for an excuse to cause trouble – the facts of each case don’t really matter to them.” (Yeah, what could be more fun than taking to the streets to dodge tear gas canisters?!)
  • Here we go again with minority groups looking for special privileges. They might have had a beef back in the days of Jim Crow, but that’s over now. I’m color blind; how long do I have to pay for something people did long before I was born?” (The plain and indisputable fact of the matter is that discrimination remains real and widespread throughout America. Things are better than they were in, say, 1960, but to claim that the problem is solved is simply fanciful.)
  • Obama and Holder are cynically ginning this whole thing up to get their political base fired up.” (Right; conflict in the streets is just what two men with countless political challenges, implacable enemies, dreams of retirement and acid reflux are looking to foment).
  • That guy Garner in New York may have gotten a bad deal, but that was about cops trying to enforce cigarette tax laws passed by liberals.” (Uh, get some mental health help, my friend.)

More to the protests than may meet the eye

Ultimately, of course, what really underlies the burgeoning protest movement is a lot broader and deeper than simple police violence. As Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote eloquently in the Washington Post yesterday:

The deaths of Garner, Brown and others at the hands of police are not the only cause sparking mass protests. The day after the Garner demonstrations started, low-wage workers walked off their jobs in more than 190 cities, demanding a living wage and the right to organize. They, too, chanted, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Workers from fast food-restaurants such as McDonald’s were joined by those from low-wage retail and convenience stores and airline service jobs. In Washington, federal contract workers joined the march, calling on the president to issue procurement regulations that would reward good employers that pay a living wage with benefits and allow workers to organize and bargain collectively….

It [the protest movement] is about the injustice of our criminal justice system and the injustice of our economic system. It is about police shooting African American boys and men with impunity. But it is also about chief executives pocketing millions in bonuses even when their companies lose money, about bankers walking away with millions even after blowing up the economy while more and more working people are in jobs that don’t offer the pay or minimum benefits that would enable them to breathe.”

As Fannie Lou Hamer might have put it more succinctly, right now in in the United States, a lot of people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. And as we’re finding out, in such an environment, it doesn’t take much of a spark to light a fire.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.