I’ve had enough. All Black people have had enough. I imagine white people are tired of Black protests, too. Some choose to join us. Others look on and comment, “They are destroying their own neighborhoods. They are animals! No wonder cops kill them!” The unrest in our American streets is after more unjustifiable homicides by our police departments — George Floyd while driving in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery while jogging in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor while sleeping in Louisville.
When people like me take to the streets with a diversity of American faces, we are asking the question, “Do Black Lives Matter?” The response by police forces is, “hell-to-the-no.” The response by the average white person might be, “Oh dear! All Lives Matter, don’t they?” I don’t know quite what white supremacists, Neo Nazis, Skinheads, and KKK folks feel, but best believe they are watching…with guns and ammo at the ready. They are far scarier to the safety of America than protestors who might want their pleads heard; much scarier than some who go astray and burn buildings.
While the destruction of property is certainly bad for neighborhoods, you need to ask, “What in our history has gotten us here. . . to this place of fear and anger? What makes people so mad they are willing to be arrested?” In my forthcoming book, Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect in Sports, I look at protest and policing and the intersection of sports. Colin Kaepernick was kneeling to get our attention about police brutality. Most on the far right couldn’t understand what was going on. “Why the disrespect? Why not pledge your allegiance to ‘liberty and justice for all?’” Here’s why people will remain upset…
Standing in the Face of Our Horrific American History
Kaepernick, like most Americans who know our U.S. history, is well aware that the problems between police and black and brown bodies is nothing new. This terrorizing has gone on for decades. Dating back to the post-Civil War period, black bodies have been brutalized by both the criminal justice system — and everyday Americans. Thousands of African Americans were shot, hung or burned after the Civil War “for the sheer love of killing.” Kappeler (2014) discusses the targeting of African Americans for abuse, especially in the South:
In no small part because of the tradition of slavery, Blacks have long been targets of abuse. The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cases, police harassment simply meant people of African descent were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, while at the other extreme, they have suffered beatings, and even murder, at the hands of White police. Questions still arise today about the disproportionately high numbers of people of African descent killed, beaten, and arrested by police in major urban cities of America.
For decades after the Civil War, black Americans were open fodder for all sorts of abuse in public by Whites during Jim Crow segregation, during the Civil Rights Movement, and thereafter by police in every corner of this country. Slavery has left a long legacy of trauma — for Whites, who still feel aggrieved that they lost their free labor, free sexual exploitation of Black women, and the perpetual feeling of superiority that stems from treating Black people as 3/5th human. Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006) note,
The literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore…the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.
If we skip ahead past all of the injustices of the late 19th century — on through the multiple wrongful deaths at the hands of police in all the decades of the 20th century, there was a moment when we could have righted the ship. When we could have made a statement as a country that, indeed, wrong was being done and we needed to stop it.
What Rodney King Represented to Black People
When Los Angeles police beat Rodney King after a speeding stop, we watched the videotape in horror — but with a sense of hope. Odd, I know. Hope — because that videotape finally vindicated all that we had been saying for over a century: That black people get an ass-whuppin by cops as if we were animals. We saw with our own eyes a gang of cops taking turns beating down a defenseless man on the ground as if he was target practice for their batons. Every bit of frustration in their cop lives was let loose on Rodney. Mr. King took the physical abuse for the rest of us. King was written off by most Whites because he was running from the law and high at the time. But what if we substitute Martin Luther King? What if it was him on the ground being beaten? We would have lost our minds.
Nonetheless, the beat-down was caught on film and our nation would finally think, “Hey, maybe Black people have a point here. Maybe they weren’t always guilty of aggression or wrongdoing. Maybe we should look into more cases of brutality we often hear about.” Hallelujah! We collectively thought we had the cops cold: They would finally be guilty of excessive force.
When a predominantly white jury from a community dense with police residents in Simi Valley, California, decided that there was no abuse, and that the officers in question had every reason to beat on Mr. King’s black body (because he represented a “threat”), that was a clear-as-day sign to black people that something unknowable besides the obvious — black hatred — was at work. The law was not on our side. Never has been. Is not to this day. (Please see Bob Manafort’s 2019 jail sentence of 4 years from a judge who said, “He’s otherwise led a good life” — though he sold our country out to Russia. Getting caught with marijuana in many places of America gets you more time than that.)
What Kaepernick and Activist Friends are Protesting
The recent spate of black shootings since 2015 is further evidence that justice is elusive. The ongoing Washington Post Project has found that police “Have shot and killed 3,309 people since 2015, or more than twice as many fatal shootings per year as the average reported by the FBI. Seven percent of those killed, or 231, were not armed with guns, knives or other objects…” In more detail, in 2015 police shot and killed 94 unarmed individuals, but that number fell to 51 in 2016 before rising to 68 in 2017. Turning to African Americans specifically, 36 unarmed Black men were killed in 2015, 18 in 2016, 19 in 2017 and up to May of 2018, 7 had been shot and killed. That is a low number compared to other years at the same time. Good.
I should note I am also concerned with “Hispanic” (41 since 2015) and White (85 since 2015) wrongful shootings, too, even though the number of Black men (80 since 2015) represents a larger number of per capita deaths. I feel for ANY family that has to go through this trauma, Black, Brown or White.
Even with officer body cameras, pleadings by black victims not to shoot, with no weapons in sight and no apparent threat, and onlookers crying foul, people get shot in cold blood with little to no repercussions. If this were brown-skinned police officers killing unruly white teenage girls, we’d have a national crisis.
There would be no need for bending knees during football games. White people would shut the country down. I think if Black and Brown officers were shooting white people’s dogs — there would be more outrage than what Flag Patriots show for Black people suffering at the hands of officers. Something would be done. There would be a national outcry. People would be fired. Cops would be thrown in jail. Laws would shift.
Black people don’t have that kind of power. Nor do Native Americans or Latinos. Rich and empowered whites (and for that matter, many poor whites) are so tired of powerless people of color complaining that they simply tune us out, like kids fighting over toys yet again in the den eventually gets parents to turn the stereo up louder to drown out the noise.
Dear America: We don’t know what else to do to get your Attention
This is the true severity of the problem: Many White people don’t even pull their heads up from the TV to ask why Colin Kaepernick is protesting. All Flag Patriots see is “flag disrespect!” It is akin to the sports-addicted boyfriend who doesn’t listen to his spouse. She could complain and cry and walk through the house with a newly-broken arm — without notice. But the moment she crosses in front of the TV to get his undivided attention, he yells — “Hey — I’m watching the game here!” He notices, but his attention is on what he sees as her disrespect: He has a right to watch his game free from politics or females. In truth, every NFL football game is infused with politics — from flags to anthems to military marching to bomber jet flyovers. That’s as political as it gets.
That’s where we are in America. America has tuned us out to the point where many white Americans no longer care what we are complaining about. Whites have heard blacks complaining since abolitionist rants before the Civil War. So, you’ve labeled us with the derogatory, powerless term, “victims.” And then tell us to “stop acting like victims.” Thereafter inventing a term called, “Victimhood.” (I notice how you slipped “hood” in there. Gives victimization a color.) Then you get “victim fatigue.” So you don’t listen.
What are black and brown folks supposed to do to get your attention? Riot? Strike? March on Washington? Arm ourselves? Get a new Black Panther Party? Start as many black militias as there are white nationalist militias? “No. I’ll just show my outrage by kneeling quietly during the national anthem, thank you very much.” You might be looking at the most passive form of retaliatory protest in the face of criminal state-sanctioned injustice — in the history of Planet Earth. Strike that — Jews in Germany during the Holocaust showed even more restraint in the face of terror. And that didn’t work out too well, either.
Others around the world revolt. Some countries citizens overthrow the King or “Strongman.” Still others bomb buildings and assassinate random government officials. Here in the USA, athletes from 2016–2020 kneel during the national anthem.
As a reward for their respectful restraint, athletes who join the silent protest of kneeling in the face of years of terror in black and brown communities are told by the (then occupant of the) White House that they should be fired, what are we to do? In his own words, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’” I mean, really. When the highest government official — and biggest Flag Patriot — in America spits on every protesting athlete, what are we to do? One thing athletes did was stop going to the White House for photo opportunities with said government official.
We love this country. We love her people. We love and admire our veterans and war heroes. We appreciate our firefighters and first responders of every kind. My mother taught me to respect police because they are sworn to protect us. And most do. We are veterans and firefighters and police and first responders ourselves.
What we are wondering is this: When will America love us back?
We will know you truly love Black and Brown Americans as much as you love the flag … when you grant us the special favor we are asking of America in return…