Dr. King, who was actually a very woke radical, said in a March 1968 speech that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
I want to lead with Dr. King, in part because his words are so often bastardized by enemies of the Black Lives Matter Movement, to explain why our modern day concerns and methods are all wrong. Daily, I see some conservative say, “Dr. King would be turning over in his grave” if he knew this, that, or the other about black folk today. That’s garbage. There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything we are dealing with today, ranging from police brutality, to overt discrimination, to economic inequality, to the unrest and riots that often grow out of such conditions, was deeply and painfully familiar to Dr. King as well.
He was arrested at least 30 times in protests and demonstrations over inequality in America. Back when he was being arrested, critics were probably saying Booker T. Washington would be turning over in his grave over Dr. King’s practices. King called these protests and other actions “civil disobedience.” In essence, he felt it was necessary to sometimes break laws, but in a civil manner, be it through a march on a road or a sit in at a lunch counter, to demonstrate to the world the unjust conditions being experienced in black communities all over this nation. The goal was to be seen and heard by the nation, and indeed the world, in order to effect demonstrative change in local communities.
When Dr. King said “a riot is the language of the unheard,” I believe it was, in part, a peek into his own emotions and frustrations with how slow society was changing. He knew what it was like to want justice, to want equality, to want fairness and balance, but not have it. He knew what it was like to speak out, but be ignored. Non-violent resistance was not the natural human (or American) response to injustice, but an incredibly difficult value decision that required training to uphold.
Dr. King knew then, what we know now — riots in black communities, by definition, always follow years, decades, centuries even, of people attempting to use peaceful, civil, non-violent methods to be heard — only to brushed aside and discounted.
If you believe that the unrest and protests and anger that engulfed Ferguson in 2014 were all about the shooting death of Mike Brown, then you are either willfully ignorant or woefully misinformed. The shooting death of Mike Brown was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Ferguson. In 2013, the year before Brown was shot, killed and left on the hot pavement for hours for the community to see, police issued an astounding 32,975 arrest warrants when the town only had 21,135 residents. This wasn’t an aberration. Ferguson’s black community was a complete police state for years on end as white city leaders openly discussed bilking the community and increasing their budget on the back of constant fines and tickets to people of color.
Mike Brown did not need to be the perfect victim for the people of Ferguson to be pushed too far. Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014. Conditions were already so bad on Aug. 8, 2014, that people had every right to revolt the day before his death. His death, in the middle of the street, on a hot summer day, in front of the entire community, was not the lone sole cause of the response that followed, but the very tip of the iceberg. That community did not need for Mike Brown to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in order to be outraged. They were already there. Police brutality, racism, over-policing, unemployment, poor schools, substandard housing, and stark inequality were already the norm the day Brown was killed. His death was a match that lit a powder keg that took decades to build there.
Such was the case in Los Angeles with the riots in 1992 after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the brutal and excessive assault of Rodney King. That acquittal, no doubt, was a grave injustice, but what it did was push a people already on the edge past their limits. Police brutality and racial inequality in Los Angeles were not introduced with that terrible verdict. By that time, they were already commonplace. Rodney King was filmed being beaten on March 3, 1991. For that following year, black folk all over Los Angeles peacefully demonstrated and protested. That spring, summer, fall and winter protests gripped Los Angeles, but riots never ensued. People, as best they could, were trying to demonstrate their anger and frustration with civil disobedience. Then, over a year later, after community leaders all over Southern California had expended every ounce of skill and compassion they had to hold the community together, the verdict to acquit the officers came down on April 29, 1992.
The verdict was so flagrant, so unjust, so outrageous that all the elocution and Bible verses in the world from local pastors there could not have held Los Angeles together. People had experienced police brutality in Los Angeles for decades on end with no justice in sight and the hope was that the filmed beating of Rodney King would be a turning point. It wasn’t.
At that point, people had done everything they knew to do in Los Angeles. They had prayed, protested, boycotted, voted, ran for office, held rallies and community meetings, facilitated dialogues, and everything else a community could do. None of it worked.
Call what happened next in Los Angeles whatever you want — rioting, looting, an uprising, unrest, a revolution — whatever you call it — it must be viewed in its true context. People who very badly wanted to work within the confines of the system were ignored and abused — and they responded like it. Of course riots are ugly. Of course it’s horrendously ugly to burn down buildings and assault complete strangers.
But when a people so far, so often after a while this is what is going to happen.
Over the past 72 hours, what people call rioting has ensued in Milwaukee, Wis. Right away, the racial gap in America could not be more clear.
As critics of the unrest point out that the 23-year-old man who was killed by police there on Saturday, Sylville Smith, was armed and had a criminal record, they simultaneously miss the point and confirm the deep value of Dr. King’s words that “a riot is the voice of the unheard.”
In December of 2014, Milwaukee was called the worst city in the nation for African-Americans. That designation wasn’t based on opinion, but a deep analysis of “household income, the percentage of people without health insurance, educational attainment, homeownership, unemployment, incarceration rates, and mortality among infants as well as other age groups.”
In March of 2015, Kenya Downs, who grew up in the city, wrote a powerful piece for NPR asking the question, “Why is Milwaukee so bad for black people?” There she shows how virtually metric imaginable — from education, to economics, to incarceration, to home ownership, and everything in between make Milwaukee a place of deep pain and misery for so many African-Americans.
In the October of 2015, NBA player John Henson, who had just signed a $44 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, went to a local store there to buy his first Rolex watch. Upon seeing him, store employees got so deathly afraid of him that they locked the doors, pretended like the store was closed, and called the police on him.
Just this past January Milwaukee was called “the most segregated city in America” and one man said he felt like living there was “going back in time 60 years.”
When Sylville Smith was shot and killed by police on Saturday, almost two years to the day after Mike Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, the outrage that quickly followed the shooting was not just about Smith, or even police brutality for that matter, but was about how sick and tired of being sick and tired black folk in that city have become.
The city is still reeling from the heinous shooting death of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill homeless man who was shot 14 times and killed by the Milwaukee police. An autopsy showed that Hamilton was repeatedly shot while on the ground, sometimes in the back. Of course, nobody was held truly responsible for this. How are people supposed to process this injustice? What are they supposed to do with their emotions?
This narrative is not just about Los Angeles, or Ferguson, or Milwaukee, but about how African-Americans in cities all over this country are mistreated and ignored for decades on end until they simply can’t take it anymore. The new DOJ report on the Baltimore Police Department tells the story of a department so outrageously abusive and violent and discriminatory, that I think the report may very well be the most damning such report I’ve ever read. It didn’t detail dozens or hundreds or even thousands of cases of African-Americans being harassed by police there, but hundreds of thousands of cases. The sheer volume boggles the mind and instantly illuminates why so much unrest emerged there after the brutal death of Freddie Gray.
These cities, and the people in them, aren’t quick to anger. Quite the opposite — African Americans might be the most patient, long-suffering people in the world, but even that patience has limits. The National Guard was brought in to “bring order” to Milwaukee, but what the city needs right now isn’t order, so much, but equality.
Author : Shaun King