As I watched the images of burning stores and looting in Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night, I was reminded of the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. These uprisings, or rebellions, as they are referred to in certain activist circles, reflected simmering and justified rage beneath the surface of so many blacks.
This special brand of rage is omnipresent and, at times, all-consuming. It rarely goes completely away. It becomes muted over time, but is always a Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown incident away from becoming fully combustible. The match in this case was the grand jury of six white men, three white women, two black women and one black man, who unanimously agreed there was no physical or scientific evidence to support the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death August 9 of the 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Just like Trayvon, another young black male’s life has been forever extinguished in a blink. Yet all I could find myself thinking was how would protestors react? “Please don’t commit any acts of violence,” I prayed.
“We are a nation built on the rule of law,” President Obama said, presumably as a reminder to protesters that the lack of an indictment was not an excuse to loot, vandalize property and perpetuate violence. However, as we all know anger is not always logical, rational or righteous. It is often raw, unbridled, uncontrollable and spontaneous.
As I watched the chaos and violence that followed the announcement, I could not help but feel both a profound sense of sadness along with my own swelling anger. Anger at the decision to not indict Wilson, and anger about the looting and vandalism by a small number of protestors who would compromise our moral authority to speak on the injustice of another dead black boy.
This is not what the Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr,. advocated as he vocally, yet peacefully protested racist conditions in the United States. Yet King understood, all too well, the fragile psychology of despair and rage that existed among blacks who felt a profound sense of alienation and helplessness from society.
Sadly, this anger has been an inextricable part of the black experience. The concept of “black rage” was introduced by two black psychiatrists, William Grier and Price Cobbs, in 1968 to describe the inner conflicts and sense of desperation felt by so many blacks in the United States. In 1993, the distinguished African-American journalist Ellis Cose wrote about the rage of privileged, affluent middle-class blacks who, while successful in a material sense, still experienced racist indignities in the workplace. Two years later, bell hooks, a well-known black public intellectual and cultural critic, wrote a book on “killing rage,” where she discussed the intense anger felt by black people who experienced repeated instances of everyday racism.
It took an incredible amount of time by the city officials to prepare for what was anticipated to be the community response. It would have been nice if these officials had devoted this same level of attention to the community before it was in crisis. Watching tear gas being dispersed on what the police referred to as an unlawful assembly, I wondered had we really regressed to the era of civil discord that characterized much of the ’60s?
Additionally, images of looting and violence committed by a small number of individuals were disturbing. For those who harbor racist beliefs and attitudes about blacks, the images perpetuated the worst stereotypes some people have about black people: that we are violent, law-breaking criminals. That said, it is critically important to try to understand the depths of hopelessness felt by some individuals that would lead to such violent protests. CNN political commentator Marc Lamont Hill observed a young black male setting fire to the liquor store in which Michael Brown was believed to have stolen cigarillos. When Hill asked the young man why he set the fire, he responded “We’re tired of this.”
Hill believed this indicated a sense that people only are heard when they yell. Many of us cannot fathom why individuals would seemingly and literally destroy their communities. Predictably, there will be analysts and observers who will look at the chaos and place all the blame squarely on the members of the community. They will not be able to identify with the depth and intensity of raw emotions of residents who have been targeted and unfairly treated by police with impunity for years.
Does this mean we should excuse the behaviors of the individuals engaged in criminal activities? Absolutely not! What it does mean, and as history has taught us, is that this cycle of violence is predictable and will continue to repeat itself as long as society ignores the plight of economically distressed communities of color that endure discriminatory policing.
In King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he talked about the importance of Americans of all races uniting together to fight against poverty, and to fight for better jobs and better education for all people. If there is any lesson to be learned from the tragic death of Michael Brown and the resulting chaos, it is King’s simple yet profound message that we either learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we perish together.