This weekend marked the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre — an event nearly wiped from American history. A century ago, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma had emerged as a center of black wealth and entrepreneurship in America, with the neighbourhood known as the “Black Wall Street”. This community of black Americans had accomplished the goal of economic self-empowerment that had long been promoted as a path towards black equality.
Rather than celebrate it, an angry white mob descended upon the city and committed what in any other context would be remembered as ethnic cleansing. Entire city blocks were burned to the ground and at least 300 black residents murdered; the exact numbers may never be determined.
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This weekend, 99 years later, angry mobs were on the streets again, as the United States rose up in protest against the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black American, by Derek Chauvin, a police officer.
These two moments, nearly a century apart, demonstrate an enduring reality for black Americans. We are consistently told that we must stop our own oppression, and do so in a way that is acceptable and not too jarring for the rest of society. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Dress, talk and act properly. If you must protest, do so in the most peaceful, least disruptive way possible (which is not at all how protests work). And even then, after black Americans employ all these peaceful forms of protest and self-empowerment, they are still met with opposition from angry white Americans who oppose changes to the status quo.
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Sometimes, this opposition has been blatant and direct, ranging from the mobs that descended upon Tulsa in 1921, to the white supremacists at Charlottesville in 2017 who were heralded as “very fine people” by President Trump — despite their killing an innocent anti-racism activist and injuring many more.
At other times, the opposition to black equality has been faceless. I’m thinking of the Jim Crow laws of the American south which legalised discrimination for most of the 20th century, as well as also official government policies such as redlining — which deny African Americans home mortgages in more affluent or white neighborhoods, as marked by literal red lines drawn on city maps. These latter policies ensured that wealthy black communities like the one in the Greenwood District would be much harder to create and that black wealth would be only a fraction of white wealth for the average American household.
Throughout American history, black America has had the deck stacked against it. Black Americans have, even so, attempted to effect change, or simply fit in with our white neighbours and colleagues, in ways that were deemed acceptable (polite, peaceful, not too disruptive or uncomfortable) by the wider society. But even when we do everything that would seem necessary to gain acceptance – talk softly and in “proper” English, obtain education and professional success, obey the rules to a fault – these are not defences against arbitrary oppression or violence.
Acceptability did not prevent noted Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., (a truly respectable gentleman for whom I once worked) from being suspected of “breaking in” to his own house in 2009 and then being arrested for “disorderly conduct” for complaining too loudly about the situation. Nor did achieving the highest office in the land protect the new black President of the United States, who called the arrest “stupid” and was accused of not speaking in a way that was “becoming” or “appropriate” for the president (a standard that somehow stopped being enforced once Obama left office). Fame and success did not protect football players such as Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed and singled out for kneeling during the national anthem as a polite protest against police brutality; President Trump called on the NFL to say “get that son of a bitch [Reid] off the field right now” to any player choosing to kneel.
On the same day that George Floyd was murdered, respectability did not protect Chris Cooper — a black, mild-mannered, Harvard-educated former comic book editor and current bird watching enthusiast out for a stroll in New York’s Central Park. After asking a white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), to obey the park’s leash laws, she threatened to call the police and accused the “African American man” (as she emphasises) of threatening her. She not only makes the false accusation to the police while repeatedly pointing out Mr. Cooper’s race, but modulates her voice as if in a panic from some imagined assault. It’s all captured on video. Even when we’ve done everything right, threats, violence and arrest are only one moment away.
Despite being opposed at every turn, black Americans continue trying to work peacefully towards change. And the immediate reaction to George Floyd’s death gave hope that this time would be different; everyone from President Trump to Joe Biden and virtually all major conservative pundits condemned Floyd’s murder and called for swift justice.
But when this did not come, and frustrated that Chauvin and his associates had not been arrested, Minneapolis protestors displayed their anger in a generally peaceful way — by all reports, one broken window and some spray paint inflicted at the precinct where the officers worked on the first night of protests. But, instead of working to de-escalate the situation (or, say, arresting the man who killed a detained civilian on video), police responded by “firing tear gas and flash grenades” into the crowd.
After that, the protests and clashes grew in intensity, spreading across an America where many citizens felt that they had exhausted other options and, well, just felt exhausted in general. Curfews had to be enforced, and by the time Chauvin was eventually arrested, the clashes had taken on a more destructive character.
Despite the way that the unrest is being portrayed by Trump, who has labeled the protestors “thugs” (long a racially-coded term in American discourse), the lion’s share of actual violence — not property damage, but injury and death of people — has been inflicted on the protestors, not caused by them. Multiple motorists have purposely driven into crowds of protestors. This includes New York City police officers who were caught on video accelerating into a group of protestors (NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed protestors for being in the way). Police and National Guard troops opened fire into a crowd in Louisville killing a popular black restaurant owner who may not have even been protesting at the time (the police claim they were responding to gunfire, but their body cameras were turned off, prompting firings and an FBI investigation into the event). In all, several black protestors and bystanders have been killed.
It is interesting to compare the authorities’ immediately aggressive response to the Floyd protests, even during the first few days of overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration, to the tolerance shown by police to armed, white anti-quarantine protestors when they invaded government buildings at the beginning of May. Echoing his Charlottesville remarks, the President encouraged and lauded those armed white protestors as “very good people”. These Floyd protests, by contrast, are “domestic acts of terror” with Trump threatening to implement martial law, even in defiance of local and state governments. Right-wing Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, has argued that the rioting is worse than the offence and represents “oppression” and “tyranny” being committed by African Americans against society (the idea that African Americans are the true oppressors is a new, almost laughable, spin on a conservative strategy of painting themselves as the victims of progressive and minority agendas).
Unfortunately, as the protests endure and are met with sustained repression, the crowds are becoming more hostile. Outsiders — many of them white — have been responsible for much of that escalation in violence, although the identity of these individuals remains an open question — Right-wing extremists attempting to spark a “race war”; far-Left antifa activists, as President Trump has alleged, or whatever this mysterious and oddly dressed hammer-wielding man represents.
Lost, though, amid all the reports of looting and violence, is the reality that in instances where police officials and officers have shown recognition of the protestors’ grievances and solidarity with their struggles, the encounters have remained peaceful.
America declared its independence to protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for its citizens. Most Americans take these rights for granted, and fiercely defend them at the slightest provocation. But while, the anti-lockdown protestors were literally allowed to take up arms to protest the temporary infringements upon their liberty and personal pursuits, black Americans have been attempting to just convince society to fully respect the “life” portion of that phrase. The intensifying uprisings currently gripping the country are the latest, desperate but calculated attempt to be included in the principles that have been granted to others but continue to be denied to some.
In the face of racial injustices, non-violent resistance of the type employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights protestors has been idealised as the “right” way for black Americans to protest. Across social media, many people have reminded us that even King recognised that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. It’s also worth remembering that King’s non-violence did not prevent him from being beaten, jailed and ultimately shot in the face at age 39.
As black America continues to be shot in the face for standing up to racism and oppression, perhaps we’re beginning to recognise the limits of passive protest, as did America’s founders. In the words of black labour leader A Philip Randolph, an architect of Dr King’s March on Washington, “Freedom is never granted: It is won. Justice is never given: It is exacted.”
And the protests are sparking pledges of change across the country — Democratic and Republican governors have promised to implement reforms, while corporations, sports franchises and wealthy individuals are pledging millions of dollars for social justice initiatives.
So while not “acceptable” to those currently in power, the current uprising is forcing America to confront the injustices it has continued to enforce, it is rejecting the idea that we must oppose these injustices in the “right” way and it is recognising that we must do what is effective. The ultimate outcome remains uncertain, but the protests are certainly creating an atmosphere in which America sticking to an unjust status quo is no longer “acceptable” to us.