Help me understand some things. Help me understand why I should condemn the violence committed by a relatively few African-Americans in Baltimore when it’s hard to hear anyone complaining about systemic violence against African-Americans by the Baltimore Police Department. Help me understand why I, or we, as a Christian or Christians, should speak out against people we understand are exhausted, frustrated, enraged, and see no other way to respond to a system that arrests, beats, jails, and kills young African-American men out of any proportion to their likelihood of their propensity for violence against police. Help me understand how it’s possible not to see a nationwide pattern of utter disregard for the life, health, and safety of African-Americans, their communities, and their needs by municipal police forces. Help me, please.
Scenes like this are commonplace now when a sports team either wins or loses an important game. For some reason, it’s perfectly acceptable for white folks to block streets, burn cars, loot stores, and attack police when a hockey team or basketball team wins. Even during the Renaissance, British children of privilege at Oxford University would riot on a pretty regular basis; and these were not only sons of privilege but destined for a life in the priesthood. Nothing stinks of privilege like white college students thinking they can do whatever they want and be left alone.
Not a peep about social pathology. Not a word about the cost, the lost revenue, the police who are injured, or defendants who end up beaten or bloody. It’s almost as if we allow some folks to riot, destroy public property, even attack the police, and figure it’s part of our social contract. When the poor and minorities react to years, decades, centuries of systemic dehumanization, the imposition of poverty and social dislocation, and patterns of official abuse and neglect by standing up and, filled with rage, act out, so many people seem to believe this is a mark of some kind of social pathology. I remember reading something, years ago, in a book on post-WWII America, in which an otherwise “liberal” white American expressed frustration at the race riots of the long, hot summers in the second half of that decade. Why would these people do this to their own neighborhoods? Why would the people of Watts, of Southside Chicago, of Detroit, Newark, Harlem, take to the streets after a police officer wounded or killed a young African-American man? Apparently their “liberalism” only went so far as a kind of noblesse oblige, allowing some African-Americans the privilege of full acceptance, while the rest – particularly the poor and those still trapped in racist ghettos because of racist housing policies – just had to accept their lot.
Help me understand this.
Most of all, help me understand why it is we Christians seem so intent on pushing non-violence as a response to systemic violence. It was and is a nice idea, but what no one (except perhaps experts in South Asian history) will tell you is that Mahatma Ghandi’s campaign of non-violence was a dismal failure. It was serious political pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru, including threats of violence against British troops (as well as the fact that the Indian colony was bankrupting Britain) that brought about Indian independence. Martin Luther King was a beautiful, brilliant human being. Segregation, however, was ended both by non-violence in some places, while in others the demands for equal rights and justice could come through legislative fiat and vocal demands that always threatened violence (“Violence is as American as cherry pie.”). Tell me why I should elevate one particular political strategy above others, particularly when its success rate is . . . well, mixed.
Before you help me, though, I think it’s important to help our brothers and sisters around the country who face hostile municipal power, hostile state power, even hostile federal police power. African-American, Latino, Native American – all face official violence, state-sponsored discrimination in law enforcement and education, and private social and economic discrimination in employment, hiring, and advancement opportunities. More than my desire to understand our systemic evil and injustice, I want it to end. If understanding means I get inside the mind of someone who can’t empathize or sympathize with our fellow Americans denied full participation, assumed to be the criminal element, and targeted for poverty and death – I don’t want to understand.
I just want it to end.