Race, Riots and Rage: An Open Letter to America

21:00 May 04, 2015
By: Nicholas Mitchell

 I do not support riots that disrupt people’s lives and leave them without access to vital services. But I get it. I get why this happened. I get why people felt they had to do this. Life is pretty different in “those parts of town,” or when you are one of “those people.” You know the one’s I’m talking about: the ghettos, the trailer parks, the barrios, the reservations…you call them lazy, and thugs, and leeches. You pass laws about them sagging their paints, even though your high waist shorts show far more skin than any baggy pants or shirt ever could. I’m not against high waist shorts or sagging pants. I just have no tolerance for hypocrites like you. You’re the people who demand schools educate kids but cut the funding so they can’t get materials or fix the roof. You’re the people who yell, “Get a job,” yet you sent all the manufacturing jobs away. You’re the people who lecture about going to college, yet you cut funding to State universities and saddle even your own kids with debt equal to a house. Yeah, I know you. You’re the people who build ghettos.

A ghetto is a cage in which people are forced to exist and own very little. It’s where America put’s the people that it doesn’t wish to see: out of sight and out of mind. A great many things happen in the shadows where no one cares to look. You can get away with all sorts of things in the ghetto. When a nation turns a blind eye to the suffering of the people that is has forced to live in the shadows of American prosperity, people get eager to get their attention – and they do have your attention now, don’t they?  

To be specific, the protestors are holding court on the street over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. He died because of a severed spinal cord. The last time he was seen alive he was being drug away by the police. To be clear, the police are those we have agreed to give power over life and death in order to protect people from themselves. Because of this, I hold the police to the supreme standard of behavior. I’m not a person who sees the police as an occupying force, and I believe that the majority of police are good and decent people who see things routinely that would haunt us for years –they do this for us every day for crappy pay. It’s true though that there are some terrible people in their midst; these brutal people pose more of a threat to the honest and noble police than any amount of protesters as they give birth to these dangerous situations in the first place.  And you don’t believe what these “ghetto” people say, do you? This is all the talking points of “takers” wanting more “free money” from the “makers,” right? However, so much of this has been caught on wobbly camera phones, in its pixelated horror, for all the world to see. But you looked away. So the people in the shadows of American prosperity had to make you look again.

You could fix this if you wanted to. You should want to. Trust me.

These videos posted on the internet are the last moments of these men, women, and children’s lives. They are our own modern lynching photos, evidence of crimes with the perpetrators in plain view of the camera. I’ve looked at those photographs many times in my life. I always notice the men and women, gathered around twisted black bodies, smiling. Do you know why they were smiling? Because they knew that they would get away with it. I think Billie Holiday would recognize these scenes – blood on the leaves, blood on the roots, and now blood on the streets. I know what you’re thinking. “Black people kill each other every day,” like that is some exonerating piece of evidence in court. But those guys go to jail while none of the shooters in these recent cases get fed to the prison industrial complex. The rage that has shut down Baltimore isn’t rooted in shock – it’s rooted familiarity. It’s the same kind of rage that was in Ferguson in 2014 and in Los Angeles 23 years ago. It’s why if I showed those grainy photographs of those lynchings to anyone who has been paying attention, they would identify with it. A great deal has changed and none of it is trivial, but the murder of poor people and people of color by some brutal members of law enforcement who in turn are never brought to justice is of old age and has continued uninterrupted for generations. 

It’s a cruel irony to all of this that 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I remember what you said then; about the looters. You called them animals and criminals and how they deserved to be shot. Specifically, you valued waterlogged property in a ruined city, which was claimed by people fighting to stay alive, more than the people themselves. You’ve always been so concerned about property. You like owning stuff. You valued property more than people then, and you still do. People stranded in a ruined city for days with no food and water…whatever!  Murders of defenseless people on the street…what’s new on Netflix? College kids tear apart a town because their team won or because the Pumpkin Festival was that awesome…hey, kids will be kids.  But people are stealing and smashing stuff because you’ve backed policies that deprived them of everything you take for granted? Here’s your outrage. Communities are enraged because familiar faces are being murdered with no justice…who do you think you are? The answer is human beings. You cannot brutalize people for decades and expect them not to fight back. Police video contradicts the report they gave about the shooting...yeah, you don’t really know what to say to that, do you?

To the people who have decided non-violent confrontation and resistance are capitulation and begging for respect, I get it…but I don’t buy it. I’m not talking about the people in the protests who are calling for change, or those who said the riots were just but know that it's not sustainable, but all you arm chair Trotsky’s and café Che’s out there. I know you too.  You aren’t so much bold, insightful, and cutting edge as you are ahistorical and love to cherry pick Martin Luther King, Jr. to give your position moral weight while you simultaneously spit on his life's work. It's not that you strike me as dumb – you clearly aren't. You're intellectually dishonest, just like the people you want to fight against. “But they charged the police with murder so the riots worked!” Maybe... maybe not. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they did. Violence, then, in your mind works as an agent for political change, but allow me to ask you this: what do you plan to do in the future when the riots get no reaction from city hall? What’s your next step? You haven’t thought that far ahead, have you? You're in love with revolutions and revolutionaries…well, except for the one who you like to champion. What you say is okay for that theory class you took in college that you had to write that paper for – but this is real life. People die in real life when they get hit hard enough, and I bet that when the fighting starts, you’ll be in some safe place watching your philosophy run into the meat hook of what civilian vs. police/military street fights actually look like. It won’t be the battle of the five points scenario you have planned out in your head. No, it’s broken bones, burning buildings, screams, sirens, and the iron smell of blood that hangs in the air…you know, the human element

If this was a dictatorship, I’d be willing to give you a pass…but it isn’t. The hard truth about a democracy is that we are all responsible for what happens in it. It doesn’t matter if you voted or not – responsibility is part of the package. I suggest you look in the mirror and ask yourself if you can ignore those hidden places anymore. Because I bet your town has one. I bet you get nervous when you drive through there if you can’t avoid it all together. I bet it looks a lot like Baltimore.  And I bet they are pissed. I bet your town is one big power keg waiting for an incident to spark it. Somewhere in your town there is a belligerent fool who is about to do the worst thing at the worst time in the blink of an eye. You could fix this if you wanted to. You should want to. Trust me.


American Pop is a bi-monthly opinion column critiquing modern American pop-culture, politics and current events, and the impact these issues have on our society. It is written by Louisiana State University Doctoral Candidate Nicholaus Mitchell. 

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