As crowds lay siege to the area adjacent to the White House (where Donald J. Trump has been ushered to a bunker according to live reports at the moment), people — good, decent, mostly white people, liberal, well-intentioned white people — tell me, now and then, that “all this violence and looting isn’t about George Floyd.” Those people don’t realize they are speaking a paradox, because this violence, this fire, is precisely about George Floyd, but only in terms of George Floyd as a domino, as a straw, as the single atom that brought us, once again, to a critical mass moment.
Use of the term “critical mass” first came to me during a reunion of civil rights activists two years ago at the National Archives (read about that here) as the group, of which I was a part, was remembering the attempted desegregation of Glen Echo Amusement Park in 1960, my second experience in the Movement and my first as an active participant. During the closing half-hour of a Q & A session, someone in the audience asked one of the featured speakers, Dion Diamond (who was also one of the Freedom Riders back in the day), “Why did this all start when it did?” As I related in the article two years ago, I experienced a face-palm moment, because people still don’t understand the history of this country and how institutional racism, bigotry and slave capitalism all work together to defer the dream. And in that moment, as I mentioned in the earlier narrative, my partner, who had accompanied me to the event, turned to me and said “Critical mass.”
It is still the most simple and elegant answer to “Why is this happening now?”
George Floyd was only the most recent victim of a public lynching, murdered in this case by Minneapolis, MN, police. Murder by police has become a new and more acceptable form of lynching in recent years, as lynching itself has begun to become more frequent and blatant (at least since 1980 in Mobile, AL, and in the most egregious case of the murder of James Byrd in Jasper, TX, in 1998, and countless others before and since).
Lynching is a very specific gesture made by the extreme right defenders of the status quo — that is, white supremacy and slave capitalism. It is a ritual performed periodically by those people who cannot bear the notion of black people (or other “others”) enjoying equal access to capital and movement, when it is understood that slave capitalism can only function with the use of slaves.
“But slavery ended in 1863!” the kindly liberal people of my acquaintance will reply.
No, my friends, it did not. The formal institution of slavery as protected by the law of the land ended, because the law itself ended, but if anything the roots of slavery only dug deeper into the fertile soil of this Republic, fed as it is with the bones and blood of innocent people and the labor and sweat of others who do not know they are also slaves.
Our history, as it is taught to us, is defective and is taught in a defective way, and it always has been. Only the storytellers keep the whole story alive, and the storytellers are often discredited as lunatics or bad people.
As with the storytellers, the historians who keep the truth alive, protesters are also vilified and it is said of them that they “want things to get worse” once the riots start.
Perhaps you recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who once said that “riots are the language of the unheard.”
Who is more “unheard” than black Americans? When a black man guilty of nothing more than being somewhere while black is murdered in a most gruesome and callous manner by police officers as he begs with his last breaths that they not kill him, when he protests that “I cannot breathe” before he goes limp beneath the knee of the monster killing him — and by extension killing us all, since that monster is charged with protecting us — that voice is the voice of black America and it is being unheard, and what that voice is now saying, by means of riots and violence and looting and fires is this:
“Get up off me!”
Can you hear that? It is the sound of a people — and now a nation, black, white, brown and every other color — demanding justice for George Floyd and for every black person lynched, murdered, cheated, locked out or locked in, enslaved, pushed into ghettos, ripped off, denied, defied and mystified.
“Riots are the language of the unheard.”
Are riots a good and useful thing? It is a paradox, grasshopper. When the pressure is so great that to fail to relieve it will kill the victim, when torture continues unabated and any peaceful protest of the torture and injustice is either a) dismissed, or b) called “the wrong way” or c) met with more torture, then sooner or later, the lid on that pressure cooker is going to come off in an explosion, and pieces are going to fly, let the chips fall where they may.
Chips are falling.
Is a Target store or a police station more valuable than a human life?
Apparently so, at least to a lot of people who don’t understand that righteous anger over murder most foul is justified.
“By any means necessary.” (Quote Malcom X).
Someone recently told me the current unrest called to mind the Watts riots. I pointed out that those riots took place — due to critical mass — 55 years ago, and here we still are, saying “That’s no way to get what you want.”
Yes, sadly, it is. Because what is wanted is your attention. What is wanted is to be heard. And until and unless we can muster the patience to listen, we will continue to see these things happen, and they’re happening all over at the moment.
“We’re happening all over, baby!” (Nat Hentoff, perhaps a little prematurely, four decades too soon).
Gentle reader, white people make me nervous. No, it’s true, and now that I’ve gone there, please hear me out, because, you see, according to this false construct we call “race,” I am a white man. That’s right, biologically, I guess, I am white. I’m sure pale and fine of hair. No one would take me for a Negro. So they are confounded sometimes when I refer to white people as problematic.
Hey, I got the whiteness all over me. I can’t go out the door without benefitting in some ridiculous and unwarranted way from my white privilege.
It wasn’t a choice, my being born white, but I’d be lying if I told you, knowing what I know, that I would have chosen to be born black. Of course if I had been born black then there I’d be, but I wound up with this almost translucent, grey green skin and absurdly fine, flyaway, white goddam hair. It happens. And even I, in all my melanin impairment, no doubt can trace, if I were to try long and hard enough, my roots to Mother Africa. Come to think of it, I do know it, because my Pamunky Indian great grandmother had a parent who was black.
But I don’t have to live like a black man. I’m that white. I pass. I’ve got my own problems, but being notably black is not one of them — and sadly, that can be a huge problem, even when a black person feels the appropriate amount of pride in being who he or she is, because sooner or later in every day of that person’s life, someone is going to make it a problem.
“Why do they act that way? Why do they all live together? Why do they burn down their own neighborhoods? Why…?”
Why? Because we let things be that way. We ask those stupid-ass questions so we don’t have to get off our own dead white asses and DO something to make it different, even though we would benefit as much as black people by actually setting them free. We all live in a slave economy, but us white folks get to live in the Big House and we don’t even realize there’s something wrong with this picture. Black people don’t have a vested interest in where they live, whether or not there’s a grocery story near where they live, whether they have access to decent healthcare, whether they enjoy the same rights as we honkies (and no go on and tell me they do! Go on and say that! Because when was the last time you had a white friend murdered by a cop in broad daylight on a big city street with a whole nation watching?).
Why is a Target store more valuable than a human life? Because…? I’m waiting. Same question applies to police stations. I can’t even insert myself into that argument, because I’m fucking white.
“But we’re all the same!”
Yeah, except when we’re not. You ask the stupid questions, I don’t. I know the answers, because I grew up different than most white people, because we were poor and my parents, especially my mother, were enlightened (no pun intended), and they associated freely with black people and I was raised among black and white and brown people and I was led to the “Colored Only” balcony in the local theater in the Jim Crow era of Washington, DC, by my mother. And we had a lot of fun up there. With friends.
And still I would go home to my safe, sane home, even though outside the bedroom windows (the living room had no windows) insanity reigned and, as my mother used to say, “nobody got wet.”
My mom was a funny woman.
So: Slavery> Emancipation> Ku Klux Klan > Institutional racism > White supremacy > Bigotry > Poverty > Separate-but-equal > Hopelessness > Riots> Police > Capital.
What broke the camel’s back this time? Oh yeah, right, I forgot, it was that damned caronavirus and cabin fever and and and…oh yeah, George Floyd’s last words:
“I cannot breathe.”
Well tonight, at least, the whole country is telling the police and the president (his name is Trump and he’s in a bunker somewhere) to “GET UP OFF ME!”
They’d be wise to pay attention.
We’d all better listen. Just shut up for a change and listen.
Till then…critical mass.