“A riot is the language of the unheard…” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, circa 1968
Almost 20 years ago, the year 1998 to be exact, after a routine case management day during my first year as a prosecutor in my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, my colleagues and I walked over to a restaurant near the courthouse for an afternoon of food, drinks and bonding.
As our group of idealists, all in our mid-20s, settled into our second or third pitcher of beer, one colleague, a young white woman raised in Alabama, turned to me and in her best Scarlett O’Hara accent, declared: “Oh my gosh, last night my boyfriend and I went to Blockbuster Video and rented ‘Boyz ‘N’ the Hood’ and my Lord, Chuck Hobbs, I just could not sleep after watching it.” Like many professional black folks, I was and remain wary of being the explainer of black culture in predominantly white settings where liquor is involved lest someone says something that causes me to act a fool, so my simple reply was “if Boyz ‘N’ the Hood scared you like that, I recommend that you stay away from the movie Menace II Society, because you may have nightmares for the rest of your life.”
As most who have watched “Boyz” and “Menace” know, both films brilliantly capture the angst that is black survival in America’s inner cities, but the latter, “Menace,” arguably is far more graphic in its depiction of violence that is commonplace within the same.
When I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film “Detroit” yesterday, one that is a fictional account of the real life Detroit riots in 1967, I realized about 15 minutes in that the movie should be required viewing for every single White American adult, but especially the racism denying trolls. I also quickly realized that the movie should be avoided like the plague by every single Black American adult because the film is a two-hour and 20 minute reminder that black lives have never mattered to the powers that be in America.
Trust, I was not surprised as I settled into my seat to see that the theater was filled with almost as many white patrons as black. I have noticed a trend of sorts over the past few decades that when popular movies are shown that feature slavery or Jim Crow, white moviegoers do show up in large numbers. When I watched “Amistad” on opening night in the theaters in the late 90s, my family was the only black one in the first four or five rows. Ditto for “12 Years a Slave” a few years back as when I pulled a Ferris Bueller and caught it mid-day on the Friday that it opened, I was one of maybe five blacks in a packed house. I figure that such movies allow white folks an opportunity to observe fictionalized accounts about what historians, legal scholars and pundits like I write about all of the time–which is the dolorific conditions that black folks have endured since first being brought en masse in chains to build the Americas. I have also figured that some black folks avoid such movies because they remind us that the past is prologue and that while certain aspects of black life in America are better than they were, that others are painfully the same as they ever were, particularly where the law is concerned.
When you think long and hard about it, who could credibly say that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s chilling words from the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that “the Negro has no rights that the white man is bound to respect,” do not inform how many blacks are treated by law enforcement and the criminal justice system even at this very moment in time?
While watching “Detroit” yesterday, as I watched the police shoot an unarmed black man in the back as he ran away with groceries that he had stolen, how is that any different from slave masters beating or killing black slaves who took extra portions of food to survive, or a South Carolina cop shooting and killing Walter Scott while chasing him from behind in 2015? When I watched the scenes of Detroit officers beating a recently returned Vietnam veteran named Robert Lee Greene, “the big Nigger” as they kept calling him, for the unsubstantiated allegations of “pimping two white girls” that were also tortured by the cops on the night of July 25, 1967 during the riots, how was this any different from white slave masters who would boil black slaves alive or shoot them for having sex with white women? Or lynch mobs during Jim Crow who hanged black men “accused” of raping white women? Or 21st century cases like Marcus Dixon, Genarlow Wilson and any number of pending cases where young black men are arrested for having sex with white girls, or for sending lewd pictures to white girls–and sentenced to prison time for offenses that would not even be charged had the alleged victims not been white?
There is no difference…
Indeed, most black folks do not need to spend twelve bucks to endure an orgy of violence where young black teenagers were beaten or killed in cold blood by cops who perniciously claimed that they had fired upon their position while holed up in the Algiers Hotel trying to ride out the riot inspired curfew. Cops, mind you, who once tried in court, were acquitted in large part because, what is the excuse we hear time and again today, they “feared for officer safety.”
Nah, black folks know this story all too well, but there remains a very large number of whites who refuse to understand that when black folks speak out about police excessive use of force, or take a knee during the Star Spangled Banner to draw attention to the same like former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick did last year, that we are not “playing the race card,” rather, we are playing the race reality card. A reality card that shows that our ‘hoods and our lives have been and remain imperiled by the menace that is systemic white racism. A reality card that proves that when white skeptics exclaim “well what about Black on Black crime,” that the roots of the same emanate from systemic racism that underfunded black schools, discriminated in hiring, limited lending to black entrepreneurs, and prevented blacks from land ownership while herding black folks into housing projects in which those who are undereducated and unemployed eventually take up drug selling and other illegal activities to survive–thus the predictable violence. “Detroit,” if nothing else, can show “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” trolls what white racism started, in hopes that even a few among the same will endeavor to their parts to ameliorate the gross inequalities that remain in America.