I scrolled through my Facebook feed today, and god, it made me so damned sad. Coronavirus stats, cops killing people, riots, looting, journalists assaulted by police and protesters alike. With the Trump administration as the backdrop for all of this, it’s starting to feel like end of days, end of times, end of…something.
Harkening Back to a Previous Era of Violence
But this is not new. George Floyd’s murder called to mind another time police officers committed violence against an unarmed black man already in custody. In 1991, police officers beat Rodney King, leaving the man with skull fractures, multiple broken bones, and permanent brain damage. Those cops were acquitted in the spring of 1992, despite what most thought was damning video evidence. A matter of hours after the verdict, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. The rioting and looting were so pervasive and violent, the National Guard was called in. Mail delivery stopped, stores closed, and people could not go to work or school.
The indignation and anger were not only for the cops who went free; it was the boiling point for tensions that had been simmering in what was then called South Central LA for years. Unemployment, gang activity and a drug epidemic were rampant, and occupants of the area were not only unprotected by police but targeted and harassed.
I was going on seventeen years old, and I was shocked the perpetrating officers were acquitted. I saw the video, and the acquittal made no sense. My surprise was part of the problem. I could not fathom someone’s rights being so egregiously trodden upon by people of authority as were Rodney King’s and with no consequence. But the people of South Central LA knew. It was happening long before, by chance, someone caught those four cops on video.
Just a White Kid from the ‘Burbs
I was a white kid living in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I grew up in a place and with a face that meant people gave me the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t notice my privilege because I viewed that benefit, the assumption that I had a benign reason for walking down the street at night, as part of my natural right as a human being.
When I was in high school, two friends and I would sneak out of our houses at night. Sometimes we’d walk up to the all-night gas station and buy candy. Once, as we were walking down an alley behind the store, eagerly gobbling up melty Reese’s cups, a police car pulled up, lights and siren blaring. We were petrified. One cop got out, shined his flashlight at us and asked who we were. We gave our names and told him where we’d been. He said they were looking for someone who’d shoplifted at that same gas station. He told us to be careful and left. We were two white girls and an Indian girl.
In my twenties, I once got into an actual bar fight. These guys were being aggressively douchy, and I had just enough liquor in me to feel invincible. I got in the ring leader’s face and yelled I was going to kick his ass. A bouncer broke it up. The guys were kicked out, and my group left voluntarily, even getting our cover charge back for our trouble. The cops weren’t called; no one was arrested. We were a group of white girls, and the boys were white, too.
I remember college parties where cops arrived to find rampant underage drinking and possibly drugging, and no one even got arrested. “Keep the noise down,” was all they’d say. The party attendees were always, mostly, in appearance at least, white.
These are examples (and I can think of more) in which my white privilege — being given the benefit of the doubt even when I was acting less than admirably — showed. At the time, I didn’t notice.
I can’t tell you that the specific people in these stories — the cops, the bouncer – would have behaved differently if we’d been black. But I do know that black people routinely have a very different experience with authority than I did in these instances.
Same Oppression, Different Day
Today, here we are in a similar boat as we were in 1992; it’s leaking, it’s on fire and the crew are fighting each other. People are rioting and looting; people are violent. We don’t have to condone it, but we do need to understand it. The black people of our country have been talking, shouting, working for change for generations, and the same thing is still happening: black people are dying at the hands of the authorities who are supposed to protect them. If you are not heard, if your fundamental rights get trod upon in both large and small ways every day, is it really so shocking that one day you grab that authority by the face and make them listen?
Trevor Noah says society is a social contract — rules we all agree to abide by for the common good. When police and people in power break that contract by killing unarmed black people, when that kind of grotesque display of hypocrisy is repeated again and again, why should anyone else abide by that contract? It’s not new: violence begets violence.
Our Privilege is Showing
As white people, we need to try to understand that the advantages we enjoy, the ones we are so accustomed to we don’t even notice them, are not available to everyone. Sarah Grimke, an early feminist activist, once said and was quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “I ask no favor…All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Your white privilege isn’t so much privilege as it is your unassailable right not to be held down — socially, economically, even literally, as we all saw as that police officer held his knee to a handcuffed and docile George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.
Jody David Armour, a USC professor and author of a book on the civil unrest of LA in the early 90s, refers to it as “the 1992 uprising.” While the word “riot” focuses on the criminal elements, he says, an uprising is defined as “the perceived failure of the criminal justice system to fairly serve all people.” We decry protesters’ violence while ignoring the systemic violence that spurred it. When American colonists, citizens of Brittain, willfully destroyed valuable private property during the nationally-revered Boston Tea Party, we called it a protest of unfair taxation, a rebellion against a tyrannical government. It also fits the definition of a riot.
A Sign of the Times
You don’t have to decide rioting, looting, participating in an uprising is bad or good. But no matter what we choose to call it, it is a sign that something is very wrong with our country and has been for a long time. In 2017, three years before George Floyd would have the knee of a police officer crush the life out of him, Armour said, “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is.” And now, sadly, it would seem he is still right.
But maybe this is, at long last, the catalyst we need. Perhaps, with corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook and Nike taking a stand, and the greater public finally taking notice, we can cut out the core of racism in our country and fill that void with egalitarian systems that serve and protect ALL citizens. IF that is, those companies put their money and efforts where their mouths are, and IF we don’t forget George Floyd as soon as the next news cycle starts. Maybe we can finally begin to remedy our past transgressions as a nation. Maybe it is end of times. End of racist times. We can not only hope, we can help make it happen.