This is big. A new civil rights era births itself in terrible pain.
Black men die, over and over. I can only hope that peace is the result, serious peace, bigger than new laws, bigger than better trained police — agape peace, you might say, peace that is, in the words of Martin Luther King, “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
“‘We’re out here, and this is peaceful,’ Bishop Walter S. Thomas, pastor of the New Psalmist Baptist Church, shouted to the crowd. After a pause, they continued, singing ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ Helicopters shined spotlights on the group, the thwack-thwack of their rotors competing with the music.”
This is a moment from a New York Times story on the ongoing Baltimore eruption over the death of Freddie Gray — a rare media moment, highlighting not “rioting” and anger and violence but the anguished seriousness of the protesters, who aren’t simply venting emotion over another black man dying in police custody, but evoking the deep music of civil rights and profound change while armed officialdom hovers overhead, ready to make arrests, ready to shoot.
“The march ended at New Shiloh Baptist Church on North Monroe Street, where people raised their hands in a moment of silence to commemorate Mr. Gray. . . .”
The moment of silence is at the center of the Baltimore eruption — the national eruption — over police violence, which is today’s most overt symptom of unquenched American racism.
As we all know, the media delight in us-vs.-them theatrics, so the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death is mostly portrayed thus, with the police realigning in America’s collective awareness as the keepers of order, decked out in riot gear, standing in crisp formation as the nation’s first line of defense against . . . angry black teenagers! Shouting moms holding protest signs! Agents of change! People who want to know how a young man’s spine became “mostly severed” while in police custody (in a department with a long, documented history of brutal treatment of African-Americans)! How could such a threat to the social order be contained without helicopters and drones, tear gas grenades and pepper balls?
The moment of silence undoes all of the clamor, all of the reality-TV drama. In such a moment, a young man’s life matters, not just to his family and friends but to all of us, because all human life matters. And as we let the moment expand, so many names and faces begin to fill it: even names such as Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the New York City police officers murdered in cold blood while on duty last December. All human life matters and acts of violence that cut life short are always committed in ignorance of the consequences.
And violence — brute force — is always a pathetically ineffective way to maintain social order or establish authority. Indeed, authority, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, is based on consent and built on functional, positive relationships. Without mutual consent, authority is simply coercion: the violence-backed demands of an occupying army.
“African Americans, for most of our history, have lived under the power of the criminal-justice system, not its authority,” Coates writes. “. . . When African American parents give their children ‘The Talk,’ they do not urge them to make no sudden movements in the presence of police out of a profound respect for the democratic ideal, but out of the knowledge that police can, and will, kill them.”
And this profound wrong is also part of the moment of silence, as it commingles with prayer and hope. In the silence, the outrage turns into commitment, which the thwack-thwack of the helicopter blades only intensifies. And the deepest commitment, I believe, is nonviolent.
“The nonviolent resister,” King said in 1957, “must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Perhaps the Baltimore Police Department fears choking on tragic bitterness as it continues to ascribe Freddie Gray’s death-by-severed-spinal-cord to his not being properly seatbelted — a regrettable “mistake,” not an act of actual brutality. Yet the Baltimore police have a history of such brutality, with the city having paid out over $5.7 million to settle over 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011. Many of the incidents were documented last fall by the Baltimore Sun.
This is shocking but not exactly surprising. Every police killing that has become national news in the past year seems to emerge from such a context. The fact that the stories keep springing up anew indicates that America’s cellphones are outing a deeply embedded national horror: a shadow Jim Crow justice system. Suddenly it’s news.
But what happens next? A serious movement for political and social change has to cohere around the endemic violence. The changes must include better trained police, an end to racial profiling, the demilitarization of the police and a national embrace of community policing. This is just a start. We need a new civil rights movement. Let it begin with a moment of silence.