Oppression is not a dialogue but rather two monologues — one of the oppressor and another of the oppressed.
The oppressor’s monologue seeks to maintain the status quo. It speaks power to the powerless in harsh tones, laden with language that reinforces the institutions that keep oppressed people oppressed. The monologue of the oppressed seeks to overthrow the status quo: first, by pleading for justice and equity. If left unheard, that speech devolves into imitation of the very conduct that begot their oppression. What bridge can span this gap? When the oppressed cry out for change, the oppressor says they are playing the victim. When the oppressed kneel in silence, the oppressor calls them disrespectful and unpatriotic. When the oppressed march in the streets, the oppressor calls them disruptive. When the oppressed burn down their cities, the oppressor calls them destructive and violent.
Thus, the question: How would you like us to protest?
Unlike other groups of people that came to the United States and were free to pursue life, liberty and happiness, Africans were enslaved. Enslaved Africans and their descendants were considered property and thus denied education, the right to worship their own God, the right to own property, the right to work for profit and build financial equity, and the right to provide for and protect their women and children from rape and/or sale by white men.
Consequently, for nearly 250 years black people in this country worked solely for the benefit of white slave owners who controlled every facet of their existence. Even after the end of slavery, states codified new laws that created alternate social conditions tantamount to slavery: sharecropping, black codes, Jim Crow, gerrymandering, redlining, etc. This was actual legislation created to limit, control, and besiege the socioeconomic and political pursuits of black people. Today, that structural racism pervades everything from the type of medical care one receives to whether one will live or die during a police interaction.
As a result of the history of oppression that plagues black people, we have protested and continue to protest for our rights.
The culture of protest in this country is rich and celebrated. Holidays are dedicated to those who fought and those who still fight for American independence. Schools across this nation teach children about the courage of the colonists who resisted the British and put their lives on the line for a laundry list of freedoms that were denied colonists by Britain. From kindergarten we are taught about the heroism of characters like Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, George Washington and even the first man to die in the Revolutionary War, an African named Crispus Attucks — an inclusion for the melanated children to find commonness in the United States’ greatness.
That discourse, however, very rarely discusses the fact that while these men participated in some of the greatest military efforts this country has endured for our freedom, they were denying the same freedom to tens of thousands of African slaves. American culture never considered the slave when it mentioned freedom. Freedom was for white men. There is no surprise that 10 of our first 12 presidents were slave owners. It was never a tenable presumption for black people to surmise that any effort they sowed into the field of protest would yield the same benefit.
We serve in every branch of the military. We serve as police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges and even once as president. In the face of hate, we adopted a belief that, if we love more and if we sacrifice more, you would see we love this country as much as you do. Yet the blood of our men and women, boys and girls, still puddles around their slain bodies in the streets of this country, due to unnecessary and excessive force by police. So we still protest for our rights.
Slavery denied every freedom to black slaves in the United States. This oppression resulted in numerous uprisings, especially in the South, where slaves outnumbered white people.
When black people resisted slavery, however, demanding the same freedoms that white people enjoyed, it wasn’t interpreted as “revolution” like the Battle at Bunker Hill or the Boston Tea Party. During the Battle at Bunker Hill, colonists ambushed British soldiers. When the colonists looted and destroyed property, it was a “tea party.” When slaves protested slavery, they were “rioting” or “attacking” their enslavers. All of a sudden, Patrick Henry’s famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” were no longer apropos. Oppressors define the same actions, carried out by the oppressed, differently. See, it is not protest when the slave seeks freedom; it is insurrection, it is anarchy, it is unpatriotic. The oppressed should be peaceful and patient if they want rights. But the oppressors can kill, loot, destroy property and shoot people when protesting for their rights.
This double-edged wordplay has cut its way throughout this nation’s history, slandering the validity of protests to injustice with every deceptive swing of its blade. This same wordplay calls tiki torch-carrying white supremacists “fine people” but labels the Black Lives Matter movement a domestic threat, further evincing America’s love affair with white supremacy and its tendency to placate concerns about white social disturbance (Charlottesville) while exacerbating the hyperbolic fear of black social disturbance (President Donald Trump imploring state governors to let him send in the military to confront unarmed protesters in their cities).
Politicians, police unions, conservative groups and even the moderate left use the same tactical dichotomy when articulating their sentiments on the protests in cities across America. They dare to call the actions of all protesters “riotous” or “violent” and claim that it is not the way to get justice but fail to elaborate on what the proper way to get justice is. Is their critique of the protest designed to help protesters get justice by educating them on the proper way to obtain it? Or, is it simply to stop them from being violent and destroying property? It is hypocritical to call violent protests un-American and conveniently dismiss the fact that America was conceived in violent protest. The United States is actively participating in five theaters of war, allegedly to protect the same freedoms abroad that protesters seek to obtain for black people in America! Is it tenable to simultaneously wage war in a foreign country to secure freedom for its citizens while you criticize the conduct of protesters in your own country who are asking for the very same freedoms for American citizens?]
When is a protest a protest?
How would you like us to protest? Please, before you answer, I ask that you tell us not what you want us to do but inform us on what you would do.
Support your advice with examples of how you exemplified that same conduct when you protested for your rights in the past, despite being ignored and unheard. Because, when I look at the history of this country, whenever freedom is on the line America responds with its brawn, not its restraint. America only listens to its oppressed when it is either negatively impacted financially by its inaction or stands to benefit financially by taking action.
Take, for example, the Montgomery boycott. Only after a year and a half of black people refusing to ride the bus and the city facing the pending fiscal collapse of the bus system, did the city of Montgomery, Alabama, concede and decide to treat its black passengers like humans. Is this why “violence is not the answer”? Is it that violence and destruction of property affects the economy? Police, EMS, firefighters and correction staff all must be paid overtime. Businesses must be rebuilt, insurance companies have to pay claims, and cities have to rebuild their public infrastructure. We see you clearly. You prioritize property over black people. The loss of black lives does not move you to action, but the loss of property does. This nation’s practice of dual interpretation for similar conduct and its selective endorsement of protest have been exposed. The wounds and sores it has allowed to fester have calloused on their own. The wounded no longer seek your empathy for their healing. They realize it is not forthcoming. What we are witnessing today on our televisions is a generation of youth that will not wait for change. They are demanding it. They are imitating the power that oppresses them. America, you have been their teacher.
It is inevitable that at some point interactions between black people and law enforcement agencies, which have done little to ameliorate their violent history, will result in senseless and unnecessary killings of black people at the hands of police officers. From the earliest runaway slaves to Fred Hampton, Eleanor Bumpurs, Sean Bell, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and even black children like Aiyana Jones and Tamir Rice, have all taken their last breath while under siege or in the custody of law enforcement.
Floyd’s killing a factor
For most of America, Floyd’s killing was different.
Those of us who have been victims of police brutality or witnessed it firsthand, are not surprised by this level of conscious, brute inhumanity. We know it exists. But, for the first time, the insulated and the privileged of this generation were given a front-row seat to the savage and callous indifference with which black lives are exterminated by police in this country.
For the first time, many got to see the face of a killer, in uniform, and feel the terror that black people feel; they saw the hate that black people see. For the first time, the world bore witness to how vulnerable black lives are in the clutches of abusive, state-sanctioned police. For the first time in a long time, the world sees sustained protest borne out of the frustration of not being heard, and the fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Black people have exhausted every available means to have the inalienable rights we are supposed to have recognized by the powers that be. What else are we supposed to do? Unarmed, nonthreatening black people are being killed by police with impunity. We have not been making this up. You have finally seen it for yourselves in a way that cannot be denied. You will hear us this time. Our communities are tired of not being heard.
For the record, we agree, violence does not have to be the answer. But again, how would you like us to protest?
David Wright is a retired captain at Rikers Island and is a student at Touro Law Center. He lives in Shoreham.