“Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Black lives matter!” “I can’t breathe!”
This past week, thousands of people across the nation blocked streets and bridges in a dozen different cities and chanted these words to express their indignation at the refusal of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York to indict white police officers for killing two unarmed black men: Michael Brown, 18, and Eric Garner, 43 (who died, crying: “I can’t breathe!”)
In addition, the Justice Department announced that the murder of a 12 year old boy in Cleveland, Ohio revealed that the police department there “engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force” – a good definition of institutional racism.
These killings, and the recent decisions by the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island, display a wanton disregard for human life, and specifically, the lives of black Americans. More than a “travesty” of justice, they display a pattern of abuse and cover-up by police against black men, women, and children – and a pattern of silence and complicity by white Americans that permits this abuse and cover-up to go on. I am white, and I don’t want to be either silent or complicit.
The recent protests and demonstrations are a sign of hope that this pattern of silence is being broken, and that across generations and races, people from all walks of life are joining together to demand justice and accountability for black Americans.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his dream for a united America, based on justice and equality. Within the next few years, the streets of two dozen American cities went up in flames, as military and police patrolled segregated neighborhoods. After three years of racial riots in 23 cities, President Johnson commissioned a blue ribbon committee called the Kerner Commission, which concluded that we were living in “a system of apartheid” in our major cities, and that “our nation was moving toward two societies – one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
Why did the riots happen then? And more importantly, why were Michael Brown and Eric Garner killed today? The answers, fifty years ago, and today, are the same. The report back then concluded: “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” Specifically, “pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of blacks from the benefits of economic progress.” And for many blacks, the police “have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”
Who was responsible, then as well as now? The commission put the blame squarely on white racism: “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what blacks can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
Today, we would add “white privilege” to the analysis, in the sense that the same practices and institutions that deny a living wage, employment, affordable housing, quality education and health care, and protection from racial profiling and police brutality to African Americans and other people of color, are the same practices and institutions that benefit white Americans.
When I first heard the news from Ferguson, the word that came to mind was racism. When I heard the news from Staten Island, the word was impunity.
Impunity means “exemption from punishment” and “freedom from the injurious consequences of an action,” as in this example from the dictionary: “The impunity enjoyed by military officers implicated in civilian killings.” Impunity was a real state of affairs, for example, in Latin America, where for decades military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and Guatemala tortured, disappeared and assassinated civilians who opposed their regimes. It is still the reality today in Colombia, Honduras and Mexico, where military and police kill thousands of people.
In Latin America, impunity is a household word, and it may soon become one here after the failure of the grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to indict the police officers in the killings of two unarmed black men. This is not to say the officers in question are guilty: they deserve their day in court. It is to say that there are more than enough doubts regarding the killings, and the fairness of the grand juries held in secret, that the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner deserve justice.
In the United States, impunity is not yet a household word, but racism is. Both reflect a state of affairs, and a system that puts young black men in America at risk, and in harm’s way. Even more, fifty years after the March on Washington, impunity and racism reveal systemic ways that institutionalize “pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing that have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of blacks from the benefits of economic progress.” After Ferguson, the public perception of the officer’s guilt or innocence was sharply divided along racial lines. After Staten Island, the divide among races is narrower.
“Business as usual” is not a recipe for racial justice and racial reconciliation in America today. Nor are silence and complicity a moral option. We must put an end to a system of racism based on “a system of apartheid” that divides America along racial lines into two societies – one white and one black – separate and unequal.
The challenge we face is to channel our indignation into just practices and systemic changes that address the deep inequalities in employment, housing, education, health care, and protection from racial profiling and police brutality that divide us. Then, and only then, can we truly live in solidarity with one another, and transform what for many is an American “nightmare” into the dream of sister- and brotherhood that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, fifty years ago.