Critics have wasted no time to deem the ongoing civil unrest “un-American.” Yet the rallying chant of American patriots during the American revolution was, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Rioting was how Americans contested the brutal colonialism of the British.
Protests, Riots, Dissent: Black Voices Can Not Be Silenced
Today, the mighty United States is being set side by side with the same autocratic nations it once criticized. As the world looks upon the strife within this nation, a revolution has been ignited that is not only confined to America but has steamrolled globally.
For so long, the fate of black lives in this country has been insidiously and explicitly disregarded and othered. Every moment of this nation’s history, from conception to modern times, is inextricable with profound racial animus towards the black community. We must never forget that African Americans did not enter this country willfully. Rather, their very communities and bodies were looted and brought across the world to be bartered with. Their souls and humanity were disposed of so that the white man could play puppeteer. It is with a dismal irony that this same nation now chastises this community for looting material goods in response to the plunder of their past, present, and future.
On May 25th, 2020, the video of Officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd, a 46- year old, handcuffed black man, went viral. It has since been realized that the violent death of Floyd is not an isolated incident, but rather a piece of the paradigm that constitutes the fabric of American society. Thus, a myriad of questions is put forth. The global audience and the citizens of the nation inquire what this means for the future of mankind in general and the American people? What led us to this dystopian reality of pandemics and riots? And lastly, what role does this mean for the individual and the community?
As the blatant and paradoxically clandestine hypocrisy of the American people is violently and inevitably unmasked, we must examine history to understand, to empathize, and finally, to act as our Islamic injunctions instruct us to.
Consider this image: American streets swarming with protestors, peacefully but emphatically chanting the names of victims at the hands of institutionalized racism. But as dissenters exclaim, “No justice! No Peace!” American police with militaristic fierceness unleash undue force. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons pour down on the people. Now zoom out and observe other crevices of American streets, and here you will see opportunists and the frustrated alike setting police cars on fire and looting businesses. Quite literally, the nation is burning. Now tell us which seminal moment in American history this scene was extracted from? 1968 or 2020? The fact of the matter is, it is almost indistinguishable.
One of the most prolific leaders against racism in American history was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder inflated the racial tensions within the country to a volatile level. The following ten days were replete with lootings, protests, and riots. More than 200 American cities were set ablaze. The national guard and military were deployed to allay the unrest.
It is imperative to understand that it was not King’s death that incited these riots. Rather, his death, much like Floyd’s death, was a catalyst in response to a series of racial injustices perpetrated against the Black community. Although segregation had been outlawed at this point, the Black community still suffered from being othered through several discriminatory policies and practices.
For example, housing policies that gave precedence to whites and income disparities that cut off black urban residents into low-income areas. These areas were grossly neglected and heavily policed and brutalized. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded, “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re so surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for three hundred years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.” Soon thereafter, he proposed a series of legislative acts. Although many proposals were denied and Johnson was criticized for not reacting forcefully enough to suppress the violence, the events did lead to the rapid passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1968, and the Fair Housing Act.
When citing the minor legislative victories after the Martin Luther King Jr. riots or when one asserts that the riots today are in response to centuries worth of discrimination, we are not condoning irascible behavior. Simply put, we can never fathom the pain of generational trauma endured by these people. We can, however, sympathize when such pain becomes so prevalent, the reaction becomes incendiary. It is also crucial to remember that the media itself often plays the role of agitator by reporting only what proves “news-worthy.”
Whilst the fact remains that a small percentage of dissenters have taken to looting, many more are peaceful demonstrators. We as the collective global public are failing desperately at making these crucial distinctions, and in return, detracting from the real message. The media also fails to mention that many protests start peacefully until the police arrive. As well as the fact that there are many chaos agents, opportunistic criminals, and anarchists who infiltrate these demonstrations to bolster their own agendas. This is not to claim that violence is not at all the reality. However, by narrowing in on only a surface perspective, the American media is not only minimizing the Black Lives Matters movement, it is also neglecting and even seeking to conceal its violent history.
As with most issues regarding minorities, there is a deeply disturbing double standard that we must contend with. Critics have wasted no time to deem the ongoing civil unrest “un-American.” Yet the rallying chant of American patriots during the American revolution was, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Rioting was how Americans contested the brutal colonialism of the British.
In a chilling statement that evokes the same sentiments of inferiority that the Black community feels today, about the British rule, John Adams said, “We won’t be their negroes.” Today, as the community rises against the long-withstanding history of violent racial discrimination, peaceful demonstrations are described with demagogic terms like looters and thugs. It seems the honorable term of patriotism is reserved only for the white man seeking liberty.
From the Underground Railroad to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Selma March and onwards today to the Black Lives Matters movement, we are witnessing the inexorable racist legacy of slavery in America. For far too long, trivial questions were disputed in public discourse. Questions that addressed the overfunding of police departments and the underfunding of education, mental health services, welfare, and other pertinent resources were ignored. Questions that sought to challenge the inherent racist housing policies, of perpetual redlining, and the disproportionate policing of black communities throughout the nation, have been occulted from the conversation. But not anymore. Today we are denouncing the president who refers to a grieving community as thugs. It is time to, not only put forth the proper questions, it is time to totally and utterly dissect the society that only seeks to protect the rich and the white.
As we march on the streets amidst a global pandemic, we recall with striking anguish that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected black lives. Not due to genetics or some innate curse within the black community, but rather due to lack of access to healthcare, losing jobs at higher rates, and the statistical probability of living in viral hotspots. This a cogent and grim reality that only serves to reinforce the frustration and morale of activists.
When one sits down to understand the reality of black existence in America, a myriad of statistics and concepts such as neoliberalism, capitalism, and redlining, will pour forth. In the quest to educate oneself, it is as if a dam has been blocking our reason, and the powerful nature of knowledge shatters the dam. All at once the truth comes gushing out. It is devastating. However, despite this, we must not allow our discomfort to be complicit in the active silencing of black lives and voices. It is crucial to inundate ourselves with the nefarious facts to employ our voices, bodies, and talents for our black brothers and sisters.
Allah says, “God commands justice and fair dealing…” (Quran 16:90). He does not recommend or encourage it. He commands us to eradicate injustice whenever we witness it. But let us remember that to simply quote a few ayahs and ahadith on the social media are hollow gestures without actions. Islamic ideals will remain just that if the community does not rally together to face racist notions that permeate our society, and that which persists beyond it. Our faith can not be independent of the struggle of justice. And justice can not see fruition without an active enterprise.
So the American legacy of racism has saturated all aspects of social life. It continues to prevail in the face of so-called progressives. The veneer of American egalitarianism is finally being dissolved. I would like to end on a list of victories accomplished only due to the pressure of protests, rallies, and public outcry in the last few days. However, to dismantle such a deep-rooted system will not occur is a matter of mere days. As many have pointed out, the most poignant revolutions in history have endured for months and years. So this is a transient respite. These triumphs do not mark the end. They should only serve to galvanize the movement and make us more vociferous in our chants!
- In a matter of days after protests began, Derek Chauvin, George Folyd’s murderer, was charged with 2nd-degree murder. The three officers who silently allowed the suffocation of Floyd were later charged with aiding and abetting.
- In Kentucky, Breonna’s Law was passed which barred police from entering any home without knocking.
- In Georgia, on June 4th, a judge found it plausible to try the three men responsible for executing Ahmaud Arbery.
- Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti cut $100-$150 million from the police budget after protesters rallied outside his house.
- In New York, more than 40 city council candidates call for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s $6 billion budget, allocating the excess to programs such as the city’s summer youth employment program.
- Congress has now begun to push to end the 1033 program which allows the transfer of excess military weapons to police departments.