It’s no surprise that something some white male minor celebrity said about a grassroots 21st century civil rights movement went viral. I’m referring to Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe’s December 30th comments on Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The equivalent of this happened during Martin Luther King’s era too. Who can forget the white Alabama clergymen calling King and other demonstrators “outsiders” for participating in desegregation protests in Birmingham? After quoting a black, “hardworking” friend who says he’s a “pawn in someone else’s agenda, Rowe says, “looters and arsonists run amok, and Black America suffers the association.”[i] My intention isn’t to pick on Mr. Rowe here. It’s to point out another complicated way racism exists in this country and to use him as an example of how mainstream media is failing to see the Black Lives Matter protests as a larger dynamic civil rights movement.
The police have always existed to protect the interests of the power-elite; in fact, the law functions in the same way. This Black Lives Matter movement has been brewing for some time now due to the mass incarceration of blacks and the Police State that exists in many black communities across the United States.
The Civil Rights era that we’re all familiar with began, as history textbooks would say, after Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. Others may say it was sparked by the brutal slaying of a 14-year old black boy, Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white girl in 1955. Movements don’t just begin out of nowhere, or all of a sudden, but often people reach a breaking point where they are willing to risk emotional and bodily harm to make their lives better. The slaying of Emmett Till may have been the breaking point, but civil rights organizing was always happening. For example, the NAACP spent years building a court case to challenge the legal segregation of schools. In 1952, the Legal Council of Negro Leadership organized a successful boycott of Mississippi gas stations that refused to provide bathrooms for blacks.[ii]
Movements take all types of forms with various different groups and tactics to reach an end goal. King was the proclaimed leader of the non-violent movement that holds the most legitimacy in our country. But, let’s not forget about Robert F. Williams, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and then later the Black Panther Party—all of whom advocated for violent retaliation, scaring their oppressors, and therefore opening up space for non-violent demonstrators to protest under safer conditions. The partial success of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and National Services Act, and the Fair Housing Act—and I say partial because these Acts don’t go far enough—owe a tremendous debt to more radical movements occurring within, alongside, and outside of King and company’s movement.
In our modern manifestation of civil rights, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Ramarley Graham, and Trayvon Martin are the sparks that are igniting a national Movement against police brutality, police targeting of black communities, and mass incarceration of black men. We can go back to the false jailing of the Central Park 5, the vicious beating of Rodney King, the disputed imprisonment of Mumia Abu Jamal and the late Troy Davis, the gratuitous murder of Amadou Diallo, the brutal sodomization of Abner Louima with a broken broomstick, and the execution-style murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA, etc., etc., to point to incidents where the water has been heating towards the boil we’re experiencing now. Movements are imperfect, with activist leaders from innumerable advocacy groups involved. Some will be moderate, some conservative, some radical, and yes, some very radical. Often a particular group and leaders end up taking control in some way—like King and Malcolm X did—and if and when this happens—the establishment (the ruling elite) will feel endangered, threatened, and compromised. This is what they were so scared about during the Occupy Wall Street protests. They wanted to stop these before they got hyper-organized. (It may take years, but this movement will be back too, much stronger and linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, Climate Change, Healthcare, etc.)
So, what the new social media hysteria of the day, Mr. Rowes’ letter, seems to miss is the larger movement that is happening here. Of course black lives matter—who wouldn’t say this. Police shouldn’t kill unarmed people for resisting arrest, and since they are, they need better training. There is a mental code in this county that black lives don’t matter as much, and we owe this to our nation’s undemocratic, racist, homophobic, patriarchal, and Christian-white-wealthy-privileging history. So, these protests are the foundation (continued from previous foundations) of a new civil rights movement—as perfect and imperfect as it is—that we should all welcome because people—and especially young people—are standing up for themselves and taking back their dignity. In fact, I would argue there is dignity, perhaps not the highest form, in stealing a television, as there is in blocking traffic, as there is in giving a powerful speech—both possible higher forms.
Black people, as a whole, are still oppressed, and a few black people proclaiming that their people aren’t oppressed shouldn’t obscure this. If they weren’t why would they be protesting in the streets—because they’re crazy? Because they just want to burn, loot and steal stuff? No, injustice has occurred and is continuing to occur. To say protesting—both the “acceptable” (non-violent) and especially the “unacceptable” (violent) kind—is wreaking havoc and shouldn’t be occurring is showing a kind of privilege that doesn’t understand that what is happening right now is a Movement.
Joshua Zelesnick is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
[ii] David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, pg.81.