The gray sky and dark clouds hanging over Chicago on Monday morning couldn’t have painted a more apt picture. Nor could the eerie stillness and disturbing quiet after a weekend that saw peaceful protests give way to civil unrest in the wake of the horrific police brutality in Minneapolis that ended George Floyd’s life.
This weekend in Chicago and other major cities in America, hundreds of thousands took the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and attempt to shine a light on even larger injustices and inequality. They were thoughtful. They were peaceful. They were exercising their all-important First Amendment rights with signs that read “Stop Murdering Black People” and “We’re Sick of This.”
You should be too.
In Flint, Michigan, the County Sheriff asked protestors what he could do to help. They told him to march alongside them. He did. There were similar showings of solidarity in other parts of the country as well, including Camden, NJ, a city that knows systemic racism and the long-term effects of rioting perhaps better than any other city in the country.
However, as Friday evening gave way to the early hours of Saturday morning, so too did the peaceful protests turn to rioting, looting, and destruction.
Over the weekend in Chicago, there were more than 65,000 calls to police, at times averaging nearly 2,000 calls every 30 minutes. By Sunday, 699 arrests had been made, 64 guns recovered, and 132 officers injured. As per the excellent reporting by Block Club Chicago, more than 20 businesses in Logan Square were destroyed on Sunday night, with people looting in small, coordinated groups “using protestors as a shield.”
I witnessed this type of coordinated looting first-hand on Saturday night across the street from my home in Irving Park. Officers had been patrolling the area for nearly an hour, when they suddenly left to deal with a nearby incident. Within minutes, a dozen cars working together circled the perimeter of the parking lot while several young men broke into stores and fled with whatever they could carry. By the time the police arrived back on the scene, all that was left was a trail of broken glass.
On Monday morning, many parts of the city were left to pick up the pieces and wonder what the future holds. But, the disturbing events of the past 72 hours only begin to tell this story.
On Saturday, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar wrote a thought-provoking op-ed for the Los Angeles Times where he not only offered perspective on what we are seeing, but also made a plea for a “rush to justice,” rather than a rush to judgment. He argued that while some are using the protests as an excuse to take advantage, there’s a larger issue at hand.
“African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer,” he says. “Racism in America is like dust in the air…it’s everywhere.”
Over the past three-and-a-half years, we have arguably seen divisions run deeper than at any other point in this country’s history, stoked in part by a leader who refers to Neo-Nazi’s as “very fine people” and uses coded language like “THUGS” to fan the flames of racism.
But, this rhetoric, while dangerous, disgusting, and damaging, is more the symptom than the cause. To get closer to the bottom of that, we need to look back to Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. We need to go back 20 years to Amadou Diallo, and 30 years to Rodney King. To the riots of 1968. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Little Rock Nine. Emmett Till. The Jim Crow South. Slavery.
“The people tried peacefully protesting [and] seeking justice in court,” wrote the team at The Tribe. “That didn’t work.”
This is not the promise of America, whatever that means at this point in our nation’s checkered history. These are people who are rightfully angry, marginalized for decades living under an unjust system. They don’t feel that the police are on their side. They are worried about their families and their communities. They want to be heard.
There was a photograph taken this weekend that showed a group of young white people in Cincinnati eating brunch in shock, while groups of peaceful protestors marched behind them in the street. How staggering, and perfectly American, an image.
There are two Americas, and what we’ve seen this weekend is meant as a wake up call to the brunch-eating crowd.
In many ways, as someone who looks a little more like a part of that “brunch-eating crowd,” I am sorting through my own thoughts and emotions in real time along with the rest of America. I know that this is not my cause, and I don’t pretend to make it so; however, it is the responsibility of those with some level of privilege and perspective to speak out on injustice wherever we find it, and to support those who have been marginalized as best we can.
I’d like to use that voice, for just a moment, to paint a picture of these “two Americas” for those of you who may not agree with the sentiment.
While we have been under shelter-in-place these past months, I have made it a point to occasionally order from my favorite restaurants to help continue to support them. Despite the tension in the air, I wanted to continue to do so Saturday night.
When my courier arrived, the evening dusk had already set. I was inside, and saw him open our front gate from my window like I’d seen dozens of others do the past few months. Only, this time was different.
The courier, an African-American male, clearly had current events on his mind, and stopped himself after taking a few steps toward the house. It was as if I could see him going through the optics in his head: What does a tall, black man walking toward the house of a white person look like in the dark of night?
He paused for a few more seconds, and before I could get to my door to welcome him further, he turned around, closed the gate behind him, and decided to call me from the sidewalk.
This is what runs underneath the unrest of the past 72 hours. An American, simply doing his job, having to think about whether or not he should do that job based purely on the color of his skin.
It broke my heart. I met him as positively as I could at the gate, but I knew there was nothing I could say or do that would change what he just went through. Being black in America is something he deals with every single day.
I can never pretend to understand what it is like to be African-American in America, nor can I ever fully relate. But, I can look to the stories of those who live this struggle daily. I can listen, pay attention, and empathize.
I stand in solidarity with the peaceful protestors and empathize with the anger of black America. I don’t condone the opportunistic rioting and looting that has damaged so much of this city and others, but I understand the anger that leads to it. [Note: That said, the looting that I have seen on the North and Northwest sides of Chicago have been predominantly done by young white males, clearly using an important cause for their own opportunistic gains]
Earlier this morning, Barack Obama put his thoughts, and the thoughts of many, into writing on The Medium. He talks about modeling the ethical code that we want all of American society to operate upon, urging us not to “excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”
“The point of protest,” he says, “is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable.”
Throughout history, this form of protest has often been the only thing that’s ever forced the hand of the powerful and the privileged. And while cleanup efforts have already started across the country, we don’t know what tonight will bring. Or tomorrow. Or how long it will be until there’s another George Floyd. Another Eric Garner.
“The choice isn’t between protest and politics,” President Obama says. “We have to do both.”
We stand for justice.
We stand for peace.
We stand with you.