I had been thinking about Rodney King, the African-American man who had been brutally beaten by police officers 20 years ago in Los Angeles, when suddenly, his face and name appeared on CNN. I had been thinking about him because, as I have observed the Trayvon Martin situation, it feels like justice might just elude this case, just as it did when three of the four the white police officers accused of beating King were acquitted.
Their acquittal sparked rage in the African-American community. Then-mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, said that that the officers did not “deserve to wear the uniform of the L.A.P.D. and even President George H.W. Bush said that it was hard to understand the acquittals, given what the videotape showed.
Incredulous as it seemed, though, the acquittals were a reality and fed a rage across the nation generally but in Los Angeles specifically that is not too far below the surface of the spirits of African-Americans, because years of injustice and feeling like second-class citizens breeds despair which leads to rage. That the “justice” system could let the white officers go back then, in light of and in spite of videotape which showed the brutal beating of King, meant that once again, an African-American life was not valued. The not-so-deep rage erupted into violence.
I have been thinking about the King case as I have watched the Martin case. What Trayvon’s parents want is justice, but from the start, that goal has been met with resistance. It seems that a great effort has been to defend and protect George Zimmerman , and to blame the victim, Trayvon, for his own death.
It is a strategy and scenario almost too painful to talk about.
The ever-present despair of African-Americans is something the majority culture does not want to talk about, but it is there, and it is dangerously flammable. It is remarkable that there have not been more outbursts of violence in response to that despair. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “for more than two centuries, our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation and yet, out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.”
That “bottomless vitality” is something I like to call “crazy faith,” a stubborn belief that, surely, things will get better; surely this insane injustice primarily attributable to racism cannot be interminable.
White culture does not want African-Americans to be angry, but white culture does not want to address the institutional and structural racism that causes the anger. White culture strives to hold onto its power, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but in its quest to maintain its power, it has stripped people from other ethnic groups, not just African-Americans – not only of any power they might have, but of their very dignity.
That in and of itself is a recipe for explosive rage, but it becomes an even more potent problem and reality given that we live in a country which prides itself on being “just.” America is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” America’s founding fathers wrote that “all men are created equal,” and it is on the basis of America’s own stated ethos that African-Americans and others demand justice – equally meted out.
It does not happen – equally meted out justice does not happen here. Statistics and studies show that African-Americans receive stiffer penalties than do whites arrested for the same crimes; African-American children are more likely to receive suspensions and expulsions, again while white children who have done the same things tend to get off easier.
At the end of the day, there is yet something that we don’t want to talk about that is killing us – and that is that the primary tumor – the reason for the rampant and unequal justice in this country – is racism, the belief that African-Americans are objects and not human beings, inferior to whites, capable of doing little right. African-Americans watching the Trayvon Martin case are right there – cringing with the feeling that yet again, a black life seems unimportant. No matter what Zimmerman’s attorneys and others say, the Trayvon Martin shooting is about justice possibly being elusive because the victim was black.
When the rage erupted after Rodney King’s attackers got off, many white people seemed not to understand. The Los Angeles riots were about dreams deferred. The riots were about years of being ignored and blamed for their own oppression. The riots were about the anger that could not be contained as the arrogance of a racist justice system shoved its power in the faces of those who so deeply yearn for justice.
The mood and spirit in this country because of the Trayvon Martin case. What seems like a cut-and-dry case of an armed man shooting and killing an unarmed young black man is not, it seems, so cut and dry. There is a good possibility that George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder – might be acquitted of all charges.
What then? How long can this nation keep ignoring racism, especially in light of how it is eating away at the very sinews of this country? It really seems like it’s time, past time, for “change we can believe in.” Without that change, this flesh-eating bacteria called racism will continue to eat away at the very soul of America. Rodney King remembers how and why the rage erupted. The country should remember, too.
A candid observation…