“Just imagine,” I heard a lady say the other day in a spate of soul-searching. “Just imagine what we can do for each other in eight minutes. Just imagine all the good we can do.” The eight minutes she spoke about, of course, were the length of time George Floyd lay face down on a Minneapolis street with a police officer’s knee pressing firmly on his neck. They were the eight minutes it took for Mr. Floyd to die.
Those eight minutes were a moment in time that sparked an eruption of anger and anguish, of violence and vitriol in cities and towns across the country. That moment in time was the flash point of the upheaval. It was the trigger, but it was not the cause.
The cause is decades of frustration and torment experienced by people of color in this country. It is a prevailing, daily sense of pernicious but often blatant racism many black Americans say white people, even the most empathetic, can never fully appreciate.
That the wrath felt by so many turned to violence is not really surprising. There is evidence that some of the rebellion is being incited by outside agitators, provacateurs, always waiting for an opportunity to create disorder and conflict. That does not, in any way, excuse the vandalism, looting and showdowns with the law and it certainly does not help the cause of those appealing for, praying for, dreaming of change, especially when the President of the United States calls them “thugs.”
It is inexcusable that what started out as peaceful protest became violent but it is, in some ways, understandable. To be blunt, black Americans are tired of being told to be patient. Among those who condemn the violence point to the Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr. Look at all that the civil rights leader accomplished, they say. Look at what he was able to do without violence. It is not lost on us that it was an act of violence that brought him down.
Dr. King did indeed accomplish much through acts of nonviolence and civil disobedience. Much of what King advocated was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He got laws changed. But he could not change attitudes in the minds of many. More than half a century later black parents say they still warn their children every day to be careful about what they say or do in public. Simply the color of their skin makes them as much a target in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth.
Black Americans say that feelings of trepidation are always there, just below the surface, in their daily lives. It is as if racism is some ethereal thing, lurking like a shadowy, evil spirit that all too often manifests itself as an ugly, overt act of hatred. In South Africa, where I covered the unrest in the late 1980’s leading to the downfall of apartheid, racism was more clearly defined. It was the law of the land back then. Racism was codified. It was spelled out, if you will excuse, in black and white. There was no question about who was who and where one stood in society due to skin color.
In this country, racism is more insidious. The laws say one thing. The reality is often quite another. It is a message black Americans for so long have been trying to get across. But, they say, no one is listening. They say one can hear them. That’s why the sign held up by a protester in one besieged city was so telling. It read, “Can you hear us now?”