Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Violence in Ferguson

Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They have held fast to deceit,
they have refused to return.
I have given heed and listened,
but they do not speak honestly;
no one repents of wickedness,
saying, “What have I done!”
All of them turn to their own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie?
The wise shall be put to shame,
they shall be dismayed and taken;
since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is in them?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 8:5-6, 8-9, 11

Before the grand jury verdict was announced, and in his speech after the announcement, President Obama called for calm and said that there was “no excuse for violence.”

It is an ironic statement. When he said it, he meant it to apply to those protesting the death of Michael Brown. The protesters, on the other hand, were protesting precisely because they believed that there was no excuse for the deadly violence done to him.

How we see violence is determined in large part by our point of view. Whites see it differently from people of color. The powerful see it differently than the powerless.

The images of the violence in Ferguson are deeply troubling.

I chose the picture above because I hoped it would illustrate how differently we look at things. That picture is not from Ferguson; it’s from the pumpkin festival riots in Keene, New Hampshire last month. For videos of the Keene riots, click here. For images of other riots by largely white groups, you can look at Jon Stewart’s report on the riots at UCONN after the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 2004. For the record, they won again last year, but had a smaller riot. And also, for the record, they don’t have riots when the women win.

For more serious reflection on violence and protest, it’s useful to look back to the Civil Rights movement and the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By the mid 1960’s, the disciplined non-violence of the Civil Rights movement broke under the weight of the violence and death they had absorbed and a new generation of leaders in the black community increasingly called for the use of force to achieve freedom and equality “by any means necessary.” In a television interview, Mike Wallace asked Dr. King if he was still committed to non-violence.

He played a tape of Dr. King speaking in those deep resonant cadences so familiar to his preaching style, “Now what I'm saying is this: I would like for all of us to believe in non-violence, but I'm here to say tonight that if every Negro in the United States turns against non-violence, I'm going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘This is the wrong way!’”

King’s radical critics would say (and frequently did say) that he had mis-stated the issue. The problem was not that “Negroes” had turned against non-violence, but that the white power structure had never embraced non-violence in the first place. But Dr. King understood that, and while affirming his continuing commitment to non-violence, he went on to say:

I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

A riot is the language of the unheard.

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