By Nawaz Merchant
The killing of George Floyd on May 25 this year in Minneapolis sparked outrage among African Americans, as well as white and immigrant communities all over America.
“This was not us,” we said when we spoke to our friends. “This isn’t America. This was an anomaly, a cop who took it too far.”
Then came the inquiry into the deaths of Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and many more, individuals killed in situations that would not have escalated if they weren’t black.
“It’s a few bad cops,” we said. “It’s not all of them—cops save lives, answer 911 calls.” Gradually it dawned on us that for millions of law-abiding Americans, calling 911 is the last thing they’d do–because they’re black, immigrants, don’t speak good English, or have someone at home who’s undocumented.
“Black lives matter!” said black activists. “We matter; all Americans can’t matter until black people matter.”
People who were resistant to that message then created “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” as a response, trying to invalidate that hard-won self-affirmation of the BLM movement.
We wondered, “why don’t black men just obey the cops? Why do they panic, and try to run?” We learned a great deal by watching the 2016 Netflix documentary Thirteenth about the harsh prison sentences handed to black men for minor infractions, their disadvantage in the court system, and the labor-hungry prison-industrial complex. It shocked many of us who had not experienced the second-class citizenship that blacks suffer. Yet we are hard put to find sympathy for the groups of violent people shown on TV.
We asked, “Why are they burning businesses, why riot, destroy someone else’s property?” The February Women’s March and the Aug 28th Black Lives Matter march on Washington seem to have made little impact on actual policy. If a march on Washington makes no difference, is this what citizens of democracy are driven to?
In August, violence escalated with the deaths of protesters and a white shooter; those with entrenched opinions dubbed the BLM movement “Blacks Looting and Murdering.” Mainstream Americans still see this movement as something ‘other’ people are doing, violent people who should be locked up.
To understand today’s racial tensions, I examined three periods of massive social change, looking for a pattern to how societies change. In each case violent turmoil drew attention to society’s ills. It was followed by strong, non-violent leadership that led to positive change.
Massive social change occurred during three recent events: the Progressive movement of the early 1900s, India’s independence struggle that culminated in 1947 and the 1960s civil-rights struggle.
In each of these, a radical group drew attention to the problem with violence. Would Mahatma Gandhi’s message of non-violence have been effective if Bhagat Singh had not exploded bombs in the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi to demand independence with violent confrontation? Although Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was a compelling speaker and a visionary, would his message have resonated so loudly if Malcom X and the Black Panthers had not provided a violent counterpoint?
In the 1900s, America’s progressive movement grew as President Teddy Roosevelt supported child labor laws, broke up monopolies and mediated labor disputes—but that came after violent anarchists agitated for radical reform in the 1890s.
Why did it succeed? Because “Reform, in that view, was preferable to revolution,” says John M. Blum in historian Myra Immell’s book The 1900s. “The center of American consciousness was slowly acquiring a new conscience. It produced a growing understanding of the efforts of some of the less privileged to improve their lot, a sympathy of the protests of the best informed against the inequities of American life, and, though rarely, a tolerance for the outrage of that small minority of Americans who were committed to rapid and radical social improvement.”
We can learn from this. Today it means: Law abiding though we may be, believers in working within the system, opposed to lawlessness and rioting, yet we need a tolerance for the outrage of those who are most deeply grieved by centuries of neglect, being ignored and being harmed. To be treated as sub-human shrinks the self. That some of this group raise their heads and demand equality should spark not disdain, but our respect— they risk their future, their careers and job prospects to shout loudly so that we can hear. Such courage deserves our tolerance for desperate actions intended to propel our attention—and our support for the change they seek.
The next step in progressive change —and it can’t come too soon– is strong non-violent leadership, demanding productive steps in legislation, able to articulate that vision in public with persuasive and reasonable language. What the vast moderate citizenry awaits is not polemic diatribes, not break-the-bank write-offs, not blank-checks! How inspiring it would be to hear a vision of productive initiatives to engage the black community into policing its own, in participating in the business of self-renewal, in building alternative routes of dialog to diffuse and de-escalate public and individual encounters that have the potential for violence! Shouldn’t the black community be part of re-educating local police forces, and equating treatment in the court system? Who better to envision the solutions, than those most harmed by existing inequality?
But this is not an easy role—Gandhi undertook hunger fasts to rein in the youthful violence of those impatient for self-government. It required compromise and didn’t always go down well. By demonstrating control of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. put himself at risk, suffered arrest, and at last won the support of JFK’s election campaign. In the 1900s, after experiencing a decade of anarchist assassinations and terrorism, Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive legislation was slow and methodical, laying the groundwork for later enhancement in labor laws, anti-trust and child labor legislation. Small steps, in the right direction can alleviate the building pressure.
Today’s turmoil is the harbinger of tomorrow’s progressive change, but it needs a strong, calm and capable leader. Who will this leader be? Kamala Harris is well positioned to take this role; so are Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, our ex-president Barack Obama, and many others. Who will step forward to demand concrete steps to reform policing and address the rampant racism of these recent years? Will the Black Gandhi please step forward? God knows we need you.
By Nawaz Merchant
Writing as Nev March, author Nawaz Merchant is the recent winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. A Parsi Zoroastrian immigrant, she teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers-Osher Institute, and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Hunterdon County Library Write-Group. Murder in Old Bombay is her debut novel.