RIOTS NEVER MAKE SENSE, YET THEY DO
|NY DAILY NEWS HEADLINE 1935|
RIOTS NEVER MAKE SENSE BUT YET THEY DO
By Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid
Like dark clouds gathering on a stormy horizon, the specter of anger and violence erupted this week in Baltimore, Maryland, and threatens to engulf the nation. Once again we have witnessed images of black youth rioting in urban America. Still pictures and video footage have been broadcast throughout the nation and beyond, via global media.
When I was a teenager in the 1960s those same images were beamed into American homes on seven T.V. channels. Now my electronic remote reveals to me that there are 2,000 channels. The irony though is that neither the sights of uprising nor their accompanying narratives have changed in 50 years or more.
On Monday, April 27th, 10,000 predominantly Americans of African descent and those in solidarity with them, protested peacefully in the streets of Baltimore in affirmation of the belief that “Black Lives Matter”, and protesting the police killing of 25 year-old Freddie Gray. However news coverage of the event was totally eclipsed by that of nighttime rioters, who raged, looted, burned, and destroyed public property in the neighborhood where they lived.
Both the governor and mayor described the young black men and women as “thugs”. During a T.V. interview that night, former N.A.A.C.P. president Ben Jealous called them “our children”, meaning our sons and daughters. Community residents were shown in one video clip after another, lamenting the destruction of a pharmacy and other businesses, and an exacerbation of their already poor quality of life. “I hate it,” they declared. “But I understand”. The fact is that those Baltimore youth and adults were engaged in the same civil unrest and urban uprising in the 21st century, as others had done in the 20th century, and for the same reasons.
On March 19, 1935 rumors of the killing of a 14 year-old Black youth named Lino Rivera by a Harlem storeowner, sparked a riot on 125th Street in Harlem. Several hundred unto thousands of black men and women shattered plate glass windows, fought hand to hand with police officers, threw rocks, stabbed White men, and fired gunshots with illegal weapons. The incident was then described as “the worst race riot in Harlem in twenty-five years”.
It was later discovered that the rumor was false. The boy had been accosted by a storeowner for attempting to steal a 10-cent pocket knife, and was released after he bit two of the store’s proprietors during the ensuing scuffle. A high school student named Lloyd Hobbs was killed as the result of the riotous violence.
On July 18, 1936 The New York Amsterdam News published a 36,000-word report detailing what happened. It was chiefly authored by E. Franklin Frazier, with such notable contributors as Countee Cullen, A. Philip Randolph and others. The Am News chose to print the report in full, which had been prepared by a special commission at the behest of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Subsequent to its completion however, the Mayor, now considered one of New York City’s greatest by some, refused to release it in total.
Then as now, the reasons cited for the outbreak began with a “long felt hostility towards the police (NYPD) “, but expanded to include “resentment at the inability to get economic opportunities in the midst of plenty”. The Commission recommended measures to prevent and eliminate racial discrimination in employment, encourage improvements in the system of public relief (i.e. social services, welfare) , the improving of housing conditions, increase in recreational opportunities for youth, the hiring of African American physicians in all city hospitals - especially Harlem Hospital, and formation of a citizen’s committee to facilitate complaints against the NYPD. (New York Amsterdam News; A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol. 4) These are almost the exact same underlying reasons and reccomendations currently linked to the revolts in Ferguson and Baltimore.
An even worse riot erupted in Detroit on June 20, 1943. By the time the violence was quelled, 25 Blacks and 9 Whites had been killed, and several hundred thousand dollars (in the currency of the time) worth of property damage occurred. During those World War two years Detroit was the munitions capital of America, and the city was a cauldron of racial tension fueled by discriminatory hiring practices limiting the employment of African American men, who insisted on being hired in factories. During outbreaks of violence, zoot-suited Black men openly fought gangs of equally tough White men, in the streets. (A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, Vol. 4)
Currently, national demands for police reform, and the elimination of police brutality and use of excessive force in the killing of young Black men and women, have produced outrage throughout the nation. In 1960, the renowned writer James Baldwin wrote,
“The White policeman…finds himself at the very center of the revolution now occurring in the world. He is not prepared for it – naturally, nobody is –and what is possibly much more to the point, he is exposed, as few white people are, to the anguish of the black people around him…
“One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up. Before the dust has settled or the blood congealed, editorials, speeches, and civil rights commissions are loud in the land, demanding to know what happened. What happened is that Negroes want to be treated like [humans].” (Fifth Avenue Uptown, Esquire Magazine, 1960).
During this past week, the New York Times published a report revealing the virtual disappearance young Black men between the ages of 25 and 54, from the everyday life of American society. The Times article primarily attributes the disappearance to incarceration, early deaths and higher mortality rates.. Where is this outrageous phenomena the greatest? Again according to The Times, it is in New York , Chicago, Philadelphia, Georgia (these are four out of the top five Black population centers according to the 2010 U.S. census), Alabama, Mississippi, and yes, Ferguson, Missouri.
Throughout the country, young people are “tired of being tired” of the on-the ground-reality of all of this. They are expressing their righteous indignation through hundreds of daily posts on Face Book. Others are in the streets of America in increasing numbers, responding viscerally to a systemic conspiracy of consignment to a living death.
The history of struggle against this oppression is that whenever leaders have emerged, or do emerge, who can connect with the Black and Brown masses and inspire and lead them towards effective change of their condition within and without themselves, those brave men and women are either silenced, killed, marginalized, criminalized, or otherwise opposed by any and all means. Then when an outbreak occurs, those in positions of authority in society - the rich and powerful exploiters of the poor and vulnerable ask, “Where are their leaders?” As it is written in the scriptures, they are the true purveyors of mischief in the land, constituting “evil in high places”, operating from a position where we see them not.
Keen observers noticed that the same night of the Baltimore uprisings, hurricane force winds raged off the coast of Alabama (where racism still abounds). That same night in Louisiana (where last year a text message from a 15year police veteran officer was made public, declaring "I wish someone would pull a Ferguson on them and take them out. I hate looking at those African monkeys at work ... I enjoy arresting those thugs with their saggy pants.") 10 rail cars were blown off an elevated railroad track, destroying property. No one was killed.
At the same time a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore, which today remains under a curfew enforced by law enforcement authorities and the national guard, just like America’s urban communities during the mid to late1960s. Those of us in the faith community see the Hand and Will of Almighty God (whom we Muslims call Allah) moving inexorably to establish justice in the land, by any divine means necessary, as He reveals His signs calling for a national repentance in America, from the sin of racial bias and institutional racism.
Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." So even as media pundits ask “When will the insanity of Black riots stop?” One can only think that they will not until fundamental changes in American society’s inequities based upon race and class, are eliminated.
Until then religious leaders (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, otherwise) and politicians can decry injustice and lament the seeming illogical venting of anger and frustration by young people, who paradoxically express their despair while longing to live more productive lives . Most of these young people are still listening to various leaders encouraging both patient perseverance and adamant resistance. This was demonstrated in Baltimore when people came out the day after the riots and cleaned up their neighborhood, and simultaneously stood post between police and dissenters. Unapologetic gang members, religious leaders both Christian and Muslim, as well as just plain ordinary folk, affirmed their commitment to peace, progress, and change.
God bless them, but not all of our youth are resigned to non-violent resistance in perpetuity, regardless of who does or does not see their actions as logical. Those who engage in riotous actions may have never heard of James Baldwin, but they echo his words in action, if not speech. “The fire next time” he wrote. And God help us all.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid is the imam of The Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (Harlem, NYC), the Vice-President of the Muslim Alliance in North America, and the former president of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York