In the wake of 2014, America finds itself on the precipice of change . . . or not. The blood is still fresh, whether it be from the wounds of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice or the police officers in New York City. Make no mistake, there is blood on the leaves. I’ve been reading about and watching all the protests happening across the country, and I keep asking myself, “How did we get here?” But the truth is, we never left.
In 1991, I was eighteen years old when Rodney King was beaten down by the LAPD. By then I’d learned that cops could be good; one of the most influential men in my life was a police officer. But I also knew that there was danger with authority figures. Racism wasn’t new to me in 1991, by that point my house had been surrounded by a group of young angry white men who, with all of our neighbors watching, spat on my mother. I’d also had many run-ins with white police officers, mostly of the demeaning nature; but watching Rodney King’s beating, for the first time in my young life I saw the price of being black. It wasn’t grainy 1960’s Civil Rights stock footage, or an oral history that I understood in theory but not practice. The rebellion in LA raged, but the rest of the country for the most part didn’t protest. How far from the police dogs, fire hose and vicious racists from the civil rights struggle were we? A lot closer than we thought. Instead of protesting, we took that rage, the hurt, and wrapped it up, and pushed it away.
In 2006, I’d been working at the Sanctuary on 8th street, a community center for disadvantaged kids in the Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville. I’d had a ton of jobs – from being a route salesman to working undercover for a private detective to being a flight attendant, and none of them were as challenging as working with the kids there.
That year, over sixty-five percent of the children at the center had at least one deceased parent, and most, if not all, received free or reduced lunch at school. Working there did more for me than I could have ever done for the kids. The experience opened my world in a way I have a hard time explaining. I mentored a small group of boys, several of whom are still in my life. Every day, I would tell them they could be whatever they wanted to be, whoever they wanted to be . . . they just had to go out and do it. Every time I said that, I knew it was a lie. There were a lot of great things they could be, but no matter how hard they worked there were some things they could never be. I couldn’t tell them the truth: they were surrounded by obstacles on every side, and I just wanted them to fly. I remember driving down Martin Luther King Boulevard, not far from Springfield, looking at the poverty, feeling defeated after a long day working with the kids, I wondered if this is what the dream looks like in real life. But no one protested this: it’s just the way it is.
January 20, 2009 was a cold day. While the sunlight poured through the windows of my office, I sat in the middle of the room, TV on, with tears tumbling down my cheeks. I wept until I was empty. It hit me hard, as I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama, knowing that his presidency had made my lie to those boys at the Sanctuary, a new truth. And I thought, “Only in America.” But that truth is fleeting.
In 1963, Bayard Rustin, with many others, helped facilitate The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today, that march has been boiled down to Martin Luther King’s brilliant “I have a Dream” speech. We look back on it now with nostalgia and fondness, but the struggle to make that march happen was tremendous. At the end of the march, Rustin and many of his contemporaries felt they had reached the Promised Land; the paradigm had shifted. They’d created a new truth. But less than three weeks later, a bombing at an Alabama church killing four little girls brought reality crashing down. We are never as far along as we think.
The little victories are great and important, but they also become a part of the problem. New truth serves the lie that things have changed. It’s the oasis in the desert that people point to as progress, but once you get there, it’s filled with sand and sun without the hope of water. The boys I mentored at the Sanctuary are men now, and all the obstacles that surround them didn’t magically go away with the election of Barack Obama. Instead they live in a country where looking “threatening” to a white person is reason enough to be killed, and Jim Crow-tinged justice too often protects the guilty. None of this happened overnight. It happened under the guise of progress. The generation before mine told us the struggle was over. My generation accepted the new truth, and now our children are suffocating in it. I don’t write this to say the struggle it useless; I write this to say the struggle never ends. And while stories like those of Barack Obama and others might only happen in America, the same could be said for Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Akai Gurley.
By Al Letson