Thursday, May 7, 2015

What I've learned from Baltimore

Far from Dr. King’s Beloved Community

The lesson has not been learned. History is Continually Repeating Itself.  

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The Beloved Community, first coined by 20th Century philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce and popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a community guided by the principles of nonviolence; a community where brother and sisterhood (of all races) would replace racism and all forms of bigotry, discrimination and prejudice; a community where hunger, poverty and homelessness would not be tolerated. However, as I watched the burning, looting and demonstrations in Baltimore, I realized that we’re far (so, so far) from this Beloved Community.

But what was far more troubling (to me at least) were the comments from the media and public-at-large: “How could they do this?” “How could they burn their own neighborhood?” “How could they loot the stores and business establishments that serve them?” “They’re nothing more than thugs.” But lest not forget. A riot can either be a tool for hate, or a voice for the disenfranchised.

History reminds us that there were riots (unlike those in Ferguson and Baltimore) that destroyed many communities and thousands of lives; communities and lives destroyed not by the citizens within them, but from those outside.  And growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was constantly reminded about the RaceRiot of 1921 (and the many others). A race riot where men, women and children were burned and hunted down in the streets; where stores and businesses were burned and looted; where a once bustling, thriving community—known as Black Wall Street—was literally, fire bombed and demolished.

Some forty-seven years later (1967-1968), it wasn’t hate that ignited riots in over 100 American cities, but the voice of the disenfranchised during the Civil Rights era. Voices requesting social and economic justice, as in Rita Walker’s verypoignant letter to friend, Kathy Dahl held within the University of Southern Mississippi’s Library. Many of those riots ignited, and fueled, by the mistreatment of those disenfranchised voices by police.

Now, again, some forty-seven years later (2014-2015) history is again repeating itself. We’re revisiting the same old issues: Rioting by the voices of the disenfranchised requesting social and economic justice in the midst of high unemployment and other disparities, such as education, sparked by the apparent mistreatment by police—the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson Riot) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore Riot). Both of which are eerily reminiscent of the HarlemRiot (1964), WattsRiot (1965) and Detroit Riot (1967); all sparked by the alleged mistreatment of police in economically depressed, black neighborhoods. 

So to those who question the why, who and how’s, remember that history has two sides to rioting—both grim and very dark. And for those that call the rioters, thugs, I ask what do you call those that ravished and pilfered those communities, such as Tulsa, under the cloak of hate? But more importantly, I believe the questions that truly need to be addressed are: (1) How do we provide social and economic justice to disenfranchised communities; and (2) How do we heal from, and address and dismantle, a long history (dating back over a century) of police mistreatment and distrust?

Until we’re able to provide the same civil liberties, undeniable rights, and economic empowerment to all—embracing and building Dr. King’s Beloved Community—we’ll continue to hear the riotous voices of the disenfranchised; decade after decade, city after city, life struggle after life struggle, until we learn the lesson history keeps reminding and trying to teach us.  

Author, R.L. Byrd

Part of the Project H.U.S.H initiative. To find out more, visit HUSH

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