I have a special person in my life, and his name is Melvin. Melvin owns a car service, and for about seven years, I have been Melvin’s client. Melvin is an African-American man in his 50s who was raised in Los Angeles, in Watts. He is a father and a husband and a man of faith. He is always impeccably dressed, he is eloquent, he is intelligent, he is passionate, and he is funny.
Melvin and I spend time together, traveling to and from airports when I go out of town and to and from publicity events and similar sorts of events where companies pay for Melvin to drive me about. Melvin and I have discussed and dissected and processed (to use a psychology term) just about every aspect of race relations that have come up in the past five years, all in the safety and comfort of his car. (Usually it’s a Cadillac SUV, but sometimes we roll in a sedan.)
We were in each other’s lives to witness one of the most remarkable and historic events in African-American history: the election of Barack Obama. Politics aside, this was an incredible time in history, and Melvin and I discussed every aspect of it we could think of. We discuss Michelle and we discuss their kids and what it means for a culture such as America to have a black president. We figure lots of stuff out, me and Melvin.
Melvin and I have also known each other during some of the most difficult times in recent history regarding race relations.
We have seen Trayvon Martin’s shooting and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman ignite Sanford, Florida, and the country.
We have seen the shooting of Michael Brown and the riots following the decision to not prosecute Darren Wilson ignite Ferguson, Missouri, and the country, a tragic event that just saw its first anniversary marked by what CNN called “a day of civil disobedience that saw several arrests, and [which] ended with rowdy protesters throwing rocks and bottles at police.”
We have seen yet another death of a black man, Freddie Gray, who died after being injured in police custody, and we have seen the riots that followed ignite Baltimore, Maryland, and the country.
In Baltimore, there was no trial that prompted the riots. There was no acquittal. There was no failure to charge a white police officer that prompted the riots. There was just a death. Another death. That’s all it took. Because we in this country are — in the words of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.
Melvin and I have spoken a lot about rioting. We have talked about the Watts riots of 1965, when race relations and the military-style policing by the LAPD and a drunk-driving arrest eventually led to five days of rioting, 34 deaths, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested and $40 million of damage. (For a modern retelling of the events of the Watts riots, check out this @wattsriots50 Twitter feed.)
Here’s what I know is true. There are people in this country who still do not believe that black people are equal, who fear black people or who think they are justified in treating black people as less-than-equal. Period. There are even people who still think that black people don’t have the same genetic make-up as us, or the same abilities as a people or a culture to be equal. You don’t want to think that this racism exists but it does. Period.
Melvin said something when we were talking about Baltimore that made it all make sense to me. He said that when you’re in a marriage and you have a problem, you talk about it. Or you seek help and try and flesh it out. And then you move forward because you’ve talked about the problem and presumably resolved it.
But Melvin pointed out that when that problem keeps coming up and coming up and coming up, it means you didn’t fix it right. So it’s going to keep coming up.
Bingo. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
The Civil Rights movement gave black people the right to vote unobstructed, to not have to drink from separate water fountains, to attend public school with white kids; it shifted race relations dramatically. But we didn’t fix it all the way. We didn’t see it through. We didn’t put into place the infrastructure and the money and the time and the consistent unrelenting attention this issue needed from 1965 to today.
So what it is today is a pressure cooker. It’s a pressure cooker for black people who live in communities where the police force is disproportionally white and where there are people who act out of hatred and ignorance, and it is magnified and becomes critical because there are white people who don’t understand why it is a pressure cooker and who end up acting out of fear and anxiety and paranoia. I sometimes wonder if we can ever make this right. But we have to make this right.
I watched the movie “Selma” just after the Baltimore riots, and wept like a child half a dozen times. The battles the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. powered through are not done being fought. We have seen the Civil Rights movement give black people the right to vote but that’s not the end of the story. We are now witnessing the effects of centuries of oppression and an American culture struggling to move beyond it. People being hit while they are on the ground, and being pushed and shoved at and treated like abused animals; this is still going on. Not as much, but it is still happening and it shouldn’t be.
How do we, as a society, fix it? Education, resources, funding the growth and support of healthy communities. Mentorship, compassion. It’s not my field of expertise, but we need all of these things, and we need people willing to step up and make it happen. There are so many amazing minds and ideas, and we have the money to support those minds and ideas. We have to.
Melvin and I are not done processing, I know we are not. There will be more fear and more shootings, I am afraid. But as Martin Luther King quoted from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in his famous speech in Montgomery after the march from Selma, we have to push forward because “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord…His truth is marching on…Glory, glory, Hallelujah.”
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