“In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
All over social media, especially Facebook, folks are posting media stories and pictures of protests, vandalism, looting, and police violence in response. Looking through these postings and the accompanying comments, I sense, for the most part, an air of moral superiority and smugness from these posters. And yet, like myself, they were not down there at the very scenes where pictures and videos were taken.
But let’s be clear: The horrific video footage of the murder of George Floyd involving four police officers is the picture of Evil. It reminds me of that grainy dark video footage of Rodney King being beaten repeatedly, and repeatedly by four LAPD police officers until he lay motionless and unconscious.
Rodney King survived his encounter with evil, but George Floyd did not.
Neither Floyd, nor King posed a mortal threat to the police officers. They were both unarmed and outnumbered 4 to 1 by fully armed police. It is Evil we saw. No human being can think of doing what they did to another human being. There is no equivocation here. They deserve the highest condemnation by civil society.
In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, American society is erupting in social unrest once again. As we watch media coverage of these in the comfort of our homes, we feel a moral smugness to condemn them over our social media platforms. This is an unwarranted rush to judgment. Militant action such as these protests taking place quite simultaneously over dozens of American cities is a sign of a stretched and tearing social fabric. Its participants are diverse and varied. The majority are there to express moral outrage and condemnation over the murder of George Floyd. Some may participate with more sinister motives; anarchists and provocateurs join to turn a peaceful expression of moral outrage into a violent and destructive confrontation. The resulting violence and vandalism are then condemned by many who merely observe it through media coverage. Understand, by the way, that media coverage tends to focus on the negative, for this is what makes news and attracts “eyeballs.” Even without exaggeration, it is important to focus on what these events are telling us, and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition: in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?
When Los Angeles erupted in social unrest in 1992, it was over frustration, and being unheard on matters of racism and police brutality. Minority communities had always complained about police brutality and racism, but the LAPD somehow managed to get away with it by spinning a different narrative in courts. The Rodney King beating video was prima-facie evidence, African Americans thought, of their allegations of racism and police brutality. But an all-white jury exonerated the police officers. So what is one to do, if the justice system is deaf?
Since 1992 there have been numerous incidents of brutality and death involving police and black men. Communities have staged political protests over each of these incidents but America is failing to listen. Today’s nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd by a policeman, aided and abetted by 3 other officers, is a cry to be heard. It may have resulted in property damage, thief, and even injury in some instances; we do not condone these. But they should not obscure the evil of a murder.
We commend the unusual restraint that police in many cities are showing during these protests. Deaths from the hands of police, and protests are bound to happen, again and again, possibly increasing in intensity, unless we root out the evil within their ranks.
For most of us in the Filipino community who arrived post-1965, when race-based immigration quotas were excised from the law, we struggle to understand the depths of the anger against racism in Black communities. We are often unaware, that the very immigration policies that enabled us to immigrate to the U.S. were the fruits of the decades-long struggles against racism in the 1950s and 1960s. The fact that we and our children are able to gain admission to America’s elite universities, is largely the result of Affirmative Action Programs that were instituted to address discriminatory race-based admission policies at these institutions.
In his autobiographical novel, America Is In The Heart, Carlos Bulosan, poignantly and eloquently, sums up what it means to be a Filipino in America, in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
“I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
As Filipino Americans, we may no longer feel like criminals when we venture out of our neighborhoods, but we have been there. For many communities of color, especially African Americans this is not paranoia. The many, many incidents of African American men dying from police brutality shows that racism, and the many implicit biases that it carries, poses a constant danger.
George Floyd’s murder thru asphyxiation while in police custody, is horrifying to watch; it is all too reminiscent of Eric Gardner’s 2014 death by asphyxiation in the hands of New York City Police. Gardner’s death gave birth to the “I Can’t Breathe” protests. America failed to hear. The widespread social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is the language of the unheard. Listen. And more importantly, engage in constructive actions to eliminate the vestiges of racism through elections and support for reform efforts in our cities, and communities.
*Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies, at CSU Northridge.