There will be at least one riot
By Rev. Osagyefo Sekou
Watching the George Zimmerman Trial has triggered a flood of memories. I have been subject to abusive policing most of my life. To have a black male body in the world is to be an adversary of the state—the lived experience of a black boy born inside the American empire. It began my junior of high school. My best friend, Rick was driving so we could pick up our dates. The St. Louis Police Department stopped us. Rick’s license and insurance were up to date. We had not broken any laws or traffic rules—save that we were young, black, and male.
At the time, I weighed about 120 pounds soaking and stood no more that 4 feet and 11 inches. Rick weighed about ten more pounds than I and was about 5 inches taller. The four police officers with their hands on their holstered guns ordered us out of the car. They proceeded to frisk us— searching for drugs. After coming up empty in their initial search of the car and our person, one officer stuck his hand down Rick’s pants in his underwear and fondled about to see if Rick had drugs tucked under his scrotum.
After humiliating us, the officers let us go without apology. Rick—the epitome of high school cool— was visibly shaken but we laughed it off and went to pick up our dates. Having been recently politicized by the music of Public Enemy and the 1988 presidential campaign of Rev. Jesse Jackson, we were fully aware of our circumscribed place inside American democracy. I was angry and riotous in my soul. And this would not be the last time, I felt violated by a policing agency.
As a student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, I was taking a late night stroll after a studying marathon. Having grown three inches and gained about 5 pounds since my high school days, I would be surrounded by campus police and demanded that I show my student ID. I refused and noted that I did not think I was in South Africa and that I needed a pass card. This only agitated the officers, to say the least. They became more aggressive and draw closer to me with hands on holstered guns.
To my advantage, I was a student leader. Earlier that year I organized a march and rally in response to the acquittal of the police officers who viciously beat Rodney King. The subsequent riots shook the nation and we responded with a 10,000-person rally on campus. Hence, the campus police chief knew me. I demanded that my assailing officers call him. They, sarcastically, obliged. The police chief ordered the campus police to stand down. The next day he came to my student organization’s office and profusely apologized.
While pastoring in South Jamaica Queens, New York, my student pastor and I were driving down Sutphin Boulevard. Detectives pulled us over in an unmarked car. Now my student pastor was a non-gender conforming white female-bodied person. In a word, she looked like a “little white boy”. As the police approached the vehicle—a very used luxury SUV—their hands were on their holstered weapons and demanded my license and registration.
When stopped by the police I developed a custom of explaining my reason for being. I began my spill to the police officer. “Hello, officer, my name is Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou. I am the Senior Pastor of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church located at …” The female Latina officer, immediately, interrupts and says: “Your eyes look red. Have you been smoking weed?”
“No ma’am, I just returned from Haiti on an interfaith mission in the aftermath of the earthquake and I am exhausted. I am coming from morning bible study”, I explained with blood shot red eyes and exasperation.
“You can get an Oscar for your act”; the female officer quipped then ordered me out of the car. My student pastor was questioned and asked if she is ok.
They began to search my vehicle and I tell them that they are going to find a lot of bibles and church programs with my name listed as pastor. I also shared that all the goods in the trunk area were for donations to send to the Haitian tent village. Neither officer was impressed. The male officer lets me know that my driver’s license has expired and believes that my car is stolen. “You are going to jail!”, he gloated. I began to give my student pastor instructions on calling my lawyer and demanding that she does not let anyone at the church know that I have been arrested. The police officer goes to his car and calls his captain. As his talking to his captain and looking at me, his eyes got big. He hung up the mobile phone. Gave me back my license without explanation.
A few years later I moved to Boston. Driving down Massachusetts Avenue, admittedly, I ran a light. A black motorcycle cop flagged me down. He began to curse me out.
“I am going to take your little black motherfucking ass to jail”, he bragged.
He continues to berate me: “I am sick of you fucking thugs”. I interrupted him and too explain I really do not know the city well. “Where the fuck are you from?” he demanded.
“I just moved here from New York”, I informed him with a trembling voice.
“What the fuck for?” continuing to belittle me.
“To go to Harvard”, I stated with bowed head and broken spirit.
“Oh”, he responded with consternation. His whole attitude changed. He wrote me a ticket and sent me on my way.
Though I am a fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation—the nation’s oldest interfaith peace organization—and served as the leader in the United States peace movement during the second Iraq war, my soul feels riotous as I recount these instances. I was trained in the tradition of nonviolent social resistance at the Highlander Center around the age of Trayvon Martin. This week I have wanted to throw a stone at the televised Zimmerman trial. My tutoring in nonviolent civil disobedience by James Lawson—the architect of the Nashville Civil Rights campaign is bending under the burden of hurt and hate. As pastor, I have preached Jesus is the prince of peace but my spirit yearns for revenge. As father of black boys, I am afraid and angry at once. Bob Marley’s “Burning and Looting” has become my hymn as of late. Yet my experiences as a black male-bodied person are not the most egregious and the arbitrary policing of black male bodies are not unique to the United States.
During my self-imposed exile in Paris, I witnessed the city of lights set ablaze.
The 2005 riots were prompted youth died as result of being chased by police. Throughout the Paris suburbs, African and Arab youth burned cars and destroyed property. Upon interviewing these young folks, they often noted that they felt persecuted by the “state” and its protectors on a daily basis. While there, I delivered a lecture at the American University in Paris entitled, Les émeutes et Espoir (Riots and Hope). By comparing the plight of French Arabs and Africans to African Americans, I argued that riots were a result of hopelessness in a society that places black bodies in exile. Deploying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jrs’ axiom—riots are the cry of the voiceless—I posited that burning cars were the burning concerns of those who lived on the night side of a society.
While interviewing family members and friends of Mark Duggan, this sentiment was expressed in the London Riots 2011. Duggan’s death at the hands of London Metropolitan Police caused riots throughout England. In London and Paris, I felt an eerie familiarity with their beings. The societies in which we live are prone to police, punish, and pulverize our bodies. These experiences often combined with economic deprivation and social alienation stir the kinds of riotous possibilities that visit me, now. And I am not alone. Black mothers, fathers, and friends are glued to the television and social media—hoping and praying that justice will be served. For the past year or so they have tucked in their children extra tight. Parents will give “the talk” to their boys, ad nausem. “Stay out of trouble”, they will admonish their shining black princes. For many, especially the young and disinherited, their hearts will burn with riotous rage.
Riots initiated by people of color in Western societies are typified by three factors: young alienated ethnic community, a history of police brutality, and a bias criminal justice system in which othered bodies do not receive fair treatment. This powder keg sparked by unjust police or vigilante violence against a member of the ethnic community. All over the world during demonstrations and subsequent riots, congregations of resistance in the church of the public elicit a protest call and response: “What do we want ! Justice! When do we want it ! Now !” Riots are then a response to the unrequited ideals of their nation.
From Rodney King to Mark Duggan to Trayvon Martin, the challenging relationship between police and ethnic communities has erupted in social protest, initially. Trayvon Martin killing by George Zimmerman prompted protests all of the country. Clergy preached in hoodies from their pulpits and one congressman read scripture in a hoodie on the House of Representative floor. Rallies were replete with not only hoodie-clad protesters but also many carried bags of skittles and canned ice teas. All in solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s last act of being.
At once such rally last year at Union Square in New York City, I talked to a mother who brought her young son. “I am not an activist,” she clarified. “And I ain’t never been to a protest but I want him to know that he has rights and this ain’t right”, she said pulling her son closer as though to protect him.
For many, the case is simple: Zimmerman racially profiled Martin; hunted him down and murdered him. The national outcry created the context for Zimmerman’s arrest. Now, the question before that nation is what will be the aftermath of the George Zimmerman trial. The trial itself offers critical insights into the riotous possibilities based on racist perception.
The most telling element is not the gut-wrenching testimony of Trayvon Martin’s parents or the lambasting of his friend’s Rachel Jeantel. The defense called a number of witnesses to dispute Trayvon’s mother’s testimony that it was her son was calling for help in the last seconds of his life. While the attempt to discredit a mother’s ears is disgusting, it is part and parcel of a silencing of black pain in the American courts. Equally, the presiding judge’s ruled that the word race could not be uttered in testimony or questioning.
Perhaps, it is because race is the adjudicator of justice in American democracy. In fact, extrajudicial punishment of black male bodies has rarely been discouraged in the courts. The trail of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan for the Emmett Till’s murder –the most infamous vigilante violence case in the nation history—was a farce. Thus, a George Zimmerman’s acquittal is very real.
The most telling and disturbing feature of the defense’s strategy was the call of Mr. Connelly as a witness. Connelly, a friend of Zimmerman, is former Vietnam army medic. The defense noted Connelly’s service in the Vietnam War qualified him to distinguish Zimmerman’s voice on a 911 call. Much like the United States engagement in Vietnam so is its engagement with African American men. In word the nation is at war with black male bodies. Like Vietnam is it’s a protract war. From lynching to Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow (prison industrial complex) and continued state sanctioned vigilante violence against black male bodies is a war.
The pain of being black and male in America is a weighty existence. The history and contemporary denigration of black-maled bodies takes an emotional toll. The toll is greater for the young who see a black man in the White House and a million black men in prison. Black male existence in America is Sisyphean. To walk down the street is to be struck in the chest with the absurdity of being black and male in America. Black boys are not boys but menace to be disciplined and punished; a cradle to prison pipeline is their way out of the ghetto.
In New York City alone, over 600,000 black and brown young men have been “stop and frisk” by the police for just being. Hands stuck in their underwear—molesting their manhood; their civil and human liberties are non-existent. And the only national apparatus with word justice in its name has not lived up to its moniker. Limited employment possibilities combined with the daily indecencies of living are a recipe for nihilism.
Such systematic quietude and ontological emptiness sets the stage for riots. As rioters in Paris, L.A., and London, all told me “if we can not get justice in the court we will get it in the streets”. After protests and prayer, testimony and trial what is left to do? What are we to do when nonviolent protest has failed and the justice system has betrayed its name? Where is the rage to go? Shall those on the end of injustice commit suicide?
To invoke Camus, once more, the riot is the rebels’ No to indignity and injustice. It is temporal blow against a hegemony waging omnipresent war on one’s being. After all of the ancestral and lived indignity, protests and a televised trial, and an acquittal, riots may be the only options for some. I pray that I am not a prophet. Whether George Zimmerman is found guilty or not; if ambers light the cityscape or jubilation erupts; there will be at least one riot— in my soul.
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is the Pastor for Formation and Justice at The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain in Boston. He is the author of the forthcoming Riot Music: Hip Hop, Race, and the Meaning of the London Riots 2011 (Hamilton Books, 2013)