Last week (was it last week? it feels like a lifetime ago), I learned about the first Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, thousands of freed enslaved people held a parade in honor of the hundreds of Union soldiers they had spent several days exhuming and properly re-burying; the bodies had been hastily buried in a mass grave by retreating Confederate troops only months before.
I was irritated that I had never before heard of the first Memorial Day. Then I saw the George Floyd video.
Then the protests and riots began.
The first Memorial Day came back into mind today as I continued trying to process the ongoing peaceful protests and riots across the country. Something occurred to me: the freed men and women who organized the original Memorial Day (Decoration Day) likely had at least two expectations. One, that their gesture would be understood as genuine gratitude for the Union that had, finally, ended slavery. And two, that their gesture would be unmistakably political. The parade, after all, was staged in the very city where the Civil War began: Charleston, South Carolina. Black Americans, in my humble estimation, were signaling that they expected to be recognized and respected for their own outsized contribution to America.
Wouldn’t it also be reasonable for the freed people to expect after May 1865 that race relations in America would be different for their descendants? Some 10% of the Union Army was comprised of black men (there probably would have been more if white lawmakers hadn’t been so afraid of arming too many), and 40,000 black soldiers would die by the time the war was finished. And slavery was over—at least legally and overtly.
After all that bloodshed, as well as 246 years of forced unpaid labor in America and 89 years of building the white ruling class’ monuments to themselves and their hollow documents of life and liberty, the freed men and women must have thought reparations were in order. At minimum, those reparations should have come in the form of good-faith efforts by white Americans to act on a founding tenet: all men are created equal.
And yet here we are again. Protests against racial injustice in America speak a truth that is self-evident.
Protests against police brutality and racial oppression is an American tradition. Watts (1965). Newark and Detroit (1967). 125 US cities (1968). Miami (1980). Los Angeles (1992). Cincinnati (2001). Ferguson (2014). Baltimore (2015). Charlotte (2016). And that is only over the last 55 years. It stands to reason that all the lynching which went unchecked by law & order from the 1870s to the late 1930s was a form of police brutality. Silence was consent. And that resulted in The Great Migration, during which black Americans were refugees in their own country.
Unfortunately, this migration didn’t change the system enough over the years, as there are no major cities in the US—north or south—that have been immune to the unrest over the decades. And even today, smaller Midwest towns and cities (e.g. DeKalb, Des Moines, Davenport, Madison) have seen peaceful protests turn to violence.
It is clear that there is a correlation between oppression and protests-turned-riots here in America. What is not clear, however, is how the protests turned violent. At least not yet with this most recent flare up. I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says with confidence that, “It is a subset of cops” or “It is white supremacists” or “It is Antifa” or “It is the anarchists.” In reality, any and all of these groups could have active provocateurs at the protests. The conditions of racial tension are ideal for any and all of these groups to achieve their aim: to sow discord (albeit for different ends). It is also true that the group(s) responsible for inciting the violence really just depends on which “news” service or social media “friend” can provide an individual’s preferred narrative.
In the end, who instigated the riot in Minneapolis or Anywhere, USA doesn’t fucking matter. The conditions for peaceful protests and riots as they pertain to race are ever-present but often invisible, especially to the white majority. It’s just that now—as at so many other times in America’s turbulent, oppressive past—the conditions exist in which the murder of another unarmed black person is held up and examined in the light from the flames of another burning police car.
Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible…until you let the sun in.
[Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of 2: [a humble list of resources and American black perspectives]