As a teenager in the 1960s, I can remember clearly the televised images of the riots that erupted in a number of American cities. It was as if there were embers floating through the air that landed on gas soaked rags in city after city. In Newark, Detroit, Watts and even my hometown of Oakland, our television screens were filled with images of blocks and blocks of buildings billowing gray smoke from fires, looters running from store to store grabbing anything they could carry, vehicles engulfed in flames and dead bodies lying in the streets.
I now watch the news on a computer monitor instead of a giant TV console, but the images of the Baltimore riots could have been from an incident fifty years earlier, and for me, that’s very discouraging. It doesn’t feel as if race relations in this country have progressed much at all over the intervening half century. Read the comments section of any Baltimore related news story or tune into FOX News, and you’ll be enveloped by the stench of persistent racism, some of it couched in code words and subtle inferences while much of it is blatant and straightforward bigotry hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.
The one dramatic difference between today and the 1960s is the number of people with video cell phones. Citizen videographers are now able to capture confrontations between police and the policed, and what we are seeing as a result is not a pretty sight. Many have claimed over the years that there are two systems of justice in America, one white and one black. The videos that we’ve seen over the past year or so only seem to confirm this assertion, as unarmed blacks are shot to death for infractions you know most white people would escape unharmed.
This has been a winter of highly visible, racially charged incidents. From Ferguson to Staten Island to Los Angeles to Baltimore, unarmed black men have been killed by police officers. They’ve all been under different circumstances, and not all of them can be labeled a police murder, but the videos do show how quick the police are to use lethal violence in confrontations with black men.
You don’t need a crystal ball to see that this will be a long, hot and violent summer across the U.S. as tensions over police conduct in black communities boils over to the streets. Rioting is not the answer, especially when it destroys the very communities in which black people live and work, but the frustration level of those who are the victims of justice by skin color is on the rise, and with a judicial system that lets them down time after time after time, where do they turn for help?