“Something’s happening in America, something some of us did not see coming,” said Congressman John Lewis, when the civil rights icon switched his presidential endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008.
The events of the past four months have me feeling those same sentiments: a global pandemic and concurrent economic meltdown, international protests in the streets over police brutality and killings of unarmed African-Americans – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and God knows how many more by the time this column makes press.
It took all of this for the world to hit “pause” during a forced period of quarantine and reflection imposed by the new coronavirus, as America’s original virus of racism ran rampant on our TV screens and devices, without the distractions of work, sports, entertainment, restaurants and vacations.
Suddenly, America’s racism, injustices, and health disparities for the poor (especially for poor Blacks) were exposed to a captive audience, leading to mass global protests.
But this time chants of “Black Lives Matter” are coming from, oftentimes, majority-white and diverse protesters versus the traditional majority-Black groups, which were routinely repelled by batons, tear gas, pepper spray and dogs as recently as the Stockley verdict protests in 2017-18.
Recently, I’ve be startled at stop lights by smiling young white guys, waving from their cars, with a “power to the people” fist, windows rolled down, yelling “Black Lives Matter!” I’ve even been invited by young whites, with protest signs in tow, to attend various local events.
The optimist in me wants to believe that this is a pivotal historical movement, as I’m sure the hippies and Black Power activists of the 1960s and 1970s also believed.
But, my pessimistic side – that East St. Louis Black man and son of a father and grandparents who were Southern sharecroppers – questions whether or not this is simply a moment and whether 20 years from now these young, white, outraged protesters will become 40-year-old CEOs, lawyers, politicians and executives with the reins of power in their hands and their knees on black necks.
After all, the acquisition of power and wealth is, oftentimes, an intoxicating drug with the side effects of historical and moral amnesia. Just ask the former hippies who are now politically conservative or the former black radicals who were pacified by well-paying jobs or tenured professorships and lost all of their former rage.
NFL and NASCAR apologies and the removal of racist statues and renaming of streets bearing the names of slave owners and tyrants all provide good, momentary symbolism.
However, the true litmus test of whether this moment in history evolves into a movement will be the intensity and continuity of the outrage once the economy reopens and normalcy is restored.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that a “riot is the language of the heard.” However, being heard and allowed to vent is meaningless without substantive change.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminded us of that reality when he stated, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will … The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The powerful in America are chess players and are gambling on the history of protesters being more proficient at checkers and lacking endurance.
Black lives do matter. Whether they are understood to matter in the corridors of power one year or 10 years from now will be contingent upon whether this movement does not devolve into simply another moment or, simply, a mirage.