What Are Healthy Responses to the Sick Aspects of Society?

What Are Healthy Responses to the Sick Aspects of Society?

What Are Healthy Responses to the Sick Aspects of Society?

Reactions inside and outside of Ferguson to a grand jury's refusal to indict Michael Brown's killer, which many regarded as yet one more example of the inequity people of color suffer at the hands of police, raise the question of what is the most effective means of protest. The answer is a bit too unclear for comfort.

   

What Are Healthy Responses to the Sick Aspects of Society?

image by: Paul George

"Burn this bitch down," Louis Head screamed the night the Ferguson grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed Michael Brown, Head's stepson. "Burn this bitch down! Burn this bitch down!"

Head has since apologized for his outburst, but only a week after many people in Ferguson followed his exhortation to the letter, burning and looting the already-impoverished community.

Although Ferguson police are considering whether Head should be charged with inciting a riot, many say he deserves a pass for his remarks on account of his grief. But however this matter should be handled, Head's reaction—along with that of many across in and far beyond Ferguson—highlights the manner in which many are programmed to react to injustice.

However spontaneous Head's outburst may have been, there is no question that it was learned and probably somewhat carefully considered. Burning down buildings is, after all, the classic American response to police injustice. While the Watts Riots of 1965 may be too far back in time to be prominent in current cultural memory, the rioting in Los Angeles in response to the exoneration of the LAPD officers caught on video viciously beating Rodney King in 1991 is well familiar to most adult Americans. The classic images from those four days in 1992 are of buildings burning all across the poorer parts of the city.

Clearly, that is exactly what Head was evoking. Many feel that the disaffected among us need to live by the old adage that two wrongs don't make a right, not only because of the ethics/morals involved, but because such actions are counterproductive to whatever cause they may be championing. Compounding injustice by further injustice—such as the burning and looting of homes and businesses that are in no way related to whatever has incited the communal anger—simply creates more victims, a course that does not compel the rest of society to be open to the complaints of the disaffected.

I clearly recall the trial of the officers who beat King. Like most Americans—especially Southern Californians like myself—I found the video shocking and followed the trial (which was broadcast on television) closely. The LAPD—and police in general—had long been reputed to be unjust, often violently, toward people of color; and it was claimed that the rest of the judicial system was similarly unfair. As a White person who grew up in Orange County, I had no firsthand—nor even secondhand—knowledge of such inequity. But although I never doubted it, here was indisputable proof of just what people of color had been saying all along. And because it was so clearly documented on video, surely justice would be done. After all, this wasn't the Jim Crow South of the middle of the century, but fin de siècle Los Angeles. Clearly these officers were going to jail.

Then came the verdict: not guilty on all counts. I was not only completely dumbstruck but outraged. Truly, the judicial system did not work for people of color, even here, even now.

But the public reaction that followed completely took attention away from the injustice. For the days during the riots and the months that followed, the story was the rioting and destruction. However justified the community's anger over the verdicts, the behavior of the rioters created not a bridge to the disenfranchised but a disconnect from them. And that was for those of us who shared their outrage. For many others, the reaction in Los Angeles engendered sympathy for the police and justified their harsh tactics.

But there's a question that no-one but the Devil's advocate is willing to ask: does such a reaction, however unjust in itself, facilitate quicker redress of societal wrongs?

Most would agree the preferred model for protest as a means to societal change is that effectively championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. King's nonviolent campaign, which culminated with 1963's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and an audience with the president of the United States, led directly to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, perhaps the single greatest legislative move to redress inequity since the Emancipation Proclamation.

But backgrounding King's nonviolent approach was a more aggressive approach advocated, at least in spirit, by Malcolm X, who sometimes expressed impatience with King's perceived passivity. Although in practice X and his followers were also nonviolent, his rhetoric was far more inflammatory, hinting that violent resistance was a possibility were American society to fail to eradicate the inequity with which Black Americans had been burdened throughout the nation's history. "I don't advocate violence, but if a man steps on my toes, I'll step on his," Alex Haley quotes him as saying in the epilogue to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "The whites better be glad Martin Luther King is rallying the people because other forces are waiting to take over if he fails." King himself admitted as much: “If siz[e]able[,] tangible gains are not made soon all across the country, we must honestly face the prospect that some Negroes might be tempted to accept some oblique path su[c]h as that Malcolm X proposes."

To be sure, the 1992 L.A. riots got the government's attention. For example, only five months later the California Assembly had formed a Special Committee on the Los Angeles Crisis and issued its final report, entitled "To Rebuild Is Not Enough". Meanwhile, on the federal level the government enacted the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Act—a piece of legislation directly benefitting South Central L.A.—the reification of a concept some believe "gained currency as a result of the violence."

By comparison, the rioting in Ferguson was minor, and most agree that by and large the rioters were not legitimate protesters, but opportunists exploiting the outrage over the grand jury's decision to vent violent instincts and/or to profit. Most protesters in Missouri and around the country have expressed their anger without harming others or damaging property, typically doing no worse than disrupting traffic.

The peaceful member of society far prefers such protests to the aggressive sort. But because cause and effect is often unclear and there is no counterfactual history in life, we will never be able to answer the question of whether a complete lack of wanton violence and destruction would have better contributed to change, or rather whether a more aggressive, chaotic reaction would have proven more effective—or, of course, whether what actually happened struck the best balance.

It's an uncomfortable question. The only sure answer is that rooting out the societal inequity that is the root cause of such reactions, peaceful and violent alike, is the only way to moot the entire consideration.

But as of now, there is no doubting that inequity exists. Whatever the truth about how one police officer dealt with one young man in Ferguson, when you consider not our distant history but recent videos of what took place on a New York sidewalk and in a Cleveland park, it seems painfully clear that the United States has yet to be purged of the sickness that leads instruments of power to treat people of color, along with those of low socioeconomic standing, more harshly than they do the rest of us.

Until we are cured of such illness, the disenfranchised among us will have cause to react to the inequity they suffer. And there's no telling how measured those reactions will be, nor how measured they should be in terms of bringing about the ultimate desired results.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Thursday, September 15, 2022