“The Boiling Point”: Activists, Advocates and Scholars Discuss America’s Race Crisis
Many social, political and economic factors contributed to form the perfect storm that is currently raging across America as police attack peaceful protesters with violent force in the midst of the worst pandemic in recent times.
Due to the heroic efforts to share their stories and horrific evidence showing police officers murdering people like George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, these names have become imprinted on the collective public consciousness, although they are only a few among the over a thousand people killed by police each year.
“We know some names now, but there are thousands of those we do not know” explains Rev. Graylan Hagler, the pastor at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.
Police brutality is also not a modern phenomenon, and it is an often ignored fact that the origins of the American police force are rooted in southern “slave patrols.”
In an already unequal and divided country, the coronavirus pandemic swept through communities of color at alarming rates and continues to do so while the subsequent economic fallout causes millions to lose their jobs and health insurance. All of these factors have combined and created a situation that can no longer be ignored, finally giving voices that have long been silenced a chance to be heard.
Citizen Truth talked to activists, housing advocates and scholars across the country to examine the troubling circumstances that have brought about this situation and what the future holds.
Henry, Activist and Social Anthropologist, Currently Based in Columbus but from Chicago
When asked why things have finally escalated to the point they have at this specific moment, Henry responded, “Obviously there was the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which was clearly criminal and horrific, while at the same time the country is facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. They say they unemployment rate in Ohio might be between 20 and 25 percent and job losses and deaths as a result of the coronavirus have been concentrated in the poor community, among black people specifically. So I think there’s a lot of fury. And then you also have the fact that Columbus is a pretty notoriously unequal city economically and socioeconomically; the divide between the rich and the poor is pretty dramatic. It’s especially dramatic in certain gentrified parts of the city like the Short North and Goodale Park areas which have been some parts of the city that have seen the worst confrontations.”
Henry also says that the way the police have handled the protests “really blows a hole in any kind of idea of any neutral or subjective enforcement of the law. To me it’s pretty obvious that the police have always served at the behest and in the interest of the capitalist classes and slave owners to basically keep the masses in line. And in these times this really shows itself.”
Henry believes that most instances of vandalism and looting have been committed by outside agitators, but regardless thinks that angry and aggressive action is somewhat justified. “I have to take the side of largely poor young black and minority people who have been disenfranchised and denied the rights that are in theory promised then. I have to defer to them and I’m not going to criticize them on the basis of a looted Target or some smashed windows in Columbus. We reap what we sow as a society and I think we’ve reached a boiling point of sorts.”
When asked, “What happens next?” Henry responded, “It’s really hard to say because this was all fairly spontaneous. Not too long ago the main news in the United States was still the coronavirus pandemic and now the pandemic is a mere secondary story to all the unrest. With Trump in power, you really have to assume the worst. God knows what he’s going to do or try to do with regards to use force against protesters and people and general.”
Henry is also concerned about the severity of the possible response from state governments and the Trump administration. He explained, “I do trust that most governors who are in control of their states’ National Guard reserves are a little less unhinged than the president, even most republican governors. But God forbid the governor of Texas, Georgia or Florida does something crazy if he feels pushed by the president or feels as if he has the backing of the president.”
Despite the unrest and uncertainty, Henry is optimistic that these factors could finally lead to some drastic change in the way the country is run. He told Citizen Truth, “I hope that these protests continue peacefully without being met with violence from the state and some of the demands are met. Hopefully we come out of this coronavirus depression with massive investments in education and healthcare and work programs and the serious problems regarding systematic racism and police aggression in this country are finally addressed.
However, he still has his doubts, stating that “I do not have a great amount of faith in this administration or this country that that is going to be the path we’re going to take. I worry it might get pretty ugly before it gets better.”
Nick, who works in housing advocacy in Washington, D.C., currently visiting relatives in Columbus
Nick works for a housing advocacy non-profit in Washington, D.C. but is originally from Columbus and is there visiting his parents. In his profession he sees the effects of systemic racism and poverty every day and isn’t surprised that people have finally had enough and are demanding the right that have been denied to them for so long.
Some people have attempted to use instances of looting and aggressive behavior to discredit the protests, but Nick told Citizen Truth, “I’m at the point where I don’t even care about the stuff getting looted because people’s lives are more important.”
According to Nick, “All these people that are saying the protests are bad because of the looting and things getting destroyed are just missing the point. It’s just a way for them to be able to say, ‘black people are going to do what they’re going to do, and black people are going to riot.” It’s a way for them to ignore the systematic racism and police brutality and perform some mental gymnastics to stay in their own lane.”
Like Henry, he is also concerned about possible incitement of violence due to words by Trump, telling Citizen Truth “You know all those crazy Trump supporters with AR-15s and stuff are just waiting for him to say, ‘Do something with your guns.’”
There has been some speculation that groups involved in the “boogaloo” movement have been using the atmosphere of civil unrest and general chaos for personal motives. Nick said, “I think some people are actually rooting for a racially divided civil war to destroy everything so they can establish a white nationalist state.”
The fact that many parts of the United States are still reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak makes everything particularly troubling. Actions taken by law enforcement such as launching tear gas at protesters could put more people at risk of contracting or having serious complications from the virus. According to Nick, “The whole fact that all of this is happening during a pandemic and the government and law enforcement is still responding this way is very frightening.”
Jonathan, Social Worker, Chicago
Jonathan is a social worker in Chicago and the surrounding area and knows firsthand the plights and struggles faced by residents in the poorest areas of the city where people have suffered at the hands of police for generations and coronavirus has spread like wildfire, decimating entire extended families.
His initial thoughts on the events of the past few months were that “I personally need time to be able to process everything. The only thing I do know is that black lives have been disregarded for essentially all of history and I think a lot of things are going to come to light. We all have a lot of learning to do.”
Jonathan also laments how little America has progressed in terms of issues of systematic racism and police violence, explaining to Citizen Truth, “Police and other groups used violent and criminal actions in the past to silence peoples’ voices, and I think it’s especially disturbing that this is still happening today in the age of social media where everything is completely public.”
Tori, Activist, Chicago
Tori is an organizer and lifelong Chicago resident. He spoke with Citizen Truth about the reasons why people are raising their voices in Chicago and throughout America and why it’s important to get on the ground and put in the hard work necessary to achieve real and lasting change.
When asked about why the demonstrations are happening now and at this level of intensity, Tori explained, “It’s just a boiling over type thing where people have really had enough on multiple different fronts. This is a reflection of the way that people cope with trauma, the way that people heal and the way that people cope with stress, which can’t be dictated by others. We’re watching an organic response from people that are tired of being oppressed and marginalized.”
Tori believes that actually very little progress has ever been made in terms of improving the lives of people of color in America, and that most things viewed as evolution in the right direction are nothing but a façade concealing the hateful face of racism that still exists beneath. “We’ve made superficial progress in a way that makes it seem like people care, but in reality, that’s just a veil that people wear because you’ll bet crucified if you say something blatantly racist. At this point people are trying to have a clean image, and make it look like they’re not overtly racist but there are still some people that don’t mind coming off as racist and truly just don’t care at all.”
This sort of veiled racism is especially present in the Midwest, which is a conservative part of the country with long links to racism and discrimination but was never home to plantations that enslaved millions of men, women and children in the Deep South. As a result, in the Midwest you’ll find less overt racism, but many people still harbor ignorant, racist views concealed beneath this veil of progress.
As anyone who has been to Chicago knows, the city is divided up into nearly a hundred fairly unique neighborhoods, most of which are divided upon racial and ethnic lines. Tori explained, “Chicago is still a very segregated city, and that just goes with the notion of ‘You stay on your side and I’ll stay on my side.’ People have just had to adapt to that. People know that if you live in certain areas the police response is going to be a little slower, the environment is going to be a little worse, there’s going to be some drugs… and you know it’s fucked up because people live, people work, people maintain and go about their lives but it’s something that’s never truly addressed because it is that subtle, midwestern racism.”
Most people are probably familiar with the “blackout” that took place on Instagram on Tuesday, June 2, but Tori emphasized how this sort of “slacktivism” is a safe way of showing support but doesn’t actually do anything. He told Citizen Truth, “The blackout on Instagram and things like that are trendy, but me being black is not a trendy thing. Every single day I am an African-American male in America, and I have to deal with being an African-American male in America. I have a son; he’s going to have to deal with that too. At best things like the blackout are a show of solidarity, but does it actually do anything? No. Does it stop police from putting knees on people’s necks? Does it stop them from turning off their body cams?”
When asked why trendy social media movements are typically very popular but less people are willing to actually be out in the street working to fight injustice, Tori explained “People are afraid to put themselves at risk because one of white people’s worst fears is being arrested and they are able to distance themselves from this fear by staying in their own isolated bubbles. Things like the blackout are a way for white people to say they “stand” with people of color without actually standing with them.”
America was founded on a system of brutal racism and oppression, a horrific legacy that persists to this day. The situation that people of color find themselves facing in modern America is the result of centuries of oppression, so it’s important to remember that change isn’t going to happen overnight and it’s important to keep fighting. As Tori says, “Systemic racism and oppression have had America in a stranglehold for centuries, so of course it’s going to take a long time to get these forces to relinquish their grip. This isn’t something that’s going to happen in a week, a month or even a year.”
Citizen Truth asked Tori what he thought would happen as a result of the protests and demonstrations, to which he responded, “The best thing that comes out of things like is dialogue, particularly dialogue with white people because a lot of people feel that if an issue isn’t directly affecting them it’s ‘out of sight out of mind.’ The length of time that dialogue is sustained for is going to be completely up to people’s own decisions and choices as we move forward. People are down to talk about anything while it’s trendy, popular or polarizing but let’s see where we’re at in November or December, especially with the elections coming up.”
Once real dialogue is established, Tori believes there’s a chance to actually create a real catalyst for change, but only if people put in the effort. He told Citizen Truth, “I hope this dialogue can spark action and this action can spark change. Any time there’s any real mobilization and demonstrations that’s what I hope for, that something will actually cause change, not just get people talking. But at least some people are probably talking about things they wouldn’t have been talking about a year ago. So that’s a start, but dialogue without action is never going to mean anything.”
Tori also pointed out that it’s important who you’re having the dialogue with. When asked if he had any advice for people wishing to begin this important conversation, he replied, “Have dialogue with people that you know, especially people you know that may have these racist and ridiculous views on things. Those are the people that you need to be talking to and the people that need to be affected by this. The dialogue needs to reach the right ears. We can’t have a real dialogue among people that already know police brutality is fucked up and that systemic racism is a big problem in America because at the end of that conversation nothing has really been resolved. But when you have a conversation with someone who is ignorant, then maybe you will have actually changed some one’s opinions about things for the better.”
Some names in this article have been changed to protect people’s identity