In light of the recent protests in Milwaukee over the murder of Sylville K Smith, I’m reposting this. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s an important reminder for all of us white people. It was originally posted at my old blog and at Daily Kos, before initially being moved here. And now, here it is again… please note that this was written in the context of the Baltimore protests in 2015. I’m also including some relevant commentary, which you’ll see in this color, and italicized.
So back in early May , while the Baltimore protests were going on, Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote an article about violence in the riots. I’m linking you to Aish.com, but I first saw it in the May 8th – 14th edition of the Long Island Jewish World. I wrote a response and looked for a few friends to edit it. I actually got around to finishing it a few weeks ago (back in 2015). First I sent it to Aish, who decided not to publish it but did forward it to the Rabbi. I also sent it to Alternet, but never heard back.
I’m sick and tired of white people crying about black people “violently” rioting against violent White Supremacy while those same white people condone the very violent White Supremacy that is instigating and causing this backlash in the first place. And I wanted to say something about it. Please note: I use the narrative of the Exodus because the Rabbi does; I don’t actually think that happened. I also did not use the Holocaust as an analogy. In hindsight, this probably would have been better, but I also feel as if my decision to present the alternate universe was a more direct (if ham-fisted) way of conveying what I was trying to say.
Dear Rabbi Blech,
I would like to respond to an article you wrote, published in the Long Island Jewish World on the week of May 8-14, 2015. This article was titled “Baltimore and the Bible: We must address wrongs – but only through legitimate means.”
You opened your article with the following question: “How should we as Jews feel about civil disobedience?” You then proceeded to lay out your case for how we should feel about it. I would argue that you do a wonderful job of articulating how you feel about it, which is, of course, fine. In fact, there are points on which we do agree. Most importantly, I am a pacifist. I am against violence of all kinds. I believe violence is wrong, and it only ever leads to more violence; it never leads to peace. This is why I am against war, of course. Therefore, I agree with you that it is wrong when cops are assaulted.
I am also against the destruction of property. I don’t believe CVS, for example, is an evil symbol of oppression that deserves to be destroyed.
So clearly, the foundation of what you and I consider to be moral and ethical coincides with opposing stealing, arson, vandalism, and other forms of destruction of property, as well as violence. However, I suggest that there is a point of disagreement between us, in that there is one instance in which I believe violence is justified, and that is in cases of self-defense. I will elaborate on this as we go on…
In your article, you praise civil disobedience, and I, for all intents and purposes, agree to that point. You use the mass exodus from Egypt as evidence of the power of civil disobedience. For Jewish individuals such as myself, it is a prolific example of what taking such measures can accomplish. However, you use the same narrative to condemn the riots, and more so, the violence. Here is where we start to disagree. While I do not condone the violence, I do not believe that the real violence is being instigated by black people. I believe that the police are prompting this violence, and White America is enabling them to do so. It is through the philosophy of White Supremacy that the police are allowed to take disproportionate actions against the black community, and White America seems to condone these actions. Furthermore, the media does not condemn the violent actions taken against the black community, but instead demonizes the black community, resulting in a scenario of mass victim blaming. Yes, this is all because of White Supremacy.
The belief that racism is over because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. succeeded in garnering civil liberties and racial equality for people of color (except, of course, that they aren’t seeing this equality to this day), or that America elected Barack Obama to be president, is, at best, a mistaken belief, and at worst, a deliberate lie. In point of fact, black people have been severely oppressed in the United States since slavery, and this has not changed because we elected a man with colored skin as our president. If anything, Obama’s presidency has invited closet racists to come roaring out of hiding, thus clearly pronouncing their bigotry. The violence against black people, and the devaluing of their right to life, is simply a clear, modern representation of what has been transpiring since before this country’s founding.
Dr. King was famous for accomplishing all that he did with a fanatical devotion to peace. He is often misquoted by white people hoping to condemn the riots from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond. But there is one quote, one statement, that white people famously miss when quoting Dr. King. This statement is one he made often, but is perhaps most known from his amazing 1968 speech “The Other America”. The relevant portion of his speech reads as follows:
Now, I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, nonviolence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
I want to emphasize one important line: “And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Please, think about that for a moment, and apply it to what is happening today. Everything Dr. King said in that paragraph, and in that speech, resonates loud and clear with what we are experiencing today. Indeed, Dr. King could very well be talking about it.
It must be stressed that Dr. King’s strategy of peaceful protest is just that – a strategy. It is not a philosophy. It is a strategy that only works in specific circumstances. It certainly worked for Dr. King, but it only did so in the backdrop of the riots, the violence, and the destruction of property. His strategy worked alongside the more violent strategy of Malcolm X. Dr. King’s strategy worked because we (White America) were listening. Unfortunately though, we stopped listening. After Dr. King was assassinated, we abolished the Jim Crowe “laws” and abandoned the philosophy of “equal, but separate.” That’s all we thought we had to do, and now, we can move on. Later, we elected Barack Obama twice as our president, and shouted from the rooftops that racism was over. We believed that we had brought “change”, Obama’s favorite word when he was first campaigning, to our society. We, of course, ignored the birther movement, the disenfranchisement of people of color, and the moves by right wing extremists to keep black people from voting. We’ve also ignored the gentrification, itself a form of segregation. We began to ignore the target tattooed on the backs of black people simply for the crime of being born with the wrong skin color. We have paid dearly for that mistake, and I would argue that their anger is justified.
I wonder how you can revel in the moments of civil disobedience recounted in Exodus while ignoring the immense violence. Do you mean to say that the plagues visited upon Egypt and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds were not acts of violence? I would suggest that the source, be it the Israelites or God himself, does not change the simple fact that the Israelites left Egypt amongst a backdrop of terrible acts of aggression. Transgressions that perhaps, in your view, at least, the Egyptians deserved. The Egyptians ignored the plight of the Israelites, and paid dearly for not listening. This is what we are seeing now, but rather than in a three thousand-year-old story, it is happening in a modern metropolis like Baltimore, in a modern country like the United States.
If you will humor me, let us engage in a short thought experiment together. Theoretical physics suggests that our universe may only be one amongst a potentially infinite number of universes. The consequences of this fascinate me. What fascinates me most is that, if there are an infinite number of universes, then there are an infinite number of this universe, which means an infinite number of people who are me are writing an infinite number of responses to an infinite number of your articles. It also means- and this is more important for our thought experiment- that there are an infinite number of universes similar to, but not exactly the same as, this universe.
I would like to travel with you to one of those somewhat different universes. First, though, we need a vessel. I know of only one vessel that can traverse universes easily. We must find our way from planet Earth to the planet Gallifrey, where the Time Lords have invented a traveling machine known as the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space). This is a machine capable of moving through more than four dimensions, which makes it quite possible to use this machine in order to visit a different universe. Let us travel to a different universe; we’ll call it Universe B, and the original will be called Universe A. Universe B, on the surface, is identical to Universe A. Its big bang happened at the exact same moment ours did. Its evolution, from that starting point to the present day, is exactly the same. This means we can find Earth within the Milky Way, in our solar system. So far, everything is identical, such that we might almost forget that we’ve traveled into a different universe.
We make our way to Earth, and at first, everything seems normal, until we start to notice the status of the culture within the United States. The current President is labeled “the first European American president of the United States.” Our government is overwhelmingly African American. We dive a bit into the history of this planet and discover that, in fact, its history took very different turns compared to that of Universe A. It was not the Europeans who became technologically advanced and re-discovered the “New World,” but rather it was Africans. They invaded Europe to enslave the population and bring them to the “New World” in order to force them to transform this continent into a new society eventually called The United States of America. Soon, one African American president in the 1800’s decided that slavery was wrong and wanted to free European American slaves, which began their Civil War. The slaves were freed from slavery, but not from prejudice. They suffered for many, many decades under an unjust system of oppression, Black Supremacy. Then, one European American man rose up, preaching a strategy of radical non-violence and peaceful protest. Another one rose up preaching the opposite; a strategy of violence. Whatever their personal feelings for each other, their voices were heard. Both were murdered, but through their voices, changes were made. Segregation was made illegal, and some decades later, their first European American president was elected. During that time, the ruling African American power stopped paying attention.
Soon, African American police officers were murdering unarmed European American men and women, cis and trans, for no apparent reason. Investigations took place and trials were held, but the justice system was heavily influenced by African-American officials. As a result, the European American population began rioting. They began screaming in the streets and burning buildings. They began assaulting police officers. They were fighting a system of perceived injustice. Of course, members of the prominent class spoke out against the violence saying, “We support you. We believe in the fight against your struggles, but can’t you do so peacefully?” As if to ask, “can’t you do so quietly?”
Imagine yourself, Rabbi, living in Universe B. Would you appreciate the calls against your people who feel ignored and unsafe to be peaceful? What if society told your people to be quiet? I sincerely doubt that you would. I believe you would agree with our Dr. King when he said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I believe, in Universe B, you would be angry at those who would dare tell you to be “peaceful”, when the system you would be fighting would clearly not be “peaceful” towards you.
Let us get back in the TARDIS, return to Universe A, our universe, return the TARDIS to the Time Lords, and return to our planet. Everything here is the same, except it is black people who are oppressed. It is black people who have targets tattooed to their backs simply for the crime of not being white. It is, indeed, a White Supremacist society in which we live. This is the context within which these riots, this violence, and this destruction of property occurs. People don’t arbitrarily resort to violence. There is a serious issue that has instigated such violence, and it must be addressed. And the first thing we need to recognize (and this calls back to our biggest disagreement, I think) is that this violence is self-defense.
Of course, it may be hard to understand how burning down buildings, destroying police vehicles, and assaulting police officers, is self-defense. On the surface, it doesn’t look much like it. But when you start to look just a little bit deeper, it does look like self-defense when you understand what it is they are fighting. We live in a White Supremacy. This means that everything operates under that guise. That CVS was indeed a symbol of White Supremacy, not through any fault of its own, nor, as far as I know, through any fault of its owner, but only because it was built and operated within our White Supremacy. So that CVS became a martyr, of sorts, for White Supremacy, quite by accident.
And what about the police vehicles, and the police themselves? You shouldn’t have to look hard for this to be obvious. It is largely (albeit not entirely) the police murdering unarmed black people and getting away with it (and even when they are armed, it’s usually in states where openly carrying guns is allowed). The United States police force is the enforcer of the White Supremacy, as it has been since slavery.
This rioting, violence, and property destruction also serves another purpose: forcing White America to pay attention. What do you imagine would happen, Rabbi, if the protesters, from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond, had merely held memorial services then went home, only occasionally going out with signs, and ultimately not even doing so much as disrupting traffic? Would we even be having this conversation now?
Of course not. We wouldn’t even know about it. While such things would have maybe made local news, most of the United States would never have even known this was going on, with the exception of those who reach for news sources beyond the mainstream news. Democracy Now would probably have covered it. This Week in Blackness and The Black Guy Who Tips and Black Agenda Radio definitely would have. Citizen Radio and Radio Dispatch likely would have, as well. As would The Read. But that’s it. Fox, CNN, MSNBC… none of these mainstream news sources would have even known what was going on, let alone devote any time to it.
But we are paying attention, aren’t we? We are hearing about these protests all over the news. They are impossible to escape. And my contention is that this is only true because of the riots, the violence, and the destruction. White America has no choice but to pay attention, because they are giving us no choice.
That is the other role the riots, the violence, and the property destruction serves. It forces the rest of us to pay attention. Because peace is easy to ignore. Rioting is impossible to avoid.
I do indeed want the riots, the violence, and the destruction to end. You and I share that hope. But in order to achieve that, we, the ruling power, White America, must listen. Listening is the most important thing an ally can do. If you wish to be an ally of women, listen to them. If you wish to be an ally of trans people, listen to them. If you wish to be an ally of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and asexual people, listen to them. If you wish to be an ally of the poor, listen to them. And of course, if you wish to be an ally of people of color, specifically black people today, then you must listen to them. I would suggest, Rabbi, that if we want these things to end, then maybe we should start listening and paying attention to the real problems that are inherent to our society. If we wish for the unrest to end, then we need to stop bemoaning the violence and the destruction coming from black people, and start tearing down the White Supremacy that they are fighting against; the very White Supremacy that is instigating the violence to begin with.
(This letter was edited by three dear friends, including Adam E. Berkowitz and Avery Hilditch.)
P.S. – Since my friends and I first started working on this, two more instances of violence against the black community have occurred. First, we had the incident in Texas, where a cop (who was suspended, although I do not believe this is good enough considering his actions) violently broke up what was nothing more than a pool party simply because it was a pool party attended mostly by black teens in a clearly very white neighborhood. Then, most recently, we had the disturbing terrorist attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a 21-year-old man proudly cloaked in White Supremacy.
He sat in this church for an hour, while the parishioners he murdered continually invited him to join them in Bible study. And then he murdered nine of them, while saying “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over our country. You have to go.” These nine innocent people, Reverend and Coach Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend and State Senator Clementa Pinckney, Librarian Cynthia Hurd, Recent Graduate Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson (Wife of Reverend Anthony Thompson; I apologize, for I do not know her occupation; I do, however, know that she was a sister of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority), Sexton Ethel Lee Lance, Reverend Daniel L. Simmons, Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson (member of the Eastern Light Chapter No. 360 Order of the Eastern Star), lost their lives in a terrorist attack against the entire black community. It is foolish to continually question the terrorist’s motives when he spoke them so clearly. Racism was his motive. He was draped in the racism built underneath the Confederate Flag, that symbol of White Supremacy that, as of the writing of this response, still flies over the capital of South Carolina.
There is no excuse for demanding that the black community “be peaceful” anymore. It is us white people… it is our white community… that must learn how to be peaceful. It is our failure to be peaceful that has brought all of this upon us. Riots, violence against others, and destruction of property will continue to occur as long as the black community must defend itself against White Supremacy; against us. This is the lesson we must learn… to end the violence, we white people must first stop committing violence. Or we must accept that the violence and the destruction will not end. Because while it is true that not all white people are racist, it is also true that yes all black people must deal with the racism that our White Supremacy continues to create.
So please, let’s stop telling black people to be peaceful. They are not the ones who need that message.
P.P.S. – And now historically black churches are burning throughout the South. Still need more evidence of the evil going on against black people?
July 12, 2016 – And it continues, over a year later. More black people are being murdered, and more violence is occurring. A black man was found hanging from a tree in Atlanta, four have been murdered by the police, and in Dallas one man fought back, shooting 11 officers, with 5 of them dying, before he was bombed by the police.
I still feel that using the Holocaust, a real and horrid event that Jews dealt with after centuries of open anti-Semitism, would have been better than my Universe B, but the message is sent. White Supremacy is what is violent; black people are simply defending themselves. It’s time us white people joined them, as well, in tearing down the White Supremacy that is killing them. Not to be heroes and get ally cookies, but because it is the right thing to do.