Violence was wrong, but let's not pretend we don't understand it

Violence was wrong, but let's not pretend we don't understand it

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Protestors set fire to a bail bonds van on Niagara Square during a protest against police brutality because of the George Floyd death, Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The scenes from Buffalo and elsewhere – broken windows, torched vehicles and protesters fleeing tear gas – are eerily familiar.

So, too, is the response from much of unaffected America: It doesn't accomplish anything, so why are they doing this?

But that response, in fact, is the answer to the question because it illustrates the gulf between those who will never have to worry about having a knee on the back of their neck and those who live with that fear – physically, politically, economically – every single day.

To even ask the question is to concede we don't understand how little in America has changed for some people even as we acknowledge that so much has changed, including the elections of a plethora of black elected officials from the White House down. One of them, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, deplored the violence and asked, "What are you changing by tearing up a city? You've lost all credibility now. This is not how we change America."

But of course it is. From the Boston Tea Party – which was no tea party – to this weekend's protests, violence and destruction have been the tools of those who feel they can't get heard any other way.

In fact, every time I hear admonitions about violence and the "right" way to bring about change, I recall the late singer/social critic Gil Scott-Heron, who gave voice to the futility of working within a system that doesn't work for many. His laments are as relevant in Buffalo today as when he penned "The New Deal" in the 1970s:

I have believed in my convictions, and been convicted for my beliefs.

Conned by the Constitution and harassed by the police.

That harassment was most recently evident in the complaints from a coalition of community groups about the Buffalo Police Department's ticketing practices, which they say target neighborhoods of color. That comes on top of alleged cases of brutality involving victims of color over the years.

Local officials – including the mayor, county executive and district attorney – made much of the fact that "outsiders," many of them white, helped foment the violence here. That may be true. But what we need to understand is that for outsiders to light a match and have it catch fire, there first has to be a ready supply of tinder.

[Related: Buffalo leaders blame outsiders for inciting violence as volunteers undo damage]

That tinder comes in the form of the many complaints of police harassment and/or brutality, some of it individualized and some of it institutionalized, as in the ticketing practices or the now-disbanded Strike Force that focused on high crime (read "black") neighborhoods and which remains the subject of a federal lawsuit.

It doesn't take much of that kind of tinder to spark a flame, no matter how much we tell protesters to "Keep calm!"

I've been hoodwinked by professional hoods. My ego has happened to me.

"It'll be alright, just keep things cool! And take the people off the street."

So we instruct them to trust the political process and to believe in the ballot box and the correct way to bring about change. Then they watch the attacks on voting rights across the country and potentially right here. Even as Covid-19 strikes people of color harder than anyone else, they watch our political officials threaten lawsuits over plans to let New Yorkers vote by mail because they hope some people will stay home rather than risk voting in person.

The targeted people know who such measures are aimed at. And yet we're surprised again when such tinder erupts?

We are lectured that Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished a lot through nonviolence. And that is true – until he was shot to death.

And back during the non-violent era, well hell, I was the only non-violent one;

In fact, there was no non-violence 'cause too many rednecks had guns.

King knew, as so many of us who cringe at the images of looting and vandalism know, the perils of violence as a tactic. Beyond that, we also know that on its most fundamental level, as Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz put it Sunday, "It is wrong for someone to bust windows on a private entity. It is wrong for someone to try to burn down City Hall." It also will bring a political backlash, especially among those with "God bless our police" lawn signs.

But at the same time, for those who recognize the distinction between a reason and an excuse, it will bring attention in ways that other forms of protest have not. Unarmed black men keep dying at the hands of police even after Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and a host of others – and now George Floyd – with little systemic change.

That is why it takes so little for peaceful protest to morph into violence, with or without outside agitation and despite the pleas even of the politicians the protesters put in office.

I believe these smiles in three-piece suits, with gracious, liberal demeanor

took our movement off of the streets, and took us to the cleaners

A lot has changed since the uprisings of 1967 and '68 helped usher in the law-and-order Nixon administration and Scott-Heron's critiques. Much of that change has been for the better. And yes, those who vandalized businesses along Grant Street or Elmwood Avenue and tried to torch City Hall deserve to be punished if caught.

But too much also has not changed – including police treatment of blacks – no matter how much we want to pretend.

The one thing we should not pretend is that we don't understand what happened over the weekend.

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