A week ago Sunday, five St. Louis Rams professional football players entered a game with their hands up, protesting the killing of Michael Brown. They stand in the lineage of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, of Muhammad Ali, identifying with the pain in their communities and turning protest into power.
The gesture turned to chants — “Hands up; Don’t Shoot” in demonstrations across the country. Protesters shut down major thoroughfares from Manhattan to Chicago to Los Angeles to decry the Staten Island grand jury that refused to indict the policemen who killed Eric Garner, turning his plea — “I can’t breathe” — into a call for justice.
In these cases, there was no cross examination and thus no indictments. “Justice” rings hollow across the nation. Injustice reins.
These demonstrations, largely by young and remarkably multi-racial crowds, are not the first. They were preceded by Occupy Wall Street, indicting the 1 percent and spreading to hundreds of cities. They were foreshadowed by the dreamers, children demanding the right to come out of the shadows of the undocumented.
They were accompanied by record numbers of workers in low wage jobs at fast food restaurants and the Dollar Stores walking off their jobs in some 190 cities.
They were complemented by women demanding gender equality, particularly at the workplace where discrimination and sexism are still rife.
The streams of alienation and disparities are converging into a river. Injustices in this new age are not only inflammable, they are increasingly inflamed.
The official reaction to police immunity for the killing of unarmed black boys and men Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Brooklyn has focused, not surprisingly, on the police. The president has created a Task Force on 21st Century Policy, with instructions to report in 90 days. He’s committed millions to put cameras on police.
But he might be better advised to put cameras on bankers. Reckless, unaccountable and murderous police behavior must end, but the police are simply the gatekeepers assigned to keep order.
Behind the gate is the American policy of isolating poor people of color in ghettos, ghettos deprived of jobs, of capital, of decent health care, of affordable housing, of good schools.
Police are assigned to patrol these zones of despair, part of the only thriving industry in these neighborhoods — the jail-industrial complex of more police, police stations, courthouses, bondsmen, jailors, judges, lawyers and prosecutors, court recorders and guards and much more. In this pressure cooker, all of us are vulnerable — none of us are safe until all of us are safe.
In the Civil Rights Movement, the Bull Connors were the violent enforcers. But they were not the issue: The issue was legal segregation that deprived African Americans of their rights and locked them into second-class citizenship.
Today, the police killing of unarmed Blacks is unacceptable and reaching crisis proportions. But the issue is a national policy that abandons poor people of color in their ghettos. If we put cameras on the police, we may get better policing and less injustice (although Eric Garner’s killing was on camera). But what we need is an urban development policy that attacks segregation by race, rebuilds poor neighborhoods, invests in the health and education of poor infants and children, erects affordable housing, offers training for and transport to jobs that exist.
The demonstrations are about justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner and others that can be and will be added to the list. But they aren’t just about those killings. They are about a national ghetto policy, a national worker impoverishment policy, a national inequality policy.
The slogan “No justice, no peace,” reverberates throughout the country. And the demonstrations are growing and spreading. Different streams of protest are coming together. Occupy Wall Street exposed the 1 percent. The strikes of low wage workers expose the global corporations. The “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” demonstrations expose the harsh injustices of the jail-industrial complex.
Dr. Martin Luther King taught us: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politics, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” Today, across America, more and more Americans are standing up for what is right.