Last week, officials in Tulsa, Okla., decided to charge Police Officer Betty Shelby with manslaughter in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher. Prosecutors will probably argue that the evidence in the dashcam and helicopter footage supports handing down an indictment. Activists will try to convince the public that this is a small step toward the justice that eludes victims of police brutality across the country. Crutcher's family will tell you that a prosecution will put closure on the senseless death of a family man. While the truth might be embedded somewhere in all of these premises, there might be a simpler, less nuanced explanation than all of these arguments combined.
Maybe violence works.
A thousand miles away, the streets of another Southern city erupted in a combination of flames, tear gas and makeshift projectiles after Keith Lamont Scott was gunned down by police in Charlotte, N.C. When citizens took to the streets to protest the shooting, every major news outlet broadcast the unrest. The subsequent coverage showed a populace so fed up that violence ensued, resulting in injured police officers, closed businesses and one death. Charlotte was watching. America was watching. More importantly, you can bet that Tulsa was watching.
Whenever there is unrest surrounding injustice for people of color, the leftover remnants of respectability from the civil rights movement form a single-file line to parade in front of corporate media outlets to plead for calm and peace from the disaffected populace. One by one, in power suits and ties, they march in front of cameras to remind of us of the gains we have achieved through nonviolent resistance, set to the soundtrack of old Negro spirituals.
They conveniently leave out, or wholly dismiss, the parts of history that include slave revolts, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Black Panther Party, the Watts riots and all the movements that worked hand in hand with every measurable gain black people have ever won. In their narrative—parroted by everyone from the slick-haired, smooth-talking court jester Al Sharpton, who finds a way to parachute in to every scene of black pain where cameras are assembled, to the new-millennium symbol of the white ally, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—“Nonviolence is the only thing that ever works.”
It is impossible to believe that Tulsa officials did not see the unrest in Charlotte and factor that into their decision. There is no way to know how much weight it carried, but you can be sure that they felt the hot breath of an agitated citizenry on the backs of their necks. They felt the heat as much as they saw the endless loop of footage showing an unarmed man in khakis being referred to as a "bad dude." They saw the shards of broken glass all over Charlotte in news reports that followed the pictures of a black man in Tulsa holding his hands in the air while being punctured with police bullets.
There are "community leaders" in Charlotte pleading for restraint, unaware of or not caring that the rocks the "rioters" threw may have landed on the scales of justice all the way in Oklahoma. They will furrow their brows and fill the air with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. about love and peace. They will tell you that violence doesn't work.
Tell that to the people in Baltimore who lit the flames that scared prosecutors into charging six officers in the death of Freddie Gray.
Tell that to the activists who descended on Ferguson, Mo., and forced the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the city and expose the inequality rampant in the city's administration.
Tell that to the rioters in Los Angeles whose Molotov cocktails made federal prosecutors indict Rodney King's abusers.
Tell it to the Boston Tea Party.
In the immeasurable history of man’s existence on earth, no population has ever freed itself from tyranny and oppression through peaceful methods. It has never, ever, ever worked. When the people who boarded ships found a new continent and decided to free themselves from Mother England, they had to load muskets. When Toussaint L’Ouverture convinced the slaves in Haiti to free themselves, they grabbed hatchets and machetes. The bloodiest war in U.S. history was when the Southern states fought to hold on to the tradition of slavery. Contrary to popular belief, the civil rights movement was not nonviolent. They put bullets in King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and countless others. America saw that and knew it had to change course.
In the biblical tale, when the children of Israel were held captive in Egypt and even had God on their side, their Yahweh showed the pharaohs miracle after miracle, to no avail. Then God said, “Forget it. I guess I gotta kill their firstborn.”
I might be paraphrasing, but you catch my drift. There is no such thing as a bloodless revolution. It is not just a line chanted by marchers; it is a historic truth: Where there is no justice, there will never be peace.
The turmoil in Charlotte will eventually calm down, and there is no reason to feel happy about the charges Betty Shelby will face, because we've seen this before. They always announce charges, or a grand jury or a trial, but the officers usually walk away free. History is a better soothsayer than speculation.
But for tonight, when you see reports of police donning their modern-day suits of armor for the people who have taken to the streets to demand justice, do not listen to the naysayers branding them as "looters" and "thugs." Those protesters are as much the symbols of American freedom as the Sons of Liberty were who tossed tea overboard. They are using the same tools that every oppressed people have used.
The advocates of respectability resistance never mention one of the most famous quotes of freedom fighter MLK: "A riot is the language of the unheard."
In the shadow of the amphitheater built by Verizon on the edge of Charlotte, there are men and women in the street unafraid of the Plexiglas shields and canisters of gas, silently screaming, "Can you hear me now?"
Believe me, they do.