“We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity.” —Fred Hampton, Black Panther Party
Someone started a fire on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. I was there, and it was scary, chaotic and unsettling.
Then it spread to Baltimore. I was there, too. The flames were almost identical. If you closed your eyes and somehow substituted the lazy St. Louis drawl with a whistle-mouthed B-more accent, you’d swear those boys hurling rocks behind the Mondawmin Mall were the same flamethrowers from Ferguson. They were frustrated and unfocused, but most of all they were unafraid. Those fires didn’t begin with the death of Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray or the too-long list of names to write here; nor did they end with the dousing of flames and quelling of riots.
There is a contingent of young black men and women who are sick of this s—t. Maybe it was the sight of a militarized police force, helmeted and booted to face down dreadlocked freedom fighters in face scarves and Air Jordans after the president called them “thugs.” Maybe it was watching a lynching for selling cigarettes or playing in the park or buying a BB gun from Wal-Mart, but there has been a bold restlessness brewing.
You can hear it in barbershop conversations and see it in their defiant chestiness. They want everyone to be aware that the possibility of peacefully co-existing exists in equal measure to the possibility that they will burn this motherf—er down. After they did it literally in Ferguson and Baltimore, no one was willing to call their bluff as they held a figurative match to Missouri’s $20-million-a-year revenue-producing football program or the Southeastern Conference’s half-a-billion-dollar schedule.
You probably thought it was just about a college football team.
Or a swastika drawn in feces.
Or the student body president being called a n—ger.
Or another student’s hunger strike.
Or the university’s president not giving a damn about any of it.
You probably think this was another protest. You probably thought the 32 black football players at the University of Missouri were just the latest in a long line of college-activist movements sweeping the country, but this is bigger and scarier than that. Thirty-two black men just ousted the head of a system that employs 25,000 people and educates over 77,000 students, just by saying, “No.”
If you’re reading this, you’re probably black, which means that someone has probably asked you to boycott Black Friday or black out your Facebook profile picture for Trayvon. It also means you’ve doubtless heard every conversation ever about the plight of black men include “… if only they knew their power” and end with “ … if we can find a way to unite.” If whatever serves to separate people or undermine solidarity could ever be conquered, the possibilities could be endless.
I will not attempt to make Mike Brown into a martyr or a saint, but what is undeniable is that his death on Canfield Drive was a seismic event that sparked a cultural shift in consciousness. Freddie Gray was the sequel built on the malcontent of Ferguson. Perhaps there will one day be no lines of demarcation between the marching freedom-song singers of the ’60s and this new generation of fist throwers.
There is no difference in the sentiments of Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians and the men of Ferguson busting out the windows of police cars. Ultimately, both sought to upset the apple cart—whether it was a scorched CVS or a now-jobless, Harvard Law-degree-wielding president of one of the largest and most comprehensive university systems in the country. What should be scary to the status quo is the possibility of the pervasive rage becoming as focused and united as what just happened in Columbia, Mo., by just saying “No.”
And all it took was 32 black men.