Like during the Civil Rights Movement, peaceful NFL protesters have exposed the mean-spirited bigotry of America
The American Civil Rights Movement had many aims, but one of the central goals of peaceful, non-violent marches and demonstrations was to expose those who opposed equality and freedom for what they truly were — hateful, mean-spirited bigots. The strategy of non-violence in the face of racist taunts, death threats, police dogs, water hoses, and even violent physical confrontations was rooted in ancient theologies and philosophies, but its practical, immediate goal was to help show the world that the fight for equality had sides — good and evil, right and wrong.
When young Freedom Riders had their bus bombed and burned as they neared Anniston, Alabama it exposed those who opposed them. When Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor turned high pressure hoses on peaceful protesters, it exposed him for what he truly was. When milkshakes and sodas were poured onto the heads of peaceful people aiming to integrate lunch counters, it exposed just how cruel segregationists were willing to be to make their point. When churches were bombed and little girls were blown to bits, when peaceful leaders were shot and killed on balconies and doorsteps, when sweet little black girls were booed and hissed at by grown women as they walked into their newly integrated schools — the world was watching — and what they saw ultimately provided the public pressure and momentum needed for the passage of the groundbreaking legislation known as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Peaceful protestors and demonstrators, who are simply asking for reasonable, meaningful reforms on issues of police brutality and continued racial inequality, are being cruelly demonized, ridiculed, and harassed.
It’s hard to fully recognize and understand a moment of history when you are in it, but right here, right now, we are in a moment that is painfully similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Peaceful protestors and demonstrators, who are simply asking for reasonable, meaningful reforms on issues of police brutality and continued racial inequality, are being cruelly demonized, ridiculed, and harassed.
Last week, in Saint Louis, hundreds of protesters took to the street after a judge issued a not guilty verdict in a case where Jason Stockley, a white police officer, shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man. During a brief car chase, Stockley can be heard on a recording saying, “We’re going to kill this mother fucker, don’t you know it.” Stockley also instructed another officer to ram the police car into Smith’s vehicle. Moments later, Stockley exited the vehicle and shortly thereafter killed Smith.
As the St. Louis police broke up the protests and ordered people to disperse, some officers could be heard shouting, “Whose streets? Our streets,” which is as an appropriation of a well-known Black Lives Matter chant. Interim St. Louis Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said later that evening that the over 80 people arrested that evening (which included an AP journalist) are “criminals,” and he told the press that his officers “owned the night.”
As Carimah Townes reported earlier today for In Justice Today, a few miles away, at the Saint Louis Galleria mall, which is across the city boundary into Saint Louis County, a group of people gathered to protest the verdict in the Stockley case, as well. Here, too, the police deployed overly aggressive tactics in the process of arresting 22 people. When officers roughly detained the 13-year-old grandson of Karla Frye, a 56-year-old black woman who serves as an elder in church and runs a non-profit organization, Frye apparently tried to jump on the officer’s back to stop him.
The officer is seen moments later choking Ms. Frye. You know what Robert “Bob” McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney did? As Townes reported, he charged Ms. Frye, an elderly black woman, with assaulting a police office, rioting, and resisting arrest. She was arrested and held on a $10,000 bond.
If Saint Louis County and Bob McCulloch sound familiar to you, it is because he failed to secure a grand jury indictment against former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. During the unrest that followed both the shooting and failure to indict Wilson, law enforcement used military-grade vehicles and riot gear to patrol the protests that erupted.
Saint Louis isn’t alone. In the wake of videos emerging of police shootings and excessive force from around the country — in some ways, the modern analogue to the photos of Bull Connor and the high pressure fire hose — protests have erupted in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities, large and small, across the country. Through these videos, and the protests they have inspired, Americans are becoming awakened to the extreme callousness with which officers police mostly poor, mostly black and brown, communities.
Indeed, the desire to bring attention to police brutality led NFL players like Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem. This form of peaceful protest, which respects and reflects the best of our country’s traditions of civil rights driven dissent, created an opportunity to amplify the already bubbling national conversation about brutality and discrimination in policing.
And, then, Donald Trump happened. Last Friday, Trump, at a political rally in Alabama, called peaceful non-violent protesters in the NFL “sons of bitches” who should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem. Never in modern American history has the President of the United States spoken so openly with such cruel vulgarity about peaceful protesters. Yet, since then, Trump has apologized for neither the sentiment nor the language. That’s because Trump’s failed presidency needs to mainstream, as a form of distraction, the horrible bigotry often exhibited by anonymous white supremacists and trolls on the Internet.
Trump’s hate-filled stump speech is purifying, though. When it comes to police shootings or the use of excessive force, we know that race drives outcomes in the same way we know that gravity exists. What Trump’s speech did, though, is to lay bare the racism that hides just under the surface in America. The President gives permission to people like Paul Smith, the Pennsylvania fire chief who posted on Facebook that he was putting Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on a list of “no-good niggers.” How racist do you have to be, and how racist must you assume your Facebook friends to be, to post something so horrible on social media?
Trump’s words also gives cover to people like Colonel Kriste Kibbey Etue, the Director of the Michigan State Police, who posted a message on Facebookcalling the athletes who took a knee against injustice this past weekend “ingrates” and “anti-American degenerates.” She later issued a half-hearted apology in which she basically said she was sorry she posted it on Facebook, but failed to acknowledge the fact that it is deeply disturbing for one of the highest ranking law-enforcement officers in the state of Michigan to think what we now know she thinks about these peaceful protesters.
Her actions are not without troubling context, though. In 2013, two black cops with the Michigan State Police won a huge lawsuit against their department for racial discrimination. In the years since, those same officers have said they have faced mistreatment and retaliation from within the department. The recent comments from their own Director only serve as more evidence that all people are not seen as equal there — from the top down. If the Etue sees peaceful NFL players who demonstrate as less than fully human, how must she and the officers under her command feel about the everyday people they are paid to serve across the state? How must it affect criminal investigations when a leading member of an essential law enforcement agency has such demeaning thoughts about people?
Just yesterday it was revealed that the owner of a very popular, upscale Wisconsin restaurant publicly called for protesting NFL players to be killed.
Over 200 NFL players took a knee or a seat during the National Anthem this past weekend. Hundreds more demonstrated in other ways. The harsh, demeaning backlash we are seeing from many white people in power only confirms the need for people to protest in the first place. The hope is that this ugliness gives salience to the underlying fight for a fair and humane justice system in the same way the lunch counter provided a window for empathy and attention during the Civil Rights Movement. Trump, the fire chief, and the director of the state police have each exposed that what’s really in their hearts isn’t patriotism and love of country, but bigotry and plain old meanness. It’s up to us to convert that hatred into the fuel we need to transform the justice system.