“Give Us Free!”

There was violence in Baltimore last night. Now, I do not for a minute condone violence or the rioting that happened last night. Let me very clear about this. I do not condone the violence. Violence is the last refuge of the shallow. But. And there is always a but. But. There is more to it. Violence is also the last refuge of the desperately unheard. Rioting can also be the collective equivalent of grabbing someone by the collar and shaking them to get their attention.

For me the most powerful moment in the film “Amistad” was when Cinque stood up in the court room and began chanting “Give Us Free!” Give Us Free. Three words. The very essence of the struggle. Give. Us. Free. How many times does Cinque have to chant those words before people pay attention?

Consider. Back in slavery times there was a spectrum of thinking about slavery in European America. At one end were the Abolitionists: End Slavery Now!. Then there were those who wanted to end slavery but slowly, gradually: End slavery but over a period of a generation or two. Next there  was largest group, those who really didn’t care one way or another: Slavery? It’s just the way things are. Farther on there were those who admitted the evil of slavery but were afraid to end it: Slavery is evil, but ending it will plunge us into economic chaos and violence. And finally there were those who believed in slavery: Slavery is the natural order of things, even the Bible sanctions it.  The majority of European Americans were not interested in ending slavery. Give Us Free.

Consider. Between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and Brown Board of Education in 1954, there was a reign of terror across the united States called Jim Crow. Men, women, and children were hanged, shot, burned alive, beaten and tortured to death at a rate that is devastating to consider. Prosecutions, even unsuccessful ones, were rare indeed. Who did these things? Well, yes it was the Klan, but it was also ordinary European Americans rioting under the protection of police and taking great glee in the killing. And the killing did not end with Brown. It went on well into the 1960s and 70s. Some would argue that it is still going on. Give Us Free.

Consider. A young white man and a young black man walk into a crowded store.Both are legally carrying firearms. Which one do you imagine will freak people out? Which will more likely to be accosted by the police, possibly taken into custody, possibly beaten, possibly killed? Give Us Free.

Consider. Do European Americans and African Americans life in the same world? When white college students riot over nothing, no calls them thugs. They’re “just letting off steam”. They’re just young. They were disappointed or angry or simply celebrating. They are excused. When African Americans start to riot because their rage over police brutality can no longer be contained, they are thugs. They are criminals. They belong in jail. Their violence is inexcusable. Give Us Free.

Consider. So far this year police have shot and killed well over 100 people. Most of them were African American. Most of them had committed either no crime at all or minor misdemeanors. In addition, police have beaten and killed people in their custody, the most recent being young Freddie Gray in Baltimore, savagely beaten to death by police. Most of these people have also been African American. Give Us Free.

What does it take? What happens when the cycle of violence and repression is repeated over and over an over? What happens when the anguish is neither heard nor redressed nor even acknowledged? What happens when the pain is denied? What happens when rage builds and builds and builds? What happens when the promise of freedom rings false? What happens when a people are not allowed to be free?

Give Us Free.

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