A day we never thought any of us would ever see. Kanye said nothing, and that was just right. He kept his mask-clad face silent, and later put some money where his mask was, donating $2 million to the families of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
At a time when we are exhausted, and exhausted of hearing celebrities, a sick statement from Yeezy that might have made Twitter implode just by the energetic potential of a firestorm probably would have thrown us over the edge. Instead, we received his silence and his financial solidarity. Never the one to forego a poignant moment for shock and arousal, Kanye remained silent when we needed and desired it most. Thank you Yeezy, truly, for nothing.
Now, let me take a minute and talk about these demonstrations.
I regularly attended Sunday School as a child (for the most part -- some of my teachers would disagree). Each Sunday our teachers would emphasize that only Jesus could have been the sacrifice for all sinners since he alone had lived a blameless life. As a child, I was baffled that these instructors could boldly claim something so obviously false. However, I kept my childlike musings to myself; our entire belief system hinged on this fact. But in my mind, the Bible clearly told a different story. Jesus had sinned. Upon his arrival to Jerusalem, Christ entered the temple and found merchants buying and selling within the sacred place’s doors. He overturned their tables and drove out those searching for profits in a place of prayer. As a child hearing this story, I pictured myself walking around, yelling, and turning over tables out of anger. I figured those in authority would probably characterize that behavior as sinful. Yet when Christ displayed his anger for all to see, he didn't sully his 33-year sinless streak.
I’ve carried those two images with me these past few weeks: one of Christ angrily flipping tables as shocked onlookers watch, some who had probably just welcomed him into the city in the palmed procession, and one of myself, a young Christian struggling to comprehend how an outburst in the temple was a justifiable act. Over the past few months, the nation has witnessed the brutal murders of three Black people. All of these murders occurred under the guise of maintaining American notions of law and order. Two of these killings were at the hands of law enforcement professionals. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered by people whose salaries their taxes paid. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by white people who, much like George Zimmerman, felt emboldened to enforce their own idea of order and indiscriminately take Black life without worry of retribution. In their deaths, these three joined an ever-growing list of Black people killed at the whims of policing bodies.
After the nation watched George Floyd, yet another Black man, plead with an officer for his life, saying the same words we heard Eric Garner utter just years earlier, “I can’t breathe,” US citizens and residents poured into the streets, starting in George Floyd’s home of Minneapolis and extending to cities and towns across the country. The international community also started watching. Protesters throughout the world joined in solidarity for Black Americans as well as to challenge racism and xenophobia within their own countries. Early protests morphed into riots, and some of the following weeks of protests throughout the country would likewise include rioting and looting. Immediately, voices began to decry the protesters for the ensuing violence and thefts from stores like Target. American onlookers clutched their department store pearls and focused on the violence, refusing to address the structural racism protesters were opposing. It seemed the destruction of a Macy’s provoked more response from the general public than the systematic murder of Black people at the hands of their government.
Americans will always squirm at the sight of violent riots; the image of broken glass in their main streets does not make for great optics. They shout this isn’t America, meaning such violent displays are better suited in other countries, perhaps Iraq, of which Donald Rumsfeld noted that the transition to freedom could include looting as a result of “pent-up feelings." The US is a country where Black people have never fully known freedom, their very existence criminalized. According to the Sentencing Project, 1 in 3 Black men will see the inside of American prisons where they account for 30% of the population. Just before George Floyd’s death, the nation watched while an educated, middle-class white woman weaponized a Black man’s inherently criminalized identity against him, telling him she would inform the police that an African-American man was threatening her life. She hit that African-American hard too, knowing what the emphasis on his identity would bear. She was threatening him. Hours later, the whole nation would witness the severity of that threat as George Floyd died at the hands of police.
There’s a whole conversation we could have on whether the looters were economically justified in stealing from massive corporations that exploit the American people and drain their resources on a daily basis while widening an increasingly severe wealth gap. We’ll focus our attention elsewhere for now. Some were quick to separate the protests from the riots and looters in discourse, fearful that the onslaught of property destruction would delegitimize the mass calls for racial equality in a country that has never seen it. Their fears were justified; the President of the US called protesters thugs and reverted to a catchphrase beloved by white supremacists a century over that called for the protesters' executions. As time wore on, recordings of Black protesters stopping other participants from engaging in destruction during marches began to surface. Demonstrators themselves did not want the image of the movement marred by criminality nor did they want to fuel the fire of dissenters. The insistence on condoning the violence and separating them from the protests was an instance of respectability politics. If the movement did not look and function the way the mainstream culture wanted, then it was not worthy of attention and social value and by extension, neither were the ideologies it was meant to propound. However, the property destruction that ensued from the early days of protests did not change the substance of the message, nor did it change the exigency of denouncing structural racism.
Riots in response to racial oppression is nothing new for this nation. For 400 years, Black people have fought to have their rights recognized, and their fight has included physical struggles and displays of outrage. When Black slaves revolted in the US, their rebellions were extremely violent; they murdered dozens. Was their violence superfluous or unjustified? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted that "a riot is the language of the unheard." In fact, the CEO of Target, one of the first stores that was damaged following the riots, donated $10 million to the cause, noting that the store would be rebuilt and that the company "vowed to face pain with purpose.” While I’m always hesitant to see the abundant good in the morals of corporations (in fact a recent New York Times opinion piece highlighted Target’s hypocrisy), Target’s support for protesters and refusal to focus on the property damage serves as a considerable recognition that the economic loss of property destruction did not merit clouding the message behind the demonstrations. The riots were an understandable reckoning with the pain and anger Black people have borne for centuries, let alone the past few months, that have felt like future units of our grandchildren’s history classes. Not chapters, units.
Imagery matters because imagery garners public attention. Whether it’s gruesome footage of the countless deaths at the hands of police officers, or videos of protesters overpowering US streets, without these images, public opinion would not be shifting radically in support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Public figures and institutions would not be tripping over themselves to decry the oppression of Black people in this country, like Roger Goodell recanting his tired stance of smothering the voice of Black NFL players. As Mara Gay put it, protest works.
And then there's COVID-19.
The past few months have been of the sort where our notions of reality and control have been deeply altered. In a rare moment of unity, our humanity has linked us in a shared global tragedy. While the virus itself illustrates how the world's 7 billion people can be brought to their knees by the same threat, disparate responses from our governments have caused tension in the international community. At a time where countries could show solidarity against the same enemy, distrust of foreign governments remains an issue. Countries are battling for necessary medical equipment, and while certain countries are able to minimize the fatality of the virus, other countries, like the US, have stark death rates. To a bewildered onlooker, it seems unconscionable that countries are unable to replicate the methodology of curving the spread of the virus of their more successful peers. And while the question of resources inhibiting a country’s comprehensive response certainly is an issue, there seems no international call for pooling resources or supporting countries with the infrastructure necessary to implement similar life-saving methods. We are currently living in a world many of us never could have imagined existing outside the confines of a movie screen. Each day seems to bring some other dull surprise, and our responses dampen as our capacity for shock is exhausted. Against the backdrop of the unique challenges only a pandemic can pose, the citizens of the US have responded to an evil we have known since the country’s founding.
There’s no denying that the mass gathering of large crowds throughout the nation will lead to an increase of COVID-19 cases. Health officials who continued to emphasize the importance of social distancing understood that the dire issue of systemic racism necessitated an urgent response, including one that risked the spread of the virus. The undervaluing of Black lives is a public health issue; an issue that has been clearly demonstrated to our nation as the pandemic claims Black lives at three times the rate of white Americans. Experts at the University of Washington penned an open letter, which garnered over 1,000 signatures from public health officials, affirming support for the demonstrations and re-emphasizing the importance of social distancing measures where possible amidst the protests. In the letter, they differentiate the protests challenging the stay-at-home orders from those that protest systemic racism in the country. Black Lives Matter protests mobilized in response to the loss of life. On the other hand, demonstrations against stay-at-home orders focused on disregarding public health guidelines and strong government responses to the virus for the sake of reopening business and stimulating the economy in the wealthiest country in the world, even as people died by the tens of thousands. The two protest movements were diametrically opposed; one called for the sanctity of life at the expense of power and economic exploitation, the other called for the maintenance of the economy at the full expense of human life.
I attended a vigil for the life of Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police officers while she slept in her bed. As an EMT, she was a frontline responder to the pandemic, the same pandemic that had kept me inside for months and had kept me from joining protests in their initial days. Only a week earlier, I had stressed at the funeral of my grandmother, a Black woman who lost a struggle to COVID-19. My family took the virus seriously, carefully distancing ourselves even in a time of mourning, though at times I worried our grieving households strayed too close to each other. It was another layer of anguish to a painful day. Within a week, my family members would don masks and join the protests, saving distancing cautions for the rest of our daily activities. Finally, on what would have been Breonna’s 27th birthday, I joined mourners and protesters outside of New York's St. John’s Cathedral. The Church doors were covered in banners that decreed Black Lives Matter. A Catholic clergyman clad in his liturgical robes and a face-shield led the vigil. Later, after marching the streets of Harlem, a clergyman would meet us again. Black Lives Matter is a cry for the Gospel to be enacted in the US. It is a demand for Black bodies — Black temples, which have been defiled by the oppression of the State since the country’s inception, to be fully valued.
When Jesus overturned the tables it was in protest of the desecration of that which was sacred. When Black lives are stolen, that is a desecration. In the midst of a pandemic, multiple men had to suffer public and gruesome deaths, a woman had to be murdered as she slept, and people had to risk their health and bodily safety before cities began to consider police reform and the public felt comfortable proclaiming that Black lives mattered. Much like in 2015 when the Confederate Flag was not lowered from the South Carolina Capitol Building until nine Black churchgoers were massacred, they require our bloodshed before they recognize our protests and honor our cries, and that is a reason to overturn tables.