by Subhash Kateel
Years ago, I remember getting pulled over by cops my first weekend back to my hometown (Saginaw, Michigan) from college (Michigan State). After watching a local football game with some of my high school friends, a few of us pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot to get a bite to eat and talk to some folks I used to go to school with. As soon as we pulled in we saw police sirens and cops coming toward us with flashlights. The officers came up to our car, told us to step out and asked us, “what are you hiding?” “where are the drugs?” I got real offended because even though there were tons of drugs and drug dealing in my hometown, folks that knew me in high school knew I didn’t drink and I didn’t touch drugs. But that didn’t stop the police from frisking me and my friends excessively in front of at least 30 people in the parking lot. At one point a officer touched me inappropriately and smugly asked me if I was hiding any weapons. My first instinct to react wasn't a good one so I just took a deep breath instead. After one of those generic warnings to stay out of trouble they let us go, not bothering to search anyone else in the parking lot, including folks I knew for a fact were weed heads and acid heads. For about a half hour after, I was consumed with so much anger and rage. Here I was trying my hardest to do everything right, and at that moment none of it mattered. What stopped me from doing anything stupid wasn’t that my mom raised me right or that I wasn’t evil. The fact is, I just started college. I COULD SEE A BETTER TOMORROW. So I just ate up the anger and went on with my life.
I remember living in New York in 2000 when the verdict came out finding the cops that shot an unarmed street vendor named Amadou Diallo 41 times not guilty of all charges. Seeing the picture of this dead man that could easily be any one of my friends made me so angry that I walked out to my front stoop and just screamed at the top of my lungs. But at that moment, there was no one there to scream with me. Plus, I was in grad school. I COULD SEE A BETTER TOMORROW.
Fast forward to Miami in 2008, shortly after I moved to the neighborhood of Little Haiti. One day I stepped outside of my house to a commotion . An Immigration (ICE) raid was happening in my neighborhood. During the course of the raid, an ICE agent threw me on the pavement and put me in handcuffs simply because I asserted my First Amendment right to lawfully observe what they were doing and refused to just go into my house and pretend I didn’t see anything. As I was in handcuffs, being asked all sorts of questions by the ICE agents dressed in all black and armed like they were in Fallujah, I was enraged and angry, but I took a deep breath, centered myself, and decided not to say anything stupid. After all, I had just started a new job in a new city. I COULD SEE A BETTER TOMORROW.
On this week’s episode of our weekly radio show, Let’s Talk About It! (click here to listen) we talked about the recent crash in the stock market and the burn in the streets of England. Our guests included Van Jones, Marshall Auerback, Ben Peters, Ann Collins, and Sukant Chandan. As the show concluded, I thought of the debates about the England riots going on across the world.
“This was an insurrection!”
“This was just the work of evil hooligans!” (people still uses that word?)
“If this happened in America, thugs would have been shot!”(somebody's playing too much Xbox)
“It’s only a matter of time before this happens in America!”
To get the stupidity out of the way, riots DO happen here in America. In fact the LA riots (1992), which lead to over 50 deaths, thousands of injured and over $1billion in property damage make the England riots now look like a bar fight. There were more recent riots as well in Cincinnati (2001) and Benton Harbor, Michigan (2003), sparked by claims of police brutality and killings of unarmed civilians. But there have also been other riots for far more ridiculous reasons. I remember the Michigan State riots of 1999 and 1998, sparked respectively by a lost basketball game and a policy banning alcohol during football tailgates. Incidentally, many of the participants of the Michigan State riots have since seen better days going on to be doctors, lawyers, and police officers. I even saw a few of their Facebook comments in disgust at the England riots, clearly not realizing the irony.
But beyond the stupidity, there must be a way for us to understand the England riots and all riots in which we don’t just justify the senseless killing of people and the trashing of small businesses nor do we let leaders and government officials off the hook for abdicating their responsibility to society. To start, there are some basic truths about the climate that sparked the England riots we should remember:
*Mark Duggan, a 29 year old father of four was gunned down by London police who subsequently lied to cover up the reason for the shooting. They then violated their own protocol for dealing with such shooting by refusing to answer questions to the family or the community. That didn’t stop them, however, from beating up a 16 year old girl that was part of a contingent marching to the police station to ask questions.
*The subsequent rioting in other cities seemed to have less and less to do with Mark Duggan’s death. When asked about the reasons for rioting people on the street would mention everything from the economy to the high level of corruption and government thievery taking place in the country to just wanting free stuff.
*The top brass of Scotland yard seemed entirely too busy helping billionaires like Rupert Murdoch hack the phones of civilians for British tabloids to cook up juicy stories. This left them with little time to contemplate protecting everyday Britons from crimes on the street or the white collar looting of the country.
*The youth programs credited with keeping large numbers of youths off the street and out of trouble have seen as much as a 75% decrease in their funding in the past year alone.
*Brits of all walks of life, even before the riots DO NOT SEE A BETTER TOMORROW.
Here is where the lessons for this country begin. As Ann Collins stated on our show, there are several reasons why riots do or don’t happen. In my mind, despite the talk of hooliganism (there’s that word again) and insurrection, what stops us when we are enraged or angry from doing something crazy isn’t our lack of hooliganism or our fear of police with guns, it is our ability, individually and collectively, to see A BETTER TOMORROW. It is no secret that around the world and around this country, fewer and fewer of us our able to see that better tomorrow. Our elected leaders of all stripes have grown smug, almost indifferent, to our demands to show a clear and convincing path to a better tomorrow, instead hedging their bets on protecting the tomorrow of billionaires.
What I think I heard our guests on the show say is that it is now our responsibility, collectively, to chart out this path to A BETTER TOMORROW. Because if we don’t there will be consequences. I am not just talking about the consequence of unnecessary wars and a plunder of wealth by the billionaire bailout crowd. The riots in London are a real foreshadowing of how high the stakes are if we don’t lay out this path. To be clear, I am not part of the pack that is wondering wishfully when the London riots are going to emerge in the US. Those of us that work in real communities have seen far too many mothers cry over lost sons, far too many upstart small businesses shuttered, and far too many people put out of their homes to want to egg any of that on. But if the right number of people get the wrong memo at the wrong time: that there is no better tomorrow. We are pretty screwed.
I’ll leave you with quotes from our show’s guests and a song I like to hear (played it on the show often) when I am feeling like we are pretty pretty screwed, "Wake Up Everybody" from John Legend and the Roots (originally from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes)
“…if we don’t have a proper political response [to the economy] within conventional channels… the sort of thing you are seeing in London… will start to extend to the US …the danger is if we continue on this route that we are going, your going to see people adopting a more violent response to the problem.”-Economist Marshall Auerback
“when we stood up America looked beautiful when we sat down America looked horrible”-Van Jones, Contract For The American Dream.
“These riots don’t just happen spontaneously, necessarily…sometimes there are conditions that make it important for people to act.” Professor Ann Collins
“we have to go back to understanding the roots of this…these are our children, our children are doing this, we have failed our children…we must take responsibility for them because no one else is.” Political Analyst Sukant Chandan
“the root cause is: is it ok to steal? In the UK we have a…financial and political elite who steal on a very regular basis but do so in a more sophisticated manner…when your leaders steal they lose any moral authority that they feel they may have. And then it becomes very difficult for them to instill a sense of authority in those people that do not have the same access to that sophisticated theft.” Filmmaker Ben Peters