Ready or not, life is returning to some sort of normal in the United States, and normal inevitably includes police officers killing an unarmed black man in their custody, followed by street protests. The country is working its way back into its familiar groove.
As the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee jokes that African-Americans who don’t vote for him are not black, the crisis in black communities seems most acute and overlaps with almost daily incidents of police violence or some other oppressive expression of state power. It was a joke that Joe Biden thought would show his “insider” status with black voters. Instead, it made him look arrogant in assuming he has standing among young or working-class African-Americans. He sounded like any other well-heeled politician who has failed to grasp the enormity of the challenges.
This simultaneous collapse of politics and governance has forced people to take to the streets — to the detriment of their health and the health of others — to demand the most basic necessities of life, including the right to be free of police harassment or murder.
What are the alternatives to protest when the state cannot perform its basic tasks and when lawless police officers rarely get even a slap on the wrist for crimes that would result in years of prison for regular citizens? If you cannot attain justice by engaging the system, then you must seek other means of changing it. That’s not a wish; it’s a premonition.
This was the source of the black urban uprisings that swept cities around the country in the 1960s, the same era as the civil rights movement in the South. The failure of the state to deliver anything African-Americans demanded left hundreds of thousands to take things into their own hands. It didn’t matter then, as it doesn’t matter now, whether white society approves or disapproves; what mattered was that formal mechanisms for social change failed to function, compelling African-Americans to act on their own behalf.
Six years ago, the protests in Ferguson, Mo., set the stage for the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is rooted in similar kinds of social incongruities. It was paradoxical that this new movement emerged in the shadow of the country’s first African-American president and the presence of more African-Americans in Congress than at any other point in history. And yet the amassing of that black political power could not stop the quotidian police brutality. Just as it couldn’t stop the collapse of black homeownership, the expansion of the racial wealth gap or the avalanche of student loan debt yoked to the credit reports of black millennials.