Last night, my uncle texted me. “State of Emergency in Louisville??!!!!”
“Its scary as hell, Uncle Joe,” I replied.
My husband and I live in New Albany, Indiana, which is directly across the river from downtown Louisville. It would take us about fifteen minutes to reach the Federal Courthouse in Louisville, from which we’re awaiting news from a grand jury if an indictment will come down for the three police officers who killed Breonna Taylor earlier this year.
As of 8 AM this morning, I’ve heard on the news that concrete barriers and additional chain link fencing have been placed throughout downtown Louisville in anticipation of the grand jury’s decision. When Nick and I were in Louisville last week (for the first time in months), it was strange to see buildings we frequented in college boarded up and inspiring to see many with signs stating “WE STAND WITH BREONNA” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
This year has been full of uncertainties globally. In my community, the one thing that’s had us the most confused is why it’s taken so long for the grand jury to make a decision about the people who killed Breonna. The evidence hasn’t changed; the circumstances haven’t changed. If the police acted completely according to protocol, and if the obligation to follow protocol would be their defense, why has it taken so long for a grand jury to say “What happened is unfortunate, however, we find that the police officers should not have charges drawn up against them”?
In my opinion, the lengthy delay in bringing the case to court and the debate regarding potential charges says that something is amiss. I think the delay is not simply subtly acknowledging that, but the reality that the act of publicly declaring “This shouldn’t have happened, the officials were at fault” goes so strongly against the norm.
As I often do when what is happening in the world is more than I can process, this week, I’ve turned to literature for comfort. Yesterday, I turned to the words of Martin Luther King, Junior, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,”* which he wrote to eight of his fellow clergymen who had expressed disapproval for his involvement in protests during the Civil Rights Movement. It was discomforting to read his pleas for a better America for people of color when, more than half a century later, the events of which he writes so closely mirror what we’re seeing on our streets this year, as well as the reactions of many, often condemning the hundreds of nights of protest.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 221)
Our country is divided. I’d challenge any person—American or not—to say that America is united right now.
What perplexes me, though, is if we all value human life—because we’re Christians, because we’re pro-life, because we’re spiritual according to whichever deity we prefer, because we’re “just kind like that”—how can a single person condemn the demonstrations taking place throughout our country?
“Well, Olivia, you have to remember the vandalism and violence.”
Okay, let’s consider the vandalism and violence on behalf of some Black Lives Matter-associated protestors. But first, I want to ask you to consider something in your life.
Have you ever lost your temper—yelled, thrown something, slammed a door—with your partner or child/children or roommate for not completing a chore, even though you’ve expressly asked them to do the thing on multiple occasions?
Did you justify, even briefly, your reaction because you were frustrated?
Hold on to your answers as we move back to what’s happening in America’s streets this year with another quote from Dr. King.
If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 230)
I will never agree with the violence some protestors have demonstrated this summer. As I’ve said, it was shocking for me to drive through Louisville and see how many buildings are boarded up or that have fencing surrounding the perimeter.
The rage some protestors have displayed this summer is not without cause. Rather than condemning the anger we’ve seen and ignoring the inciting incidents, we must join together to prevent further rage—not by locking up protestors, but by working to eliminate their reasons for the rage.
Let us make our streets—our homes!—safe for every person.
This rage that often has predated the riotous behavior is not exclusive to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—among the dozens of others—in 2020. This rage predates 2020.
Strides toward desegregation were made in the 1950s and 1960s. That work is commendable, and it remains unfinished.
Even if our businesses and schools are no longer segregated, there is still a prevalent segregation in the mind in American society. We see this mental segregation in statements like “If they would just ______”
“If they would just follow the rules first…”
“If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…”
“If he wouldn’t have been out after sunset in a dark hoodie…”
“If he wouldn’t have tried to defend himself…; he should know to trust cops…”
Some Americans are quick to make these “If” statements, followed by “Then they would be okay/safe/alive” or “Then ____ wouldn’t have happened.” However, those same Americans aren’t as quick to ask why someone might not want to obey an order given, sans explanation, or why someone might think they’re safe to walk in a hoodie in their own neighborhood, or why someone might not trust cops simply because they wear a badge.
Some Americans will quickly say what “they” should do, without first checking their own privilege—the safety that is guaranteed one group does not extend to everyone. If it did, statements like “If they’d just obeyed what the officer said…” wouldn’t be spoken as rampantly.
The segregation mentality will finally be vanquished when there is no longer a “they” and only an “us” remains.
I do not agree with the vandalism—smashing of store fronts, taking bats to cars, or anything else—exhibited by some protestors this summer.
I do understand it.
The vandalism is only one piece of a much bigger picture.
The thousands of people who have peacefully protested, who have only struck back when provoked/attacked, must be recognized. Moreover, the reason that brought them to our streets must be recognized. In Dr. King’s letter, he wrote:
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 228)
When peaceful protests are met with violence to shut the protest down, when the peaceful protestors are provoked, intimidated, and antagonized, such occasions should be viewed for what they are: the creators of the tension enforcing the way of life that facilitates the tension to continue. And as we await the grand jury’s decision regarding the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, I am sickened by the reality that the determined plea of Dr. King, more than half a century ago, may yet remain a whisper into the void of so-called justice in America:
Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 229)
The safety of non-whites in America is long overdue.
When I told my uncle last night that what’s happening is “scary as hell,” I wasn’t referring to the barriers being placed to protect the privileged.
I was referring to the reality that the suits are barricading themselves inside their places of business in anticipation of what they decide “justice” will be for a young woman who was calmly sitting in her apartment then violently killed in a case of “Whoops, wrong address.”
It’s scary as hell that the people who will decide this piece of history are afforded protection at work while the victim of the circumstance was killed as her boyfriend sought to protect her home from an unexpected invasion.
I think it’s a shared experience for us all that, whenever someone knocks on our door to pitch us a pest/bug treatment or an attempt to share the Good News, we’re irritated, and probably startled (who of our friends doesn’t text before they show up unexpectedly anymore?!). But imagine that, instead of knocking and handing you a pamphlet on termite prevention, the door is rammed, broken, and the entire pest control team is suddenly in your living room…when they meant to go to the house next door.
We’d be furious. We’d call corporate; we’d want to be heard. We’d complain about the company on Yelp, making sure everyone knows how aggrieved we are. We’d say their name every chance we got, right?
That’s why we say their names—we want justice for them, justice that extends beyond a potential indictment. We want justice in the manifestation of change.
We will keep saying their names.
Rayshard Brooks, age 27.
Daniel Prude, age 41.
George Floyd, age 46.
Breonna Taylor, age 26.
Atatiana Jefferson, age 28.
Aura Rosser, age 40.
Stephen Clark, age 22.
Botham Jean, age 26.
Philando Castille, age 32.
Alton Sterling, age 37.
Michelle Cusseaux, age 50.
Freddie Gray, age 25.
Janisha Fonville, age 20.
Eric Garner, age 43.
Akai Gurley, age 28.
Gabriella Nevarez, age 22.
Tamir Rice, age 12.
Michael Brown, age 18.
Tanisha Anderson, age 37.
And so many more.
And if you didn’t take the time to read those nineteen names—every single one of them being somebody’s somebody—you are part of the problem.
For today, I will leave you with these words of Dr. King:
We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages: they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation—and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.“Letter from Birmingham Jail” (p. 234-235)
P.S… I would like to thank my friend, Jason Fruits, for helping with the brainstorming behind this post.
*All quotes from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are taken from 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, Second Edition as compiled by Samuel Cohen (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007) for the purpose of starting discussion using historical documents. I do not intend to and will not profit from their use.