As I watched the fires in the night leap skyward over Minneapolis and watched the protest marchers pour into other streets across the nation, I was reminded of the cities that erupted in flames a half-century ago and wondered, “What’s changed?”
I still wonder. I was reminded of a still painfully relevant line from James Baldwin in the early 1960s: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
I’m usually more conscientiously optimistic than that. “Don’t just get mad,” my father used to say. “Get smart.”
But sometimes the weight of recurring tragedies brings me down, pulling me into that quiet, seething anger that, as the late Chicago journalist-activist Lu Palmer used to say, is “enough to make a Negro turn black.”
I felt that anger coming back with the latest video-inflamed racial catastrophe, the death of George Floyd. The black Minnesota man, left unemployed by the coronavirus quarantine, died Monday with the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed into his neck.
Police had been called to a convenience store in south Minneapolis by an employee who believed Floyd had just used a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd was still outside the store when officers arrived and tragedy ensued, on camera.
Store owner Mike Abumayyaleh, who was not in the store when police were called, sounded sorry in televised soundbites that police were called. He described Floyd as a regular customer who “was always pleasant” and “may not have even known the bill was counterfeit.”
Police had said that Floyd resisted arrest, but you certainly don’t see that in the three videos that have turned up. Floyd was a tall man. Some might even find his height imposing. But he’s cooperative in the videos, even as he is forced to stay down on the ground with Chauvin’s knee in his neck — even as he gasps “I can’t breathe,” sadly similar to the same memorable words gasped by New York’sEric Garner, another video-recorded victim of a police officer’s restraint, except by a chokehold.
It was the startling video from Minneapolis that brought crowds to the streets, and the fact that Chauvin and the three other officers with him were fired but not charged immediately in Floyd’s death. Finally on Friday afternoon Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, another hard-won but necessary step toward justice.
Both the Floyd and Garner cases raised the same troubling question in many minds: Would the alleged offenders have been treated more humanely if they had been white?
That question erupted again early Friday in Minnesota in another shot at the state’s “Minnesota Nice” reputation — the ridiculous arrest by state police of Chicago-based CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his two-person crew as he was broadcasting live from the riot zone.
Jimenez, a brown-skinned man who self-identifies as African American and Hispanic, and his crew were taken away in handcuffs while trying to comply with confused and conflicting instructions by police to leave the immediate area. They were later released with profuse apologies conveyed by Gov. Tim Walz.
The temporary muzzling of a journalist of color at this moment, while other nearby journalists reportedly roamed freely, struck me as painfully unfortunate.
Video has brought a tremendous new power to those who charge police misconduct. The names of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean and Walter Scott loom large, like Garner’s, in the annals of unarmed black civilians who died at the hands of police in questionable circumstances. Yet, still, we seem to have to fight that wearying fight over and over again.
As much as we should have learned from the past half-century of advances and setbacks in race relations, the charge of police brutality — which has triggered more major uprisings than any other major issue in black communities — still comes back, in large part because of the presence of a miniature TV studio in our pockets known as the smartphone camera.
Justice should not be a question of black vs. white. In the true spirit Martin Luther King Jr., we should come together across racial lines in pursuit of justice — and a better future — for all.
We can begin with learning from our differences. I don’t support everything Black Lives Matter leaders say, for example. But I also know that they aren’t the agent of fear that right-wing pundits claim. Similarly, I know from a lifetime of experience that President Donald Trump’s base supporters are not all Klansmen by another name. We may not always be able to work together, but it’s always worth a try.
That’s why Baldwin’s words come back. I know how it feels to hold a quiet rage “almost all the time.” But I also try to remember Baldwin’s next line. “So that the first problem is how to control that rage,” he said, “so that it won’t destroy you.” Or anyone else.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.