I have been watching the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri with a sense of de ja vu—a sense of we have “been there done that.” We have. The above book was written in 1968 by Nathan Wright, Jr. The book is one of many I still own from my college “black history” courses. Inside the cover of this book is my name, and the words, “1080 Sellery.” 1080 Sellery was my dorm room when I was a 19-year old college student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1968. (I was the students at Madison who waged one of the largest anti-Vietnam war protests in the country and I was right in the middle of it.) The first sentence of Wright’s book says this: “It was Thursday evening, July 13, 1967. The night before the City of Newark had been rocked by a rebellion. A black cab driver had been arrested and, according to eyewitnesses, mistreated by white policemen.” Now you see the sense of de ja vu—“been there done that” that is currently unfolding in Ferguson.
Every one of the talking heads, from the television media to the social commentators to the politicians, now discussing Ferguson needs to read “Ready to Riot.” It is a short read—only 148 pages. It has 7 short chapters, “Introduction: A City in Rebellion; Dislocation and Distress; Unplanned Exploitation: Social Costs, Unplanned Exploitation: The Economic Gap; Signs of the Times; Self-Defeating Goals, and the last chapter that is especially relevant to Ferguson, “The perilous Choice: Order or Repression?
I have heard people say that they cannot believe that the events of Ferguson are happening in 2014. What they are referring to primarily is the use of the police acting as quasi-military. Some people during the Vietnam war protest could not believe that this country used a “para-military” response to protesters until several white students were killed by National Guard at Kent State. Never mind that before the Kent State killings black students and black people had been mauled by police dogs, mowed down by high powered water hoses, and sprayed with bullets and tear gas for protesting. Never mind that black protesters had been victims of a quasi-military response long before white students were killed at Kent State.
Nathan’s Wright’s book was published almost 50 years ago. On page 5 of chapter one, Wright says this: “A few months later in December 1965, a seventeen year-old youth, Walter Mathis, was shot and killed by police. Allegedly Walter Mathis, together with four others, mugged a white man in the vicinity of a tavern. The police indicated that the five attacked them and that Walter Mathis was killed accidentally in the assault.” Sound familiar? Wright’s book then discusses a litany of events that showed the complete disrespect and exploitation of the African American community in Newark that eventually led to the so called “riots” of July 14, 1967. For all the talk about “peace and justice” not much has changed in America since Wright’s book. Wright actually refuses to use the word “riot” instead using the term “social rebellions.” He says this: “Civic rebellions are a form of social insanity or psychosis. They are basically the craze behavior of men who sense that they are driven to distraction. They represent, in a broad form, a frustrated response, in terms of both repression and aggression—to seemingly impossible circumstances that have been increasing in our cities.” Wright then says this: In this sense civic rebellions themselves are not new. They have occurred throughout history when the pressure of unsolved problems has seemed too great for men to bear.” Wright then discusses civic rebellions going back to the philosopher Aristotle and the reign of Henry VII. But Wright speaks of the “compounded problems” facing black America that lie just beneath the surface leading to rebellions.
The “compounded problems” that Wright spoke about in 1968 have not diminished in the 46 years since “Ready to Riot” was published. The same “social costs” of planned and unplanned exploitation that have hit the black community especially hard during the 1960 and before–have not changed. Instead they have gotten worse. The “economic gap” that Wright wrote about 46 years ago has also gotten worse. Wright said that in July 1967 eighty percent of Newark’s jobs were white collar, only 3.7 percent of these were held by black people who lived in Newark. The bulk of these jobs were held by white people who commuted in and out of Newark. Wright’s statistics are alarming for 1967, they are far worse in 2014. Wright then discusses whether “integration” solved anything or was part of a “self-defeating” goal that did little more than (my words) put lipstick on a pig in terms of racial justice. We are at that same point in 2014 with people talking about “post-racial” just because there is a biracial president in the White House. In the hamlets and towns all across America black America might as well be back in 1967. I know– I have been an eyewitness in my 66 years of living to just how much this country has NOT CHANGED.
The final chapter of Wright’s book entitled, “the Perilous Choice: Order or Repression?” should be a must-read for everyone in Ferguson right now—but also for the rest of the country. Wright begins this chapter this way: “Violence is as American as apple pie,” so H. Rap Brown has aid. Violence pervades the life of the nation, but it is the symbolic violence, even more than the dramatic overt expressions of violence, that is most corrosive. It is this kind of violence that inflicts its injuries upon the lives of all.” The question to be asked is, given that the underlying racial inequalities have not changed, why have there been so few riots? How did the white power structure respond to black civil rebellions that addressed the underlying social inequalities? Was the systemic racism addressed or did repression have its day to quell civil rebellion without addressing the root cause?
What if the hundreds of protesting black male youth in Ferguson had well paying jobs to go to this Monday morning? Would they be out throwing rocks all night? What if the majority black Ferguson, almost 68 percent black, had an equivalent number of black people on the police force, fire department, in city jobs, with decent city and county representation? What if there was economic justice? How is black America to swallow being continually treated as “the other,” the “least of the least” while this country invites and indeed finds a reason for illegal immigrants to become the “new dreamers?” Wasn’t it black Americans that bled and died for the new immigrants to gain an economic foothold that is now fast surpassing the very civil rights foundation that black Americans laid for the rest of the world? There is reason for black outrage in this country. And no amount of “let’s keep the peace” “we are now post racial” rhetoric will change the underlying economic and social racism that still permeates the very fabric of America.
I recently thought of this title for a column that I still intend to write– “Dear Mr. Netanyahu, What Would You Do?” What I intend to do is ask Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what he would suggest to help black America? After all, many historians have compared the social and economic history of black Americans to the “children of Israel.” I would like for Mr. Netanyahu, the fierce defender of Israel’s “right to exist,” who has made no apologies for the force he has used to defend his people against the Palestinian’s Hamas resistance, to lay out a plan for black survival in America. I would like for Mr. Netanyahu to lay out a 6-point plan for African Americans to defend their “right to exist” in America. I want Mr. Netanyahu to speak to black America from a position of a historically oppressed people and how that people can begin to defend itself and thrive—just as the Jews have done in Israel. I want Mr. Netanyahu to speak to black America.
Copyright 2014 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.