As I witness the second consecutive night of violence in a frustrated Milwaukee, I’m reminded of one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s lesser known statements. “A riot,” he opined, “is the language of the unheard.” Indeed, the devastating flames that consumed a gas station on Saturday night did not originate from an errant forest fire or secretive arsonists. They were caused by frustrated humans who are desperately trying to reclaim their humanity.
The catalyst for this most recent wave of violent unrest is the Saturday afternoon police shooting of 23-year-old African-American, Syville Smith. For the 19% of Black Milwaukeean males who, according to Attorney Mo Ivory, contribute to over 90% of the city’s arrests, this was just another chapter in a national narrative where law enforcement officers appear to view young Black men as the enemy. Syville Smith is their Philando Castille; their Alton Sterling; their Michael Brown…
Smith is Milwaukee’s contribution to the growing number of exhibits in the bulging evidence file that has so far been unsuccessful in the quest to hold police officers’ accountable for their actions.
To be fair, we don’t have all the facts in this case. If the official report is believed, Smith’s addition to the evidence file would only weaken the overall case. According to the officers responsible for his death, he was not pleading “Hands up, don’t shoot,” but was defiantly clinging to his heavily loaded stolen gun even after they ordered him to drop it. For the doubters among us, we are also told that the entire incident was caught on body camera. “Trust us,” they appear to be saying.
Unfortunately, that’s the root of the problem. Trust has been broken for decades, if not centuries, and some among the frustrated have defaulted to the “guilty until proven innocent” mode when it concerns the police. In fact, even if their report is found to be true, it does not change the basic narrative that supports widespread systemic abuse of power. This is why in spite of any alleged role Smith may have played in his own death, a minute segment of Milwaukee’s minority community has resorted to violence. As far as they are concerned, their cup is full and running over.
Their behavior might be socially unacceptable, but we must interpret their actions through the paradigm of frustrated victims with limited options who will do anything to be heard. When we have a political system that protects what Rev. Jackson calls the unauthorized “state execution” of Black men, some will eventually say, “Enough is enough!”
When we have a plutocratic and despotic system of government that is neither of the people, for the people or by the people, some will choose the “bullet” over the “ballot,” as Malcolm X warned. People speak violence because they have exhausted all other forms of communication. If you don’t believe me, ask the instigators of the American Revolutionary War!
As we learn from the American Revolutionary War, the violence of frustration is often a response to the violence of domination. Unlike the violence of frustration, which is usually temperamental and impulsive, the violence of domination is careful and calculated. Its aim is not to balance power or incite justice, but to scare others into submission and maintain a societal system in which the powerful privileged are protected while the rest are appeased and neglected.
Like other “successful” empires, America has skillfully mastered the syntax of the violence of domination, and has found it to be a language that is universally understood. Indeed, it was probably while researching the section of the war grammar text covering the rationale behind dropping Fat Man and Little Boy on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that General Colin Powell developed his “Overwhelming Force” doctrine.
The dominance of the world’s greatest army definitely decimated the Afghan and Iraqi armies, and the collateral damage has progressively rippled into violent tidal waves of screaming violence that has seen the exponential multiplication of terror cells that also want to be heard in the same language.
Sadly, the “overwhelming force” mentality is not just limited to the field of war, but has permeated multiple levels of America’s law enforcement agencies. Protected by the “blue shield,” many police officers are a law unto themselves as they act with impunity with the full knowledge that there is little chance that they will pay for their crimes. Indeed, it is this protection from the “law” that has emboldened them to enforce control by the type of violence that characterizes the police state in which many of us live.
Unfortunately, for the most part, the media is selectively silent about state-sanctioned violence of domination as it continues to vilify the frustration borne violence of those who feel they have no recourse through legitimate venues.
I find myself wondering how, or if, all this is going to end. I applaud the former Attorney General’s willingness to bring civil rights charges against offending officers. However, in order to fully address the problem, those in the State Department must stop using terms like “recent spate of incidents.” With those for whom their version of the American Dream was written by Steven King, the word “recent” trivializes the ingrained seriousness of the problem.
I hope and pray that something can be done to effectively address the ongoing violence of domination. Only then will there be any hope of stemming the sporadic violence of frustration.