It is July fourth in the year 1852, nine years before the start of the Civil War. All around the country, rumblings can be heard about civil rights, and as the heat begins to swelter in Rochester, New York, so too do the fiery words of Frederick Douglass. Asked to give an inspiring speech about freedom and democracy as part of the festivities for the Fourth, Douglass instead orchestrated a vituperative critique of the hypocrisy of a day designed to celebrate freedom in a country that was only half-free. For, as Douglass stated in his speech, “it is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Douglass believed that a cacophonous outcry was necessary in order to properly highlight the injustices of slavery, and the inequality between black and white citizens in America.
Fast forward to the present. We are now 150 years removed from the end of the earsplitting earthquake we know as the Civil War, and civil rights continue to be a huge issue in modern America. In the last two years alone, our country has been wracked from the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, and the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Trayvon Martin’s killer was found not guilty, Michael Brown’s killer was not indicted, Eric Garner’s killer was not indicted, and Freddie Gray’s killers were indicted. Regardless of whether or not the perceived perpetrators deserved to be found guilty or not, these cases are viewed as the latest in a continually running narrative that black citizens in the United States tend to be on the losing side of the courtroom.
Out of the ashes of public outcry rose the Black Lives Matter movement, propagated by professional athletes and social media. The movement has done its very best to draw attention to the issues that are swept under the rug of middle class Americans. In other words, they have succeeded in being the thunder, the whirlwind and the earthquake that Douglass spoke about. Using the power of Twitter in hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, plus the support of certain professional athletes like five St. Louis Rams players who did the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” salute before a game last year, Black Lives Matter has quickly become a new civil rights movement.
As is always the case with civil rights issues, there is fault to be found on both sides. The movement has stirred a strong anti-police sentiment in the public’s perception, and officers are being stereotyped simply for being an officer. The questionable actions of a handful of officers acting as judge, jury, and executioner has cast a slanderous light on departments nationwide, instilling fear that we live in a police state rather than a free country. The cultivation of anti-police sentiment has spawned riots all over the country, leaving cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson smoldering in the wake of intense racial tension. The lawless opportunism that the looters took part in last year is as reprehensible as the chokehold on an unarmed black man that inspired it.
However, the Black Lives Matter movement at its core is about equality and unity more than anything else. The incorrigible actions on both sides of the black/white dichotomy makes the entire subject of civil rights such a disturbing conversation to even have. Growing up as a privileged white teen, I want nothing more than for all my contemporaries to have all the same opportunities that I do. It’s a competitive enough world as it is, and I don’t see any reason why I should have a leg up on anyone just because of my skin color, or vice versa. The plethora of violence over the years has to come to an end, and I do not believe that any movement or riot or meeting will ever be able to achieve the racial tranquility we all so desperately search for.
Take, for example, the meeting on campus recently for Social Equality and Policing in West Chester. The meeting offered an opportunity to hear from multiple perspectives on various scenarios, with a panel comprised of a colored professor and two students on one side and the West Chester and Campus Chiefs of Police and a patrol officer on the other. Listening to the discussion back and forth about the different settings highlighted a sort of dread that most all students feel; while the scenarios listed only spoke on teenagers of color, I think it’s fair to say that most college kids would feel a similar sense of unease if they were approached by the police.
Even in a small community such as West Chester, there is still a feeling of unease that minorities are mistreated by the police. Perhaps the height of this feeling came at the personal anecdote of the professor, who spoke about an altercation he had in a parking lot with a white police officer while he was a teenager living in Detroit. The officer had pulled into the parking lot he was loitering at, saw he was an underage smoking cigarettes and consorting with a couple of white teenage girls, and proceeded to dismiss the girls and knee him in the groin before saying “get your black ass back across 8 Mile.” While this is certainly a racially driven, morally heinous act, notice a change of venue; what made the story so powerful was the fact that it did not seem plausible to take place in this community. It happened in Detroit, which we all know as a rough and rugged place. It happens in Cleveland and New York and Baltimore and Philadelphia, where the larger crime rates take place compared to most suburbs. It happens in Ferguson, Missouri and Sanford, Florida, in the South where racial overtones still remain to this day.
Someone stood up during the assembly and said it best when they said that a lot of the kids of color come from Philadelphia, where the relationship between officer and citizen offers a completely different dynamic than in this community. Basically, because of the fear associated with the perceived harder policing of a major population center, that same fear prevents a smaller community such as ours from achieving the idyllic societal role for police officers, where they are merely seen but not heard unless they are absolutely needed. Until we are willing to forgive the erroneous mistakes of the ones around us, we will forever live in that uproar of racial discourse, and I think 150 years of sin has shown it does not have the power to change.
Scott Vogel is a first-year student majoring in English. He can be reached at SV845618@wcupa.edu