There is a curfew in Baltimore, Maryland, USA which is in a state of emergency. So everyone was out in the streets at 6:33 pm GMT, April 29, 2015 before the curfew started. Also on that day, in an unprecedented event the Baltimore Orioles played the Chicago White Sox to an empty stadium because people were ordered to stay home. Baseball is America's National Pastime and only a handful of forlorn fans were able to watch from behind a fence. The National Anthem was played, echoing through the cavernous stadium and no one sang along. The words "the land of the free" would have rung slightly hollow to some residents of Baltimore. I often wonder about that. How do Black Americans reconcile being American and being systematically discriminated against on a regular basis? And on April 29 my question was answered.
There is a curfew because the people of Baltimore are rioting. They burned buildings, attacked police cars and screamed to be heard. They are protesting 300 plus years of Jim Crow which are tacit and official laws put in place the moment slavery ended, aimed at keeping Black Americans, former slaves and generations of their descendants in a constant state of fear and prey to capricious arrests, and ultimate incarceration. Sometimes the law dispenses with arrest and imprisonment and simply lynches or murders these American citizens, as is the case of Freddie Gray whose spine was severed last week while in police custody. He died seven days later. He was in a coma.
In the early years of the last century lynching was a social event. Entire white families would gather under a large tree, usually in the South of the US, sometimes with picnic baskets and cameras and would watch as black men and women were lashed, burned and strung up and hanged until they were dead. The crowds would cheer; children would pose with the battered, torn bodies and save the snaps as mementos. Billie Holiday sang a song about it, called "Strange Fruit" referring to bodies swaying, hanging from trees. Sometimes club owners would ask her not to but she always insisted, she had the right to. It was an awful part of American life that needed to be revisited every now and again.
The lynching is America's shame, testament to the brutal inequities between the American races and now Black Americans are rising up, after many years of some complacency, and answering violence with violence. It was not what Dr. Martin Luther King espoused as he fought for his people's right to vote and pursue happiness 50 years ago. He wanted peaceful protest, but even he said: "A riot is the language of the unheard".
I had to ask myself:
If my unarmed, helpless son had his spine severed while in police custody, what would I do? If many, many sons and daughters from generations past and present had their retinas detached after a beating, their backs scored with a thousand lashes so it looked like a someone had carved an oak tree into their skin, had been stripped naked, battered with batons, pinned against a brick wall by a water hose while German Shepherds snarled at them, what would I do? If those sworn to protect and serve my community executed members of this community with impunity, what would I do? I would riot. Plain and simple. I sincerely hope you would too. What I would say is this: you don't want to hear me? Well, I will make you hear me. And my anger is nothing compared to their righteous one.
Sharbari Ahmed is a Bangladeshi American writer living in the US.