The Fire Next Time!
God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
– (pre-Civil War era US Negro spiritual song)
A horrified world is watching as the US goes up in flames. An appalling racist murder by police has triggered protests in more than 140 US cities. Rioting, looting, cities ablaze, police brutality, night curfews in major cities—it's all happening. The federal administration is ratcheting up tensions by unleashing the US military.
Where the heck are we, really? This is beginning to feel like some tin-pot dictatorship about to unravel. US President Donald Trump teargassed peaceful protesters to do a phony photo op, holding a Bible in front of a church. This sacrilege has rightly outraged church officials.
In his 1967 book "The Fire Next Time," James Baldwin, one of the most perceptive, excoriating critics of racism in America, asks the US to address the consequences of America's original sin—the oppression of African Americans since they first landed here.
Racism, he writes, "compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world—here, there, or anywhere… Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet."
Baldwin issues a stark warning: "If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"
Race relations in the US is a maddeningly uneven mix. Massive strides in race relations sit side-by-side with ghastly inequities.
The racist Jim Crow laws are long gone. Social fraternisation is total. Near-total black voter disenfranchisement in the South is a thing of the past. The US elected its first black president in 2008. Yet African Americans continue to lag appallingly. From home ownership to mass incarcerations to health outcomes, African Americans are in a deep hole.
There are historic reasons. America's historic social security law was passed in the 1940s. Southern racist Democrats ensured that domestic workers and farm workers, both overwhelmingly African American, were excluded. A racist history of excluding blacks from home loans has deprived them of the basic building block of creating wealth in this country—home ownership.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police on May 25, which triggered the recent protests, was preceded by two more recent killings of African Americans under questionable circumstances. In March, police entered the apartment of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and shot her dead in a raid for suspected drugs. No drugs were found. For weeks, nothing happened. Then public outcry forced the state to investigate.
In February in coastal Georgia, a white former police officer and his son chased Ahmaud Arbery, and shot him to death in a resulting altercation. Yet for two months, nobody was even arrested. It took national publicity for the state to step in and arrest the two men.
It's no wonder massive protests demand justice.
And while the circumstances are tragic, there are some green shoots of hope. The protests are largely peaceful. White Americans, mostly young, are present everywhere. New York Police chief Terence Monahan "took a knee"—the traditional symbolic protest against police brutality on African Americans—as have police chiefs in Portland, Oregon, and the California cities of Santa Cruz and Napa.
There is, however, a darker side. The US has a history of massive racial protests degenerating into carnage.
Here's a chilling statistic: In the 1992 riots in south-central Los Angeles, Korean American businesses sustained an estimated loss of USD 500 million, ruining struggling, hard-working immigrants who built these businesses over decades of backbreaking work.
My own hunch is, the vast majority who engage in looting and arson are common thugs who wouldn't know a cause even if it bit them on the backside.
Being peaceful at a time of justified outrage is hard but the rewards are commensurate. Take Martin Luther King, Jr., who battled for civil rights against a far more vicious, racist opposition. He remained assiduously non-violent. Some pooh-poohed King as soft. King won, because his non-violence robbed his racist opponents of an excuse to denigrate his movement.
It's no different today. Arson and looting won't address the grievances of today's protesters, but they are guaranteed to provide a distraction that their detractors will embrace gleefully. California offers a historic cautionary tale: As the student protests against the Vietnam War turned violent in the 1960s, Republican governors like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan rode on the white middle-class backlash to launch a long reign of law-and-order, conservative politics.
I can almost see the more gung-ho protesters' lips curl in disdain: Who are you to tell us what to do, they snarl contemptuously.
Don't take my word for it. Here's somebody whose moral authority is beyond reproach. This is the brother of George Floyd, the slain African American man in Minneapolis.
Praying at the intersection where his older brother died, Terrence Floyd recently told supporters over a loudspeaker: "If I'm not over here blowing up stuff, if I'm not over here messing up my community—then what are y'all doing? Nothing, because that's not going to bring my brother back at all.
"So let's do this another way. Let's stop thinking that our voice don't matter and vote… because it's a lot of us and we still going to do this peacefully."
There you have it. Protest by all means. But organise. And vote.
Remember, it will take time. Take heart from what King once said: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." It was Obama's favourite quote, and he knew a thing or two about how to win in politics.
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a digital daily for South Asians in the United States.