As Roger Goodell and NFL Owners discuss a rule that may force grown men to stand for the National Anthem and forego a silent and peaceful protest of police brutality against African Americans, I am again in shock and awe at why white conservatives insist on labeling these protests as “divisive.”
This is nothing new, of course. White conservatives have historically been aloof to the fact that movements of black justice embody the very American ideals that white conservatives claim to be so nostalgic about. Us white people were raised on the heroics of Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But we have rarely extended this heroism to those who call for black liberty. If you doubt this, go to your public library and observe your local newspaper from days past.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington in August 1963 to give his “I have a dream” speech, the Fort Smith newspaper read, “March on Washington a Step Backward for U.S.”
“Liberty or Death!” we howl at any mention of even moderate gun legislation. But in Oakland, in 1966, when the Black Panthers decided that an organized militia was necessary to protect against police brutality aimed at African Americans, what did California do? Passed gun control legislation, of course.
When the Panthers protested this legislation in the state capitol building, the California Governor remarked that “this is a ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of goodwill. There’s no reason why a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon on the street today.” What half-baked, hippie-liberal Governor of California would say something so un- American, you might ask? None other than the patriarch of modern conservative politics, Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan.
The Panthers, Martin Luther King, and a host of other black political groups were treated as terrorist factions by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. A specific goal of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation was to prevent respectability of black leaders by discrediting them. The apex of this operation was a police raid on the apartment of an emerging young leader in the Black Panthers, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, who, after being drugged by an FBI agent, was shot in the head while sleeping next to his pregnant wife.
This is all so hauntingly relevant as the FBI has implicated Black Lives Matter in a counterterrorism study recently released entitled “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers.”
“Give me liberty or give me death!” we cry. This countries founders knew well what it was like to be considered terrorists in their homeland. They destroyed property, killed tax collectors, and started a war to earn that strong of a label. For the black American, apparently, all it takes to attain that label is to declare publicly that your life matters.
It is difficult to understand why the white conservative so rarely understands this. What is far more difficult to understand is why white conservatives consistently find an excuse to be personally offended by these protests. To the white conservative, professional football players are not kneeling in solidarity to bring attention to injustice. They are “sons of bitches” who disrespect our troops and should be benched or fired. Black Lives Matter is not a group that seeks justice regarding police brutality. They are “anti-police extremists.”
But white conservatives do not consider that African Americans may not share their heroic image of police officers. When I was a boy, my mother told me police officers were here to protect me. When I asked her if they shoot people, she said to keep us safe, they might shoot a bad guy in the leg. This is the narrative that shaped my imagination as it pertained to police officers. Police officers were good guys, here to protect us from bad guys, who they shot in the leg, if things got bad. I imagine that this is the same sort of story my mother was told as a young girl by her parents. It is a truth that white people grow up on: The police are heroic servants who keep us safe.
While my mother was learning this heroic narrative as a young girl in the early 60’s, the police were looking the other way while white people burned public buses on which the Freedom Riders were testing bus integration laws. Whites attempted to trap the black and white protesters inside the burning bus, hoping to suffocate them. When the Freedom Riders persisted on other buses, police were there, not to protect the rights of blacks and uphold integration laws, but to assist in brutally beating the Freedom Riders. It is understandable that my parents and African Americans may have inherited different narratives about the nature of police.
These days, it seems to make white conservatives feel warm and fuzzy when calling for “unity.”
But if any of us want unity, it will require effort and empathy. If white conservatives expect anyone to adopt their heroic narrative regarding police officers, but are not willing to ensure all Americans have faith in that narrative by respecting those who kneel and the reasons for which they kneel, then unity is neither realistic nor deserved.
Editor’s note: Luke Pruitt is a musician, Southside High School graduate and student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s).