I have vague, impressionistic memories of the Watts riot of 1965.
I remember a man staggering along under the weight of a console TV set. I remember the sign an Asian grocer left in his window: “Don’t Burn Me. Me Soul Brother.”
Most of all, though, I remember the shocked, sad silence of the aftermath - tendrils of smoke drifting languidly into the sky and chastened people surveying with amazement the devastation their rage had wrought. The hush was filled with awe and shame.
I wonder if there is such a hush in St. Petersburg, Fla., today.
For the second time in a month, angry black people have burned that Gulf Coast city - this time after a grand jury cleared a white police officer in the shooting death of a black motorist.
I don’t propose to discuss the merits of that case here. I come only with a question: Why does that image - perceived police malfeasance and official indifference - so readily move African-Americans to spasms of civil unrest? I know the proximate answer, of course: Such episodes underscore the degree to which blacks feel oppressed by the police and estranged from the bastions of civic authority.
But I sense something deeper.
Riots occur when people feel - rightly or wrongly - that they have no other way of making themselves heard. Riots are explosions - rage, pain and frustration, blasting free.
But no one riots when drive-by shooters spatter the sidewalks with the blood of black children. No one rises up when black mothers cry from poverty and frustration and the absence of men. No stones are thrown because kindergartners walk a gantlet of graffiti and crack cocaine on the way to school. No Molotov cocktails are lighted over young black men who live expecting to die.
Here’s the point: It seems extreme rage is provoked only when the perceived enemy is a white authority figure from outside the black community.
But what about black enemies within?
We seem to have made relative peace with them. In some subbasement of consciousness, we seem to have accepted their presence as the price of everyday life.
I don’t mean to suggest that police misdeeds don’t deserve black people’s wrath. But I am saying this: Black America’s fixation with the misbehavior of outsiders seems to suggest that we - meaning blacks - are more comfortable confronting them than we are confronting us.
But we need to do both.
So, if we’re going to riot, let’s riot right.
Let’s burn down whatever part of us rejects academic success. Let’s throw rocks through the estrangement of sons from fathers and women from men. Let’s tear down the mantra of “I can’t.” Let’s loot the storehouse of our doubts and throw out our unwillingness to believe in one another.
And let’s break our shackles. Break them and don’t look back.
White America has become our boogeyman, our catchall excuse. We obsess about what white America does to us but neglect to consider what we can and must do for ourselves.
Yes, white racism is alive and well and living in America. Yes, white women and men retain the power to lie about us, injure us and make us grieve.
But when has that not been true?
The difference now is that high ground lies within our grasp if only we can muster the courage to stand off foes without and within, the wisdom to understand that times have changed, the confidence to know we can’t be stopped.
Unless we allow it.
Rioting is a confession of powerlessness, the strangled cry of people rendered voiceless and unable by oppression.
But that’s not who we are. Not now. We are sons of survival, daughters of boldness, progenitors of greatness.
It is time to stop fighting new battles with old weapons.
It is time to stop stopping ourselves.
And it is time to break the silence of aftermath.
Somebody tell St. Pete it’s time to move.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Leonard Pitts Jr. Knight-Ridder