This column appears in the Orangeville Citizen on April 30th, 2015. Duplication of the article is not to be made without written consent by Tabitha Wells or the Orangeville Citizen.
Over the last year, we have watched from afar as cities in the United States have been ripped apart from protests gone wrong, as many Americans have taken to the streets to protest the injustice dealt to them at the hands of law-enforcement officers.
What began as outrage over the shooting of Michael Brown, has led to a series of riots, protests, marches, and even more surprisingly, more coverage of situations unfolding where police officers have ‘jumped the gun’ in their mistreatment of black residents.
We have watched cities torn apart, seen numerous innocent people and police officers facing brutal acts of violence and commentary, and things seem to keep spiralling out of control. America, it seems, has become like one giant Jenga game; too many of the wrong blocks have been pulled out and placed on top, and that tower is about to fall.
Since Ferguson first splashed across the news last August, I’ve seen the entire situation put people at each other’s throats, laying the blame completely on Michael Brown or on the police as a whole, allowing the fear, the anger and the ‘mob mentality’ we’re all prone to becoming a part of to push the root of the issue underneath claims of justice, injustice and wrongdoing.
It can be a hard situation to comment on or to review, especially with the mass bias of mainstream media and their tendency to over-play situations. On the flip side, you have the ‘news’ sites, made up of people who consider themselves to be online journalists, underplaying the situations. We’re left with a picture that leaves us facing two extremes, but the truth of the matter is that the problem lies somewhere in the middle.
We find the world plastered with the bad – the images of rioters throwing rocks at police officers and robbing stores, the pictures of officers taking down protestors – and we miss out on the good. Instead of seeing the photos of the young black child handing out water bottles to officers who are standing still to quell the crowd, we see the picture of a savage-looking man smashing in a police car and lighting it on fire. Instead of seeing the line of black protestors protecting the police from rioters by creating a human wall between them, we see the pictures of a black man laughing as he makes away from the local CVS with the toilet paper and a bag of Doritos he just stole with other looters.
Instead of this news bringing people together in understanding at the situation that is exploding, it divides people into the sides of what they believe to be justice and ‘deserving’. We focus on the actions of people who have had enough, instead of focusing on what would drive them to do such a thing in the first place.
It’s a hard position to be in, to acknowledge that the riots are wrong, but to understand the heart of what drives the issue. To understand that while slavery has been abolished and black rights now exist, racism is more than just alive and thriving in the United States, it is an active part of many people’s lives.
Martin Luther King once spoke to the very kind of situation that is happening now, and it is truly heartbreaking that words which were spoken over 50 years ago, are even more relevant today than they were when he was fighting to make a difference.
“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots,” he once said. “It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without at the same time condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight, that starting a riot is the language of the unheard.”
It’s easy to look at the rioters, particularly the foolish ones, and feel justified that they are simply proving the need for stereotypes. It’s easy to forget that we have seen white, privileged Canadians and Americans create riots for less (the Vancouver Canucks playoff loss a few years ago, drunk surfers in New Orleans following a Surf Competition). But to do that is to find justification to ignore the situation that needs to be addressed.
“If our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could; it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important; this is significant’,” said President Obama, regarding this week’s events in Baltimore. “And, that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.”
While this may not be happening in Canada, it’s relevant, because without understanding how it got there, we face the potential of going down the same road. It’s relevant, because’s it’s humanity. It’s easy to form an opinion on the matters from the headlines and photos, from the mainstream media and their coverage. But without properly looking for the unbiased, without looking at the whole picture, it’s easy to miss the heart – that something is seriously wrong, and something needs to be done. Not all police are bad, and not all the people involved are good, but as they say, it just takes one bad apple.
We need to be careful not to feed the mob mentality on either side, and not to jump on board with the scare tactics of sharing articles and photos on social media that paint a very clear, yet highly biased picture. When we do that, we are stripping those involved of the humanity and the hurt that has led them to this, and we are taking away from the opportunity to fight for true, radical, important change.