This Spring Break as I spent time in New Orleans, a new side to the Black Lives Matter Movement struck me. As I read about the shooting of Akiel Denkins, a 24 year-old black man who was gunned down by Raleigh police officer Twiddy during an attempted arrest, it struck me that the recurrence of the shootings was not what bothered me the most, but more so the belief that the same reaction in every case would bring about a different and more desired outcome. So often with cases of police brutality, we see members of varying movements shutting down highways and as in the case of Ferguson, Missouri, we saw eruptions of violence in the streets all in the hopes of getting the police to accept responsibility for their actions. While the “Black Lives Matter” movement is doing its best to make people aware of the injustices of police departments, spending time in New Orleans has taught me that tradition and culture can be the best form of protest.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, she did not hit just the black people nor just the white people. She did not differentiate by race. She came and destroyed the homes of any and all in her path, regardless of color. And in the first few days and weeks afterwards, the Hurricane succeeded in bridging racial gaps as the reality of the devastation hit the residents of the city. However, with the recovery effort has come the complete reversal of the unifying attempts made by the Hurricane. As you drive around the city, it is very easy to notice the areas that still require rebuilding and the areas that have gotten the much needed face-lift after the disaster. What’s striking is the racial divide between these two areas, divisions that bring to the fore racial tensions that were not an integral part of the city’s history as the first place where Creoles (blacks) were freed from slavery in the USA.
The Creoles of New Orleans, just like many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s, kept with them and passed on a very proud tradition of dignity, freedom and intellect. They kept with them their bilingual abilities, created music, remained dignified through the oppression and were the first to attain freedom. They knew their worth, and they used their talents and music to share their worth with the rest of the city in a manner that shaped the famous aspects of the ‘Big Easy’. But the flood took away this tradition as families moved away due to the lackluster government response to their peoples need. This diluted the strength of the Creole tradition in the city in a way that is felt even by a first timer to the city. In my opinion, in the same way that the flood took away these crucial aspects of the Creole culture, so too a culture of the government making minimal concessions and reliance on the government has stripped away the dignity, freedom and intellect that the civil rights movement carried with.
The leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have focused their attention on immediate changes. The hiring of more professors of color on school campuses, the institutionalization of better hate crime reporting, racial sensitivity training for the police, and the list continues. While these changes are possible and in many campuses have been implemented, these changes are just as easily reversed and the results will be another movement 20 to 50 years from now. I think that the solution lies in the three aforementioned characteristics:
1) Intellect, many realize the need for education in order to better ones standing in the world and in this case to fight the system. Many however forget the power of education. You may make gains in the systems and institutions of a campus through protest, but those gains can be taken away in a split second where your education can never be taken away. And because it cannot be taken away, it is a more powerful weapon against oppression and repression than violence has ever been.
2) Freedom, and in this case, freedom from the shackles of the past. While the past certainly shapes who we are and our beliefs and traditions, it should in no way shape or form determine your path and it is at these crossroads that one needs to be freed from the shackles of needing to fight our parents’ battles. Our eyes need to be solely focused on where we want to be and how to get there.
3) Dignity, the ability to fight for your cause without in any way diluting or downgrading who you are and what you believe in. Like the Creoles who in the midst of oppression and racism fought to keep their dignified status as intellectual people of color to be respected, so should that stance be taken by the modern day black man. In this world respect is earned and the way to do so is to show that you are fully capable of doing what you set out to do without the help of the system and with your core values intact. Resorting to violence diminishes any respect one may have earned and in doing so one loses sight of these three core values.
The most pivotal institution in this movement is of course the college campuses, simply because one cannot “teach an old dog new tricks,” but also because we as college students have the power to shape the future in a manner that our predecessors could not. We are educated and can change the approach to racism, we can change the way people view the movement, and we can change the manner in which we go about our requests and the types of requests we make. The focus needs to be on building a tradition of dignity, freedom and intellect that will enable black people to begin first by respecting themselves and their abilities before demanding it from others. In this manner, we stem the constant flow of Akiel Denkins’, Trayvon Martins, Eric Garners’ and Michael Brown’s. As controversial as this may sound, the truth is the only way to beat institutionalized racism is to change the opposing institution to one that can meet its opposition on an even playing field and actually make demands that will be heard from a position of respect and not one of force and arm twisting, because revenge is made inevitable by such tactics.