These are not my words. I am only amplifying them here: ~
A reflection from Richard Townsell, Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted a lot this week. One quote that has gotten a lot of traction is from an interview with CBS News’ Mike Wallace in 1966 where he said:
“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
This is as true today as it was then. The young adults in my house and the young staff on our team are very angry and some have joined peaceful protests over the death of brother George Floyd. His death represents the latest in a long line of public lynchings at the hands of primarily white law enforcement officials. We wait in anticipation for what happens in this case because we have seen slaps on the wrist before after the heat dies down. As of my writing, the other officers have not been charged. The young people make me wonder if I am too old because I don’t want to join protests or marches. They probably think that us baby boomer types just don’t get it. Are we too comfortable, too scared or too accommodating with this system that we can’t bring ourselves to hit the streets? Or is it something else?
I lived through the riots of 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I was not quite four years old but I remember my mother and older brother talking about it in hushed tones. How afraid they were as they heard ambulances and fire trucks all night. The anger was palpable in North Lawndale. Last night was like that. Stores along Roosevelt Road, Ogden and Pulaski and others were looted and burned. Madison and Pulaski stores were also looted.
It has been over 50 years since that happened and the community has yet to recover. There have been some heroic efforts in our community and communities like it around the country to rebuild in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death. In 2011, LCDC and our partners the Westside Federation and Safeway Construction built the $17MM, 45-unit apartment building called the MLK Legacy Apartments, primarily because of Dr. King’s presence in North Lawndale in 1966. He came to protest slum housing.
After he was murdered, the building that he and his family lived in for those months in 1966 was torn down. There would be no memory that he ever lived here. Back in the 1990’s, our church wanted to build a park in his memory. I thought that we should build a building that he would have been proud to live in instead on the site. Despite this and other noble efforts, the amount of resources allocated to rebuild North Lawndale has not come close to matching the devastation since 1968. I won’t quote any statistics because they are so readily available (and because our community has been studied to death by academics the world over), but suffice to say that if COVID 19 has wrought devastation to America in every socioeconomic statistic available then imagine Black folks have experienced 70 years of COVID in North Lawndale from health disparities, unemployment, blatantly racist housing discrimination and redlining, mass incarceration, vacant lots, poorly funded and maintained schools and the list of problems goes on and on. Problems, not issues. I’ll get back to that later.
That being said, I am firmly against rioting and looting. The primary reason is that for the past 52 years since the riots of 1968, not much of scale has been accomplished. Additionally, a lot of the folks instigating and provoking the theft and vandalism are white paid provocateurs, anarchists and professional looters who are opportunistically taking advantage of black grief and rage to cause mayhem at our expense. Why are they driving from the suburbs to tear up our neighborhoods? Fortunately, young black activists with camera phones are catching them in the act and stopping them from gentrifying and hijacking our legitimate and peaceful protests.
So, what do we do? I will tell you what is not the answer from my experience in community development and organizing over the past almost two decades of work and then what we can do. Continue reading “From Where I Sit “Riots are the Language of the Unheard””