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Reaping a Whirlwind

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

 

Banner hanging from NAACP office in NYC, 1938

Banner hanging from NAACP office in NYC, 1938

Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1939. The lyrics written by Abel Meeropol are clear. Black people, particularly "black" men and "black" communities were being terrorized. Terrorized by "white" mob violence often times with the acquiescence or active involvement of law enforcement.   The book of the same name by Lillian Smith had a prominent place in the second floor bookcase of my parents house. Now that the unrest has died down in Ferguson, two weeks after unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer, a bit of reflection is  in order.

During the wall to wall media coverage over the last two weeks, based upon several eye witness accounts, the term "execution" has been bandied about in many quarters and conversations. I wonder however if this and other incidents involving "black" victims and "white" cops using deadly force might better be described as a "lynching."

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

When one looks at how differently police react when a suspect is "white" as opposed to "black," even when the "white" suspect is armed, one must conclude that law enforcement like justice in this country isn't blind, but the scales are heavily "white-sided." So the righteous anger which rose up within Ferguson's "black" community and the disconnect between how the events are viewed by "white" and "black" Americans is understandable.

According to PBS' American Experience website: "Lynching, [was] an act of terror meant to spread fear among blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres." Is that what we have going on in Ferguson? Or are these recent rash of killings in New York, Ohio, Missouri, by police of "black" men just business as usual?

If nothing else the events over that last two weeks in Ferguson has exposed the extent to which polices practices in many communities around the country vis-à-vis "black" folks is one of contain and control. No matter which way you look at it the predominantly "white" police culture is very much an us versus them mindset. White folks are very much willing to see the cops as the good guys, they get the benefit of the doubt. But the experience of most "black" folks with police isn't so black and white.

More often than not it's the "black" experience that "the man," "five-0," "paddy-rollers," are seen as an arm of the state used to suppress rather than serve and protect. We all got a glimpse of this view writ large as police showed up in riot gear, camouflage, riding in APC's and carrying AR-15's to confront unarmed, by and large, peaceful protesters. It wasn't until the storm troopers arrived that things got ugly. Is there really such a huge difference between Selma and Ferguson?

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

But back to the issue at hand. Is lynching too strong a term to use to describe the Ferguson shooting? Well we know that Clarence Thomas used the term "high tech lynching" to deflect criticism during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Hyperbole? Well the use of the term by a "black" man being braced by an all "white" Senate panel conjured up the "Strange Fruit" imagery producing the desired effect.

But here we have an actual death at the hands of "white" authority. And in a quote by author Richard Wright on his own experience with lynching from the book Black Boy he says,

"The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly; I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness. Indeed, the white brutality that I had not seen was a more effective control of my behavior than that which I knew."

We know from history that lynchings were generally very public in nature. In some cases thousands of people would show up. Some were advertised in the local press, photos snapped, souvenirs procured.  Those were the images conjured in my mind's eye as cable media ran the cellphone footage of the "black" teenager's body splayed on the hard concrete over and over and over again. TV is all about imagery. And the imagery conscious or not seemed to play right into the "put the fear of God into the heathen" narrative that Ferguson's finest wanted to convey by the act itself.

When you look at the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown, body left in the street for several hours for maximum effect.  One can only conclude that it was to send a message to the community. And as the events unfolded the community answered back forcefully and directly that they were fed up and would not be intimidated. No justice. No peace.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool [shall be] servant to the wise of heart. .. Proverbs 11:29