By Michael Harriot
There is an old joke about a racist police officer pulling over a man driving his best friend to the store. The police officer calls the driver every racist word imaginable, slaps him around, writes him a ticket and then orders him to get back in his car and leave. Just before the man pulls off after being harassed by the officer, the policeman goes to the passenger side of the window and slaps the passenger.
“What was that for?” says the stunned rider. “I didn’t even do anything.”
“Because,” the patrolman replies, “I know when you are a few miles down the road, you’re going to turn to your friend who’s driving, and tell him ‘I wouldn’t have let him treat me like that!’ ”
Fifty-one years ago today in Selma, Alabama state troopers and county possemen attacked civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
I’ve been to Selma and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It is narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, but it is not very long. While standing on one end, the opposite end of the bridge is visible to the naked eye. Those freedom fighters whose heads were bloodied on that Sunday could see the evil fury that awaited them on the other side. They were warned that they could face violence and billy clubs during their peaceful demonstration, and they marched on anyway. While their efforts are laudable, this is not a piece for the infinite pile that praises those warriors who sacrificed skulls and straight noses for our rights. I mention their bravery to ask a larger question:
Why are we punks now?
Would this generation have stomped toward an inevitable ass-whipping to secure freedoms that they might not even get to enjoy? Is the generation of thug hip hop, gun-busting and Black Lives Matter tough enough to walk into the abyss, forsaking glory, simply for the sake of righteousness, not knowing what awaits on the other side?
I’ve asked this question before. Usually when I pose it to individuals, they express doubt in a generation whose chief form of exercise comes from Playstation basketball and Twitter fingers. They reason that the grandchildren of the civil rights movement are so far removed from the reality of that kind of courage and sacrifice that the names of James Bevel and Amelia Boynton are as super-heroic as Tony Stark or Diana Prince. They paint an age where Google has rendered encyclopedias useless and two-hour meals are prepared in microwave minutes as too fickle and lacking the patience needed to stand in line and walk towards a jaw-breaking for future benefit. It is a tough thing to ask of anyone. It is especially tough to wake someone up when they are sleeping on pillows filled with down feathers.
We all like to think of ourselves as defiant, strong-willed champions filled with fight and fervor for our people. We each fancy ourselves as the hero of the movie playing in our heads. We wouldn’t have taken that shit. We would have stood up and fought. I don’t believe that millennials take the rights they enjoy for granted, nor do I believe they are unaware of the struggles their forefathers went through to achieve these steps forward. I think they honestly believe they would’ve stepped forward for the beating. We all think this of ourselves because, in our heads and hearts, we are made of the same stuff that John Lewis et al spilled onto the streets of Selma on a half century ago.
We are all punks. Every one of us.
We don’t fight any more because we are too soft. We can’t take it. We are the kinds of punks whose parents believe bad grades come from “the teacher don’t like my baby…” and quit jobs when asked to do something not listed in the job description. We live in a bloodless, refereed world rife with diversity complaint departments and hand lotion on bathroom sinks. We believe in hashtactivism, and groupthink phrases like “unpacking” and “intersectionality” now. We are smarter now and more afraid of fists than ever before.
When Mike Brown was murdered, I went to Ferguson, Missouri. That was our proverbial Selma. The State authority’s disregard for Black bodies is the civil rights movement of our time, and there we were, standing in the middle Flourissaint Avenue with the Police and the National Guard — the new age possemen – on the other end facing us. This was the proverbial Edmund Pettus Bridge of our time. This was to be the moment where we stood up and took our skull-cracking so we could save future generations and show the scars to our grandchildren, and we…
We took our asses home. After all, they said there was a curfew, right?
When someone captured a policeman on video lynching Eric Garner, we were roused again. We were angry this time, and we had proof that a Black life was unjustly extinguished. It was so clear and unsettling that even those who had ostriched their heads in the sand and believed that we live in a post-racial society were outraged. Even white people were appalled, and marched alongside us in solidarity. I even went to a die-in organized by the local Black Lives Matter chapter intent on shutting down one of the area’s busiest and swankiest shopping centers down during the Christmas shopping season (you can see a video of the account here). So what happened?
Not a damn thing.
Not one soul had the courage to do it.
Perhaps there is no bigger indication of our complacent, punk-assness was what happened to Trayvon. An innocent teenager was gunned down, and his killer is still walking around as a free man. We were rightfully outraged about it. So outraged, in fact, that we…
Blacked out or Facebook pictures.
To be fair, some of us did take Instagram photos of ourselves in hoodies. That’s the new millennium punk protest. What the fuck is a hashtag activist? I’m sure when racist police officers log into their social media accounts and see the numbers of retweets and shares, they completely change their prejudiced minds and hateful hearts. I’ll tell you what hashtag activism is:
Hashtag activism is the people who stood under the Edmund Pettus Bridge and told their grandkids “I was there on Bloody Sunday.”
Hashtag activism is the people who sent me direct messages, emails and tweets saying they would have laid down beside me if they were at the protest.
Hashtag activism is riding in the passenger seat after the driver gets the ticket, and saying “If he would’ve treated me like that, I would’ve…”
You wouldn’t have done shit.
That’s why they keep slapping us.