Unending protests nationwide have surprised many people as an unexpected outcome in the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.
On the surface each looks like a white police killing of a black male. On July 17, New York police attempted to arrest Garner, 43, for illegally selling cigarettes on the street. Officer Daniel Pantaleo in a cellphone video appeared to apply an illegal chokehold on Garner, which the New York Medical Examiner’s Office said contributed to the homicide. Before he died, Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
That has become part of protests nationwide, which have shutdown traffic and blocked stores.
Brown, 18, and unarmed on Aug. 9 was shot repeatedly after a scuffle with then-Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson. Some eyewitnesses said Brown had his hands up. Protesters have used that, chanting, “hands up, don’t shoot.” They’ve also drawn needed attention to the low value of African-Americans in this country. They’re right to chant, “Black lives matter.”
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But it’s more than that. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen this fall in a Boston speech may have touched on the core of protesters’ anger, outrage and frustration when she described the increasing U.S. income inequality. “Society faces difficult questions of how best to fairly and justly promote equal opportunity,” Yellen said.
Young people and children of all colors suffer the most. The protests — some violent — over the deaths of black men are more symbolic of the powerless, voiceless, economically, socially and politically oppressed loudly screaming at the tools of the oppressors — the police, the military, the legal and judicial systems, politicians, big money and the wealthiest 1 percent.
It’s as if the Occupy Movement begun in 2011 — the same year as the Arab Spring — has rerooted itself. The racial and ethnic diversity of people in the marches shows it’s not just a black thing. The growing social, political and economic inequity is an American problem.
Or at least I thought it was a U.S. phenomenon until my younger daughter Leslie, took me, my partner Bette and other family members on a tour of the “Zero Tolerance” exhibit at the MoMaPS1 contemporary art institution in New York. Artists in videos from throughout the world filmed an incredible array of protests that have occurred in recent years from the Arab Spring, to Tienanmen Square in China, to the group Pussy Riots’ rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Also in the exhibit is the simple poster from the AIDS activism movement, “Silence=Death.” It has become a theme for a lot of today’s political activism.
“Zero Tolerance” shows how art can capture progressive actions and project them in a way that expresses the feelings of the people fighting oppression. The Great Recession hasn’t helped.
People in the United States and elsewhere are still feeling the effects, and young people are hurt the most. African-Americans may have been victims of police killings and grand jury inaction, but folks everywhere see that no justice for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder threatens the slippery place where they’re barely hanging on.
It’s why the protests, die-ins and rallies are so important. They’re the start of long-needed conversations and action toward change. Police, educators and other authorities have to see the value and humanity of all people. The political and economic structure of this country and others have to become more equitable.
Yellen prescribes such things as universal early childhood education, affordable higher education, improved opportunities and training for business ownership and providing people with essential “building blocks” to boost the wealth of people whose American dreams are fading.
Such endeavors have to extend to people protesting in the streets so they see a better future for themselves and people like Brown and Garner. Without that, the protests will continue in place of productive change.