Social media has exploded once again, this time with praise (and the inevitable criticism) of African American actor Jesse Williams’ powerful acceptance speech during the BET Awards last night. In just four minutes, he showed the world why he was the right pick for the network’s Humanitarian Award. One meme even pictured Williams accepting the baton from Harry Belafonte, whose tireless human rights work is almost as well-known as his entertainment career.
But he made it known from the opening moments of his speech that the focus was not to be on him:
“This award, this is not for me,” Williams declared. “This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”
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Two other events happened in the past week – one which you almost surely have not heard about – that underscore the timeliness and urgency of Williams’ message to the Black men and women of America. The first event would have been on June 25 – the 14th birthday of Tamir Rice, the Cleveland boy who was gunned down by police in his hometown two years ago while playing with a toy gun in a public recreation center.
Video footage from his killing showed that the police car had not even stopped fully when the officer gunned the boy down. We later learned that the officer who shot him had resigned from his last police department rather than be fired after an assessment revealed that he was not emotionally stable enough for the job. More than a year later, however, a grand jury concluded that Tamir’s shooting was justified. Neither of the officers ever had to stand trial.
Protests and memorials for Tamir dwarfed in comparison to the thick, jubilant crowds who turned out last week to celebrate LeBron James’ long-awaited basketball championship for a city that burned his jersey and cursed his name just six years ago because he left Cleveland for another city and another team. A few meme-makers drew attention to this bitter irony on social media, but by and large, it went unnoticed.
Williams drew attention to Tamir’s birthday early in his acceptance speech, saying “I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich” before calling the names of Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Darrien Hunt – victims who have become well-associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s a beautiful thing that Williams paid specific homage to Black mothers in his speech, since they are usually blamed when their children get into trouble. (Black women – including mothers – are also the fastest growing prison population in America.) This is relevant to the second event, which happened four days before Tamir’s birthday. The one I said you probably didn’t hear about.
On Tuesday, June 21, police in Baton Rouge, La., arrested Schaquanna Evita Spears, a mother of six, for beating three of her children after she discovered that they had broken into a neighbor’s home and stolen a cache of electronics. She was charged with cruelty to children for reportedly using a nearby RCA cable – the same kind that connects TVs to DVDs and Blu-Ray machines – after she caught them with the goods. She says it was a belt. It was the nearest thing to her hand.
As a result of her arrest, Spears lost her job and is still fighting to regain custody of her children because after reports surfaced that the three thieves had injuries from their whipping, child protective services removed all six children from the home. It should be noted that Louisiana holds the dubious title of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
On the one hand, you have a highly aggressive, shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that is driving police violence against “suspects” in law enforcement organizations all over the United States. That includes small-town sheriffs all the way up to the NYPD and other big-city departments. State police included – just ask the 51-year-old woman who was punched repeatedly in the face on the side of the road by a California Highway Patrol officer.
On the other hand, you have a society – and the police are only one manifestation of it – that is highly critical of Black parenting methods. If you don’t believe me, look up the recent reaction of the American public to the Black family whose child jumped into the gorilla pen at a Cincinnati, Oh., zoo. Now compare them to the same nation’s response when a White family’s child was dragged off and killed by an alligator during a family trip to Disney World.
Between the two hands, we have the ultra-materialist, violence-and-sex-drenched pop culture that BET has come to represent in the long journey from Teen Summit and Video Vibrations. These self-destructive or just self-demeaning images are beamed around the world and misinform far too many non-Americans – including our brothers and sisters in Africa – about African-Americans’ culture, values, and lifestyles.
It has been highly debated how much entertainment influences the minds of youth, and adults too, for that matter. Obviously most viewers and listeners are not blindly imitating entertainers. However, one can definitely trace a path from children who are greedy for all the latest toys, games, clothes, and gadgets that are advertised not only around them, but often specifically directed at raising their desires for them regardless of their parents’ ability to afford them.
Another path leads from the entertainment industry’s constant presentation of crime as a quick way to get what you want and gain popularity at the same time. These gadgets are status symbols, and even kids want to feel important and liked by their peers. When the two paths converge, the police are right there to feed another Black body to the prison pipeline. Or the cemetery.
By no means am I making excuses for Schaquanna’s children. Neither was she. She did what soooo many Black mothers and fathers have learned to do, probably since slavery, for the safety and survival of their wayward offspring: “beat you before the police [or overseers] do.” Before they shoot you over cigarillos, like Mike Brown. Or choke you over a single cigarette, like Eric Garner. Or over a toy gun in a nation that has been in love with guns since its formation.
Schaquanna Spears acted in the presence of clear guilt to save her kids from the streets that BET and Viacomm have made a fortune celebrating (at least when a man like Jesse Williams doesn’t unexpectedly snatch the microphone). She has an arrest record and a job hunt to show for it. The Cleveland officers hastily unleashed lethal force on a child who was completely innocent of wrongdoing at the time, based on hearsay and an incomplete report. They are still walking free today. How is a mother granted less leeway to go overboard with her own child than a stranger with a badge?
And Jesse Williams stood up on-cue to deliver the lines we all say to each other between commercials:
“What’s going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.”
We’ve been here before though. In 2008. When President Barack Obama told everyone that he couldn’t single-handedly rescue Black America from its problems, internal or external. But only a fraction of us listened. Minister Louis Farrakhan told us when people (myself included) asked what good the Millions More March would do. Jesse Williams tried to remind us yesterday that “a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”
We. Not them. Celebrities will not save us. In this digital age, they definitely have an important role to play, but Beyonce at the Super Bowl will not revive the Black Panther Party.
It’s “the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students” and nameless, countless others who do the hard work behind the scenes that helps us move forward as a people.
Also, the mentors and youth programs who catch kids like the Spears youth and redirect them into positive activities before they get swallowed up by the American criminal justice system. Also, the cultural programs that provide African Americans with healthier, more positive ways to see ourselves and interact with each other besides the standard diet of ratchet, bling, and immoral that American entertainment supplies, with an occasional crumb of “consciousness” thrown in to keep our attention. Even the health and wellness workers who teach us how to care for ourselves instead of letting racism, other stressors, and temptations of modern life from killing us early or driving us mad.
These individuals and groups need our support even more than multimillionaires and big-name corporations who sell us the “new hotness.” Especially when they can’t afford free food, celebrity speakers, or musical acts, these front line soldiers need our encouragement, our volunteerism, and our donations with the same amount of enthusiasm we give to the people television has conditioned us to adore.
After the speeches and retweets, it’s time to organize with likeminded people and organizations that we think have a useful action plan to make our lives safer, happier, and healthier. The people who fight for the Rice family, the Spears family, and every other family who has been or is destined to be affected by the anti-Black behavior and policies of “our fellow Americans” need us to pay attention, show up after the speeches, and put our magic to work.