By Osmund Agbo
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict… [an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
A couple of months ago, I found myself in a little bit of a sticky situation with Melanie, a white co-worker whom I have enjoyed a certain measure of friendship over the years. She happens to be an avid reader of my essays which she described as unapologetically soul searching. On my part, I harbor an admiration for her open mindedness and respect her candid take on issues, even those few times we vehemently disagreed. Between us, no topic was considered off limit. Yet, I have to confess that this one encounter left a sour taste in my mouth.
It was in the wake of the massive protests in America and all around the world following the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer named Derek Chauvin. There is no doubt that many in the white community tend to walk on egg shells when discussing certain touchy subjects with their black friends, wary not to come across as mean, racist, insensitive or just plain indifferent. Though my curiosity yearned to hear her take on the issues, I was nonetheless hesitant about bringing up the discussion, out of sheer empathy.
As the video clip of a Police Patrol Vehicle going up in flames flashed on Fox News, Melanie turned around to gauge my reaction. She was disgusted by the sight and wanted to know how I felt about the ensuing social unrest with destruction of properties and in some cases, sporadic incidences of looting. For starters, she confessed how she wouldn’t wish what happened to George Floyd on her worst enemy and admitted that oftentimes blacks are selectively targeted by law enforcement officers who in many instances, refuse to give even the benefit of doubt. We both acknowledged that fact.
Melanie however, was very critical of Black Life Matters movement (BLM), the existence of which she worried, deepens division and stokes racial tension. When I prompted her to offer an alternative, she literally threw her hands up in the air in righteous indignation, spitting out that well-worn cliche’, “It is what it is.” She went on to give an example of women getting less pay for equal work as another example of injustice in the world. My friend was unhappy with the system of injustice but was convinced beyond doubt that trying to go against it would upset the status quo, resulting in chaos which she was sure, no one desired.
Obviously, Melanie and I grew up in a world totally different from each other and so is our everyday experiences. With the daily realities lived by people of my kind, it might be tempting to feel resentment towards an attitude of do-nothing while black lives get wasted every day in the streets of America. Her main reason is the fear of upsetting the status quo that obviously works for people like her. But one only needs to dig a little deeper to understand how that came to be the dominant mindset amongst so many.
It turns out that in politics as in life, studies have shown that people are more worried about losing what they already have (existing social order which favors those privileged to enjoy it) than the prospect of gaining something better (justice for all people, races and colors). Framed differently, there is the human propensity to fight change, the outcome of which is unpredictable, especially if told that such change may potentially replace a system which they believe works in their favor.
President Richard Nixon and Senator Barry Goldwater perfected a morally repugnant style of American politics in what later became known as the Southern Strategy. In much of the Southern United States, the dismantling of Jim Crow laws in the 50’s and 60’s led to deepening of racial tension. Leaders of the Republican Party made a conscious effort to appeal to many white southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. They made white America fear for an Armageddon whenever there is a wave of support for criminal justice reforms which disproportionately victimizes black America or a protest against police brutality. They framed it in a way to suggest that such meant being soft on crime which they cautioned would ultimately make whites victim in the hands of monstrous black super-predators. Above all, they popularized the narrative of a zero-sum game, the idea that any gain, economic or political made by blacks, translates to a loss of same by whites.
It is an electoral strategy that saw to an increase in political support among white voters in the south by a dog-whistle appeal to racism against African Americans. In later years, Republicans would fully adopt such as a winning tactic, having successfully branded theirs as the party of law and order.
In all fairness, politicians on both sides of the isle had used fears of violence and tragedy for political gain. As a matter of fact, the new Republican Party is the Democratic Party of yesteryears. In one report, The Marshall Project argued that the Willie Horton campaign ad that helped George Bush secure win during the 1988 U.S Presidential election, was responsible for placing a chokehold on criminal justice reform for generations.
The ad played repeatedly how Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis allowed a Blackman and an infamous murderer, Willie Horton to have weekend passes from prison. Despite a life sentence and using one of these passes, Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.
While that incident was indeed very troubling, fact is, at the time, all 50 States had furlough programs for prisoners, including murderers. Even Ronald Reagan, as a governor in California had a furlough program and in one instance, inmates who were out on furloughs in Reagan’s California committed murders. Reagan of course defended himself and the program, stating that nothing in life was perfect.
The Willie Horton case ultimately pushed a button of fear that ushered in the era of “tough on crime.” Bill Clinton would later pass the 1994 crime act, which included adding 100,000 more cops on the streets, allocated nearly $10 billion for building more prisons and took away Pell education grants for inmates. This was one piece of legislation that put a whole generation of African-American away in long term incarceration for flimsy reasons and in some cases no reasons at all, other than having a less favored skin color.
As I listened to Melanie pour her heart out, it was easy to understand how her response was convenient for someone not at the receiving end of the grave systemic injustice. Of course, I understood where she was coming from but had to explain that if we were to live by her logic, many that look like me could still be left picking cottons in some remote plantation in a foreign land. As I engaged further, she listened with rapt attention.
Like many others, Melanie might have failed to appreciate that as grossed out (and rightly so) as she was at the sight of a burning police car, protesting injustice was not a path chosen by the victim but the Hobson’s choice left by the oppressor. Throughout history, the system has never been known to let go of the choking grip on its victims, simply out of abundance of goodwill and without a fight. She reminded me about Martin Luther King Jr and the peaceful movement he championed that ultimately changed America.
Though King’s activism was modelled after Ghandi’s nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience, occasional stand-offs with authorities sometimes did turn violent. There were also reports of violence instigated by the FBI (similar to reports of infiltration of BLM rallies by Klansmen and Proud Boys) under Herbert Hoover in order to discredit the movement and as a pretense to put him and his people behind bars.
Nelson Mandela on the other hand, was no Ghandi. Following the Sharpeville massacre of March 21st, 1960 where 69 unarmed black protesters were killed by the South African apartheid police, he made the decision to defend himself and his people. Together with Oliver Tambo and few other comrades, they formed ’Umkhonto we Sizwe’, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He made it clear this was not a choice he preferred but the only option he was left with. Of course, that did not stop the South African Boer government and the government of the United States from classifying ANC as a terrorist organization at the time. Mandela would later be imprisoned for 27 years for” conspiring to overthrow the state.”
Today Martin Luther King Jr. is fondly remembered as an American hero and every third Monday in January, America observes a national holiday in his honor. Nelson Mandela on the other hand, is regarded as the father of the new South Africa. Those villains of yesterday are today’s heroes because revolutionaries usually live ahead of their times. At this point, Melanie looked straight into my eyes and in a brief moment was lost in deep introspection
As I reflected on our conversation later that evening, I was reminded of the wise words of Elie Wiesel that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference and that what hurts the victim most is the not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of bystanders.
Every day in Nigeria scores of human beings are kidnapped, tortured, maimed and killed under the most brutal circumstances, the reason of which is mostly economic though dressed in the toga of religion. The men that benefit from the injustice continue to sustain and nature the current maniacal order.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: email@example.com