What appears below is the speech I gave earlier today at the Solidarity for Peace march in Seattle. The italicized portions are elaborations on the themes I touched on in the speech. I have also provided links to sources wherever possible.
The Solidarity March for Peace is a nonpartisan event rooted in our thirst for a lasting global peace. So why, in this context, would we choose to take a knee during the American national anthem when so much political tension surrounds that act?
Well, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “true peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”
Taking a knee for the national anthem is a nonviolent act of advocacy for justice in the face of a deplorable fact: a black person in the United States today is more than 2.8 times more likely to die in an encounter with police than a white person is.
Now, we don’t mean to demonize police officers. Police officers are human beings, like the rest of us, and they are operating inside of the same economic, social, psychological, and historical systems as we are.
It is impossible to do the complexities of these systems justice in this short speech, but there are four main elements at play:
1) The over-distribution of guns in the United States make police officers’ jobs scarier and more dangerous than they need to be.
The United States is swimming in guns. Of the estimated 650m civillian-owned guns in the world, Americans own 48%. That’s 312 million guns in a country of 323 million people. The likelihood that any one person might have a gun is terrifyingly high, and that is just as scary for the police officers as it is for civilians.
2) We all carry implicit biases about black people being more criminal and violent than white people. I know I do, anyway. (We have to be able to admit we have a problem before we can fix it.) These biases have been handed down in our culture since abolition and they were set up as a justification for continuing to use unpaid labor to make the US economy function for the benefit of the wealthiest people.
To understand the true impact of slavery on our lives today, you have to understand the economic systems our forebears were working with. Slaveholders had vast sums of capital tied up in chattel slavery; to the tune of $30,000-$70,000 of today’s dollars per enslaved person. In addition to the capital investment, the entire economy of Southern agriculture was built on unpaid labor.
Think about that. The price of a bale of cotton (one of the only fiber types available at that time for making all kinds of fabric) was tied up in a system of unpaid labor. To free those workers – essentially erasing the capital investment – and then pay them a living wage would have destroyed the United States economically.
As a compromise, the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865 and made chattel slavery unconstitutional, was left with a loophole. The law reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
That loophole allowed for Southern economies to continue running on unpaid labor as long as there were sufficient numbers of convicts working for free on chain gangs and the like.
Viewed in that context, it is no surprise that the cultural representations of gentle, childlike black people that predominated before abolition were replaced with representations of black people as vicious, rapacious, covetous thugs. After all, it’s a lot easier to lock up a “thug” than to lock up Uncle Remus. Those cultural representations which enabled the entire American economy at that time persist to this day, and are reinforced by the media. We all carry them in our subconscious programming and police officers are human like the rest of us, so they carry them too.
3) Policing in the United States emerged in the 1830s as a means of protecting the private property of wealthy people at the expense of the taxpayer. Remember that, in the 1830s, some of that “private property” was human beings. That history has not been entirely purged from the policing today.
We have not always had police in the United States. The very first formal police department didn’t exist in the US until the 1830s (so 35 years before abolition) in Boston to protect the property rights of merchants who were moving goods through Boston harbor.
Policing in the South was a direct outgrowth of the slave trade. Before abolition, “the police” were largely groups of people who patrolled for runaway slaves. After abolition, when the economy relied on the criminalization of black people, policing (and indeed the entire justice system) was bent to needs of the economy.
Now, fast forward to today. Imagine what that history feels like for families that are only four generations out of slavery or the Jim Crow South. Now add in the fact that a black person is 2.8 times more likely to die in an encounter with police than a white person is and you can understand why many black folks mistrust the police. Wouldn’t you?
Francis Scott Key – a slaveholder – wrote the anthem during the War of 1812. The song originally had four verses. We only sing the first one these days, but here are the lines for the “rocket’s red glare” part in the third verse.
“No refuge could save
the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight
or the gloom of the grave.”
What historians generally agree Key is referencing there is the enslaved black Americans who placed their hopes for freedom upon fighting for the British in the War of 1812. For a bit more context, Britain abolished slavery in 1833. That’s more than 30 years before we did. When you consider that the average enslaved person in America only lived to be 20, you can see why so many would fight for “the enemy” for a chance to align with a country that was on a faster trajectory towards abolition.
If you had a choice between fighting for the people who were enslaving you or fighting for “the enemy” and a chance at freedom, what would you do?
Our ancestors set our systems up in such a way that police too often end up using lethal force against black and brown people in situations where it is not called for. Going forward, we need to do better by our communities and our cops alike.
The kneeling protests are a demand that that disproportionate use of lethal force by police against black and brown people come to an end. It is a reasonable and just demand, and one that fits within Dr. King’s definition of true peace.
And so now, I will ask you to join me in taking a knee as we sing our national anthem.
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