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The oppression of black people is America’s foundation stone

Boston Police Officers arrest a protester in Downtown Crossing in Boston on May 31, 2020. Violent protests erupted late at night after a day of peaceful protests. Photo: Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images - Credit: Boston Globe via Getty Images

BONNIE GREER says George Floyd’s death is an old and horrible story – and one that we will continue to hear from America.

My teen years were full of burning cities, and one burning prison. Attica. We called them ‘urban uprisings’. Before the 1960s, they were called ‘race riots’.

My first produced play, 1919, was about a so-called race riot in Chicago during what was called the ‘Red Summer’.

That year white Americans attacked black Americans in episodic confrontations that left mostly black people injured and dead. The Chicago Police Department had been of no assistance. Helping African Americans was not their job.

The big uprising of the 1960s was in Detroit in what became known as ‘the Long Hot Summer’ of 1967, one of several across America that year. It was mainly a battle between African American Detroiters and the city’s police.

Officers had made a raid on an unlicensed, after-hours joint on July 23. The people revolted. They had had enough of police harassment , and they rocked the city.

Detroit had had urban uprisings before, including one in 1943. This was one of a few that occurred during the industrial build-up that occurred in the Second World War and involved a clash between black and white workers.

Detroit’s automotive industry had ramped up to meet the demands of the conflict and became the home of ‘Rosie the Riveter’, the cultural representative of women who flooded in to factories and shipyards.

Black and white workers from the south also crowded in. They were competing for the same space. The same jobs. The tension exploded the city. And elsewhere.

In Texas, a wartime riot began around the familiar libel that a black man had raped a white woman. Black men fought back.

African Americans attacked white-owned property in Harlem after a black GI had been killed by the NYPD. Again, the black men fought back.

In Los Angeles, the Latinx community – tired of being attacked by white GIs because of the clothing they wore – simply had had enough and they fought back too.

By the time that I was a teenager, burning cities had become part of my DNA, the thing that I knew about growing up black in an urban, American setting. You knew that the police were not going to help you like any ordinary citizen, and if you considered them to be the enemy, you were not far wrong. They seldom helped, they hurt.

And when I helped make a small film about the Black Patrolmen’s Association in Chicago in the early 1970s, I saw the price of being a cop and a black man.

If you were on duty at an uprising, you could be subjected to abuse and worse from both the white cops and the black protestors.

April 5, 1968 – the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated – the black community erupted. This was a howl of pure pain and rage and impotence. A great deal of the community was burned.

Chicago’s was one of about 100 uprisings that year which occurred following the murder of Rev. Dr. King. He had been the father of my generation and we had had enough of the racism.

A few weeks later, the Democratic National Convention opened in the city.

My crowd supported senator Gene McCarthy – the Bernie Sanders of the time – and our aim was to change the Democratic Party’s mind about him and get him the nomination for president. Those of us who were African American were especially mindful of the notorious Chicago Police Department. We watched our step.

McCarthy was the senator from Minnesota, a place that any Chicagoan would see as benign, rather rural and slow. We knew the expression ‘Minnesota Nice’, that kind of jolly way of being in the world. So it was difficult for me, at first, to believe what has been happening in Minnesota in recent days. Minnesota?

But it’s easy to see the pattern; the shape. It’s old. It’s familiar.

My father raised my brothers, and my brother-in-law has raised my nephew, to understand what it means to be African American and male in the US.

It means, among other things, that the police are not your friends. That there is no ‘Officer Friendly’ for you, not even if that officer is a fellow African American.

I was told by one male friend that there is that moment when you have ‘the talk’ with your little boy. This consists of telling him how to conduct himself in the presence of police officers. You do not explain yourself. That could be seen, at its mildest, as ‘talking back’.

If you are stopped by a cop and you’re in your car, put your hands on the top of the wheel. No searching for your ID, no giving an explanation. Just keep quiet and be still. Very still.

This is your bottom-line education as a man, how you must proceed if you want to stay alive. Not to know this lesson could cost you your life, and maybe worse: the life of your mother.

Because I know a woman who died from grief after her son was shot by the police and paralysed from the neck down. Simply because he ‘talked back’. He was a ‘wise guy’.

When a young African American reporter was arrested last week – live on air – while covering the protests in Minnesota, my heart was in my throat. I watched him being taken away as his camera rolled, and I knew that very little could protect him if the police wanted to harm him.

His network got him out and he was back on air. But what happened to him was almost heart-stopping to me.

I did not watch the video of the last moments of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man whose death has prompted the protests in Minnesota. I did not watch him pleading for air as a police officer knelt on his neck, and then calling for his mother; and then his stillness. I could not watch it. I had seen this played out – metaphorically – too many times.

What writers do is try to enter the mind, the head, of a person they do not know in life. Just to see how they tick; to find some empathy. But I knew that I could not find this with the policeman who knelt on Floyd’s neck, who let him writhe in pain and fear. And I could not watch that moment when a man knows he is going to die.

It is not possible to explain the terror of seeing a cop head your way on the streets of America, because if you fall into their hands, all bets are off. It is over. Whether it actually is or not, the sheer, deep terror remains. And something ends.

Maybe your innocence. Maybe the belief that America is for everyone and that means you, too.

Young people have stated to me that there were no lessons learned from the era of my youth. That nothing happened, that it is all still the same.

Something happened alright. The cops got smarter, their unions got smarter.

They know the patterns of these uprisings; what happens; how they turn out.

They can place a cop in a position of having ‘followed orders’ and move the blame upstairs. They know this from reams and reams of court testimony about police brutality.

All this is to say that the death of George Floyd is an old story and a horrible story. It will not end any time soon. Because this is what America is.

The oppression of people of African descent is its very foundation stone. It’s American as apple pie.

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