‘A riot is the language of the unheard’

“The anguish we are suffering cannot translate into violence.”

So said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey last week in the wake of yet another police killing of yet another unarmed African-American man. The sentiment was altogether fitting and proper, especially given that his city was the epicenter of a national uprising last year after one of its police officers — Derek Chauvin, now on trial — killed a handcuffed, unarmed and unresisting black man named George Floyd by pushing a knee into his neck for nine and a half minutes.

That captured-on-video killing stunned the world by its nonchalant cruelty, igniting both vigorous protests and spasms of violence — fed-up people, opportunistic leeches and even far-right provocateurs all meeting in the streets to make war. The nation endured long nights of rioting: the shattering of glass, the wailing of sirens, the looting of merchandise, the burning of businesses.

Which allowed conservative observers with exactly zero empathy for Floyd and the terrible normalcy his death represented to change the subject, freed them from even pretending to ponder why police find it so difficult to take Black people into custody without fatality. Instead, they shifted to a narrative of senseless people on a senseless rampage.

“That’s always the problem with a little violence,” mused Martin Luther King, after what turned out to be his last march ended with a mob of young interlopers rioting along Beale Street in Memphis. Beyond its moral wrongness, King felt that as a practical matter, violence has a way of turning attention from the issues at hand and swinging the spotlight to itself.

So certainly, the mayor is right. Anguish cannot be allowed to translate into violence.

But neither can it translate into silence.

One of the latest victims is 20-year-old Daunte Wright, stopped by police in Brooklyn Center just north of Minneapolis for driving with expired tags. He tried to flee, likely motivated by a quite sensible fear of police. Officer Kim Potter shot him once in the chest. She said she meant to use her Taser.

And Lord, what are we supposed to do with that information? Say “Oops” and move on? At least three Black men — Oscar Grant and Eric Harris are the other two — have died in recent years from that “mistake” alone. If it has happened to any white people, it has escaped notice.

Which is rather the point. These police “mistakes,” not to mention miscalculations, fatal assumptions and acts of nonchalant cruelty, happen with disproportionate frequency to African-American people and go routinely unpunished when they do. And for all the hue and cry they raise if a Walmart is torched, conservative observers seem never to notice or care.

But this is rioting, too: the shattering of lives, the wailing of mothers, the looting of families, and the burning of potential, of everything that man or woman could have been. Again and again and again and again and again. And again.

And again.

“The anguish we are suffering cannot translate into violence.” And certainly, no one wants that to happen. Yet, the possibility is ever present in Minneapolis, in Memphis, in Miami, in America, until we decide that Black lives do, indeed, matter. As King, whose hatred of violence was visceral, put it, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” So maybe it’s time to listen.

If you don’t want anguish translating into violence, translate it into change.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.