Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Tuesday, the world let out a sigh of relief when former officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd nearly a year ago. It seemed like everyone was waiting with clenched jaws, holding their breath as they questioned if the US justice system was going to prove, once again, unable to recognize and protect the sanctity of Black life.
But the moment of relief would be fleeting as news broke that an Ohio officer had fatally shot Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager, about 30 minutes before the verdict was delivered in Chauvin’s trial.
Details of the Ohio shooting are still emerging. According to police officials and bodycam footage shared with the public, the teenager was holding a knife and charged two other females.
But many are openly questioning why this young teenager could not have been subdued with nonlethal force.
Both cases keep at the forefront the conversation of how police officers routinely fail to deescalate a situation when it comes to interactions with Black and brown communities. The incident in Ohio serves as a reminder that the verdict in Minneapolis was only a small victory in a very large battle to transform the role, purpose and impact of law enforcement in Black America.
It seems that local and state governments care more about property, building and money than people of color.
We need only to point to the outpouring of state and local resources to prevent violence in the event that Chauvin was acquitted. Imagine if the same level of care that Minneapolis officials and law enforcement agencies took in turning the Twin Cities into a military encampment had been directed toward investing in Black communities?
If Minneapolis – but really the whole country – redirected its resources toward properly training officers (and holding them accountable when they are in the wrong) so that people who looked like Philando Castile, George Floyd and Daunte Wright wouldn’t have to worry, they would not have to spend millions of dollars in an effort to uphold peace without justice.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, in a show of solidarity with grassroots activists, said as much when she urged protesters to embrace the politics of confrontation if the jury returned with a not guilty verdict. “We’ve got to stay on the street and demand justice,” explained the California member of the House who is known as a fierce and formidable social justice advocate.
Critics reacting to Waters’ support of street demonstrations for Black citizenship and dignity have willfully reinterpreted her words as advocating violence. The same members of the GOP who walked back their criticism against former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting insurrection and spreading lies about election fraud are now pillorying Waters.
The criticism against her bumps into a long and uncomfortable history of trying to silence, censor and harass outspoken Black women civil rights activists. Voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer faced death threats, physical violence from law enforcement and unspeakable forms of harassment during the 1960s and 1970s. Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm turned a longshot 1972 candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination into a generational defining run for political dignity and personal respect, bravely withstanding criticism that attacked her as unqualified because of race and gender.
In our own time, Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and state legislator who helped successfully organize a voter registration drive that enabled Democrats to recapture the Senate, received unwarranted criticism when she suggested then-presidential candidate Joe Biden should choose a Black woman as his running mate, a position she was eminently qualified for. Kamala Harris, the first Black and Asian woman vice president of the United States, has faced a heightened level of scorn and ridicule.
Black women are the most reliable Democratic voters in America and are, with the election of Harris and the power broking of Abrams, beginning to receive their just rewards on a national level.
Congresswoman Waters, who represents a district that includes South Central Los Angeles, is a long marcher in the struggle for Black freedom, one who, as my Black church folk are fond of saying, “came early and stayed late.”
Rep. Waters’ statement did not call for violence. It merely acknowledged one aspect of American history that many wish to ignore. Conventional politics, such as voting, lobbying and crafting legislation, while important and necessary, are incomplete without the application of political pressure. Black folks whose families are under siege by law enforcement, face structural violence, high rates of unemployment and illness and live in racially segregated neighborhoods do not have lobbyists. They express their displeasure in the streets.
Last year’s George Floyd protests, which proved to be the largest social justice movement in American history, amplifies this point.
Before more than 15 million Americans took to the streets to demand change, efforts to abolish prison, end punishment and reimagine public safety were nowhere on the national political agenda.
Since then, we have had a robust debate on “defunding the police,” educated the nation on the pitfalls of “qualified immunity” for police officers and challenged the stranglehold that police unions have in preventing the systemic change required to fix these problems.
In the meantime, Black people continue to be shot, to be brutalized and to die at the hands of the police. Rep. Maxine Waters’ supposed words of fire are, in reality, an observation of the necessity to continue the fight for racial justice. She calls upon this nation to devote resources, energy and innovation to protecting Black lives in Minneapolis and across the country.