The past week has been a dark chapter for the American experiment. Since the unjust killing of George Floyd, millions of Black Lives Matter activists have flooded cities across America yelling a common refrain: “No justice, no peace!”
The mantra conjures images of unyielding chaos in American communities. And unfortunately, law enforcement officials like Attorney General William Barr say many George Floyd-related demonstrations have been hijacked by unenlightened agitators who’ve looted and destroyed countless businesses and lives. Many peaceful protesters have rightly denounced rioters for “endangering black lives” with their ruinous conduct. Violent riots are simply inexcusable and many concerned Americans want the violence to end. So, then, how should Americans interpret the chilling chant?
Well, with extreme caution. As a black male, I understand all too well historical racism’s impact on blacks. Many of us feel helpless against a system perceived to be stacked against us. Whether that victim mentality is true or not, one thing is crystal-clear: If true justice is the goal, peace is the only way to achieve it. And thankfully, capitalism in America has long helped black individuals fight for equality.
It can do so again if we let it.
Of course, it’s best if we know what “no justice, no peace” actually means. Interestingly enough, before it was used to hail the advent of millennial rage against the status quo (or “the machine,” for rock fans), the battle cry was used as far back as the 1960s by Dr. Martin Luther King. As noted by economist correspondent and professor Steven Maize in BigThink, King used the term in the context of ending segregation and pushing anti-war efforts in Vietnam. According to King, one couldn’t happen without the other. And, so it goes, warriors for equality must continue the struggle.
Today, that well-intentioned idea is pushed in the worst of ways: There are those who question the sincerity of white protesters because of their race, who cancel people for microaggressions, or who deem everyone of a certain political persuasion a racist. For many young Black Lives Matter activists, this is what the struggle for justice looks like. But fundamentally, it is performative, needlessly aggressive, and doesn’t persuade anyone. Something else can, though.
A few days ago marked the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, which commemorates the burning of an upscale district of Greenwood, Tulsa, known as “Black Wall Street.”
Unfortunately, this anniversary received plenty of press for all the wrong reasons.
NBA star LeBron James produced a documentary on the Tulsa massacre, and several commenters have drawn parallels between that tragedy and George Floyd’s death. Yet, few focus on how Black Wall Street, formerly a slave colony, became one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Black Wall Street was established by a few freed slaves through buying and selling of land, efforts that spawned 200 businesses, a taxi service and enormous wealth for its citizens.
And for a time, the citizens of Black Wall Street used their wealth to insulate themselves from the racism of their day. Black lawyers, doctors, store owners, taxi drivers, etc. — these made racism a moot point for Greenwood’s residents. In an era of brutal racism, Greenwood stood as a beacon for hope, safety and prosperity for blacks.
It was burnt to the ground, yet Greenwood’s example persisted. Eventually it became Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Orlando and various other cities with high concentrations of African-American wealth and institutional power. And it all started by a few land purchases.
Other African-Americans used the free market to fight the impact of crass injustice, too. The Associated Press notes that, during the days of Jim Crow in Gainesville, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, “African-Americans owned a network of businesses” on Gainesville’s Southside. These businesses provided crucial services to blacks, despite segregation laws.
In fact, as time went on, even government force or vandalism couldn’t stop the market forces African-Americans harnessed. According to the Institute of New Economic Thinking, black businesses powered the Civil Rights Movement. For example, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black businesses provided alternative transportation methods. When the government cracked down on the black-owned taxi service to force African-Americans back on busses, black entrepreneurs resorted to carpooling. Their efforts eventually desegregated the Montgomery Bus System.
Once again, non-violence prevails.
You needn’t take my word as gospel. Floyd’s brother has unequivocally condemned the violent nature of many pro-Floyd protests. Former President Obama, too, has condemned the riotous conduct and called for an end to the violence. Ultimately, anti-racism activists of any color in America face a reckoning: We can embrace the legacy of non-violent actions which have built a much more tolerant and pluralistic America over the past 60 years. Or we can endeavor in restlessness and jeopardize the struggle for black rights.
I know which option I choose. What about you?
• Christian Watson is a political writer based out of Georgia and a Young Voices advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @OfficialCWatson. He also hosts a podcast titled “Pensive Politics.”