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The Language of the Unheard

Why preventing police killings, not bracing for riots, should be a city's priority

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Keith Kellom, like too many black parents lately, doesn’t understand why his son is dead today. One day after 20-year-old Terrance Kellom was shot multiple times and killed by an agent with U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement, the grieving father spoke at a press conference and gave an account  of the incident drastically different from law enforcement's. According to Al Jazeera America, Keith asserted that the agents who arrived at his northwest Detroit home to arrest Terrance, a suspect in a robbery case, did not serve him with a search warrant, and that Terrance did not reach for a hammer, as the Detroit Police Department had reported. “My son died with clenched fists. He didn't have a hammer,” said the elder Kellom last Tuesday. “I don’t understand why my son was executed.” 

Terrence Kellom’s death occurred on the same Monday that Baltimore experienced a spate of unrest that focused the nation on the death of another young black man at the hands of law enforcement, Freddie Gray. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard as much about Kellom. The 300 protestors who gathered in Detroit Tuesday to march and pray remained peaceful. Still, police commissioner Eva Garza Dewaelsche told the Detroit News that “corporations downtown want to know” whether Detroit cops have a plan to prevent and stem any possible uprisings. The civilian oversight panel expressed concerns at a meeting last Thursday night. Not to worry, the commissioner and her colleagues told them. They had a plan. (Not to address the concerns of the protesters, it seems, but to prevent them from breaking stuff.)

Before last week’s uprising made Detroit suddenly afraid of becoming “the next Baltimore,” many were asking whether the reverse would happen. Two years ago, a report commissioned by Baltimore’s city government stated that without major reforms, the city would be forced into bankruptcy by 2023. Detroit just got out of its own bankruptcy this past December, eliminating or restructuring some $7 billion city debt. A little more than a week before Freddie Gray was arrested and given a “rough ride” by six Baltimore cops on April 12, resulting in fatal injuries to his spine, the Baltimore Sun reported that Baltimore officials were sending 25,000 shut-off notices to delinquent water customers. The United Nations was among those that condemned a similar shut-off plan in Detroit last year.

City finances and the human rights debate around water utilities are now secondary. “The next” as a prefix to a U.S. city typically has one meaning now. Perhaps it is a testament to the increased visibility of police violence and killings of people of color that “the next” typically is looked upon as a harbinger of protest against police wrongdoings and an accompanying overcompensation by the militarized law enforcement that only exacerbates passions and conflicts. This cycle continues to repeat itself through our modern civil rights movement, so much so that we’re now taking polls asking people to predict whether black folks nationwide will continue to be so angered by police violence and a lack of legal recompense that they will riot.

America is nearly unanimous that this will continue. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released today found that 96 percent of respondents believe it’s either very likely or somewhat likely that we’ll see more unrest this summer—“similar to the past week's violence in Baltimore,” per the report. More than half of Americans think it’s coming to the metropolis nearest to them. The poll gets into racial discrepancies in how the uprisings are viewed: Six in ten African American respondents believe that the unrest in Baltimore is attributable to “people with longstanding frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans that have not been addressed,” while 58 percent of white respondents think the disturbances were caused by opportunist looters looking to exploit Gray’s death. It’s unclear what new thing we're supposed to learn from this poll other than that Americans still prioritize the “how” and “what” of riots over the “why.”

We see a hollowed-out gas station in Ferguson, Missouri, and we forget about Michael Brown. We see marchers and cops going at it in New York City, and we forget about Eric Garner and the others for whom they demonstrate, including Gray. We see parts of West Baltimore burning, and we forget how much of it died long ago. Talking about shutting off water isn’t as sexy, of course, as showing a raging fire. But it’s clear that this isn’t as much a media problem or an issue of presentation. The demonstrators are not being heard because they are speaking in a language that the power structure ignores, either by choice or by design.

Whenever a window breaks or a police car gets immolated, we hear those on all sides of the debate invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The conservative crowd co-opts his legacy to shame, asking why these Terrible Rioters don’t just follow King’s example. But what they miss is something he told Mike Wallace in 1966, the same year the Hough riots torched my native Cleveland during unrest sparked by a racist act and an unnecessary police killing:

I contend that the cry of "black power" is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

Generations have gone by since those words were uttered. Yet even the frustrations of black struggles that manifest as violence, or anything less than quieter, more socially palatable representations of racial protest, remain a foreign language to America's media and power structure. In a nation built on a foundation of white supremacy, perhaps we shouldn't expect burned buildings, tossed bricks, and shattered windows to make a dent. But in the midst of the unrest and subsequent demonization and pigeonholing of protesters, the preponderance of whom were teenaged children, not enough legislators and attorneys understand what is being communicated.

Some may argue that the violence last week won a speedy indictment from Marilyn Mosby, the state attorney for Baltimore City. I’d argue that view detracts from Mosby simply doing her job and getting what too many other city prosecutors don’t: Move as quickly to investigate police killings and abuse as you do when civilians are the suspects. Likewise, city leaders and law enforcement need to learn that the real remedy to this kind of unrest is demonstrated action to stop police killings and brutalization, and removing the systemic barriers that provide privilege to so few at the expense of the suffering of many.

I expect that we’ll have questions about whether Cleveland will be “the next” and will soon explode. The family of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old black boy who was playing with a pellet gun when Cleveland police office Timothy Loehmann fatally shot him has certainly had enough of waiting.

The family was prompted to speak out after the city asked them on April 20 to stay their federal civil rights lawsuit until the sheriff’s department concludes its criminal investigation, so that the officers involved in the shooting may better protect their Fifth Amendment rights. The family denied that request on Monday in a formal filing. It was understandable. The investigation has dragged on more than five months since Loehmann, captured on video, fired two seconds after his car screeched to a halt in the frozen mud mere feet from Tamir. The family argues that waiting any longer for the city to get its business together “poses the danger of prejudice both in terms of the loss of critical evidence and also in terms of added costs associated with securing that evidence.” Also, again, it’s on tape.

At the press conference outside of the Justice Center Complex, Rice family attorney Benjamin Crump asked one pointed question, repeatedly, concerning their wait for an answer: “How long?” Per the family’s court filing, Tamir hasn’t yet been buried because of the expense and the pending investigation. The filing also states that Tamir’s mother, Samaria, has been living in a homeless shelter “because she could no longer live next door to the killing field of her son.”

Cleveland’s mayor, Frank Jackson, wrote an open letter to residents last week, assuring people not that the city is working swiftly to complete the investigation, but that their stuff will be protected against potential riot violence. “In the wake of the tragic events that unfolded in Baltimore,” he wrote, Cleveland “has been planning and is prepared to address upcoming developments.”

Traumas and financial difficulties like those the Rice family claims are real and hardly uncommon. Yet lately it seems only shattered glass and burning cars spur authorities to halfway make them a priority—and when they do, they prioritize property over people, the unrest over its root causes. People don't need to endorse a riot to understand it. Officials in places like Detroit and Cleveland remain anything but fluent in the language of the unheard. They need to study up, and right quick.