In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
وَالَّذينَ إِذا أَصابَهُمُ البَغيُ هُم يَنتَصِرونَ وَجَزاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِثلُها ۖ فَمَن عَفا وَأَصلَحَ فَأَجرُهُ عَلَى اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لا يُحِبُّ الظّالِمينَ وَلَمَنِ انتَصَرَ بَعدَ ظُلمِهِ فَأُولٰئِكَ ما عَلَيهِم مِن سَبيلٍ إِنَّمَا السَّبيلُ عَلَى الَّذينَ يَظلِمونَ النّاسَ وَيَبغونَ فِي الأَرضِ بِغَيرِ الحَقِّ ۚ أُولٰئِكَ لَهُم عَذابٌ أَليمٌ
"[The believers are] those who, when visited by aggression, come to each other’s aid. The requital of evil is an evil like it. So whoever excuses and conciliates, his reward lies with God. Indeed He does not like the wrongdoers. As for those who retaliate after being wronged, there is no blame upon them. The blame lies only upon those who wrong the people and commit aggression in the land unduly. For such there is a painful punishment."
[The Qurʾān 42:39-42]
The inhumane killing of George Floyd is the latest example of the brokenness of our nation. George’s murder underscores America’s perennial disenfranchisement of racial minorities, accentuates the inequality and inequity afforded to her Black “citizens,” and exposes the facade of freedom and justice for all. George’s death, like that of Breonna Taylor in March, Ahmaud Arbery in February, Freddie Gray in 2015, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice in 2014, and Trayvon Martin in 2012 reminds us that the truths and unalienable rights affirmed in the Declaration of Independence are, for many Americans, far from “self-evident.” While this historic document was written in July of 1776, it so accurately articulates, mutatis mutandis, the plight of Black Americans today and the institutional oppression they have long faced.
George’s brutal killing evokes the gamut of human emotions, exposing the chronic wounds all too familiar in the Black (and other racial minorities) American experience. The national and global protests in opposition to the systematic brutality of police against Black Americans and the triviality of Black death (in all its forms) are a testament to, among other things, a communications breakdown: the marginalization of the Black voice and the experiences of racial minorities in this country. Before any meaningful action and systematic change occurs, there must be understanding. And perhaps the biggest impediment to true understanding is the art of empathetic listening. America needs to open her ears and listen to the cries of her citizens, cries that have fallen on deaf ears for far too long. And in that listening, she needs to restrain her proclivity for mischaracterization, misappropriation, misinterpretation, and disparagement. Maybe, then, she can begin to understand what Martin and Malcolm were telling her, and what it means to be black in America: “That’s not a chip on my shoulder; that’s your foot on my neck.”
Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 and its dangers, masses protest in the streets to vehemently condemn the failure of responsible authorities - at a local, state, and national level - in commensurately responding to the perpetual and rampant injustices and institutional oppression that continue to take Black lives for granted. Public protest is an American right, yet the hypocrisy and double-standards, once again, rear their ugly heads when it concerns the disenfranchised. When an armed militia forced the shutdown of the Michigan legislature last month, POTUS tweeted: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” When black athletes take a knee during a football game, they’re met with diatribes: “get that son of a b**** of the field right now;” “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country;” and that it is “a total disrespect to our heritage… and everything we stand for.” When armed militias rebel they are glorified as “patriots,” but when black people rebel, they are branded as “looters” and “thugs.”
What is America so insecure about that she cannot stand to listen to the cries of her citizens, regardless of how they are expressed? In what language should her oppressed citizens express their emotions? If kneeling, sitting-in, chanting, singing, rapping, trending hashtags, running marathons, and marches are an ineffective means of communication, how shall the people express themselves? The hackneyed demand for protests to be “peaceful” belie the severity and sensitivity of the issue and, frankly, should demand us to reflect on what “peace” means in an American context and what our commitment to justice truly entails. Perhaps it will expose the incessant conflation of justice and order, and the obsession of many with the latter at the cost of the former. Or maybe it will reveal our predilection for capitalism and materialism over humanity, if our distress is circumscribed to the burning of brick and mortar and is negligent of flesh and blood. As Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently expressed in the aftermath of the 2015 Baltimore riots:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
Undoubtedly, rioting and looting are not productive strategies to resolving this problem; nor do we condone that approach. However, we fail to understand the significance of what we are witnessing now (and in the past) and miss the point if we simply reduce it to violent and disorderly “riots.” If we are honest and informed, we would know that these are reactions to ubiquitous riots perpetuated by oppressive governmental forces towards people of color. An overwhelming majority of protesters are neither rioting, nor looting. But for the small minority that are expressing their frustrations in rebellion, we must adamantly avow that these are not (unprovoked) riots. A riot is the violent public disturbance by an assembly acting with a common intent. This is a public response to the “rioters” that have run wild for far too long. It is a response to unchecked and vile police brutality; to a criminal justice system that is broken beyond repair; to NYPD Police Cruisers ramming into crowds of protesters (and the deplorable sentiment of “Let[ting] New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest. There is nobody better”); to the attitude of “many Secret Service agents just waiting for action;” to a system that “quickly comes down, hard - didn’t know what hit them” when someone “gets out of line;” to unprovoked tear gassing and pepper spraying of peaceful protesters by police; to law enforcement and National Guard mobs charging down peaceful neighborhoods and shooting at American’s standing on their own porches, in full compliance with curfew mandates, with a disturbingly apathetic “Light ‘em up!” order; to shooting a photojournalist in the face and permanently blinding her; and, ultimately, the dishonesty and distrust of those who are meant to protect and serve us.
“Healing, not hatred; justice, not chaos.” The mere utterance of platitudes by those devoid of any semblance of morality and justice is the epitome of privilege and disrespect. We love to celebrate and appropriate Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach in the struggle for justice (and, indeed, he did believe that “nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice”), yet we fail to understand the roots and significance of riotous expression when we fail to listen to what is being said in these “riots.” As Dr. King himself affirms:
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
What can be done? What should be done? These are, undoubtedly, complex questions with complex answers. The problem didn’t develop overnight and, hence, its solutions won't either. Let us not forget, however, that this is a time-sensitive issue - not least because Black people will continue to be killed while law enforcement and the justice system conduct “full” investigations. While we must unite as a nation and in our collective humanity, we can at least draw one line in the sand. In the words of Malcolm X: “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”
In times of distress we turn to prayer. Dear God, educate us, enlighten us, and open our eyes and ears so that we may deepen our understanding of what we may be ignorant of - that our perceptions of what is happening around us transcends the superficial; help us understand that “looting” is less about a few people robbing stores and more about the structural thievery that is the cornerstone of modern capitalism; ensure that our sympathies lie with the true victims of this crisis, not the perpetrators; rid us of our irrational hatreds, biases, and elitisms; purge our country, and the global community, of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry; unite our hearts through the power of love, humility, and dignity for all. Empower us to make a change in our affairs - individually, familially, communally, locally, nationally, and globally - for you have vowed “not to change what is in a people until they alter what is in themselves.” [Qur'an 13:11]
أَلَا لَعْنَةُ اللَّـهِ عَلَى الظَّالِمِينَ
Behold! The curse of God is upon the wrongdoers [11:18]
وَسَيَعْلَمُ الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا أَيَّ مُنقَلَبٍ يَنقَلِبُونَ
And the wrongdoers will soon know at what goal they will end up. [26:227]