It wasn’t a date, exactly, but one of the first things Donna and I did together, shortly after we met in 1964, was to help other members of a local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee pack clothing and food for the freedom riders. We were freshmen at American River College in Sacramento, far from the momentous changes occurring in Mississippi and other southern states, but we were filled with admiration (and anxiety) for the brave young people who went down there to help register black voters.
Last night I watched the beginnings of a new round of mass protests over the killing of an unarmed black man by police, who once again are not being held accountable for their actions. This time it’s New York City, and people are in the streets because a grand jury refused to indict the cops who literally murdered an unarmed black man named Eric Garner. This in spite of a clear video of the entire incident, from the initial confrontation with Mr. Garner, to the cops applying the chokehold and wrestling him to the street, to the eleven times Garner managed to gasp out “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” before he lost consciousness on the sidewalk. And at no time did Eric Garner do anything more threatening than raise his voice to the cops.
While I was watching the protests, halfway hoping some protesters would break through the wall of riot police and set fire to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (the annual tree lighting ceremony and the protests were occurring simultaneously), I heard black and white leaders calling for a nationwide march.
My god, I thought, Donna and I might wind up packing food and clothing again, this time for a new batch of brave young men and woman. Fifty fucking years after freedom summer, in 21st century America.
Prosecutors and grand juries in all parts of this country routinely refuse to indict cops for killing unarmed black and brown boys and men. The few cops who come to trial are just as routinely acquitted. Sometimes, in egregious cases like the current ones in Ferguson and NYC, the Justice Department threatens to step in and take further action. This has happened before, of course, and it’s no slam dunk. Remember these guys?
This famous photo shows two of the Neshoba County, Mississippi, cops (and also KKK members) at their trial for the murder of three freedom riders in the summer of 1964: Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. If you were around in those days you probably remember the murders and the efforts to bring the murderers to justice (if you’re younger, perhaps you learned something about the case from the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning).
Initial efforts to indict the sheriff, his deputies, and other white citizens involved in the murders were stymied by local and state segregationist prosecutors and judges. The Justice Department and the FBI became involved, but it took them several tries to get indictments and, eventually, convictions (and even then, not for murder but for violating the civil rights of the young men they killed). Of the 18 men tried, only 7 were convicted. Most of the killers, including Sheriff Price, went free. Finally, in 2005, justice caught up with some of the surviving killers, who were convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for whatever days they had remaining.
No slam dunk, indeed.
Racism never went away in this country. The open expression of racism pretty much died out, however, as most whites learned to moderate their behavior, particularly in the workplace and institutions like the military and schools. Now, it seems to me, the open expression of racism is coming back, and with a vengeance.
It feels to me as if the ground has tilted and we’re slipping back to the 1960s; I meant it when I said I can see Donna and I packing clothing and food for freedom riders again, just as we did in 1964.