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Sylville Smith, Racial Martyr

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Sylville Smith, Racial Martyr

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Kimberly Neal, sister of Sylville Smith, speaks at a vigil after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

As racial martyrs go, you could hardly do worse than Sylville Smith.

He was no Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, no unarmed innocent gunned down. No, Milwaukee police say Smith was an armed 23-year old with a lengthy arrest record — drugs, weapons, robbery — who bolted from a traffic stop Saturday afternoon. They say he ran a short distance, then wheeled around, gun in hand, refusing orders to drop it. Whereupon the police officer shot and killed him.

“I’m not going to say he was an angel,” Smith’s godmother, Katherine Mahmoud, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The officer who killed him was a year older than Smith and black, like him. Though perceptions are obviously subject to change once body-cam footage is released, there is at this writing no reason to believe the officer acted improperly and, indeed, no serious allegation that he did. As such, this incident seems an unlikely focal point for public outrage.

That it became one anyway, that Smith’s death sparked two nights of arson, shooting and general unrest, is an ominous sign. It suggests the rise of a species of anger inimical to any hope of racial reconciliation in Milwaukee — and cities far beyond.

A certain amount of anger in the face of injustice is not necessarily a bad thing. Such anger — defined as a passionate impatience with unfair status quo — is often a necessary catalyst for progress. But when there is no progress even after long years, anger can intermix with frustration and despair and become something much less constructive.

It can become something that doesn’t listen, doesn’t reason, doesn’t even hope. Something that simply explodes.

African Americans in Wisconsin’s largest city say Smith’s death was the last straw after years of racially stratified policing. It is hardly immaterial that an officer was not charged just two years ago in the controversial shooting death of a mentally ill black man. Or that the department is under Justice Department review which, to its credit, it requested.

Who will be shocked if that probe finds what other probes have found in cop shops around the country: patterns of institutionalized racism that corrode public trust and impinge the ability of police to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency, when such probes are done, to treat the affected department as unique, an outlier. Think of the person who sees a drop of water here, a drop of water there, another drop over there, yet somehow never perceives the storm.

It’s worth noting, too, that Mike Crivello, president of the Milwaukee police union, issued a statement after the shooting to “denounce” the idea of racism in the department’s ranks. Of course, no institution of any size can credibly make a blanket claim of freedom from bias, but that didn’t stop him. That should tell you something.

Here’s the thing: You get tired of being treated as an unreliable witness to your own experience. You get sick of not being heard. Black Milwaukee has complained for years about biased policing. Yet the police chief pronounced himself “surprised” by this uprising. Apparently, he hasn’t been listening.

The rest of us would do well to avoid that mistake. If this unrest is an omen, it is also an opportunity — for civic self-examination and accountability, for giving the people a voice, for listening to what they have to say. For making change.

This violence, following what might well have been a justified shooting, was tragic and troubling. But it also made one thing starkly clear. African Americans have been demanding justice a very long time.

And they’re getting tired of asking nicely.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo: Kimberly Neal, sister of Sylville Smith, speaks at a vigil after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

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Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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12 Comments

  1. Daniel Jones August 18, 2016

    Before anyone like hAgsLander and Autogrief the Second chime in, let me point out that Leonard isn’t endorsing this rage, in fact he dislikes it.

    But he knows that frustration can defeat reason. He’s pointing out that this is happening.

    Might I humbly suggest not being deaf to these people, not dismissing their concerns, not killing them out of hand?

    You know… not being assholes.

    Reply
    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 19, 2016

      Well said. I’ve been quite intrigued by the evolution of the IRA in light of the British high-handed and allofness concerning the plight of the Irish during the potato blight and even before the blight took affect.

      The onerous financial burden placed on the Irish peasants lead a number of them to resort to violence which opened the door for the Easter uprising in 1916 and the formation of the IRA which had deadly consequences. The resentment felt by many Irish Catholics towards England today remains I would imagine.

      And the British government has yet to formally announce its role in exacerbating the effects and spread of the famine and attendant diseases and displacements of Irish from their homes due to Britain’s inhumanity as a result of its twisted interpretation of the Bible and subsequent despicable application of Christian values. A situation we witness happening daily in America by those who may as well be worshiping a “Golden Calf”.

      Reply
  2. bojimbo26 August 19, 2016

    Wonder if the police will ever release the video of the shooting .

    Reply
    1. plc97477 August 19, 2016

      I would think it depended on how damning it is.

      Reply
  3. pisces63 August 19, 2016

    Great column. As a black woman with a 44 year old son and 14 yr old and 19 month old grandsons, worry continually about their safety. My son, a college grad,. no record, one child in marriage get’s stopped for no reason at all. My grandson goes no place without one of us, including great aunts and a cop uncle. WE get tired of people telling us how WE should feel. Telling us how WE should act in any given situation. How about telling THEM how to act for a change.

    Reply
  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 19, 2016

    This latest in a seemingly endless procession of the implementation of racialist thinking predicated on the false premise of the inequality of the humankind shows how pernicious and corrosive. Such a premise “retards the growth of its victims and corrupts the oppressors” to paraphrase what Shoghi Effendi(a Central Figure in the Baha’i Faith) describes in a section of his letter to the Baha’is in the United States in 1938.

    An excerpt from “The Vision of Race Unity”, a statement made in 1991 by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of The United States to America is the following:

    ————————————————————————————————————

    “The persistent neglect by the governing bodies and the masses of the American people of the ravages of racism jeopardizes both the internal order and the national security of the country.
    From the day it was born the United States embraced a set of contradictory values. The founding fathers proclaimed their devotion to the highest principles of equality and justice yet enshrined slavery in the Constitution. Slavery poisoned the mind and heart of the nation and would not be abolished without a bloody civil war that nearly destroyed the young republic. The evil consequences of slavery are still visible in this land. They continue to affect the behavior of both Black and White Americans and prevent the healing of old wounds.
    Healing the wounds and building a society in which people of diverse backgrounds live as members of one family are the most pressing issues confronting America today. Her peace, her prosperity, and even her standing in the international community depend to a great extent on the resolution of this issue.
    That the virulence of the race issue in America attracts the attention of the entire world should spur this country to an unprecedented effort to eliminate every vestige of prejudice and discrimination from her midst. America’s example could not fail to have a profound influence on world society, nor could it fail to assist the establishment of universal peace. “For the accomplishment of unity between the colored and white,” the Bahá’í writings proclaim, “will be a cause of the world’s peace.”
    ———————————————————————————————————-

    The media, politicians, and regular folks would do well to study and contemplate the excerpt above, and to read the statement in its entirety.

    Refer to the link https://www.ibiblio.org/Bahai/Texts/English/The-Vision-Of-Race-Unity.html for the entire text.

    Reply
    1. Jon August 19, 2016

      Thank you. All that you and the excerpt you provide says is true but how do you extinguish racism when you have Republican politicians pushing it with their charter schools, voter ID laws, school choice policies and refusal to acknowledge that racism exists? Now their presidential candidate isn’t even bothering to hide his racism with the statements he has made and bringing white supremacist slimy Steve Bannon aboard the Trump Train. I have never been racist in my life and simply have a great deal of trouble understanding the thinking of Trump and his fellow racists. I can repeat all of the reasons racism is wrong on every level of humanity but it often seems to fall on deaf ears. How dark their world must be.

      Reply
      1. Aaron Zanzibari August 23, 2016

        Hello, Jon. The problem of racism has been an all-pervasive corrosive force in America, and elsewhere in the world, that a great number of people will never rid it from their hearts and minds; as for those of us who have the capacity for change, the road will be long and arduous according to Shoghi Effendi in December of 1938 in a long letter he addressed specifically to the Baha’is in America, and by extension to all Americans.
        It boils down to each of us setting an example by deed and word(in that order, and in parallel); from our actions and words, the youth and children will become better informed; then, the following generations will begin the final eradication. But you and I will play the role of getting momentum built up.
        Politically removing the agents of racism from positions of leadership will be a temporary measure, but like a cancer that’s not eradicated, these racists will remain in the body-politic poisoning others they come in contact with. Therefore, we need to strengthen the body’s immune system to withstand racism, while the eradication process takes hold.
        So, politics should not be seen as the agent for total eradication. Only an “Outside” agent can extirpate this disease, but the agent requires ordinary folks to channel that Agent in order for it to take hold, and the quotes above provide the way to become effective channels.

        Peace out, vote wisely, and be an example.

        Reply
  5. Otto T. Goat August 19, 2016

    Leontard Pitts apologizing for mob violence.

    Reply
    1. Aaron Zanzibari August 23, 2016

      You are hopelessly trapped in a hellish condition, Otto. And you’re quite happy with the imminent threat of being sentenced to spending an eternity in an abysmal pit.

      Reply
  6. Aaron Zanzibari August 23, 2016

    I responded to a post by “Jon” regarding the main question of how to remove racism. From the postings of avowed racists in this forum like “Otto the Goat”, it is clear that no magic wand exists(nor should there be one) to remove the scourge of racism.
    This scourge, as witnessed in Trump, “The Goat”, the rest of the KKK, and their sympathizers, can’t be removed simply by changing the “sheets” of government, but will require an “Outside Agent”.

    Below is my response to “Jon”:
    ————————————————————————————————————-
    Hello, Jon. The problem of racism has been an all-pervasive corrosive
    force in America, and elsewhere in the world, that a great number of
    people will never rid it from their hearts and minds; as for those of us
    who have the capacity for change, the road will be long and arduous
    according to Shoghi Effendi in December of 1938 in a long letter he
    addressed specifically to the Baha’is in America, and by extension to
    all Americans.
    It boils down to each of us setting an example by deed
    and word(in that order, and in parallel); from our actions and words,
    the youth and children will become better informed; then, the following
    generations will begin the final eradication. But you and I will play
    the role of getting momentum built up.
    Politically removing the
    agents of racism from positions of leadership will be a temporary
    measure, but like a cancer that’s not eradicated, these racists will
    remain in the body-politic poisoning others they come in contact with.
    Therefore, we need to strengthen the body’s immune system to withstand
    racism, while the eradication process takes hold.
    So, politics should
    not be seen as the agent for total eradication. Only an “Outside” agent
    can extirpate this disease, but the agent requires ordinary folks to
    channel that Agent in order for it to take hold, and the quotes above
    provide the way to become effective channels.

    Peace out, vote wisely, and be an example.
    ———————————————————————————————————

    Reply

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