Two things tend to happen following the death of unarmed African American at the hands of law enforcement in this country.
The first are protests that often lead to heightened demonstrations of anger, which lead to police decked out in riot gear to come in and put a stop to it while property and storefronts often burn around them. The second is a condemnation of all that but less so of the brutality that led to the riots but of the riots themselves.
In America, there is a modern philosophy of “civility” at any costs, that even when angry, even when rightfully enraged by the injustices that befall a group of people, you are STILL expected to “behave” and it is YOUR responsibility to stay calm and do the right thing.
“I’m sorry, I agree with you, but I just can’t support you because of the way you demonstrated that belief” are often the words that follow.
I’m not saying you should ignore all toxic behavior or that you can’t take issue with a movement’s methods, I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but I used to stringently believe this myself. In the wake of the Ferguson riots in 2014 where a Missouri police officer shot and killed unarmed African American Michael Brown for the crime of allegedly check notes stealing a box of swishers, I found myself participating in the same tone policing as much of the wider country.
“Yeah, the police were wrong to kill Michael Brown like that but also the protesters have no right to destroy their own city. That’s wrong, they should do it peacefully!” I proudly proclaimed at the time.
Six years later my feelings on this have taken a complete 180, partially because the circumstances of our times have become exponentially more volatile but it really began with finally understanding an ending to a movie I got around to seeing in 2009; Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Back in the “halcyon” days of 2009 I used to be a part of a small Myspace (yea, I know…) movie club group where we all shared various movie reviews amongst each other upon individual recommendations. One day one of these members recommended watching 1989’s “Do the Right Thing.” Up until that day I really didn’t know much about Spike Lee beyond him being a rabid Knicks fan and opinionated Clint Eastwood agitator but I gave it a watch and I liked it quite a bit.
“Do the Right Thing” details a day in the life of Mookie, played by Spike himself, as he navigates his rough Brooklyn neighborhood. Throughout his day, he and his mostly black neighbors, friends, and acquaintances encounter various micro aggressions in the form of gentrifiers, white and Asian store owners who disrespect them despite being their primary customers, widespread income inequality, and of course the police who monitor their every step. The movie examines the intersection of race and how it all comes colliding together when circumstances are less than perfect specifically to those that exist in African American neighborhoods.
I enjoyed this aspect of the film, it felt real and authentic to me, even humorous at times, critiquing the very real issues black Americans face every day while also examining how other groups of people interact with them.
Where I took issue with the film, at the time, was its aforementioned climax.
At the film’s end, tensions have boiled over as Radio Raheem, one of Mookie’s friends, is called the n-word by Sal, Mookie’s white pizza store owner boss, leading to a scuffle between the two of them. Police are then called, pulling Radio Raheem away, nevermind that it was Sal’s words that ignited the fight, and put him in a chokehold and well, you know this story already…
Finally, the anger that has been rising throughout the film ignites with a growing mob agitated at Sal and his sons who they see as the main instigators. Mookie stands rubbing his face for a few moments before picking up a trashcan and tossing it at the window of the pizzeria, simply yelling “Hate!” as it crashes through.
A riot of course ensues, as the largely African American neighborhood tear the store apart, looting it of all its material goods before it burns to the ground. The next day Mookie returns to the scene of the unrest to ask Sal directly for his paycheck who angrily tells him his stunt destroyed his business to which Mookie simply retorts “Radio Raheem is dead.” The two argue for a bit but somehow ends with the two quietly understanding each other before they go their separate ways.
For the longest time I couldn’t square exactly with the ending despite my enjoyment of the movie. I never outright condemned the entire film’s message, (some people within that group I spoke of did though…), but I did find myself saying I couldn’t condone how it ended. Afterall, what did Sal do to deserve that kind of backlash, why did his storefront deserve to be destroyed? It had “nothing” to do with Radio Raheem’s death, right?
Fast forward to today and well, my attitude has definitely changed.
At this point I’m not going to spend an entire paragraph describing our current events as you all should be smart enough to know by now what’s going on but an African American friend of mine summed up these past two weeks in the most concise way possible I feel; “the results of oppression, poverty, hopelessness, and frustration is destruction and violence.”
Throughout “Do the Right Thing” Spike Lee shows us a microcosm of the effects of societal neglect and institutionalized racism has on his community. He tells us exactly why Mookie did what he did and yet still largely white viewers, which included myself at one point, were confused by this. At a certain point a person, a group of people, an entire community can only take so much before they take actions into their own hands.
When our white dominated society tells African Americans it’s “inappropriate” to protest during the national anthem, that it’s inappropriate to “make everything about race,”, ask “What about black on black crime,” respond back “#BlueLivesMatter” or “#AlllivesMatter,” when largely white Americans, especially those in power, ignore and refuse to believe all evidence that says otherwise this is what happens. These are the results of the neglected, ignored, and unheard.
There is a rush to judgment when the looting and rioting start following these tragedies around the country. Never mind the fact that police are largely the aggressors in all these interactions and attack peaceful protesters who are “doing it the right way” anyways but the blame for the destruction is almost only squared on the rioters themselves.
Cries of “Martin Luther King would have never supported this” and “He would call for peace and #unity right now!” are typical when this happens. King was a far more nuanced and complicated man than the liberal hippie that both Republicans and Democrats liken him to be and when you invoke his name to condemn protesters before the cops who actually started this you, and I cannot emphasize this enough, ARE NOT HELPING.
People generally want to empathize with victims but for some reason only want the perfect victim in this country. A victim that is a Saint in real life, lays down, does all the right things, and still gets hurt for it because they are “doing it the right way.” Sometimes victims are imperfect, including people who have been murdered by cops and people who loot and riot, but they STILL deserve to be heard and most importantly they deserve JUSTICE.
Nevertheless, these people are villainized to their most extreme as people are disproportionately being harassed by the cops while it all happens. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough, when you spend more time talking about “good” vs “bad” protesters you are helping those who benefit from maintaining the status quo. They WANT you to make this about those “criminals” and “thugs” who would “destroy our communities.” Nevermind, that upping the militarization of our police force only INCREASES the chances of a protest turning violent anyways.
By making this about the “bad protesters” they drive a wedge between you and the cause so that police brutality can be maintained, so that power structures are not changed, so that you can be “protected” from people who are actually fighting for your rights right now. When the media and politicians use this kind of language, they are giving cops free reign to justify all forms of heinous means of pacifying these demonstrations, including ones that are banned in war. They want you to miss the point, they want you to forget why this started, hell they want you to forget they looted your asses long before the “rioters” looted a multibillion dollar company’s store who has more than enough insurance to recoup their losses anyways.
Spike Lee is often asked about the ending to “Do the Right Thing,” a question I would’ve asked him myself even just a few years ago, and he’s quoted as saying “only white people ever ask me that question.”
MLK’s name is often invoked when shit hits the fan in these demonstrations and while I’ll admit that I don’t like seeing neighborhoods destroyed and certainly don’t like seeing small businesses torn down and looted it’s important that King wanted us to understand why they happen and to keep our eyes on the ball:
“A riot is the language of the unheard” is important in understanding “Do the Right Thing” and this current moment we are having in history. While I have been pleasantly surprised by the near unanimous support Black Lives Matter has had across the board by people I would never thought to become radicalized there are still pockets of people who make this about the “right way” to protest.
To quote Spike Lee even he says he is unsure if Mookie did the “right thing” or not in that situation but he also says, “I know who did the wrong thing.”
Some of you might be saying still that MLK would not have supported these riots and hell, that may be true but need I remind you, there’s a reason he’s not here today to tell you himself.
I’ll leave you with the same two quotes Spike left his audience in 1989 from MLK and Malcom X. I want you to read them both thoroughly and see if you have done the right thing yourselves over these past two weeks.
I truly hope you have…