I spent a couple of nights last week on the lookout for a cloud of rising smoke. From the chimney at the Vatican? No thank you -- there were already thousands of journalists around the globe fixated on the ancient mystical wizardry in St. Peter's Square. I was a lot more concerned that black smoke was going to rise from the damp, raw streets of East Flatbush, in a corner of Brooklyn many blocks removed from the high-tech glitz of that borough's new Barclays Center. Night after night, hundreds of young people -- most from the neighborhood -- marched on their local police station house because they wanted answers to a simple question.
Why was a 16-year-old boy named Kimani Gray shot seven times by the New York cops -- three times in the back?
Of course, I had to follow the waves of Brooklyn protest -- which teetered for a time on the brink of a riot -- by way of Twitter, since the mainstream media gave very slight, and usually belated, coverage to the doings in East Flatbush. I guess issues of law and order, civil rights and civil unrest, and the right to assemble on a major street right here in the United States can't really compete with the nearly 2000-year-old rituals of wrinkled men with their bright robes and their white smoke.
Still, I couldn't help but think that -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- there's something happening here. Maybe it was because East Flatbush wasn't the only place in America where unusual things were taking place -- the scattered shrieks of regular people who've been pushed to the edge. As the protests in Brooklyn dragged on, I heard the annual budget speech from the mayor of Philadelphia drowned out and finally shut down by the voice of angry blue-collar municipal workers, frustrated that City Hall will no longer listen to them. Just a couple of weeks ago and about 10 blocks away, so many Philly teens, parents and teachers were so upset at the knee-jerk closing of 23 neighborhood public schools that they filled the expanse of Broad Street as they tried to flood the room where the vote was taking place.
There were 19 people arrested at the Philly school shutdown; about 45 arrested in various encounters and scuffles with the NYPD in Brooklyn. All of these events were treated by the media as a total out-of-left-field shock -- as if a space ship had landed from Mars and deposited these mad-as-hell aliens on the hardscrabble streets of the inner city. And if you haven't been paying attention, you'd indeed think these scattered events had nothing to do with each other. But to the contrary, the same river of bruised blood runs through all of them -- people who are at long last tired of the drumbeat of disrespect.
Yes, there's the daily harassment of stop-and-frisk, the yearly push for just one more wage cut or pension givebacks even as CEO pay -- and that of top governmental aides -- never seems to stop going up, or the billionaire-funded death of the dream of educational opportunity for all. But the real reason we're at the snapping point is even more simple than that.
It keeps coming back to a famous quote that I saw pinging around the Internet a lot last week after it was repeated by the city councilman for East Flatbush, Jumanne Williams, at a hearing. It was uttered by Dr. Martin Luther King in a famous address known as "The Other America" speech. He delivered it a couple of times, including outside of Detroit just months after that city had erupted in flames. The civil rights leader re-affirmed his lifelong commitment to non-violent solutions, but he added this:
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.
Dr. King was murdered exactly three weeks to the day later.
Flash forward 45 years later, and there are many conditions in American society that need to be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots, arguably more than there were in Dr. King's time -- obscene income inequality, stagnant wages, record levels of long-term unemployment, a diminished watchdog media, failing urban schools, militarized police departments and civil rights abuses from rampant spying to a crackdown on public-serving whistleblowers to targeted assassinations.
It's reached the point where people are straining to be heard over the drone of our all-encompassing kleptocracy. It almost broke loose once, in 2011, with the realization that both political parties were selling out the middle-class in a phony debt crisis, and then the world was stunned by the out-of-nowhere Occupy movement -- thousands of unheard struggling to find their own language. That movement faltered for a variety of reasons, including the risen-again hope that democracy in 2012 could redress the people's grievances.
I think those hopes may have crossed a Rubicon, then crashed and burned for good earlier this month when the Dow Jones hit an all-time record, corporate profits swelled -- and not a dime of it trickled down to the American worker, who has watched nearly every dollar of income growth in recent years accumulate to the 1 Percent.
Into this tinderbox walked the 16-year-old Brooklyn kid named Kimani Gray. Those seven police gunshots later, his short life was over. The naysayers were quick to point to Kimani's flirtation with the gangs of East Flatbush and several arrests, and the allegation by police -- fiercely disputed by eyewitnesses -- that he had a gun and pointed it at the plainclothes officers, to dismiss both the value of his life and the cries of the protesters. But the community deserves answers that it's not getting about what really happened 10 nights ago, as well as the dubious track record of the officers involved.
And New York City officials are doing everyone a huge disservice when they pretend that this is about one kid, and not the daily beatdown of disrespect from programs like stop-and-frisk, which has made it difficult for thousands of young, law-abiding blacks and Latinos to walk down a sidewalk without having to justify their very existence. Today, the courts in the nation's largest city are dealing with a massive class-action lawsuit over the alleged abuses of this policy.
The bottom line is if it wasn't Kimani Gray, it would have been somebody else.
But no one ever sees it coming. That was the case in Philadelphia, suffering from years of benign and sometimes not-so-benign neglect of public schools and a multi-million-dollar push from the usual suspect of hedge funders, profit-seekers and "well-meaning" philanthropists to boost charter schools and destroy public education as we know it. The co-conspirators tried (and largely succeeded) to rush through a large-scale scale shutdown of neighborhood schools, but the people formerly known as the unheard did raise of a hell of a ruckus. And they're probably just getting started.
These things don't happen in a vacuum. At the height of the schools crisis, someone emailed me a remarkable document that had been prepared by the Broad Foundation of billionaire Los Angeles "do-gooder" Eli Broad, who wages war on inner-city public education even as his foundation, not so ironically, has trained most of our top urban superintendents.(Now Broad wants to take over the L.A. Times, too -- God help us.) It's an 83-page guide "School Closure Guide" that was published in 2009 to guide presumably Broad-trained superintendents on a step by step method to implement mass closures of public schools in already distressed communities -- exactly what's happening now in Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere.
But Broad's minions must act quickly and smartly...before the voices of the unheard become too loud.
But here's the thing: Unheard voices are like water -- they are going to find the path of least resistance. Unless our leaders finally start listening, a trickle in Brooklyn, a leak in Philly, and suddenly there's a full-blown flood. (If you don't understand the oceanography, ask the folks down in New Orleans, another battered American community.)
When we look back on the long hot summer of 2013, and we will, I pray that we'll think of it as a few balmy days on a beach or in the mountains with family and friends after a season of coming together, of finally tackling our root problems from rising inequality to falling civil liberties.
But I worry terribly that it will be the other kind.