By ALAN SMASON
We’ve seen these flames before. We’ve been witness to lawlessness born out of frustration and anguish.
We’ve watched as a general malaise of helplessness and outrage over the needless deaths of young African-Americans at the hands of brutal and over-reactionary police gave way to riots in far away cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. We’ve been witness to crowds exploding into violence in communities closer to home like Baton Rouge and, as of last night, on our own Crescent City Connection.
Whether the fires and looting are the result of the assassination of a major figure like Martin Luther King, Jr., a common man like George Floyd or even a boy like Trayvon Martin, the anger is just as strong and the hate is just as intense. We’ve been witness to their outbursts, but we have done little or been reluctant to bring about systemic change.
The Jewish slaves who fled Egypt during the Exodus became a people when they accepted the Law at Mt. Sinai. They overcame oppression and were redeemed, but were a “stiff-necked” people, who despite admonitions from on high, were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years due to their unworthiness before gaining admission into the Promised Land.
Even after establishing our ancient kingdom, we have known the pain of slavery and we have endured the bitter dregs of hate and prejudice that continue to this day.
Unlike our African-American brethren, Jews came to this country as immigrants, freely seeking better lives and a chance for prosperity and happiness. While we were able to enjoy the blessings of liberty in these United States, we did so by assimilating and blending in, oftentimes changing our names to “Americanize” our heritage.
We were not shackled, crammed into the bellies of ocean-going vessels, sold at marketplaces, separated from our families and made to toil in fields or labor as servants. When African-Americans achieved freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation, there were segments of society who plotted ways to prevent them from achieving power and wealth. The Civil War, which only lasted four years, was fought passively more than 150 years after its end by others with privilege, who looked to hold onto their power and influence by subjugating people of darker hue.
Police brutality has been the spark that ignited incendiary protests in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and the more recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Alton Sterling. In the case of King, he was brutally attacked by police, barely surviving for the trial in which the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing. The others – including George Floyd – paid for their encounters with police officers with their lives. In all these cases, the outrage was fueled by videos that recorded their wrongful deaths and held up to the world a mirror of injustice.
As a people, Jews have long stood with African-Americans, helping to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and were behind such organizations as the National Conference of Christians and Jews that promoted equality. Many noted rabbis marched with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way of showing solidarity.
Yet, with but a few exceptions, most American Jews have enjoyed the privilege of being considered white. We are different than our non-Jewish brethren in our faith and practice, but because we lacked the telltale indicator of skin pigmentation, we were largely able to escape scrutiny from those whose heads were filled with hate and whose hearts lacked humanity and compassion.
It is now time for us to close ranks with our African-American brothers and sisters. We must take a stand for transparency of all police officers in their actions and through their policies. We must insist on universal body cameras for every person carrying a badge and we must advance this cause by keeping those charged with our protection in check by taking videos at every available opportunity.
We must make certain that any laws that put police above the law and shield them from videotaping are repealed. These measures will keep the honest officers honest and shed light on those who are using their power and influence to continue the horrific practices of harassment and murder that have angered the African-American community and those who stand in solidarity with them.
We must advocate for substantive change now. We must be tenacious and supportive, but above all we must not let the system recover and allow the old ways to return. This battle is one being fought for the very heart of America.
We’ve seen the flames. We can no longer be silent witnesses.