The sight of a city on fire, of a neighborhood ablaze, strikes a very specific chord in me.
Forty years ago, my life changed in the course of a week. Forty years ago, I watched my Miami neighborhood burn like tinder. It burned in the wake of a killing at the hands of at least five police officers, and a “justice” system that let the killers — Miami police officers — walk free.
Arthur McDuffie was a Black man riding his motorcycle through town when he supposedly ran a stop sign. Officers gave chase; he kept going, probably in terror. When they caught up to him, the nightsticks came out. When the police rode away, Arthur McDuffie, age 33, was dead.
After the Miami Herald blew the lid off the officers’ fabricated story about what happened, the officers were indicted and faced trial. The trial was moved to Tampa, on the ludicrous grounds that they couldn’t get a fair trial in Miami.
Concerns about unfairness were tragically misplaced. After less than three hours of deliberations, an all-white jury found four of the officers not guilty, while a fifth had been acquitted by the judge during the trial. Apparently, in their view, McDuffie had beaten himself to death.
Not long after dark, Liberty City was ablaze, consumed by an uprising that lasted for days. Eighteen people died, while more than $100 million in property was destroyed. Justice remained denied.
We’ve never known McDuffie’s last words — there were no cellphones — but I’d bet they sounded a lot like George Floyd’s. I’m sure he asked to live, just to live. He probably thought of his mother.
George Floyd’s death at the hand of a Minneapolis police officer is the immediate catalyst for what we’re watching. But there have been many George Floyds. This wound is both raw and ancient.
One thing has changed: We called it a “riot” in 1980. Now we know better. Now we understand that wanting to live is not to “riot.” It is to proclaim one’s humanity. It is to demand things no one should have to demand. It’s a protest.
Minneapolis is ablaze, and dozens of other cities are too. That’s because nothing about this is unique to Minneapolis. Where there are Black Americans, there is always the same demand: to live.
The scenes from around the country are rattling. Whether from Chicago, Atlanta, or New York we see a country that seems to be coming apart at the seams. Commentators strain for comparisons: It’s like Rodney King, but worse. It’s like Ferguson, but worse. It’s like 9/11, but maybe worse. The only thing they all agree on is that one word: worse.
We’ve been heading for worse for a long time. We’ve been hurtling toward worse since 2016, when a malevolent, narcissistic idiot was somehow elected to lead the United States. Not only does he have none of the qualities needed to help us now, he shatters any hope of coming together, one tweet at a time.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That line, lifted from a segregationist Miami police chief in the 1960s, is President Trump’s idea of leadership.
Meanwhile, we burn.
The protests have quickly taken on a mysterious quality, as officials have tried to decipher protesters from anarchists, freedom fighters from garden-variety looters. It’s possible that this is the moment that both the extreme right and the extreme left have been waiting for: a chance, under the cover of righteousness, to lay waste to the ideals that hold us together, ever so tenuously.
Most of us don’t live at those extremes. Most of us want to live, and want our neighbors to be able to live.
If nothing else, this must be a moment that forces us to look inward. That introspection has to begin with law enforcement, with the people entrusted to execute our ideas of justice.
Some of those people get that. In the middle of a restless night last week, Attorney General Maura Healey wrote a long memo to her staff. Partly, it announced an office-wide conversation about what was going on. Partly, it was a cry from the heart. (It wasn’t intended for public consumption; someone sent it to someone who sent it to me.)
“I talk a lot these days about empathy,” Healey wrote. “About seeing life through the lens and experience of another person, especially someone different from us. I think empathy is crucial. That’s what animates our work, and I think in that and through that, it brings us satisfaction and an affirmance of purpose.
“I also think that we have an obligation, as long as we serve in an office where each of us is sworn to fight for people, justice, and equal treatment under the law, to do everything within our power to take action where we can, to stand up against the perniciousness and pervasiveness of prejudice, insecurity, hate and bigotry, wherever it exists, and to work harder than ever to build a better future.”
The online meeting she called drew nearly 400 staffers, Healey said. Some of them shared stories she had never heard about their encounters with law enforcement. Healey had intended to start the meeting and leave, but couldn’t tear herself away.
“We have jobs and roles, but I don’t know that we always think about the person behind that,” she told me. “That was very powerful.”
Protests like these change people; I mentioned that my first encounter with one changed me. I started that week in 1980 wanting to become a lawyer. What 18-year-old would want to work in a courtroom after seeing that verdict? I started reading James Baldwin, and thinking maybe I wanted to be a writer.
Fire is a frequent presence in Baldwin’s writing. So is urgency. He closes “The Fire Next Time” with this:
“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophet, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!”
The fire is here. What arises from the ashes is up to us.