In August of 1955 Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Emmett was 14 years old born and raised in Chicago. While hanging out with friends, he was apparently bragging about having a white girlfriend. Not believing his story, Emmett’s friends dared him to talk to the clerk of the store, who was a white woman.
After buying a candy bar at said store, his friends recounted that they heard him call the clerk “baby.” Later that day, the clerk complained to her husband, the store owner, that Emmett physically attacked her and talked to her in a sexual manner.
The white store owner got his half-brother and went in search of Emmett. They found him, beat him, shot him in the head, then chained him to a heavy metal fan and threw his dead, mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River. Upon the discovery of Emmett’s body, the two were charged with murder but acquitted by an all-white male jury.
Even in 1955 this crime was so egregious that it is credited with galvanizing the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. Such is the case and why the two most recent racist acts have galvanized such a universal response from all corners of American life and have even had an international reaction.
Amy Cooper’s response to a Black man asking her to put her dog on a leash is a 2020 version of what happened to Emmett Till. She knew that if she complained to the powers that be, in this case the police, there was a strong possibility that the Black man in question, Christian Cooper, would suffer Emmett Till’s fate.
Like Emmett Till, Mr. Cooper “didn’t know his place.” In 1955, in the Jim Crow South, no Black man was to talk to any white woman in a “fresh” way. In 2020, the audacity of a Black man to ask a white woman to leash her dog was beyond the pale for Amy Cooper.
Then to take this comparison to the extreme, Emmett Till’s ultimate fate was replicated by the blatant, matter-of-fact murder of George Floyd. Both are described as lynchings but in the Floyd case it didn’t happen in the South, it took place in as far north as you can get in the lower United States, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Then, to add grievous insult to injury, the way in which Officer Derek Chauvin killed a handcuffed, subdued and cooperative George Floyd was by putting his knee on his neck. The symbolism of having a white policeman killing an unarmed Black man by putting his knee (foot) on his neck epitomizes the historical arc of racism toward African Americans personified.
Then to double down on that symbolism, in a press conference by President Trump he invokes the use of “vicious dogs,” a la Bull Connor in the civil rights battles, and that city and state leaders need to “dominate” the protesters. In other words, put their foot or knee on their necks.
Are the resulting demonstrations the answer? Will George Floyd’s death galvanize a movement that will change society like the Civil Rights Movement did? What’s the answer?
By no means is the answer an indictment of all white people. Just look at the many who are a part of the multiracial response seen at the demonstrations across the country. Actually, that’s where we make our first mistake, using the word ALL.
Yes, policy reforms and legislation are being queued up. Common ground will be sought, but the bipartisan clarion call will fall lifeless, a victim of the divided nation and a recalcitrant president. The debate of reform or revolution will continue on.
What’s the answer? Is there an end game? My conclusion is that we need enlightened leadership on every level of our society. But NOT only our political leaders, not just our police chiefs and police union leaders, some of whom are empathizing with the demonstrators and others who subscribe to the president’s call for dominating “law and order.”
It has to start with us.
As my son Sei wrote in a Facebook post, “We need to be better.” The words are there to guide us. The universal ethic of reciprocity, do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Dr. King’s refrain about judging a person by their character, not the color of their skin. Rodney King’s lament, “Can we all get along?” and the relatively new addition to our lexicon, “Black Lives Matter” — all are words to live by and act on.
But “you can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” in a demonstration, in their community, in their life. Reach out, say hello, share stories, history, cultural practices (food is a good way to start but not natto), listen, develop empathy, but most importantly or else the words are meaningless, lead by example.
We need to be better
We can be better
We have to be better
Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles County Unified School District Board of Education, the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and the California State Assembly. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.