Rachel Maddow, last night: “Are the demonstrators free to leave [the area of confrontation]?”
The NBC News reporter in Charlotte, NC, Tammy Leitner, “Absolutely. They are free to leave. They are choosing to stay here and engage with the riot police.”
Well, no. If you are black and male, in America in 2016, after the shootings by police of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC, on Tuesday, and of Terence Crutcher, in Tulsa, Oklahoma last Friday, and the scores since the first of the year, you are not really free to leave a confrontation with the riot police. A young black man in Charlotte tonight would not feel free when a member of his community has been killed by police, would not feel OK about just turning around and walking away from the confrontation and leaving the scene to the cops, any more than young black African-Americans engaged in non-violent demonstrations protesting segregated businesses in Nashville in 1963 were free to leave. The confrontation between the protester and the cops is visited upon the African American community, and you can’t just walk away. There may not be police who are blocking the way out for demonstrators, along those streets in front of the Omni Hotel, but, in a larger sense, everybody watching this demonstration on TV can see the extreme distress of the demonstrators. To say that the demonstrators are free to leave is to mean explicitly that the demonstrators have no tie to Keith Lamont Scott. I can leave this. I can go home, now, alone. But if there is a connection—if you’re both young African-American men, if you’re both from the same town, if you’re friends, if, by chance, you think you’ve had the same life as the man who is dead, if you have been treated the same way he was treated—that means that if you walk away from the demonstration, from the line of cops, you’re walking away from all the connections that made you and the dead man similar, made you kin. Your history, your skin color, your having been classmates of the same grammar school, your shared sports team, read the same books, the scars both of you carried from having been beaten by cops at the same demonstration when you were both sixteen. To walk away means you are walking away from all that, turning your back on all that connects you to your community.
I can’t believe Rachel Maddow could have asked the Charlotte reporter her question. Of course those men and women on the street in front of the Omni Hotel were not free to go. To feel free to go means they were free to give up everything they were, everything they’d experienced, everything they believed, and that’s not even possible. To leave, they’d have to deny themselves. And when they don’t leave, they stay because they can’t leave. They can’t leave themselves. After a certain point, you’re trapped by who you are into doing what you have to do. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I don’t have much freedom either. You just understand, I’ve got to do this.