So where was the march for Tyshawn Lee?
Where were the demonstrators barring access to stores in Chicago’s premiere commercial district on the busiest shopping day of the year? Where was Rev. Jesse Jackson, joining his voice with a thousand other people demanding justice? Where were news media, beaming the images out to the world?
All that and more happened in the name of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old African American shot to death last year by a white police officer who claimed the teenager threatened him with a knife. A dashcam video, the release of which the city stonewalled for over a year, contradicts that story. Far from threatening the police, it shows McDonald was trying to avoid them.
So here is yet another example of the kind of out-of-control policing this country countenances in an injustice system that has all but criminalized African-American existence. And yes, it deserves all the outrage, media attention and civil disobedience it has generated.
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But where was that level of engagement for 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, lured into an alley and executed in the same city a few weeks ago? Where was it for J-Quantae Riles, a 14-year-old boy shot to death a few days later after leaving a barber shop? Where was it for Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old baby killed by stray bullets in 2013 as her father was changing her diaper?
The argument is not that no one cared about the killings of those black children, or that no one took action because of them. Yet there is, it seems obvious, a difference both quantitative and qualitative in the African-American response to atrocities inflicted from within and those inflicted from without. And in the news media’s response as well.
It is into that disparity of concern that Spike Lee drops his new movie, Chi-Raq. Based on an ancient Greek play, it is the tale of Lysistrata, a gang leader’s fed-up girlfriend, who leads the women of Chicago in a sex strike. They vow to deny their men their bodies until those men put down their guns and pledge allegiance to peace.
Yes, the movie is as uneven as you’ve heard — by turns, poignant, raunchy, hilarious and incomprehensible. But one thing it is consistently and that is, impassioned. Chi-Raq is an indictment of the forces that have allowed major urban areas to devolve into killing fields where the body count surpasses that of Mideast war zones. It identifies those forces as: the NRA, which contends that the problem with a nation of an estimated 310 million firearms is that we have too few guns; the politicians too gutless to stand up against the gun lobby; a black unemployment rate that is perpetually double the national average, and disinvestment in our cities even as we spend billions to rebuild Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s.
To these culprits, the movie implicitly adds one more: what it sees as an African-American community that tacitly accepts urban murder as almost a natural disaster like an earthquake or heat wave, a thing one can only endure, but never change. As in a scene wherein a distraught mother cries out to passersby to step forward, bear witness to the caught-in-the-crossfire killing of her daughter, and receives in response only silence.
Police malfeasance will probably always monopolize out attention, precisely because it is police malfeasance; something we’ve too often seen go unpunished, unchecked and excused. But Chi-Raq argues that, for all the rage African Americans bear for what others do to us, we need to also spare some indignation for what we are doing to ourselves. Over half the murder victims in this country last year were black, an obscene number that cries out for black people — for all people of conscience — to stand up and give a damn.
After all, those black lives matter, too.