There is no doubt that my hometown has a problem with violent crime. But on the night of Saturday, September 6, 2014, I was appalled at what was captured on the cellular phone camera by a witness. To see a herd of Memphis teens, all of which appear to be African American (even though some eyewitness accounts claim that some members of the mob were white) caused a tempest to churn inside of me.
I watched as teens ran wildly across the parking lot of the Kroger grocery store on Poplar and Highland. I cringed at the sight of one Black male kicking and stomping a Kroger employee, who happened to be white. I shed a tear or two when, to add insult to an unconsciously injured human being, the aforementioned youngster, and others, forcefully threw large, seasonal pumpkins at the head of the incapacitated victim. Lastly, I became enraged. I became enraged because I knew, even though it was a crime against humanity, my city, Memphis, Tennessee, would conjure the ghosts of division and racism that have resided here since the days of Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign and the race riots of 1866. I hoped we wouldn’t, but, as I have followed the aftermath of the incident and read comments on social network sites and listened to conversations on talk-radio and throughout the city, my “hope” was in vain.
There are litanies of nuances that can be intricately analyzed and critiqued as it pertains to the riot-like atmosphere that resulted in the physical harming of three individuals, but the most pressing and paramount concern, for me, is the visual that has produced such frenzy, not only locally, but nationally as well. Even veteran Hollywood actor James Woods has expressed his concern and desire for Attorney General Eric Holder to visit Memphis as he did Ferguson, Missouri to address racial violence, tension, and hate crimes.
When analyzing a visual text, one must observe what is seen and not seen. In this tragedy, all most people in the audience see is a white teen being physically assaulted by one particular Black teen while other Black teens are running wildly around—some could be participants and some could be onlookers and voyeurs getting thrills from watching another human being hurt. What the visual recording displays is what looks to be a racially motivated attack, but who can really know if race was the prime motivator? With African Americans viewing non-Black on Black crime as an incident of “hate”, it is only logical that whites would view a Black on white crime through the same sociological lenses.
But, there is more to it. Sure the teens that were involved in their idea of a “fun” game entitled “pick ‘em out, knock ‘em out” (a game where individuals randomly select unsuspecting individuals to punch/knock out) should be punished. Sure, the parents of the aforementioned teens should be chastised and held accountable for the rearing and actions of their offspring. Yet, should we, as a viewing audience, publicly lynch the character of these Black teens and relegate them to a state of perpetual thuggery and criminality? Some may think so, but we have all been young and youth is often filled with idiocy and bad choices. And being a resident of the Southern Bible Belt of Christianity, I do believe in second, third, and fourth chances.
We all must stand for justice regardless whether or not one whom “looks” like us is a victim. Black and white Americans should march, protest, and become advocates against violence even when we do not identify with the victim. What causes divisiveness is when we only rally around the home team. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and like millions of others, I concur. It shouldn’t matter the color of our uniform, we all play for the same team.
*Gee Joyner is an English Professor, lecturer, and author of Kim; The Story of John and He Talk White: The Scholarly and Artistic Works of a Writer