Mohamed’s life was not easy. Not only did he work a job where he was barely able to maintain his life of poverty, he also lived in an utterly corrupt town. The city officials of Sidi Bouzid constantly harassed Mohamed, threatened his livelihood, and demanded bribes. On one particular morning in December 2010, a municipal official approached him, confiscated his produce, and destroyed his cart. Mohamed had finally been pushed too far. He marched down to the governor’s offices and demanded answers from the government, the same government that was supposed to protect him. Witnesses say the governor refused to see or listen to him.
Riddled with humiliation, neglect, shame, and abandonment, Mohamed Bouazizi entered the middle of traffic on a busy street and set himself aflame. News of his story spread quickly on social media. Fellow Tunisians, who knew his story all too well, took to the streets within hours. Police tried to crush the protests, to no avail. Three weeks later, the president of Tunisia was gone. Movements spread throughout the Arab world, changing the landscape of decades of dictatorships, from Egypt to Libya to Yemen. A fruit vendor changed the world. He launched the Arab Spring.
We don’t have a city named Sidi Bouzid in America. But we do have New York, Ferguson, Cleveland, North Charleston, and Baltimore. And the same things that went on there are going on here. Government agencies ignore poverty, impoverished populations find themselves mired in crime and corruption, and those that are unaffected pretend like nothing is wrong.
If we want to learn anything about the events of the past year in America, we might look at the case of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. We might remember that Scott was shot by a police officer as he was attempting to flee. His killing was caught on camera. With Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, we have yet to see any sort of accountability. In some of those affairs, the cases are closed. But in the case of Walter Scott, Officer Michael Slager was quickly arrested and charged with murder. Great news, right? A sign of hope? A sliver of justice throughout these crazy episodes? No. What it tells me is something else, something horrifying. The only time we can hold a law enforcement professional liable for the death of an unarmed black man is when all the stars align. When he shoots at him eight times. While he’s running away. In the back. On video. Then, and only then, can we get some sort of accountability.
It is that calculation that lies at the essence of #BlackLivesMatter. It is precisely that reality that we are being screamed at about. This past Wednesday evening, as marchers demonstrated in Baltimore, more protesters sprang up in New York, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, and Denver. They are telling us that this is not the case of a few bad cops acting badly every now and then. It is the case of bad system performing badly all the time. They are telling us that this is not about rioting and looting. It is about illegal chokeholds becoming more important than illegal cigarettes, and broken spines becoming more important than broken windows.
If we hear nothing else, we should hear perhaps the most important thing these loud Americans are trying to impart to us. They are telling us that this all didn’t just start happening. They’re telling us exactly what that fruit vendor was telling his countrymen in Sidi Bouzid back then. Like him, they are proclaiming, loudly, finally, that enough is enough.
Today, we might be witnessing the Black Spring. I’m sure that Trayvon, Michael, Walter, Freddie, Eric, and Tamir never imagined that their deaths might start some sort of massive movement. But then again, I’m sure Mohamed didn’t either.