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 to a thousand others 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 had claimed the teenager threatened him with a knife. A dashcam video, held under wraps by the city for over a year, contradicts that story. Far from threatening the police, it shows McDonald was trying to avoid them.
It is yet another example of the out-of-control policing this nation accepts in an in-justice system that has all but criminalized African-American existence. And yes, it deserves all the outrage, attention and civil disobedience it has generated.
But that level of engagement has never appeared for 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, lured into an alley then executed in the same city a few weeks ago. It never arose for J-Quantae Riles, a 14-year-old shot to death a few days later after leaving a barber shop. Or for Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old baby killed by stray bullets 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, the tale of Lysistrata, a gang leader’s fed-up girlfriend 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 – by turns, poignant, raunchy and incomprehensible. But it is consistently impassioned.
“Chi-Raq” indicts the forces that have allowed urban areas to devolve into killing fields where body counts surpass that of Mideast war zones. It blames the NRA, politicians too gutless to resist the gun lobby, a black unemployment rate perpetually double the national average and disinvestment in our cities even as we spend billions to rebuild cities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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 our attention, precisely because it is police malfeasance; something that too often goes unchecked and excused. But “Chi-Raq” argues that, for all the rage African Americans bear for what others do to us, we need to 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.
Those black lives matter, too.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email: email@example.com