The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

by the Rev. Jonathan C. Augustine, J.D., M.Div.

TheRev.JayAugustineWhen I was a child, my mother would always say “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” While I didn’t completely appreciate its meaning then, I’ve come to recognize that many things are cyclical. Apparently this includes racial tensions in America.

The summer of 2014 began as a time of special remembrance.  As Louisiana and Mississippi held special events commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer of ‘64, the United States remembered the brutal June 21, 1964 deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  More progressively, however, the United States also observed July 2, 2014 as the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act of 1964 becoming law. A pastor might say “We’ve come this far by faith.”

Indeed, with Barack Obama and Eric Holder serving as president and attorney general of the United States, respectively, conservative political pundits repeatedly raised two questions: “Has America attained Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of egalitarianism?” and “Isn’t America in a ‘post-racial’ state of existence?” During the summer of 2014, the racial tensions of 50-years ago seemed to reignite for the world to see, emphatically answering “no” to both questions.

On July 17, 2014, video footage emerged of trained New York police officers placing an illegal chokehold around the neck of Eric Gardner, an unarmed Black man, accused of selling single cigarettes in broad daylight on a street in Staten Island, New York.

Less than a month later, on Aug. 9, 2014, a trained White police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. Distastefully, the Ferguson police department left Brown’s uncovered body in the middle of a public street for hours on end.  Although many protesters marched through urban areas around the United States, chanting “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” as a showing of outrage over Brown’s murder, on Nov. 24, 2014, a Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict the officer for Brown’s murder, essentially saying that no matter what facts existed, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to make Wilson stand trial for Brown’s death.  Amazing.

Even more amazing is that although a coroner’s report showed Eric Garner’s cause of death was neck compression because of the chokehold, on December 3, 2014, only eight days after the Ferguson grand jury decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to take Brown’s murder to trial, a New York grand jury followed suit, despite video evidence showing the officers strangling the unarmed Garner.  Doubly amazing.   

Is America sending a message that Black life doesn’t matter?  Are the conservative talking heads that argue “these things don’t happen to law abiding citizens” aware that Brown’s hands were up as he exclaimed “Don’t shoot,” and Garner plainly yelped for all to hear “I can’t breathe,” as the police literally choked the life out of him?

In this so-called post-racial era of America, it’s important that marginalized people move from the periphery by following the same direct action and civil disobedience methods employed during the 1960s. The “Occupy Movement” protesters, along with conservative Tea Party activists have successfully brought public attention to their causes by literally taking them to the street. Americans of all walks of life who disagree with police brutality and overreach must now do the same, replicating the successful base of communal operations of a half-century ago.

I can hear my mother’s words echoing today: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Jonathan C. “Jay” Augustine is an ordained minister, law professor, and social justice advocate.  He serves as pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Uptown New Orleans, and is author of The Keys Are Being Passed: Race, Law, Religion and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement (2014). You can connect with Rev. Jay through and twitter: @jayaugustine9 and Tumblr:

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