Tony Mason: Why a riot ‘is the language of the unheard’

Many are familiar with a famous observation by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “… a riot is the language of the unheard.”

What people seldom remember is his observation afterward that is just as salient and relevant today: “And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

This quote, from Dr. Kings’ 1967 “The Other America” speech given at Stanford University, crystallizes what lies at the heart of the frustrations that have been aired both verbally and physically this past weekend in Indianapolis and across our nation.

Inequality is a reality Indianapolis. Inequality of employment, housing, education, health care and justice go unheard from generation to generation. What we are experiencing in our city, and cities across our country, is the language of pain when people’s spirits are broken and they move beyond hopelessness to outrage.

We shutter at the display of violence and the visible outcome of the broken glass and desecration of monuments, sidewalks and things deemed valuable by, and to, our community. Yet for decades, leaders have been willing to look past the visible scars of destruction and disparity of social injustice passed from generation to generation of people of color.

The scars of repeated history are the persistent victimization of blacks from Eric Garner, to Sandra Bland, to Ahmed Aubrey, to Breonna Taylor, to George Floyd, and from Michael Taylor to Aaron Bailey to Dreasjon Reed. Only the names change, but the outcomes remain the same.

Black men and black women die at the hands of law enforcement and rarely are the officers charged, prosecuted and convicted for their crimes, even though we witness them in real time.

Peaceful protests are a constitutional right and must be permitted to continue. However, those who are rioting, damaging property and looting should be held accountable—and so must our city hold officers of the law to the same level of accountability for its actions.

Now that this happened in our city, it will continue to happen unless things change.

The trauma of history a third of our community experiences daily from black unemployment rates that triple that of whites, to a lack of affordable housing, to under-resourced and under-performing schools, to persistent and growing health disparities, to a lack of investment in communities of color that breed and feed both the perception and reality of second-class citizenship for blacks in Marion County.

If you are born poor in Indianapolis, you are likely to die poor in Indianapolis. Indianapolis ranks near the bottom in social mobility. Marion County has the fourth highest rate of poverty in the state of Indiana at 19.8%, but the poverty rate for blacks is 28%. Since 2000, the home ownership rate for black households in Marion County has sharply declined to less than 40%. Black neighborhoods are being gentrified and blacks are being displaced.

Discussions around equity, economic inclusion, livable wages, affordable housing, school improvement and police reform must move from talk to commitments accompanied by long-term financial investments from the city, state, corporations and philanthropies towards sustainable solutions.

Social justice is not just a concept. It is a commitment to creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, his or her rights are recognized and protected and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest. Those we seek to help must be included in the process and their voices must be heard.

These problems of inequality not only exist in Indianapolis but they are pervasive throughout our state. They are not just problems for blacks and Latinos living in urban communities; these are the same problems being experienced by poor whites living in both urban and rural communities. The diversity of the protesters and the diversity of those who struggle to survive throughout our community and across our state should be notable to all.

While the COVID-19 virus prevents us from physically embracing at this time, it is more important than ever that we join together in understanding the impacts of the contagions of discrimination, racism, and inequality.

The leadership and citizenry of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana must recommit itself to being genuinely inclusive, broad-based and pro-active so that the language of pain from the excluded and unheard gives way to equity, true justice and humanity. This is our only choice and only way forward to a better place and quality of life for all.

 Mason is president and CEO of the Indianapolis Urban League.

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24 thoughts on “Tony Mason: Why a riot ‘is the language of the unheard’

  1. Sir; protests, political initiatives and dialog are the language of the unheard. We are now witnessing the voice of the purposefully violent who have no regard for the property or lives of others.

  2. It seems since 2,000 on the libs have used these incidents to race bait, divide prople. The idea of working hard, and staying with it went away with easy to get union jobs. I guess it’s easy to blame others for what might be seen as a lack of effort, and never criticized by the media.

  3. Indianapolis Urban league; brings back memories. I have been around long enough and seen enough to know that what we think is real is often an illusion. I can remember when there was real injustice and real bigotry which was indeed, well ingrained in society here in the central Indiana area. I have witnessed billions of dollars of tax money removed from the tax payers to undo or reverse “previous injustices.” I have witnessed special programs and privileges granted to try and equal things out and hopefully by placing a hand on the scales giving “everyone”, most especially African Americans a better chance at climbing up the ladder. I have personally experienced having to scrape and save to get through school, my parents not having the exceptional means of others or the special privileges of financial help given because we were white. Yes, we were too privileged since my father drove a truck and made too much to be poor but not privileged enough to get any special help. At the time, I thought well in the end, its all for a good cause and if people less advantaged got a better shot, we would all be better off for it. And yet, that was well over 50 years ago. Be it bussing, or desegregation or a myriad of quota systems I thought well in the end it would pay off. People of a different color or background would see the fruits of this country and all would be good. Still here we are; my how things don’t change. The same kinds of people are hired as police officers and being human and with the level of pay they are expected survive on, you aren’t going to get Harvard graduates in these positions. Most do the best they can but even the best systems don’t weed out the bad apples or the people that probably are not good candidates in the first place because they don’t have the necessary aptitude for dealing with people.
    Now how Mr. Mason relates criminal behavior with economic order or what is termed “social justice” is just a little incredible. After more than 50 years and only God knows how many billions of dollars have been spent to correct this economic “injustice” we are still in this position. A great many minorities have lifted themselves out of the lower economic strata, some with special help but a great deal more just from plain hard work and intellect. What Mr. Mason seems to be talking about is politics and in this case Socialist or even Communist politics. People that think like this somehow think that people don’t actually own their property. The “government did that for you” as former President Barak Obama was so eager to tell us. They believe that “someone” out there should decide how much each of us should get or be able to earn and somehow they can make everything “okay.” Well they can’t; they never have been able to do that.
    On top of all that these leftist “organizers” are using a real criminal situation in the case of George Floyd’s murder and using it as an excuse to once more pull their trunk full of lies and garbage out of their bag of tricks. What is really shameful is that so many people have been fooled by it. When there is ample evidence that outside “protestors” have been bused in not to protest because of George Floyd or a number of other cases of suspect behavior by law enforcement, but to start something else. What the shows us is that something is just quite not right.
    The biggest drum beaters, like Mr. Mason try to blame all of society but in almost all cases the cities and states that have the worst records in this area are all run by Democrats, the very people that tell you they are on “your” side and indeed seem to bend over backwards for the benefit of minorities. Yet here we are. I guess somehow if the left believes they can deflect or distract us enough we won’t know where this all started and who is managing it. The kind of change that Mr. Mason wants can only come from one place and that is the human heart. What has happened over the last three days has gone a long way toward making that further away than ever.
    I am just really surprised that we here in central Indiana all fell for this fraud. But I guess that people that figure these things out decided if we can take a sickness caused by a virus that is little more lethal than many other flu viruses and get us to shut down society and cripple the economy then getting people to believe they should riot and destroy is mere child’s play. A very, very sad day…. for everyone.

  4. Tony, you’re a black man with a long list of personal accomplishments. College educated, articulate, financially successful…….. There is no evidence of you ever being EXCLUDED. You are an example of a black man who made great decisions in the same society we all live in and have to navigate through. For every urban blighted area, there is a white trailer trash area of equal poverty (for which I was born). They exist and they too are silent. I don’t recall hearing about your personal battles with law enforcement. Were you downtown throwing rocks through windows? Everyone, black and white, has to encounter a law enforcement officer at some point. The statistics say that if you don’t resist, you treat the officer with respect, you comply with the officers requests, you will emerge from the encounter without a negative outcome. Better than that, if you resist putting yourself into a position where you are likely to encounter a police officer, that’s even better. There are no racial boundaries for bad decision making. Also, there are bad people everywhere, in all professions, black, white, brown…. This is NOT 1967. Everyone loves to quote Dr. Martin Luther King. He lived in a different time. Minority Americans are in a FAR better environment to be successful than ever before. Look at you. I see a LOT of successful black individuals every day. Their kids encounter law enforcement like I’ve taught my kids when encountering a law enforcement officer….be respectful. Almost all will survive if they do. Yet, every time a minority makes a bad personal decision and has a negative encounter with law enforcement, the talking heads come out to scold white America and blame it for all their problems. Your column is a nice, articulate regurgitation of the same old talking points we hear all the time…..Diversity, Inclusion, Police Brutality, Systemic Racism…Blah.. Blah. Too bad your column isn’t directed toward the group of young black males who violently beat a business owner trying to protect his business from looters In Dallas. They’re a product of the “system”. Right? My kids weren’t downtown last night. As I watch a GREAT movie where a GREAT American in Coach Ken Carter actually DID something to create a sense of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY within members of his family, his community, his school and the athletes he mentored, I can only wish other leaders in the black community quit blaming, writing columns and organizing protests and actually start DOING something positive, one person at a time, one generation at a time. It’s one family member at a time deciding to live their lives differently. I’ve done my part. The Golden Rule applies to all individuals regardless of race. Each member of society, regardless of race needs to look into the mirror and make positive personal choices to become a successful member of society. You did it! Why can’t others? We need to co-exist with law enforcement and other races. As we navigate through life, making positive personal choices and treating everyone with respect will lead us to a better tomorrow. Stop the excuses. It just leads to more rock throwing. Stop blaming society or others for your circumstances. Make good PERSONAL choices. Living in a perfect society is never going to happen. Become a Tony Mason. Be a Coach Carter!

    1. Fantastic summary of personal/individual accountability and not expecting others to make you successful!

  5. Thank you for your leadership Tony. Let me follow with a quote from President Benjamin Harrison of Indiana at his State of the Union address in 1889. It was regarding the Black vote but is no less valid today and in these times:

    When (are African-Americans) in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law? When is that equality of influence which our form of government was intended to secure to the electors to be restored? This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next.

  6. Well said Tony!

    It’s sad that the community at-large including most IBJ readers can’t see the forest for the trees. They’re focusing on the acts of violence (caused by a few)….while ignoring any of the causes (which affect the many). They see the explosion…but they can’t or won’t contemplate what/who lit the fuse. They can’t imagine from their nice homes/neighborhoods in Indianapolis, Carmel (where I live), Zionsville et al why anyone would be possessed to break windows, spray paint and steal someone else’s property despite your eloquent detailing of the inequities of society.

    How desperate, disaffected, disappointed and disgusted must the “have-nots” be in this land of the free and the home of the brave? This country was built on the backs of slavery…by human beings that were considered property…and upgraded to 3/5ths of a person by “our” sacred constitution.

    From Rodney King to George Floyd we’ve watched how video exposes a “sliver of the injustice” we face at the hands of those who have been entrusted to “protect and serve”. I have been stopped on foot and in my car 6 different times by the police who “just wanted to ask some questions”. In each case, I chose to be cooperative….though I didn’t have to be….because I wanted to leave the situation alive.

    I didn’t have the luxury of the white community who will watch various news clips of the looting and make snide comments, but then can’t stomach watching all 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.

    The 8:46 video is apropos of what all of the “have-nots” experience, especially the last 2+minutes when George Floyd stopped moving…and the cops didn’t even notice. It mirrors the constant struggle of being held down by the majority society and the indifference to their plight.

    If we are all God’s children, why are we as a society so passive about the suffering of others? Why is okay to hear about the crime and devastation…as long as its not in your neighborhood. You would never tolerate that on your block…or in your family.

    When is the privileged white community going to get as sick of these killings and the suffering as I am?

    No justice…no peace.

    1. “privileged white community”……. I’m so tired of hearing that phrase. When I hear it, I immediately think that the person saying it has their head inserted firmly up their intellectual A……… and has nothing productive to say. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. Do you realize that you just make the divide wider when you say things like that?

    2. Charles,

      There’s nothing wrong with white people admitting that they have privileges that the rest of us don’t. That is the crux of problem…and is the start of the solution. Have you been stopped by the cops for no reason multiple times? Have you had people ask what neighborhood you live in….while you’re standing in that very neighborhood? Have you been called a nxxxxx or some other pejorative based on your race? I have and persevere in spite of it.

      I have had an Indianapolis police officer tell me to shut my mouth in my own business. I have had countless people walk right past me and go up to my white employee asking to speak to the owner…because I couldn’t possibly own a business in their minds.

      You may be a hard worker…and a nice person who helps others. But you have privilege. Your race does not work against you.

      But my race works against me. EVERY DAMN DAY.

      Now…can you actively work towards making sure that everyone can experience the privileges that you enjoy?

      Get off the sidelines…and get in the game.

      EMPATHY – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I understand where you’re coming from. Can you say the same about me?

    3. I’m sure the “privileged white community “ who live in a trailer park, make minimum wage and don’t get the benefits of affirmative action don’t feel so privileged…

  7. Why do the words responsibility and/or personal responsibility not appear in your writing, Mr. Mason?

    Much is made of the manner in which Bobby Kennedy spoke and is credited with preventing riots in Indianapolis in 1968, and rightfully so. But wasn’t that a different time? To the point: What percentage of black (and white!) fathers were married to their children’s mothers and thus providing a stable home life and a positive male role model in 1968 versus today? Were black and/or poor people better off in 1968 than they are today?

    Abortion on demand was illegal in 1968, thus acknowledging and honoring the sanctity of all life. Today in many large cities (I’m not sure of Indianapolis), are not a majority of black babies legally killed by abortion, thus cheapening life? If black lives matter -and they do, of course- why do too many in the black community tolerate that genocide and then wonder why so many young black men have such cavalier disrespect for the lives of others and their property, as evidenced by Indianapolis’ horrendous black-on-black homicide rate?

    I feel terribly sorry for good men like Rev. Harrison of the Ten-Point Coalition (I think that’s the correct terminology) at times such as these; they must be so disappointed, so frustrated. I can’t believe you are making a positive contribution to their cause -your cause, OUR cause- by your all but wholesale assignment of blame for Indianapolis’ recent destruction to someone other than the people who did it. The people responsible for what happened are the people who committed the acts, PERIOD.

    You say, “Now that this happened in our city, it will continue to happen unless things change.” I couldn’t agree more….and what needs to change is an increased emphasis on personal responsibility.

    You are in a better position than most of us to encourage that change. Please do it because I submit to you that the black citizens who listened to Bobby Kennedy the night Rev. King was assassinated and remained peaceful, however grieved and disappointed, had a dramatically greater sense of personal decency and responsibility than rioters of any color who tore up downtown Indianapolis Saturday night.

  8. The same old we are victims rhetorics that has gone to the well many times too often.

    Blacks are a broken culture and a victim of their own device. The negative choices made by that culture has left it defunct and unable to compete as for being distracted from ground zero from the womb.

    The desire to have a work ethic that bolsters self pride and accomplishment is superseded by “government owes my a check from the Democrat Plantation.

    So many generations using the system to exist has become a way of life over getting an education to be able to learn skillsets that are viable in the marketplace. The culture has self destructed in there own racist quest to be equal but separate losing the path and way that it starts at having the nucleus family with parents that step up to the plate to love, teach, and train a child. With few exceptions, that hasn’t happened for generations. Too many black males see “gangsta” crime as the way and no need for education or structure but nonetheless are willing to impregnate several women as to create several families he can’t or won’t support. Because of multiple kids she can’t or won’t work and has no time for an education.

    Those wise enough to pursue a higher calling to education with the mental baggage from the culture have a hard time competing in the marketplace already resigned to the victim mentality. Those aforementioned not pursuing education or civility in community leave the educated with out a people to belong to and once again a shakey foundation to launch from.

    It’s the business world and commerce that set the criteria for the marketplace and those they hire to make it happen.

    The world is hearing and seeing loud and clear and what is there isn’t viable to meet their needs with all the personal cultural baggage.

    Instead of the black culture taking ownership of the aforementioned things that only their culture can fix with their own hard work, they with political correctness hide the truth with terms like Systemic Racism.

    They use Systemic Racism to put every defunct part of their lives in one bucket of blame to dump over the heads of white and other peoples.

    As normal for long white and other people get tired of getting wet and become wise to what is going on and use their umbrellas when they see the buckets coming.

    They know already much has been given to the black culture and much less appreciated and effectively utilized or good enough. All the other people are tired and wore out with it all.

    The cause and effect that affirms all the aforementioned are the in the FBI Crime Statistics, and about all social welfare and public services statistics.

    No amount of denying the truth, Political Correctness, or accusations of Systemic Racism are going to change the dynamics, expectations, to meet the needs of the marketplace or civility in living in harmony with the rest of society.

    Rioting or other forms of Domestic Terrorism trying to bully and extort their way to equality is never going to work and actually drives them further away from the marketplace and society in general. They may achieve a facade of equality but the disappointment and bitter bill comes when there is no substance within equipped to compete.

    Fix the broken culture of “blackness” to have something to bring to the table. Until that happens it will remain, We’re hearing you, but we’re not listen to your demands. How many generations of the same destructive path over and will it take for blacks to see the light it’s not ever going to work until you want and decide to get healthy?

    For those called “Uncle Tom’s” that see the light of life off the plantation ….Let’s sit down at the table and talk!

  9. Thank you Mr. Mason for explaining another viewpoint, one that is not always visible from my side of the fence. This is an ongoing issue which is tearing our country apart. It’s not about the left or right side of politics, it’s about people. Why can’t we all just get along?

  10. Mr. Mason other than be a hired gun to race bait I have a couple of questions that are burning in my soul.

    Why can a white kid go to Broad Ripple HS, prosper in the world and yet the black kid in the chair next to him suffer from all of the inequities that you portray? Is it the schools or the expectation!

    Why are there more black children born out of wedlock than white children and how is that “white privilege”?

    Where was the outrage and rioting in the black community when the Breann Leath a black female police officer was murder?

    And lastly, How dies white privilege effect the FBI crime statistics?

    Mr. Mason I to am outrage at the treatment of George Floyd, but Mr. Floyd initially put himself in that situation. The police did not just pick him off the streets at random. And yes I believe all 4 officers should be criminally charges based on the evidence I have seen, but they still get there day in court, even though Mr. Floyd did not and that is unacceptable.

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