At least for my generation, there are few more memorable movie moments than the riot scene in Do The Right Thing. Building to this climax, the classic New York film moves slowly, almost predictably toward violent conflict between African American residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant and white police and shopkeepers, the latter of whom at the time and still to some extent today are seen as intruders by natives of that corner of Brooklyn. After the boombox-blasting character known as Radio Raheem is choked to death by NYPD, virtually Eric Garner-style to a tragic T, the neighborhood erupts into a frenzy, a summer of harassment boiling over.
That Spike Lee joint comes to mind whenever I hear news that a young person of color was choked, shot, or beaten by authorities, and has weighed especially heavily on me since the recent death of Boston resident Usaamah Rahim, at the hands of police, by a bus stop off of Washington Street in Roslindale. I initially hung on the comparison due to the similarity in their names—Rahim, and Raheem. But in watching so much blatant bigotry unfold in plain sight over the past week, I’ve realized that as far as many Muslims are concerned, this shooting signifies a breaking point in relations between their community and the police who hound them.
I drove out to the CVS parking lot where Rahim was killed for a press conference on Thursday, days after he reportedly lunged at officers with a knife in a fashion that warranted deadly force. His family wanted to get their story on the record, and it was no surprise. Up until that point, most of what the public heard came from a media that, as usual, acted as little more than fiber optic cable for the statements of police brass. As international security reporter Glenn Greenwald observed on The Intercept:
Literally within hours of the killing, both the Boston and national media had uncritically published multiple, wholly uncorroborated accusations about Rahim based solely on the claims of the law enforcement agencies that had just killed him. Some law enforcement officials were even granted anonymity by these journalists in order to smear their victim. Rahim was almost instantly convicted by the media of being a dangerous terrorist preparing to carry out an ISIS-inspired attack.
On the ground last week, a rabid pack of journalists was on hand to greet the 26-year-old Rahim’s fam and their spokespeople. Some sat crisscross applesauce on the blacktop; others fiddled with their hair and tested levels by a row of satellite trucks. Cars screeched by, and in one case a passing motorist screamed out of an SUV window, “Free Tom Brady.” Police, though not intrusive, watched on—from the street, as well as from a nearby Burger King, on the fire escape of a utility building abutting the lot, and probably remotely from the camera on which the Rahim shooting was captured. One sensed that most of those in attendance, police and reporters alike, were merely tolerating the press conference; as suggested by The Intercept, they already had their minds made up about what happened.
I’m not saying Radio Raheem is Usaamah Rahim, or vice versa. Frankly, I don’t know very much about either of them. All I know from the family’s side is what I saw and heard in that parking lot—they say they are surprised to learn of Usaamah’s alleged radicalization, and are curious as to why authorities did not have an arrest warrant. I’m sure a lot more information will shake out soon—some reliable, some not so much—as the screws get put to Rahim’s friend, David Wright, who is currently in lockup. Until then, and perhaps throughout the whole deliberation and investigation process, I plan on heeding the request of the Rahim family attorney Ronald Sullivan, who in Roslindale asked that people keep an open mind until all facts are on the table. At the least, it’s probably best to avoid taking the route of resident Boston Herald xenophobe Howie Carr, who following the press conference described the deceased as a “shiftless, leeching” “dead thug” and “Islamist savage,” and his friend Wright as a “wide load” and “obese layabout.”
Speaking at the presser, Rahim family advocate Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, of the Mosque for the Praising of the Lord in Roxbury, took reporters to task, saying the media—but really American pop culture in general—is “teaching us a great many things about what the world is today instead of what it could be.” I would argue that the best media, for example most if not all Spike Lee joints, does a little bit of both—it shows us what we did wrong yesterday so that we’ll do the right thing tomorrow. Take, for example, the scene in his iconic portrayal of Brooklyn in which the director has Raheem, still full of youth and vigor, explain the four-finger “LOVE” and “HATE” rings wrapping his knuckles.
The right hand: the hand of Love. The story of life is this: Static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand, Love, is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes, now, that’s right. Ooh, it’s a devastating right and Hate is hurt, he’s down. Left-hand Hate KO’d by Love.
Maybe on Spike Lee’s block, but in Boston, at least for the time being, love is down for the count.