I n 1971, Gil Scott-Heron released a poem where he popularized the phrase, “the revolution will not be televised.” Accompanied by congas, bongo drums, and flutes, Heron’s phrase has since become an immortal saying within the Black Power movement, having not lost social relevance in 50 years.
Heron’s poem was penned as a response to another piece, “When the Revolution Comes,” written by The Last Poets. The Last Poets’s poem starts: “When the revolution comes, some of us will probably catch it on TV.” Frankly, the Last Poets are saying; change will be visible from the safety of American homes. Their sheltered idea of revolution is disregarded by Heron’s poem, as he continues, “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop-out.”
The two artists are in conversation with one another, telling the United States revolution is inevitable, whether its citizens are ready to see it or not. In the 1970s, change floated in the air; both poems arrived, yet neither artist knew how revolution would land.
The 1970s were a transitional period in the United States. Black riots in Philadelphia, Harlem, and Rochester caused those cities to burn in 1964; Los Angeles burned in 1965; and Chicago in 1966, culminating in the “Long Hot Summer” of July 1967, when 163 cities erupted in collective violence over police brutality. The 60s were riddled with riots as well as a string of public political assassinations. The fight for equality lost prominent figures to murder — Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Malcolm X in 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, and Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969.
Their very public deaths communicated a frightening message to onlookers: a power structure’s beneficiaries will kill to resist an unwelcome change. At the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, he had a public disapproval rating of almost 75%. King, the most peaceful revolutionary figure, died a hated man, but today is championed as a beloved icon.
April 1968 marked the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His murder resulted in more than 100 cities burning to the ground. Riots in cities like Detroit left a heritage of bitterness and confusion, possessing vivid reminders of the deep despair and frustrated hopes that underlay race’s politics. Following the 1960s, black leaders shifted their goals from integration to Black Power, removing the hope of appealing to white supporters. Radicals lost the early hope of reforming the system and instead committed themselves to its partial overthrow.
The demand for civil rights had fired the imagination of politically awakening students, but its force became justice and action. Racism continued to intersect with politics and media as peace became attached to violence.
Viewing the 1960’s violence from a television screen birthed Heron’s poem, and subsequently, the evolution of 1970s radical culture. Heron addresses the relationship United States citizens enjoy with distractions, a balance of everyday indifference with social activism. Heron’s primary claim is that there will not just be a revolution on television like the Last Poets declare.
The revolution will arrive in real-time, unable to be avoided, as if it leaped from the television screen, landing on each American doorstep and compelling citizens to act.
In true prophetic fashion, Heron’s revolution has gained veracity. Change has not rested on television screens. It has demanded viewer action, making comfortability and indifference nearly impossible.
O n August 23, 2020, Jacob Blake was shot and injured by police officer Rusten Sheskey in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rusten shot at Blake’s back seven times once Blake opened his SUV door and leaned inside. The Kenosha Guard, a local militia, put out a public call to arms on Facebook in anticipation of the potential chaos from the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old boy, answered. Rittenhouse armed himself with a semi-automatic rifle and headed to Kenosha, Wisconsin, from Antioch, Illinois. The 17-year-old didn’t belong to the Kenosha Guard, but acted as if he had a responsibility. Before the shootings, there was a video taken where he identified himself as a militia member, saying, “People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business. And part of my job is to also help people.”
The outrage following Jacob Blake’s shooting resulted in $50 million in damage to buildings and businesses. President-elect Joe Biden made a vigorous denunciation of the property destruction, saying, “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It is lawlessness, plain and simple.” What is the definition of lawlessness in reaction to civic pain, the pain of seeing the abuse of power manifest in attempted murder?
During Kyle’s lawless attempt to “help” Kenosha’s community, he killed two people and gravely injured another. He drove to Kenosha to be on the front lines of ensuing mayhem, becoming a part of Heron’s poem and etching his face into a tradition of revolution.
The feeling that animated Kyle Rittenhouse’s body, driving him to the protests, could have been born from a misguided hero’s journey, but revolution is not only about how the oppressed seize their justice; it’s about a sea change in how we observe our reality and how we participate, no matter the ideology.
Rittenhouse was arrested and charged with six criminal counts: First-degree intentional murder, attempted murder, reckless endangerment, and unlawful possession of a firearm by a minor. His actions alone represent a reckoning; something is happening in the United States, foisting people from passivity and into action, regardless of how misguided.
Kyle Rittenhouse does have his supporters. The young shooter made his $2 million bail this week with the help of Mike Lindell, CEO of My Pillow, Inc., and actor Ricky Schroder. Rittenhouse making bail reflects many attitudes in this country, attitudes surrounding youth, whiteness, and crime.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News anchor and champion of conservatism said, “How shocked are we that a 17-year-old with rifles decided he had to maintain order when no one else would? Everyone can see what was happening in Kenosha. It was getting crazier by the hour.” Tucker is speaking toward the near inevitability of Rittenhouse’s actions because we all can see the same thing, the same America under siege to values of violent justice.
Carlson’s words echo Heron’s as he speaks toward the nature change starting from things seen.
Kyle Rittenhouse making bail is not wrong, nor is he merely wrong for his actions. He is a child who made a foolish, life costing decision, and his actions that night place him in a mental prison that he must live within for the rest of his life.
Rittenhouse is a victim of an America whose power structure and media are more forgiving of certain revolutionary participants than others.
Five male teenagers were indicted for raping and beating a jogging woman in Manhattan’s Central Park on April 19, 1989. Three of them were denied bail after the prosecution called the crime the “most vicious and brutal assault” ever committed in New York City.
In the case, the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer, said of all the defendants: “They left a trail of ruin, assault and injury. There is no reason to set bail here.” When comparing Rittenhouse with the allegations levied against the Central Park Five, we have to ask:
Has America righteously learned to allow children the grace of making mistakes, or is this country’s racially biased roots peeking through the soil?
Donald Trump Jr. gave Rittenhouse a similar empathy to Carlson, saying, “We all do stupid things at 17.” At the same time, in 1989, his father demanded the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were even younger than Rittenhouse. Both Donald Trump Jr.’s and Tucker Carlson’s comments bring me back to Heron’s idea of revolution again.
The spectacle of violence doesn’t shock Americans into action overnight. It’s a slow burn, sizzling over the fire of American history and philosophy, growing stronger as generations pass. The reason why Kyle Rittenhouse’s behavior doesn’t shock us unanimously to our core is that he, like all of us, are in the middle of Heron’s idea of revolution and have been here for decades.
The political and racial violence of 2020 is drastically different from 1960 because we have been in a state of perpetual revolution since that violent decade. Each atrocity we’ve stomached, as a nation and regardless of race, has awakened something within the mind’s eye of this Republic.
It remains to be seen if the uprisings of 2020 will resolve the long-standing issues of racial injustice, for we will need to fight for a revolution in the hearts and minds of each American citizen, recognizing implicit personal biases, reckoning with the racialized attitudes inscribed into this country’s DNA, and asking, if the center of this great experiment can hold if we continue in the same manner we have been.
As a nation, what are we witnessing? In what ways have the ghosts of America’s past possessed us all? We have been misguided into romanticizing the idea of revolution, believing that revolution belongs to partisanship or certain ideological frameworks.
There are no good or bad guys in a revolution because the story of change is never done, especially in this country. Revolution doesn’t belong to the pro-Black or the Proud Boys; it is a collective narrative that we all write every day, with every action and as each generation lives, fights, and dies.