Sic semper tyrannis

We Americans have no tolerance for tyrants.

We fought a revolution to get rid of the King. We fought a civil war to get rid of slavery. We fought World War II to get rid of the Nazis.

Earlier this year, people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the “tyranny” of Covid-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.

Reopen NC protesters called Governor Roy Cooper a “tyrant.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear was hung in effigy at the state Capitol, with a sign reading “Sic semper tyrannis” – “thus always to tyrants,” what John Wilkes Booth yelled after he shot Abraham Lincoln. 

But the Covid restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis, a crisis that isn’t over yet. 

In recent weeks, thousands of times more Americans have protested against real tyranny – the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African-Americans for centuries and continues today.

First it was slavery, America’s original sin. Then it was the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction terror. Then it was the Black Codes governing the conduct of freed slaves, then Jim Crow and white supremacy. 

In North Carolina, it was the organized massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898 and the armed overthrow of a legally elected government, a story told in David Zucchino’s book “Wilmington Lies.”

Then it was segregation, disenfranchisement of black voters and discrimination in employment, housing and all facets of life. It was lynchings, whippings and police beatings. 

It didn’t end with the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It goes on without end.

Now all Americans have been abruptly awakened to the reality of black America, where police officers are more feared than respected. We saw cellphone videos of police brutality against African-Americans. We saw George Floyd plead for his life while a policeman’s knee squeezed the breath out of him.

After the protests began, we saw police officers across the country turn on protesters and journalists with clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. We saw a riot squad knock down a 75-year-old man in Buffalo and stalk by him as he bled on the pavement.

We saw police departments bristling with armored cars, riot gear and semiautomatic weapons. Is their motto “serve and protect” or “dominate the battlespace”?

Sometimes the police looked more like military units. In fact, military units were called out in the nation’s capital. So were agents from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Homeland Security.

Also on the streets in Washington were officers from the Bureau of Prisons who wore riot gear but no badges or identification. They smacked of the Brownshirts in 1930s Germany.

Officers with no badges or insignia at D.C. protests

The menacing presence of these police units – and their conduct – brought white America face-to-face with what black America experiences.

Racism has deprived black Americans of the fundamental promise in our Constitution – that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yet the Founding Fathers also justified slavery. They counted slaves as three-fifths of whites. For generations, Americans used the Constitution to protect slavery and then to preserve discrimination and oppression.

It’s time to finally end that contradiction, keep the Constitution’s promise and rid America of the tyranny of racism.

One thought on “Sic semper tyrannis

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