Radio Raheem for a new generation

Twenty-five years is a long time. I have many memories of the Summer of 1989, and one of them was going to see a movie that shook me up, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” And apparently, the current president and his then-girlfriend saw the movie too that summer, as evidenced by the film clip above.

The event that sets off the riot that marks the high point of the movie was the strangulation death of a character named Radio Raheem. I was appalled as the police placed his character in a choke hold and ended his life. It touched off a riot where Sal’s Pizza gets destroyed, and Mookie–Spike Lee’s character–leads the way by throwing a garbage can through his boss’ window. I walked out of the movie examining American society, and that was clearly what everyone in the theater was supposed to be doing.

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Now flash forward a quarter century, to the tragic case of Eric Garner. Whatever it was he may or may not have been doing on the streets of New York on a Thursday afternoon, he met with the same fate that Radio Raheem did in Spike Lee’s movie, all those years ago.

But Eric Garner had a family, unlike the fictional creation that Radio Raheem was. Still, it seems hard to believe that our current president, who apparently remembers the movie very well, doesn’t have something to say about how life–and death– has imitated art.

Leadership involves, well, doing the right thing. And when an unarmed black man is choked to death on the streets of New York, or any other city, it’s something we should reflect upon.

Yes, we have an African American president, which twenty-five years ago did not seem possible. And yes, he has other issues to deal with, from Gaza to the border issue. But an unarmed black man died at the hands of police in our largest and most visible city. I’d very much like to hear what our president has to say about it. Even if he channels that young man who took his girlfriend on a date to see a movie 25 years ago, it would be worth listening to.

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