Every black person apprehended for robbing stores in a flash mob should have their court hearing not in front of a judge but facing the 30-foot statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his Washington memorial site. Each thief should be asked, “What do you think Dr. King would say to you right now?”
I was not angry when I initially saw the news footage of young blacks robbing convenience stores across America; I was brought to tears. In fact, as we approach the dedication of Dr. King’s memorial we may all need to take a closer look at his chiseled stone face for the presence of tears. Tears like the one shed by Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody in the 1970s public service announcement about pollution. The historic PSA shows the Native American shedding a tear after surveying the pollution in an America that previously had none. It ended with the tagline, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” If Dr. King were alive today he might proclaim, perhaps with tears, that “people start flash mobs. People can stop them.”
Dr. King’s dream has been realized by many African Americans who have been able to take full advantage of the opportunities made available through his martyr’s quest for justice. Would Dr. King ever have imagined that 40 years after his “I Have A Dream” speech a black family would be in the White House, not as maintenance or kitchen staff, but as the First Family? Yet, years after the civil-rights struggle affirmed black dignity, we have young black people ransacking stores in groups.
Every time a flash mob loots, it is robbing Dr. King of his dream. All over America, from Philadelphia to Chicago, from Washington to Detroit, young people who could be contributing to common good are trading in their dignity for the adrenaline rush of stealing from others. “We will not tolerate such reprehensible behavior here,” said District of Columbia Mayor Vincent C. Gray in a statement responding to recent mob thefts there. “Some news coverage of this incident has reported residents questioning whether the robbery could have been morally justified,” he added. “Actually, both morality and the law are quite clear: It is wrong to steal from others. And if people do not obey the law, they will be apprehended, arrested and prosecuted.” What Gray highlights is a troubling regression of public virtue and civil rights.
Dr. King’s dream was one that harmonized morality and law. However, King’s dream will never be realized in America as long as this country continues with the mythology that freedom does not require personal integrity and character. Proponents of dubious sociological and psychological theories allege that these flash mobs loot stores because minority young people feel disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream society. What King taught us is that political and social frustration does not justify breaking the law. Perhaps if these disenfranchised youth were familiar at all with life under Jim Crow, or cared about the legacy of civil-rights heroes like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Young, and others, they could tap into the imagination of an heroic generation, formed by the virtues of religion, who pursued public justice by pursuing public virtue.
An ailing American culture is responsible for this spectacle. In a society that does not value forming young people in the way of prudence, justice, courage, self-control, and the like, why should we be surprised that convenience stores are being robbed by youthful mobs? In a society that does not value private property and fosters a spirit of envy and class warfare through wealth redistribution, why should we be surprised that young people don’t value someone else’s property? Radical individualism and moral relativism define the ethics of our era and criminal flash mobs expose our progressive failure.
As we celebrate King’s memorial, we must lament the fact that America’s abandonment of virtue is destroying the lives of young black people and undermining the legal and economic catalysts that could end our recession for good. In solidarity with Mayor Gray, I stand in front of the King statue, called “The Stone Of Hope,” with a new dream: that a resurgence of virtue would give rise to a generation of moral and law-abiding citizens. In this way will young blacks truly experience the dreams of King and others who died for justice.