The United States is a racist nation and we have not yet chosen to realize that or to root out those who perpetuate the problem. I have a thoughtful neighbor who is a conscientious mother. She met me in the driveway in tears. She knew that there was a racial problem in the United States, she said, but she didn’t know how pernicious and evil it was until she watched a cop stare insolently into cameras as he slowly drained all life from George Floyd. She was shocked and felt guilt for not understanding how sick we are and how that sickness could lead to a cold-blooded murder on television.
I was not surprised. In the 1960s I naively thought that the work civil rights workers did would lead to a nation that believed in freedom and equality for all. I believed that the battle for civil rights was far from over, but that the fight was nearing the end. I was wrong. MLK said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” White people denounce lynchings, but they don’t understand lynchings. Until 1986 underground miners kept canaries in a cage in the mines. If a canary died, the air in the mine was too dangerous to breath, so the miners left. The United States has had a long history of treating black men as canaries in a cage. We just haven’t decided how many canaries it takes before the atmosphere is so drenched in toxic hatred that we can’t breathe, and we are forced by common decency (if there is such a thing related to black Americans) to denounce the people and the institutionalized racism that permeate this society.
The white murderer of George Floyd (I will not call his name) committed a murder. If he had not been a cop, the murder would not have gotten the attention it did. Protests arose across the country because of the murder and there were calls to defund the police. Police commit murders, but the majority of police spend their lives trying to protect and serve. They are often afraid for their lives and are asked to deal with people who have any number of demons festering inside them, as though they were exorcists. They aren’t. But the way the system works in the United States, they are the buffer we have between the good guys and the bad and crazy guys. When it comes to race, the police are not alone. They are backed by systematic racism that is not explained in high school textbooks. One case in point is Eric Garner. George Floyd’s final words, “Please, I can’t breathe,” echoed those of Eric Garner, who died after police officers in New York City put him in an illegal choke hold while arresting him in 2014. Garner was arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, which he denied doing at the time of his arrest. It wasn’t the police who made the final decision about the cop who killed Garner though, it was the grand jury who chose not to indict. That is institutionalized racism, and it was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, another example that is part of every black person’s life is the issue of driving while black. Studies show that black Americans, especially men, are more likely to be stopped than white Americans. Many may scream this isn’t so. They are part of institutionalized racism.
So, in June of 2020 outrage broke out across the nation in the form of nonviolent protest. We are limited in the means we have for delivering a message to the authorities that we are enraged. One method is voting, but that takes years and according to our track record, doesn’t work well enough. All the major cities in the country and many around the world had protests – huge numbers of people – black and white (and colored too), young and old marched. The protests lasted many nights.
Some of you will say they weren’t nonviolent. Of course, there were the opportunists who broke windows, looted, shot (and killed) police officers, which was the total opposite of controlled nonviolent demonstrations. The fact those people got involved does not invalidate the fact there were nonviolent protests. Many people say the protesters were violently creating chaos and mayhem. This is the flip side of saying that all police instigate murders and attacks against people of color because some do. Some police are murderers. Some protesters aren’t protesters but people who want to take advantage of the protests in order to loot and attack. Oh, there was a third group of instigators. Those were the white supremacists who chose to stop, by attack if necessary, all the non-violent protestors. These people carried flags and weapons in support of the president.
Then there was our president supporting the white supremacists as doing a good job. Regardless of the fact the Governor of Oregon said he did not want the National Guard sent into Portland, the president sent them and threatened to send them into other cities. He said that the Democratic governors couldn’t control the crowds. There were demonstrations in Republican states, but no threats of punishment against them.
Of course, I think that Black Lives Matter. The death of George Floyd brought back memories of the sixties and I felt called to act, but probably would have done nothing until I watched the news and saw that the president had military helicopters flying over a demonstration in DC. In horror I watched a convoy of National Guard vehicles advance down the streets of DC with the intent of disbursing nonviolent protesters. (According to the Supreme Court, nonviolent protest is part of First Amendment rights along with congregating in church.) That wasn’t the only attack on first degree rights as the protesters were then teargassed in order to make room for the president to walk across the park for a political photo op. Speaking of Constitutional crises. I’d had enough. Selma propelled me into the Civil Rights Movement and the illegal military activity in D.C, propelled me to join a march in Sacramento.
The choice lifted my soul. I wasn’t sure that I could do anything useful, but I was one of an estimated 20,000 according to the CHP. I didn’t get that old feeling, but I did have a feeling that there is a possible positive future. The kids – and the majority I’m sure were under 50 or younger – were disciplined, committed and determined. Reminded me of some folks I had known – one of them very well. They were a rainbow of folks: white in large numbers, black, Asian, indigenous, gay… One sign said, “You’ve f***ed with the wrong generation” and I almost shouted, “Hallelujah.” I was the oldest person I saw. One person in Alabama said that the protesters are Satanists. I am not. Easy to just write off thousands of people with a generalization, isn’t it?
Oh, and these people were more serious about stopping the virus than the president. The organizers were handing out masks and hand sanitizer. Over loudspeakers they exhorted us to stay 6 feet apart. It was hot and they provided bottled water and snacks. The entire day I only saw 32 people without masks, and I don’t know if they were protesters, news people or local citizens. 20,000 nonviolently assembled.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil.” Agitation gets the attention of those who then create legislation in support of solving the problem. The purpose of protests is to get attention so the real work can begin. Now that my neighbor understands the importance of our race problem, it is her time to share what she knows in some fashion.
Please Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson.