The US is a wounded country.
America's political culture is polarized, with shouting too often pushing out dialogue. The economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008 has not included everybody, and is now swept away by a Coronavirus which has already claimed more than 106,000 lives. The man in the White House is more concerned about his ego, tearing down the system in the process, rather than serving the population. The Statue of Liberty no longer offers sanctuary, including for the tired, hungry, and poor.
But in dusk, even a dusk covered with the smoke of conflict and abuses of power, is there the possibility of a dawn? That brings us to the George Floyd Protests.
The Seekers of a Better Way
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis did not launch racial injustice and violence in America. These have been ingrained in the country since its founding in the 18th century. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s brought advances, but not the full, necessary remedies. The Los Angeles uprising of 1992, following the beating of Rodney King by police officers, did not lead to the re-examination that was needed throughout American society.
Far from living up to the cultural ideal of opportunity for all, America has been the site of increasing economic inequality since the 1980s. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exposed the division and deprivation as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, said, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist." The ongoing killings of unarmed African Americans, even with the first African American as US President, led to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.
What is different in 2020 is that the man in the White House is not only willing but dedicated to exploitation of the racial tensions. For Donald Trump, the priority is whether he can strike a get-tough pose, both for his self-image and for his re-election in November. With social media, he can send out a shock wave in seconds: "when the looting starts, the shooting starts"; protesters as "THUGS" to be met with "vicious dogs" and "ominous weapons"; the US military on the streets.
Even if Trump is covering up his insecurity and weakness, already magnified by the Coronavirus pandemic, he and his advisors set the trap. Make them the center of attention, and their declaration of demonstrations as "Antifa" and "extremists" buries the reality of the past and the present, of killings from Greenwood 1921 to Emmett Till 1955 to Walter Scott 2015 to George Floyd 2020, of the everyday struggle for recognition and respect. They have a ready, if unwitting accomplice, in headlines and breaking news that thrive on an image of confrontation: the police charge, the burning building, the looted store.
For the large majority of these protests are peaceful. The marchers are not the monsters at our doors. They are the seekers of a better way, the cries for a dialogue that is not overwhelmed by scare-mongering, for an economy and society that does not treat some of its people as expendable in education, health care, and the job market. They are the pleas to finally hear, across all aspects of life, "I can't breathe."
And despite Trump, despite the pernicious caricatures on some US outlets, they are being heard. Almost 65% of Americans are "sympathetic" to the demonstrations. Presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden spoke eloquently on Monday of "fear and uncertainty in the country…after generation after generation after generation of hurt inflicted on people of color”. While some police officers have wielded batons and fired bullets, others - including the chief of police in Lexington, Kentucky, where my grandfather served for 34 years - have knelt with protesters in a show of reconciliation.
But this cannot just be a moment of white privilege with We Notice You. This cannot just be a reflex against the wannabe autocracy of Trump. It must be a process of beginning to learn, beginning to understand. It must not be an impulse to speak, but to listen. It must be a lasting commitment, not a brief high-profile moment, to work together for lasting change in a system and institutions long on the motto of "And Justice for All" and short on its implementation.
"The Arc of The Moral Universe"
In March 1968, during another time of turmoil, Martin Luther King spoke of "The Other America" and the search for "genuine equality".
"It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality."
But with all the challenges of racism, of fear, of deprivation, King concluded, "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice." Twenty-five days later, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The Civil Rights Movement's march was not completed in an America stretched to breaking point during the Vietnam War. Another tough-pose President, Richard Nixon, took office and replaced the demonstrations with a mythical "silent majority".
King's arc seemed to have bent backwards. More than 40 years later, as President Barack Obama had the quote woven into an Oval Office rug, was it a hope sealed away under our feet rather than the goal just ahead of us?
Filmed in real time, George Floyd's murder is now an iconic symbol of violence, alongside the "Strange Fruit" in the Southern trees, the marchers beset by water cannons and vicious dogs in Birmingham, Alamaba and the Michael Browns and Eric Garners killed far beyond the South. His murder is a symbol of the everyday brutality of discrimination and inequality.
But his death is also an opening for an ever-present will and opportunity: to return the arc to the right direction.
Turning it towards the sign held by the small boy in one rally, "Am I Next?". Turning it towards the lines of marchers taking a knee in front of the police in riot-control ranks. Turning it towards all those, crossing lines of color, religion, and class, who are calling out that Black Lives Matter.
© Photo by Rosa Pineda