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Through the smoke and teargas
I am white and for the most part, I’ve been silent and removed in the midst of the unrest going on all around me. I don’t feel guilty about it. I don’t resent the people who post memes such as “if you don’t participate, you must be against.” What I’ve been doing is trying to figure out where I stand, how I feel, what I think, and what I can and should do. That’s because I am a geeky, rational introvert who feels uber-responsible about my actions and the consequences thereof. Whatever I decide to do or say is likely to be rooted in research, contemplation, listening to many perspectives, and careful observation. This process leads me here, to this opinion piece, demonstrating a truth for me, that the pen is mightier than the sword. And by pen, I also mean the pencil you will use when you fill out your ballot in November.
Watching Officer Lame, #Don’tSayHisName, choke to death a human being pleading for breath and his mamma, was painful. It hurt not because Mr. Floyd was black. It hurt because Mr. Floyd was a human being with a beating heart, family, dreams, and rights. I can’t say I would have hurt less or more if under that knee was a white person or any other kind for that matter. To me, murder is wrong. Callous murder is even worse. Murder from an officer of the peace is the worst.
The officer was white, yes, but the colleague standing next to him, committed to assuring the murder of Mr. Floyd goes undeterred, was Asian. Also, present on the scene and unresponsive to the pleas for breath was black Officer Kueng, raised by a single mother in a predominantly black neighborhood. Under the circumstances, I find it difficult to simplify this horrific incident as a “white on black” crime. I do, however, without reservation, consider it police brutality of the highest degree.
Yes, black lives do matter because all lives should matter. Yes, police brutality is real. Yes, we need accountability for police officers. We need police reform, a change in police culture to promote accountability, caring, serving, and protecting the people. We also need to re-examine our ingrained cultural assumptions about each other and our reflexive nature.
I witness whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks to protest in the middle of a pandemic, then go home in their safe neighborhoods to bask in the social media glory of having done something good. But when the election comes, will protesters show up to vote? Outside of releasing the pressure valve from time to time with a mass protest, what do people do to see actual change take place? President Obama signed an executive order after the unrest in Ferguson, MO to demilitarize the police. Trump undid it. His first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, ended the restrictions put in place by the Obama administration on transfer of military equipment to the police. Jeff Sessions resigned on November 7, 2018. No one protested the reversal of the order almost two years ago. It hardly got a mention in the media. Why not? Is anyone, black or white, even paying attention? Now, protesters complain about the riot gear and police intimidation.
Blacks argue that they are disproportionately targeted and harassed by the police and otherwise discriminated against. George Floyd’s death catalyzed a massive uprising. Whites responded by defending themselves as “I am not a racist, but my fellow white people are,” and showed up to support BLM in droves. At the same time, massive amounts of cell phone footage on social media shows how indiscriminately police in military gear violates the rights of protesters, corrals them to arrest them, tear gasses them, pushes and shoves them, including members of the press. The media runs with these stories, amplifying the flashbangs in newscasts and ignoring the antagonizing cries and hurled projectiles from the crowd. You can’t expect social unrest of the magnitude we’ve seen to be neat. Whenever multitudes of people gather in grievance and emotions run high, things can and do go wrong. Crowds have a life of their own which is much bigger and different than the sum total of the lives and characters of individuals present.
At the same time, as protesters accuse all police for being bad because they allow and do not stand up against the “bad apples” in their departments, they themselves (with small exceptions) do nothing to curtail and discourage bad behavior during rallies allowing bad actors to yell, throw objects, break things, and graffiti.
As I criticize the violent response by the police, I question the peacefulness of a protest energized by insults and calls for violence from the crowd itself. I can’t help but remember the non-violent hippie protests of the Vietnam war where protesters literally sat on the streets chanting for peace and had to be picked up and carried out while still seating because they refused to engage and move. MLK Jr preached and lived non-violence even as his home was bombed calling the principle of nonviolent resistance the “guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” (Papers 5:423). Trashing police cars and burning buildings clearly violate this ideal. He sought to win and influence the opposition through friendship and understanding. Not through actively antagonizing, name-calling, and throwing objects at police in the line of duty. Most whites know nothing of that. And most blacks have forgotten.
Protesters ask to be distinguished from rioters, anarchists, and looters, blaming them for obscuring the reform message they attempt to spread. Yet, they make no effort to distinguish rogue police officers from those who do their job conscientiously. Meanwhile, throughout the country, thousands of police officers take a knee in solidarity as police chiefs condemn police brutality and commit to change.
I watched with horror as mobs of overwhelmingly black people looted one store after another on Melrose in LA. Turned out at least 50 of the stores were owned by black people. I watched white people throw bricks at windows, spraying graffiti, and defacing national monuments. I watched angry protesters yell in the face of elderly folk trying to get home in the middle of a protest. I watched the emotional breakdown of Richmond, VA’s police chief admonishing protesters blocking first responders access to a burning building and hindering them from reaching a family with a young child trapped inside.
I hear people who say that protest is the voice of those without one. I remember Gandhi’s protest against the British rule leading to India’s independence and no one getting hurt. I remember reading Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and wonder who else remembers it today.
Perhaps, a messy protest is a sign of messy times. Times in which white guilt aligns with black grievances and everyone ignores the hard questions. Such as why are most black crimes perpetrated on other black folks? Did you know that according to the FBI whites are mostly murdered by whites and blacks are mostly murdered by blacks? In 2016, the 3499 white victims corresponded to 2854 white perpetrators, 533 black perpetrators and the rest were by “other.” At the same time, 2970 blacks were murdered by 2570 blacks and 243 whites, and the rest were “other.” Now that you know, how do you feel about it?
How many people know that in 2017 there were 457 whites shot to death by the police and 223 blacks. In 2020 so far, there were 172 whites shot by the police and 88 blacks. Perhaps, mandating police bodycams is working to minimize unnecessary death. Perhaps, the media should cover the fact that not only blacks are being shot by the police. Police brutality is bad on its own. We don’t need to make it a racial issue in order to pay attention to it. And if we do so, we may be solving the wrong problem or at least not the most pressing one.
As they say, facts don’t care about your feelings. Therefore, I look up facts when I have conflicting feelings. I hope the facts will help me figure out what I should feel. Since my grate-grandparents were not slave owners but slaves themselves under 500 years of yoke imposed on them by the Ottoman Empire, I am free of white guilt but also of the racial biases many of my American friends experience whether consciously or unconsciously. I see people as good or bad, and most fall somewhere in between. I judge people by their character. My family “adopted” a Vietnamese family in the 70’s, hence, I am big on Asian food and appreciate Asian art and customs. The first time I saw a black person in Bulgaria, I was shocked that someone can be so dark. I wasn’t scared, or worried, or repulsed. Soon after, they were everywhere thanks to some kind of a government exchange program. No one bated an eye. After all, Bulgaria has been the very intersection where various peoples have been coming and going through for thousands of years and no Bulgarian can claim to be of pure blood.
I hope the overall outcome of these protests will be positive. But at the same time, I hope all of the people now on the streets will exercise their voice during the election in November. I hope this will be more than just a feel-good, righteous moment in history. For my part, I will vote against Trump. I will vote for holding looters accountable – big or small, corporate or from the hood. I will support police reform as I continue to appreciate the local law enforcement because I realize that without the police, society will fall apart. I will also continue to speak my mind honestly and openly discuss important issues. I will speak against violence. I will continue to make friends with good, interesting, conscientious, caring, honest, people with integrity, dreams, and ideals. I will continue to treat others the way I want to be treated. I will never assault an officer or disrespect someone’s personal property. I will never encourage confrontation other than a solid debate about something of importance, a battle of ideas on an intellectual level. I will also never oppose anyone’s right to speak up and want to be heard as long as they do so with respect and don’t aim to hurt others.
Even though you won’t see me, or others like me, at a protest rally in the middle of a pandemic, it does not mean we don’t care. It means, we care to think and respond more than we care to judge and react. We see the situation in its nuances and are trying to sort through the details because we find the issues deserving of deep consideration and not just a knee-jerk reaction. We want to support actions for change, not just noise making. We donate money. We write to local politicians. We give police departments our feedback. We show up at community meetings. We educate. We participate in ways we are good at even though different than those holding signs and marching. Because let’s face it, just holding a sign won’t get you want you want. Constructive, deliberate, planned, and considerate involvement has a better chance. We’ll be there.
Vote in this election and in every election.
Debate. Educate. Investigate. Expose. Negotiate. Contemplate. Respect. Listen. Collaborate. Cooperate.
Live the change you want to see.
It starts with you and me.
It does not end with a protest.