Well suffice it to say, I am not picking up the thread where I supposed I might when I left off my last post on the topic of fear.
“And yet. And yet fear is really not where it’s at. Not when you’ve paid a visit to the Other Side and come back to talk about it as I did. Not when your frame of reference is broader, deeper, higher, and more expansive than the stuff of the daily news and the permutations of contemporary public affairs. More on that next time around…”
Since then, we have all been emotionally battered by yet two more appalling killings by police officers of black males, in questionable circumstances, followed this time by killings of five police officers in Dallas keeping watch over a peaceful protest rally, by a sniper apparently seeking revenge for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Again, waves of fear rushed over the land. #BlackLivesMatter met up against #BlueLivesMatter. Within 48 hours, outrage and grief sweeping through black communities and among the countless friends and allies who care about them, like me, flowed together with the outrage and grief that overwhelmed not only the colleagues, families and friends of the slain Dallas officers, but also the countless people who support and care about law enforcement officers throughout the nation. Here we are, at a time when the nation is bitterly divided along political, regional, economic, generational and social lines, wondering what condition we will be in on Wednesday, November 9, when the voters have marked their ballots and results are finally known; here we are, and the deepest, most painful, most morally divisive, most consequential rupture in the tissue of the body politic once again confronts us with the most incontrovertible reason there is for holding the assertion the United States of America is the Greatest Nation in the World to be the height of hypocrisy: Racism and the legacy of slavery.
Once again those of us who believe that #BlackLivesMatter expresses a deep truth about the United States’ moral condition, a truth that must be confessed and repented for by white citizens as an absolute precondition for there to be civic peace in the land finally, 150 after the supposed end of the War Among the States on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse; once again we feel compelled to take deep breaths and patiently explain to the #AllLivesMatter contingent that #BlackLivesMatter is a matter of focus not exclusion. #BlackLivesMatter does not mean only Black Lives Matter. It means if #AllLivesMatter, then we have a lot of fixing to do to ensure that the Black members of the All really get the same treatment in all respects, not least by law enforcement officers, as the rest of us do.
As I have said before, I am very conscious of being a highly privileged member of contemporary society for a bunch of reasons I had little or no say in: Straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male with an Ivy League education. Not a bad hand of cards to start with, given the givens of how power and privilege are distributed still, here and now. #BlackLivesMatter is not, however, just a little something I decided to get on board with because I want to be terminally and liberally hip. For me it could hardly be more personal. I have three bi-racial grandchildren, which to our twisted collective way of thinking really means they are black when they walk through the mall or go to the movies or sit in the classroom. They will be black when some police officer eventually pulls them over for any of the myriad of reasons, good and bad, just and unjust, police officers pull people over. Like any self-respecting grandparent, I will tell you with a straight face and without the least hesitation that they are the three coolest kids now living on the face of Planet Earth. I will tell you all you have to do is hang out with them for an hour or two and you will discover what I say is objectively true. Of course, the fact is, cool though they may be, they are growing up in the same messy circumstances in the early decades of the 21st century that the rest of us are living in. Many of those circumstances would apply to them, even if they were not bi-racial. They are blessed, however, that they are coming along surrounded by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends who are truly devoted to them and as madly in love with them as I am. Every child should be so blessed.
We were midway through the week’s atrocities and I was trading posts on Facebook with one of their aunts, who was distraught about what she should do with her young black son so he doesn’t end up like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, and with her mother. In the midst of a stream of affirmations about how important it is that the black community actively organize to work for change in community – police relations as a key to ending such killings, it was her mother who first flagged for me what had just gone down in Dallas. Ethel is underprivileged in just about every way that I am privileged, yet her first reaction was distress at these new killings: “LET US GO. THE OTHER WAY. THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED BY BLACKS UNIFY, DEVERSIFY AND STRENGTHEN WHAT WEAK BUILD UP WHATS BROKEN AND ACT LIKE WE WANT PEACE THE KILLING TO STOP!!!” In the instant, I got a knot in my stomach about the news, and a surge of hope from Ethel’s heartfelt and immediate response.
I came of age with the Civil Rights movement. I was 13 when Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, were killed in the bomb attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I was 15 when the March on Selma, a pivotal moment in the campaign for voting rights, took place. I was a month shy of my 18th birthday and less than two months away from graduating from high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. There is ample reason to be discouraged that half a century down the road racism continues to be a powerfully shaping force in our common life. Yet I took hope from Ethel’s spontaneous reaction to the news from Dallas. I take hope from the fact that Jennifer and I can share our wishes and fears for her delightful son, who is easily just as cool as his cousins. I take hope from the fact that leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement immediately condemned the killings of the police officers. I take hope from the fact that the video post below, which had some hundreds of thousands of views when I first saw it on Friday morning, now as of this writing has well over 32 million views. I take hope from the fact the people of the United States twice elected a black President and there are now prominent black leaders in every field and discipline. We are making progress, despite the setbacks, despite the persistent and too often successful efforts to roll back voting rights, and despite the outrageous numbers of black people incarcerated, living in desperate poverty, and dying as victims of intra-communal as well as police violence.
I came of age with the Civil Rights movement. I came of age with the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, and with Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Supremes. But ask me to name the tune, the defining tune, the tune that most clearly expressed what the period was about, and I’ll give you this one:
… and this one:
… and this one:
This “We” is not exclusive. Not “my team” will win out over “your team”. “We” means all of us, whether we are ready to sing along or not. This “Shall” is not predictive. It is imperative. As in “Thou shalt…” This “Overcome” is not about conquest. It is about liberation. Liberation above all from the cultures of fear that cripple all of us and make us miserable, when life happens in ways that it need not have happened. What happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were not accidents. What happened to Sgt. Michael Smith, Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officers Michael Krol and Patrick Zamarippa, and Transit Officer Brent Thompson were not accidents. They were the results of deliberate actions undertaken by people who were afraid. Afraid of what they were facing in the moment, or afraid of some future circumstance beyond their power to control – such as an endless perpetuation of racism and all the violence that it entails.
I live with fear as much as the next guy. But I refuse to let it run me. One of these days I will get around to laying out just why. As promised.
Meanwhile, We Shall Overcome, for real.