Black Lives Matter protesters were met with police in riot gear on June 1, 2020.
In my lifetime, which now spans seven decades, there have been three major events on American shores that have left me and the nation in shock and disbelief and changed public consciousness forever. These events are indelibly etched in our collective memories.
I and my fellow middle-school students rejoiced that we were being released from school early on November 22, 1963. As I walked home from school, I couldn’t understand why adults were crying everywhere I looked, until a store owner told me that President Kennedy had been shot. According to the official investigation, Kennedy’s assassination was the work of one deranged man – Lee Harvey Oswald. In the moments that followed President Kennedy’s assassination, my innocence was forever altered. I learned that if someone is out to get you, they will always find a way, that safety is a feeling that can be destroyed in an instant, and that we are vulnerable as individuals. To this day his memory still evokes a sense of loss.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in a closed group meeting that ran over its allotted time. Knowing I would be uncharacteristically late for a meeting with a client, I called her. To my amazement, she said rather forcefully, “Turn around and go home immediately.” My first thought was that her reaction to my tardiness was a little extreme. My second thought was, “I have lost this client because I wasn’t on time.” Little did I know then what was transpiring in New York City. When I turned on my car radio, I learned that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. And in the 90 minutes that it took me to go what is normally a 15-minute trip, since the roads were congested with people, like myself, struggling to move away from DC., both towers had crumbled and more than 3,000 people, including emergency responders, had died. As a country we were united in our shock and disbelief that a foreign nation could take down our buildings and crash into our Pentagon. And Americans gained a new awareness of our fragility and vulnerability as a nation.
Then on May 25, 2020, the videotape of the murder of an unarmed, handcuffed black man, George Floyd, by a badged police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was sworn to treat all individuals with dignity and respect went viral. [The Law Enforcement Oath of Honor can be found here] Americans of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and religions witnessed a horrendous act of racial violence not unlike the lynchings I’ve written about earlier. I watched, as many of us did, the eight minutes and 46 seconds during which Officer Chauvin sucked the life out of a helpless, vulnerable Black man.
What happened last Wednesday was not one man acting alone. This was not a foreign entity reaching our shores. This was a group of predominantly White Americans, people who enjoy the freedoms and liberties given to us by our Founding Fathers, trying to disrupt democracy in action. As I write this newsletter, I am still in shock and incredulous. This is not how I was raised to practice democracy.
If you had asked me, back in June, when Black Lives Matter protestors were tear gassed, sprayed with pepper bullets and chemical irritants, and beaten with billy clubs, that 5 months later, white supremacists and Trump supporters would tear the American flag off the United States Capitol, a symbol of our democracy, and replace it with a Trump flag, and then storm the building while Congress was in session, I would have said, “That could never happen in our country.” That day in June, when President Trump stood in front of St. John’s Church and held up a Bible for a photo op, police a few blocks away were using excessive force on peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
When our brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, peacefully protested in Washington, D.C. in June, they were called “rioters.” But the nation and the world saw the true definition of “rioters” when our television networks streamed pictures of mostly White men and women breaking windows and furniture, stealing and destroying the personal property of our elected officials, terrorizing those who go to work every day to support our legislators, assuming the seats of Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and writing “We will not back down” on her desk, and killing a Capitol Hill Police officer.
As a White privileged woman, I cannot help but see the hypocrisy and double standard when peaceful protestors to support Black lives are bludgeoned and killed, and yet a mob of white insurgents, trespassers and defamers are allowed to run rampant throughout our house — the house that belongs to all Americans, the house that represents our democracy — and desecrate the place and murder one of its protectors. And then they are allowed to casually walk out of the Capitol building on their own accord, unfettered, after wreaking havoc. The paradox of people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats tearing down the doors of democracy cannot be missed.
United States Park Police officers push back protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration near the White House, June 1, 2020. Roberto Schmidt / Getty Images (left); Rioters inside the U.S. Capitol wearing Make America Great Again hats. (right)
And this is a picture of the lack of National Guard, D.C. Police and other local law enforcement agencies at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
This disparity is why we have to be outraged. Those of us who are alarmed, disgusted, and heart broken by the events of Wednesday must speak out now. Being on the right side of history means having to take a stand, always. We can no longer just be in the audience watching history form itself. We must treat each racial injustice and this glaring racial inequality with genuine seriousness.
To quote President-elect Biden on Thursday,
“No one can tell me that if this had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday that they would have been treated very very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. . . .It is totally unacceptable. The American people saw it in plain view. I hope it sensitizes them to what we have to do . . . .
We stand here today in the wake of yesterday’s events, events that could not have more vividly demonstrated some of the most important work that we have to do in this nation committing ourselves to the rule of law, invigorating our domestic and democratic institutions, carrying out equal justice under the law.”
President-elect Biden pointed out that the justice department was formed in 1870 to enforce the civil rights amendments that grew out of the Civil War — the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — to stand up to the Klan, stand up to racism, to take on domestic terrorism. This original spirit must again guide and animate us now.
If you think it’s none of your business, you are enabling the problem to grow. If you think it’s not your place to confront someone who is discriminating, it is. Each of us can make a difference. And if you think otherwise, consider this quote from Anita Koddick: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.”
I continue to believe in and have faith in our democratic ideals, our collective strength of character and our ability to rediscover our guiding stars of freedom, justice, and equality for all. Together, I believe we can build ‘a more perfect union.’ But it will take all of us who are outraged, shocked and still in disbelief at the inequalities of Wednesday’s events to do so. Speak out against racial injustice. Call or write to your legislators at all levels – local, state and federal – to fight for racial justice. Write to your local newspapers. Speak up when you see or hear of racial injustices. Work with local and national organizations that are working for racial equality in housing, employment, education and health.
When I used to conduct diversity training programs, I typically ended my sessions with Reverend Martin Niemoller’s famous poem:
“First they came for the socialist, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
And then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Have we waited too long? Can we collectively turn back from this path? We must learn from this moment and be our best selves.
I think of a question my grandchildren might ask me when they are older:
“What have you done to fight racism?”
I want to be able to tell them, with pride, that I have always stood for racial justice. I’ll be proud to show them my newsletters. I’ll be proud to tell them that I have called people out at the risk of making them uncomfortable when they acted with prejudice. I care about what my grandchildren will think of me and it makes me want to do better. Hopefully they will never have to ask the question because my actions will answer it for them.
Remember these closing words of Psalm 27, let your heart take courage. We must not fail.