Braving the still raging coronavirus and the potential for being tear-gassed and bloodied by unprovoked cops showing their skill with billy-clubs, in cities large and small, hundreds of thousands of mostly masked Americans turned out Saturday to express their opposition to police violence and to grieve and show their support for the family of George Floyd, the hand-cuffed African American killed on camera in Minneapolis by out-of-control police May 25.
They marched, sat in, or vigiled in San Francisco, and Vidor, Texas; in Philadelphia, and Marion, Ohio; in New York City, and Garden City, Kan.; in Washington, D.C., and Athens, Ga; in Chicago, and Harvard, Neb., in Jersey City, and Havre, Mont.; in Seattle and Richmond, Ky., in Santa Fe, and Ephrata, Pa., in Atlanta, and Scottsdale, Ariz.; in Denver and Starkville, Miss.; in Miami, and Klamath Falls, Oregon; in St. Paul, and Boca Raton, Fla.; in St. Louis, Detroit, Albuquerque, Sacramento, Cheyenne, Omaha, Madison, Milwaukee, and scores of other cities.
It was a coast-to-coast outpouring the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen for a long time and focused on unfinished business the very mention of which makes most white Americans squirm: rooting out the systemic racism that 155 years after the Civil War and 56 years after the Civil Rights Act continues to deeply harm, enrage, and sadden African Americans. Racism that led to the death of Floyd and so many other Black people at the hands of police forces imbued with white supremacist values and power. Racism whose very existence is denied in some quarters even as its most vile aspects are publicly embraced by increasingly aggressive armed extremists who, like their Klan predecessors, can often count on friends within police ranks.
All that protest energy is encouraging. But that’s the easy part. Anybody can say “Black Lives Matter.” Making that slogan reality means hard work, not just by African Americans, but by all of us. The hard part is working in coalition. As Denise Oliver-Velez reminds us in citing the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon,“If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.” Like everything in life, what one does counts for a lot more than what one says. Working in coalition in this instance requires listening to, respecting, and following Black leadership, which many Americans who aren’t Black have typically not been willing to do. Which is one big reason our policing is so messed up.
Transforming the system, rooting out the racism, fixing the police, healing the wounds cannot be achieved with a few new procedures, a few packages of legislation, a few changes of personnel at the top although it will require all these things. For people who aren’t Black, it will require intense reflection, self-education, action, and undoubtedly lots of squirmy moments for participants in that uncomfortable coalition. Nobody, especially people who consider themselves staunch allies, likes to be called on their shit. But if the transformation being demanded—the institutionalizing of “Black Lives Matter” as guiding policy and national morality—is really going to happen, then there will be plenty of those call-out moments.
The tendency for many people is to walk away in such circumstances. They want, as Frederick Douglass would put it, progress without struggle. They want to step over the hard parts of transformation. They want to get to the healing without the surgery. But, you can’t have reconciliation without first having the truth.
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