This period we are experiencing reminds me of 1964 – 68, when American cities were churnin’ and burnin’, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
We have learned NOTHING!
Or, we have forgotten what little we may have learned. We are a society of studied tunnel vision and willful amnesia.
The black community has every right to be enraged, but rage alone will not solve its dilemma; only intensify it, playing into the very forces of racism and bigotry that have defined its existence for too long.
The white community can no longer stand by in various hues of dispassion, disdain, fear, anger, and mindless racist hatred, and say ‘it’s not my problem.’ It’s our problem. If we did not create it, we have allowed it to persist with efforts that were inadequate in time, resource, or understanding to solve it. We tried throwing money at it. That didn’t work. And when that didn’t work, we said ‘enough’, when we should have been saying ‘why’. But if we ask ‘why’, that requires a conversation. And a conversation may lead to answers that neither blacks nor whites want to hear. So instead, we talk at each other, if we talk at all. And the anger and distrust ferments, until it erupts.
At some time in the mid-seventies, as the US was going through its nervous breakdown, exhausted by Watergate, Vietnam and a deteriorating economy, I had an epiphany regarding the death of Martin Luther King. It occurred to me that the timing of his death had particular significance in the context of the political evolution of the country.
At the time of King’s death, he was no longer just leading a movement for civil rights for people of color. He had transcended that limited vision. He had crossed the Red Sea and arrived at ‘The Promised Land’, so to speak. More aptly, he arrived as an invading moral force, speaking no longer only to black people about their own plight, but to all people, black and white, about their shared plight. Poverty knows no color line. And coffins imported from Vietnam were being delivered with increasing frequency to black and white neighborhoods.
King spoke of economic issues, and of the moral issues of Vietnam in terms that were color blind. And white people were beginning to listen as intently as black. And not just white liberals. And that was very clearly dangerous to the power structure. And that’s when he died. Coincidence? Perhaps. I have no facts. But events are consistent with the revolving plots and rhythms of history. You might say, there was ‘probable cause’.
There is an important theme in this observation. King became most influential when he saw the plight of black people in broader terms, and spoke to the broader audience who shared that plight in terms they could understand, and identify with…and embrace. Obama understood the same, which is how he became president. And undoubtedly mindful of King’s fate, which may be how he managed to survive his two terms.
And so to the Black Lives Matter contingent, I would offer this observation: It should dawn on you by now, but apparently has not, that until all lives matter, black lives don’t matter, and will not. ALL LIVES MATTER! Until all lives matter, No lives matter. Black, gay, women, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, immigrants, Muslims, Chinese…,white people. No lives matter. It’s that simple, and that frightening.
How about AIDS. As we live the COVID-19 experience, it reminds me of a combination of the Vietnam Syndrome and the beginning of the AIDS Syndrome. I’m referring in both cases to their social dynamic rather than the military or medical. Our society remained significantly indifferent to both as they were devolving. And when escalating news accounts began to impose on our consciousness, we evolved from indifference to denial. But as the number of coffins mounted and began to arrive closer to home, if not in the home, we could no longer deny what we should have paid attention to much sooner.
Our approach to COVID-19 seems too similar. The shock of March and April is wearing off much too quickly. We were denied the luxury of indifference this time by the speed of the onslaught, but we are quickly embracing denial: ‘It’s just the old folks. It’s just the infirm; an ‘inevitable’ culling of the herd, a natural biological process.’ ‘My village isn’t New York City’. ‘We’re not Italy’. Facile rationalizations to shed caution and discipline, and go back to what we want. A return to the programmed American mind: ‘I know my rights.’ ‘You can have it all.’ ‘Sometimes, you’ve gotta break the rules.’
We’re well versed in our rights. Not so much in our responsibilities: for ourselves, to each other, as a society. Responsibility is the flip-side of Rights on the coin of freedom. If we choose to indulge our frustrations and exercise our rights without regard to the responsibilities for managing this evolving dynamic that will transcend our normal micro attention span, we will revisit the horrors of the AIDS endemic magnified. It will batter our defenses of denial, one by one. Or, I could be wrong. To quote one of Ronald Reagan’s cherished heroes: ‘Are ya feelin’ lucky? Well, are ya, Punk?’
I’m the son of a cop. As you might imagine, I’m observing recent events with great discomfort. Cops are a tribe; one of many ‘professional’ tribes like lawyers, doctors, academics, except they have guns. Always have been a tribe. Always will be. Their profession exists on the edge of society, separating the ‘civilized’ society from the jungle with the ‘rule of law’. Except it’s never that simple.
My father had an interesting take on his profession, delivered to me from time to time in one-line asides to various conversations that gave me insight into ‘life on the street’. Once he observed: ‘You go to court for law, not for justice’. This followed a trial to which he was called to testify on an arrest. The arrest was a pro-forma affair that was necessary by law although the circumstances were, shall we say, contentious. From my father’s perspective, the defendant’s case was essentially compromised (thrown, in the vernacular of the tribe) by his own attorney, with the result that law was rendered, but not justice.
On another occasion he talked about an incident in which he was called to a house in a poor neighborhood on a case of risk to a minor. The child was very young. The mother was clearly a risk. The mother was arrested; the child placed in foster care. My father observed that, although he was doing what was both required by law and in the best interests of the child, he knew the child would grow up hating cops for taking away what the child regarded as his ‘security’, bad as it was. No winners here.
I once asked him if his gun was sufficient protection for the risks he faced in certain situations. He said that it was not the gun that protected him but the badge. He quipped ‘The badge says that I belong to the biggest gang in town, and if you mess with me, you mess with the gang’. But he added in a more solemn tone that resonates today: ‘the badge only protects me as long as the society respects it. When that stops, the gun won’t be enough.’ Today’s smoldering ruins of Minneapolis’ 3rd precinct station attest to the truth of that statement.
So with those words in mind, and with the benefit of knowing from countless stories that what we see in the news is rarely the whole context, I am nonetheless greatly disturbed…no, horrified…by what I am witnessing evolving on our streets, and the demeanor that has become all too common among all too many police forces.
But it’s not just the cops. When I asked him one day to describe his job, he quipped “Our job is to fix whatever society can’t handle by other means.” On another occasion he responded to a similar question by saying “My job is 10% law enforcement and 90% social work.” Put those two together and you have the driver of today’s problem. When society becomes dysfunctional at its most basic level, the cops get called…to deal with the vagrancy, the disorderly conduct, the outbursts from mental illness, the family strife, the thefts of shear desperation in a society where the bridges to safe alternatives are steadily collapsing. Call the cops. And eventually, it affects and infects the police force as well. The good cops leave, the standards for their replacements decline. The supervision tolerates behaviors that may have been unacceptable before if there were higher standards. Cops are no different than any other organization under economic and leadership (political) stress. Except they have guns.
So we are at a moment when the thin blue line is yet again a boundary between chaos and order. The unanswered question of the moment is: are they the defending edge of order or the leading edge of the chaos to come? Initial reports are not encouraging. But the important point to understand is that the police are not the problem; merely the tip of the iceberg.
To what, I don’t know. But going back is not an option. Standing still can be fatal. Moving forward is the only credible option.
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