THIS TIME? MAYBE...
FACING THE PAST WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
There seemed to be a lot more bright stars in the sky in recent weeks, even over Washington, D.C. Then suddenly, as national “leaders” slept wrapped in a bubble of delusion while disease was taking its ghastly toll, a black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota pleaded for another breath to the unyielding knee of a police officer and to his inhumane brothers in blue. Those stars that were alight in the sky suddenly dimmed to the harsh reality of real-life video murder.
In a moment, America was talking about something even more threatening than a pandemic. And it was no kinder to a nation in chaos than the pandemic in its midst. It would actually have been nice to talk about something other than a pandemic for a little while, along with each day’s Trump snake oil sale and the absence of the familiar in our lives. But not this, not race-based murder thrust before our very eyes and awakening again a powerful and visceral response that lit the sky with flames instead of stars.
Before George Floyd’s life was forced out of him, I was slowly getting comfortable with the idea of heading to a restaurant again, just to be somewhere else passing time with people I didn’t know. I was OK with everyone wearing a mask for a while to help everyone stay safe.
But even then, and before George Floyd’s life was forced out of him, I was not OK with pretending that a return to “normal” was an answer to anything, unless “normal” when seen through the deadly lens of pandemic was finally perceived as a deeply-flawed foundation to a crumbling structure.
Before George Floyd’s life was forced out of him, I could have gone along with “normal” for a month or so while we all took a deep breath. But I knew even then that if America just went back to where it was, it would have been a terrible waste of renewed insight into the real America for so many. It would have only added new depth to the shame that is America’s “normal."
Then, George Floyd’s life was forced out of him, and suddenly it seemed that there could not and should not be a return to “normal,” not even for a moment. I will continue to hope that this time, this time, there can be no turning back. But that hope will only linger until some politician or some preacher reminds a troubled nation that “this is not who we are.” For those words are the death knell of transformative change.
Until so many absent American’s can see and feel themselves in the narrative, that this is precisely who we are and what we have allowed ourselves to become, there will be no transformative change. Sure, a few cops may be held accountable, kumbaya will have a short revival, and there will be much talk about not getting another chance to get it right. But it will be for naught unless Americans can grasp what America is for far too many in our midst and simply accept it no more.
Remember Sandy Hook Elementary School, the sickening depth America reached almost eight years ago, where twenty elementary school children and six staff members were gunned down in a moment by a deranged young man firing an assault rifle fed bullets from high-capacity magazines. It was his mom’s assault rifle, legally-owned, apparently as a kind of mother/son bonding contrivance. We will never know how proud she was of her choices because the young man shot her to death on the way to the elementary school.*
I bring this up now because I thought then that finally something so horrible had happened that America’s love affair with guns and gun violence would be aborted. That, at the least, America would never return to that “normal.” I hoped that such a searing moment would shock so many to see what we had allowed ourselves to become. And yet nothing happened. Oh yes, there were marches and protests and angry people. A few gun nuts laid low for a while. Then nothing, no new laws, no assault rife ban, no high capacity magazine ban, not even universal background checks to identify the wannabe gun nuts.
So now, America, here we are again. Before George Floyd’s life was forced out him, all many wanted was a large dose of “normal” in the face of a deadly pandemic. After George Floyd’s life was forced out of him, many others want so much more.
It seems like all of a sudden, America has been made aware that poor people and people of color have worse health outcomes than wealthy and middle-class white people. A pandemic will do that. It seems that their diets are worse, their access to healthcare less and sometimes not at all, their levels of addiction, diabetes, and heart disease all higher. Oh, and don’t forget that poor people live on top of one another in substandard housing, and that doesn’t help in a pandemic either. Then pandemic hunger replaced “normal” hunger for some little children in America. And they are still hungry.
Sticking with just this snapshot, if it were a snapshot of you and your family would you want to go back to “normal”? But that snapshot was never going to be enough to make a difference. All we wanted was a large dose of “normal.” And instead, we got a big and unwelcome snapshot of “other” people’s “normal.”
I am disgusted now, disgusted that we are here again, disgusted that another human being could not breathe the same air that I breathe. And, for the record, I have been disgusted with this and with this America since I got off a bus in Durham, N.C. in 1963 on my way to college and saw with my own eyes a bathroom for men, a bathroom for women, and a bathroom marked “colored.” Not even “colored people,” just “colored.” I don’t know why it struck me so hard, but I have never found in all the years since an America that embraces each human being as a part of the community of man.
Eric Garner never found that America either; nor did Michael Brown; nor did Tamir Rice; nor did Freddie Gray, and many “others” in just recent memory.** Nor will George Floyd ever find that America.
AUTHOR’S NOTE – To try to better understand, learn or relearn about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child brutally murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. The image of his open casket is as searing as the video of George Floyd’s last breaths. And that was 65 years ago. https://time.com/4399793/emmett-till-civil-rights-photography/