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Reaping the whirlwind

CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Injustice, protests, violence -- will this cycle be different?

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  • 6 min to read
Protesters gather in downtown Louisville

Protesters gather in downtown Louisville.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Just one voice. That's all this is. It's all I am. No more important than your voice. No more insightful. No doubt more privileged. Certainly no less flawed. Probably more. My insight is limited by my experience, so when my viewpoint is unsatisfactory to you, as it surely is about to be, please remember these things, and forgive me.

The best thing I can do here is to try to speak the truth as I see it. Which, virtually always, lands you in trouble.

"What do you have to say about what is happening in our city?"

That's the question that has come from several people. And already there is a problem. Because "what is happening" to some is violence and broken windows and damaged property. And "what is happening" to others is a woman, Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times in her home by police serving a no-knock warrant for alleged illegal activity at her apartment. (None has been proven.) Her boyfriend said he feared for their lives when men burst through the apartment door. He fired a gun, hitting one of the officers. They returned fire, killing a 26-year-old EMT who had done nothing wrong. That was 10 weeks ago. Investigations are still ongoing.

Around the nation, protesters are on the march and fires are burning, business being looted, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody after a white officer knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes while he was face down on the ground, despite his calls for help and expressions of, "I can't breathe." Multiple videos capture the sickening scene, a police officer, his knee pressed into the back of the neck of a defenseless man on the ground. He now is facing charges. Three other white police officers who stood around and did not come to Floyd's aid are not.

What do I have to say?

There is, in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., a yellowing placard, printed professionally, with red ink. On it are these words: "We Demand An End to Police Brutality Now." It was donated from the march on Washington in 1963. That placard is 57 years old. It could well have been used in the protests last week.

On that day, Martin Luther King said, "There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality."

What do I have to say? African Americans still experience those horrors. We should not be surprised then, that there is unrest. I am a bit surprised there has not been more.

We cannot say we have not been warned. Prophets and protesters, year after year. 

Frederick Douglass said in 1866, "Where justice is denied … neither persons nor property will be safe." W.E.B. Dubois warned in 1903 that black people saw law and justice as practiced in the U.S. not as a safeguard but as "sources of humiliation and oppression." James Baldwin wrote "A Report from Occupied Territory" 54 years ago this month. He could have written it today. With video examples.

He could have used Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, the examples are exhaustive, and exhausting. There is no shortage, because the unjust killings continue to happen.

You don't have to approve of violence and destruction to call those killings and countless others like them unjust. It is not disrespect to police to say that, nor to criticize the decades of tense interactions, of being pulled over needlessly, or being treated unjustly once on the side of the road. I do not have a single African American friend who does not have a story to tell on this subject. 

But what do I know about it? I am a white man. I have had nothing but positive interactions with police officers, am friends of some, and have great respect for them. I would point you to Thursday's protest in Louisville, when shots rang out. The first people to fly to the victims were police officers, who rendered first aid without regard to their own safety, for people who had been shouting angrily at them just moments before.

Let us not paint all with the same brush. And let us not paint all protesters with the same brush, because we know that there are those within these crowds of protesters seeking to destabilize and divide further. Destabilization and division are the political tools of the moment. Outsiders do not represent all of the violent element, but they are a part of it. And they muddy this picture considerably.

Still, let's not be distracted by them, nor by the violence itself or the property damage, to be honest. I'm tired of hearing people say, "violence doesn't accomplish anything." You're not going to like this, but I'm not sure I agree. The history of this nation does not agree. We were founded by a group of radicals. Boarding a British ship and tossing the tea into the Boston Harbor wasn't exactly born of a genteel respect for property. Violence, in fact, gets attention. It creates urgency. It stirs action, sometimes when nothing else does. The problem with it is that it does not get attention for very long. It often writes headlines, but writing history takes something more.

Windows get fixed. Businesses are rebuilt (or not). Cities get back on their feet. The protests are put down, or calmed down. A few actions are taken to pacify everyone. We agree to be better, and then life goes on.

And nothing is better. Violence begets fear and resentment. Which restarts the cycle. I hate to say this, but the violence will change nothing in terms of police actions. It will blow off steam, but the fire will smolder. I know this because we have watched it, time and again.

At the same time, we know that committees and discussions and good intentions have not stopped this needless injustice. It doesn't matter what political party you're talking about. People will be placated, but the real problem, racism, remains.

We have tried many treatments. We have found no cure. 

Do you know what haunts me? It is a video of the Floyd killing, which shows the other officers standing around and not stopping this disgusting tragedy.

I am haunted by that because, my friends, if I must pick one person in that photo who most closely resembles myself, I am one of those officers. And I'm ashamed of that. And I should be. It's not that I've done anything to hurt anyone. But my silence, my inaction, convicts me. As it should. I am sorry for my silence, and hesitance. Stop watching the protests for one moment and consider that scene, and be honest. Who in that picture are you?

I have friends who would accuse me of having "white liberal guilt," though I am not a liberal. But I don't think it is white guilt so much as human guilt. I cannot look at history objectively and come to any other conclusion than that the reason we keep seeing these kinds of tragedies that consume our nation is that there is no great will to stop them, and in many cases there is a will the vast panoply of political leadership in this country to see the status quo preserved.

There is great anger in our nation today. Just a few weeks ago, the protesters on the news were largely white, and they were in the faces of police, inches away, screaming and shouting threats. They are angry because for the past three months they feel they've been deprived of basic rights and opportunities. In the streets for the past several days were people who feel they've been deprived of basic rights and opportunities, not for three months, but for three centuries, and more. For their entire lives. They are there, with many who support them.

Think about this: In America, our aid organizations to less developed regions assume that people can pull themselves out of difficult circumstances, but they need certain conditions. They need legal protection from theft and violence. They need justice in the courts. They must have the ability to get title to their land, freedom to start and own business and access to wider circles of exchange.

But here at home, we seem to have ignored a good bit of that. It's why this fight is so important, more important than many realize, until perhaps they spend some time in a courthouse. When the emotion from these unjustifiable killings subsides, the basic problem of unequal application of justice remains.

One great thing that can happen is for people like me to recognize that we can't be bystanders, even if we want to be. The day we're more angry about the unjust killings than we are about the illegal looting, that day will be a start. The older I get, the less I want to see order kept than problems solved.

It would be nice if I could wind this up with some brilliant solution. I can't. My hope is that we will find inspired leadership. My hope is more in listening than speaking. My hope is that young people will bring hearts more attuned to peace. My hope is that my generation will approach these problems with hearts and minds opened by the realization that decades of the same thing has brought us no closer to where we need to be. My hope is in the good people to rise above those formidable things in our society that wish to divide us.

I cannot say I have high hopes for these things. But they are, I am convinced, the only hope we have.

Until then, this is a fact: Denial of freedoms always leads to strife. How long, as Americans, are we going to pay that price?

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