As I write this, it’s the 14th day of protests all around the U.S. following the death of George Floyd. One news network reports on “peaceful protests” and “acts of police brutality during protests against police brutality”; another network talks about “riots,” “outside agitators,” and marauding bands of “Antifa”—all exacerbating our already rampant “tribalism.”
And the American president apparently has chastised governors and mayors for being “weak,” telling them they should “dominate” and use a heavy hand to squash the protests and imprison the protestors. Standing in front of a church, he held up a Bible even as he advocates using military force against his own people.
It’s easy to slide into anger, frustration, despair, confusion, fear, and crushing uncertainty about the future as we see TV video of apparent military force and tear gas unleashed on peaceful protestors in our nation’s Capital. It’s hard to see a way out of this crisis—as well as all of the other current chaos (Gee, remember when we had “only” a killer pandemic to worry about?).
We’re caught in the worst civil unrest since 1968, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the worst public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and have a president with authoritarian tendencies. Yikes.
But in the middle of all of this, in a TV news segment about the protests, I heard a renowned historian say that it’s time to ask ourselves the question:
What kind of a nation do we want to be?
I think this is a critical question to ask at this time, and it’s critical that we come up with some answers. Sooner rather than later. A lot sooner.
I know, we’ve been down this road before, many times. Wounds like systemic racism have been a part of America from the country’s beginning. But polls are beginning to show that this time may be different. According to a recent Monmouth University Poll1, there’s been a shift:
- 76% of Americans (including 71% of white people) said racism and discrimination are a “big problem” in the U.S. (up 26 percentage points since 2015; only 18% said “No, not a problem”)
- 57% of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified (vs. 7% “Not at all justified”)
Steve Phillips (civil rights attorney, political analyst, and founder of Democracy in Color) commented last week, “There’s definitely been a seismic shift in the country.”2 A shift that has already prompted local and national leaders to make some tangible policy changes and commitments. So this time we may actually be able to make significant inroads to alleviating systemic racism.
Are you skeptical? Feeling a bit hopeless and powerless? I’m inspired by these words from journalist Dan Rather (excerpted from his FaceBook post last week3):
The United States is not on the verge of collapse.
I say this not to minimize the dangers of this moment. They are great.
I say this not to negate the pain. It is deep.
I say this not to normalize the injustices. They are real and have been festering for far too long.
But I have seen this country bend many times. I have seen it face threats from without, and from within. I have seen natural and man-made disasters. I have seen currents of hate. I have seen violence and heartbreak. One of the hallmarks of my time on this planet is I have seen a lot. And what I have also seen is that this country, because of the best spirit of its people, can bend a lot without breaking. And when it rights itself, it often becomes more just, more empathetic, and more resilient. . . .
Is it bad now? Yes. We’re in trouble . . .
So what gives me hope now? I see it in the faces of the peaceful protesters and the fearless reporters telling the story. . . . I see mobilization and energy. I see an outpouring of love and support for our fellow citizens. I see many with power and privilege in this country refusing to sit on the sidelines. . . . I see that this nation is being convulsed by structural, systemic, legal, and cultural problems that have long been in need of our collective attention. And I see millions of my fellow Americans saying give me a hammer, give me a bandage, give me a ballot, let’s go out there and get to work.
So what will be your hammer? What kind of bandage can you offer?
I urge you to transform your anger, frustration, fear, and other negative emotions into action:
Right now (and often throughout your day), say A LOT of prayers for (and/or envision bright Light surrounding) all of those involved in the protests: protestors, police and National Guard, and government officials at all levels. The entire country and everyone in it, the entire continent, the entire planet!
Then ask yourself:
What can I do to contribute to solutions? . . .
* Educate yourself about the issues. It’s not just about police brutality.
* Learn about racism as experienced by African Americans. Read books, watch videos, watch movies, etc. (see “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”4).
* Be aware of “microaggressions” against African Americans, like “He’s so well spoken.” “All lives matter.” Or clutching your purse while passing a black man.
* Join a nearby protest march or do something else related to a protest.
* Contact local officials and ask about police policies and tactics (Are tasers and chokeholds allowed? Are body cameras required?). And talk to them about potential reforms.5
* Contact congresspersons (state and federal) about legislation: end the sale of military equipment to police departments, abolish mandatory minimum sentences, end cash bail, etc.
* Donate to organizations like Black Lives Matter6.
* Do something in your neighborhood or town in honor of George Floyd and others who have been unjustly killed.
* Talk about the issues with friends and family (including children), coworkers, neighbors, etc.
* Call out racist jokes and actions, if possible.
* Demand accountability. Work to change the judicially-created “qualified immunity” that shields government officials (including police) from being held personally liable for constitutional violations.
* VOTE!!! And maybe volunteer to register voters in your town.
* ????? (You decide.)
Step out of your comfort zone.
Think outside the box.
Generate some Action Items for yourself, AND THEN DO THEM! And then do more and more and more. And then still more.
We can do this. It’s already happening: volunteers who just show up to clean up after the previous night’s protest; protestors who self-police against violence and destruction; police officers who put down their guns and join the peaceful protests, or show support by “taking a knee”; and several cities that have now banned “chokeholds.”
But if (when?) the protests die down, we can’t just go back to “normal.” We must keep the momentum going to real reforms. And we need to stop relying on people of color to do the heavy lifting. Retired Marine Commandant General Robert Neller wrote an open letter to Americans on June 3rd, saying that “. . . the time for being silent has passed. . . . We are better than this. Stand up for what is right.”7
We need to realize that racism creates powerful false hierarchies of human value that extend beyond how we treat people of different skin colors or different ethnicities. It extends to how we treat different sexes, gender identities, body types, ages, economic classes, and on and on.
So we find ourselves facing a very broad, deep, and complex set of challenges. Which means that we have a HUGE opportunity to do something RIGHT NOW to newly define who we are as a Nation, as a people. And in so doing, contribute to redesigning who Humanity is. And contribute to our overall Path to Oneness.
I saw a protest sign on TV that said, “white people, do something.” I urge you to “do something” (anything!). Today. Tomorrow. And the days after that.
If not me, who? If not now, when?
—Hillel, 1st Century Rabbi and Philosopher
If not us, who? If not now, when?
—George Romney, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama
It’s all up to us. Right now.
2 “Why Most Americans Support the Protests” New York Times article by Giovanni Russonello
4 “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” article by Corinne Shutack
5 “Five Reforms Every Police Department Should Make” article on Institute for Policy Studies website by Joshua Serrano
6 Black Lives Matter website
7 “A Letter to America” LinkedIn post by retired Marine Commandant General Robert Neller