I just watched my state Governor’s press conference regarding the protests against institutionalized racism. He brought up some important points and revealed his humanity and sincerity in the process. Some will feel he was an apologist for one side or the other, or didn’t go far enough. Yet in light of the absolute shit show that is our current national discourse, it was stunning to hear a government official speak in such a heartfelt and reasoned way. He presented as a public servant who cares about good government and society. This is the gist of what I understood:
The protesters are reasonable in taking to the streets. They are justifiable in their outrage. All thoughtful people feel a visceral revulsion when confronted with the institutionalized injustices and their impact upon vulnerable communities, especially of color. As to protesting government malfeasance, that is enshrined in our constitution. Part of our call to peace and justice has always been made through public gathering and public protest. This is our constitutional right, to seek redress from our government through protest. This is our responsibility as well.
Violence and destruction – (and I cringe at this part for several reasons – mostly because I don’t want to seem to equate the very different power positions and consequences between someone running off with a pair of shoes and someone literally killing a man in broad daylight with no concern for his life – and by the way, our Governor was careful not conflate this). Violence and destruction are not constitutionally protected, as they are criminal acts. But we cannot use those few who are breaking the law as an excuse to ignore the vast majority who are gathering legally and rightfully to seek redress from their government. And we cannot use any rioting as an excuse to once again obscure the underlying issues which gave rise to the constitutionally protected demonstrations in the first place.
As concerned citizens, and as government, we need to raise our eyes to the larger context and refuse to be caught up in the distraction tactics of blaming the protesters and ignoring the underlying racism, systemic injustice, and crying need for a transformed society that is inclusive and serves the needs of all our members. Those who are committing crimes, especially those who endanger the lives and safety of people, should be prosecuted, especially if their actions endangered lives, but we cannot allow these few to cloud our vision: Implementing changes to help create a more just society with room for all of us. Justice and equality under the law. Equal protections and equal opportunities. Fairness. Inclusion.
Thus spoke my Governor. Perhaps not revolutionary, but neither incendiary. Not pointing the finger at anyone with derision and disdain. Not inciting more hatred. Not trying to make himself right by putting others in the wrong. In fact, he went on to humbly acknowledge that as a white man, he himself has not lived through the experiences of minority communities. That he, as well as the rest of us, need to learn more and do more if we want to see real change. The Governor went on to recall with strong emotion when he and his father had watched Robert Kennedy’s speech right after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered back in 1968. He said that Kennedy spoke powerfully of the need for us to make an effort to understand each other with compassion.
The Governor cited Kennedy, ” What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”. Of course, reading the full speech through the lens of our troubled history, it is tainted with the stain of yet another white man telling oppressed blacks to turn the other cheek, and brings to my mind the supposed Malcom X quote, where he talks about how turning the other cheek presupposes justice and mercy on the part of the oppressor, but where that is absent, it is right and necessary to fight: “Give me an M-16 and then “I’ll sing We Shall Overcome,” at least so he is purported to have said in our folk mythology.
The Governor was not citing the part of Kennedy’s speech telling others to keep calm and carry on under oppression without fighting for change. Instead, he was distinctly acknowledging the harm done and the fundamental need to transform our society. And in spite of the burdensome weight of our history, he remains heartened by his abiding belief that most of us, as Kennedy once stated, “want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.” And most of us very much long to “make gentle the life of this world” as the ancient Greeks once wrote (and Kennedy had the privilege to study, probably in the original).
At this point, our Governor looked up from the notes in his handwritten spiral notebook, and told us how his father had cried at Kennedy’s speech, and how he, too, had cried. And then our Governor choked up and sat there in front of the cameras unable to speak, taking sips of water, swallowing, pausing, clearing his throat, trying to pull himself together, and then choking up again, and saying he was sorry. And I choked up with him, and I suppose that other people across my state choked up as well. Those of us who long to “make gentle the life of this world” are choking up a lot these days. Each of us mostly still isolated in our own homes, yet each a tiny living thread in the fabric of our state, not wanting to be torn apart, but longing to be healed and made whole, with inclusion and justice for all.