By Johnathan Williams
LABELLE – Monday night, it was my pleasure to stand at the side of several men and women in peaceful protest related to the recent movement inflamed by the death of George Floyd and several other black citizens under questionable circumstances throughout our nation.
Side by side, all genders and most colors, generally unfamiliar with one another, stood unified as a singular American unit with a point that may have had several small variations, but one overarching theme, Black Lives Matter.
For those involved in social media, it’s at the edge of impossibility to avoid news that seeks to paint the movement as heroic, or malevolent; as a danger to order as a whole, or as a harbinger of much needed change; as a worthy memorial of people wrongly killed, or as a human plague that dishonors perfectly good law enforcers and devalues other races. The purpose of this message is not to derail any of these messages, though one could spend quite a bit of time unraveling and disproving many of them. Rather, I seek to frame the protest in terms of what I see, and connect it with one of our earliest founders and some of his statements about what American society should be.
I speak of George Washington, who, in his farewell address, gave several straightforward pieces of advice “as an old and affectionate friend” that likely would aid us in these strange times. These admonishments included a focus upon the importance of unity, the necessity of beneficent change, neutrality’s role in the thought processes of an American citizen, the nature of a people truly set upon guarding their country, and the understanding of the nature of the word, “American.”
As I understand it, one of the major complaints that people have, and rightly so, is that these protests have often been linked to riots. The conditions that set off riots are manifold and for the purposes of this letter, I shall only say that they have taken place for far less (consider victories in sporting events) and have been perpetrated by less oppressed and angry people by far. People of far less poverty and with far fewer deaths that they connect with a government agency, often for no good reason, or simply as a matter of error, and in disproportionate quantities versus virtually all categories of American citizenry.
Yes. Riots are bad. They are evil. They are destructive to livelihoods and the health of economy, which is lifeblood to any functioning nation state.
However, it is also key to understand that no more is every protester a rioter than every sheriff is a Joe Arpaio (and yes, I know some view him positively, and I do not believe I can reach them), and every police officer a Derek Chauvin. I do seem to remember several examples of Americans becoming destructive over perceived injustices carried out by government entities in the past. A certain tea party? Tea was had, but I don’t seem to remember it having table service, nor do I think much of the tea went to humans. The fish appreciated it, on the other hand, and local seafood fanatics claimed that their cod had a distinct flavor of Earl Grey.
That said, the cause of the protests must be considered, and I would encourage one to attempt to remove themselves from the tumult of modern opinion and objectively consider situations that have triggered this protest. Obviously, there’s George Floyd, a single African-American male who was brought to the ground and asphyxiated over the course of roughly nine minutes while begging for mercy, and all the while being observed by several police officers and members of the public. Whether Floyd did wrong is not really the question brought forth here. The question is about the nature of the force brought to bear, and the refusal to relent whatsoever when it was plain that he was in significant peril and there was ample help available if he was to become violent. The protests do center on him, but the underlying causes are not nearly so exact. The appropriately titled, if morbidly named, website, “Fatal Encounters,” tracks police-caused fatalities using some fifteen different algorithms in order to ensure accuracy and since the year 2000, American policing has been documented as the culprit in some 28,000 deaths. It doesn’t make distinctions between killings that are regarded as “justified” and not. It simply says, “Twenty years, just a touch over 28,000 dead”. By June 1 of this year, 2020 had seen a total of 854.
Some of these are entirely understandable. When a person is a true public danger, that danger must be neutralized, and lethal force is entirely sensible. We should not suffer those that are too destructive to live. I grant, “too destructive”, may be a little vague, but much like the concept of obscenity, most of us know it when we encounter it. Some just have a different level of tolerance for it, but when it comes to true danger, anybody with a sensible level of self-preservation knows it. If one will pardon the usage of a slightly dated study, British newspaper, “The Guardian” published a study of police killings by nation in 2015. At a time when England and Wales had a population of 56,900,000, there had been a total of 55 fatal police shootings in the prior 24 years.
The US had a population of 316,100,000 and saw a total of 59 police killings in the first 24 days of 2015. Fifty-five killings in 24 years against 59 killings in the first 24 days. Keep in mind that African Americans make up roughly 13% of our population and account for 26% of police-related death. According to DW.com, a well-regarded news source from Germany, “Of the 28,139 total records, African Americans made up 7,612. They are also significantly overrepresented in some categories of death, including “asphyxiated/restrained,” “medical event” and “beaten/bludgeoned with an instrument.” Couple these statistics with the nature of many deaths that we see, which frequently display a lack of judgment with regards to force and the amount of it to use, or carelessness with regards to actions taken against a perceived criminal element, and it becomes obvious why one may desire to protest. This is not about all cops. It never has been. It is about carelessness, poor choice of tactics, mistakes, and those bad cops that tarnish the name of good cops that tolerate them everywhere. The Reverend Charles F. Aked said, “It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing”. In few institutions is this more obvious than law enforcement and general human governance.
So, we’ve taken these protests, and at a time where our nation is probably almost as fractured as during the time of the Civil War, we’ve allowed an argument about what to do about mistakes (whether willful or not) made by law enforcement to further drive a wedge into the great whole that should be America. Here is where Washington’s first caveat stands. Perhaps his greatest warning and singular piece of advice was this:
“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. […] It is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned…”
Now, those of us the least bit familiar with Washington know that he was a man deeply suspicious of parties, and he warned of the dangers of party and party loyalty to the union of the nation as a whole, but this wasn’t exactly aimed at the concept of party loyalty.
This was focused upon the singular importance of unity. However, he didn’t stop at simply speaking about the importance of unity and the ferocity with which we should guard it. He also warned deeply of those that sought to alienate members of our citizenry, stating that we should, “indignantly frown(ing) upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.” This warning should hang heavily about us, for all about us swirl agents that would seek to divide us - by race, by religion, by political alignment, by economic status. The manners by which such division is sown are both ham-fisted and subtle. However, a neutral heart, which is further advised by our first president, can help guard against this. Where do you get your news from? Who are you listening to politically? Who guides your mind and heart? If it is not you and you, alone, guided by your own reasoning, vetting your material for truthfulness due to the presence of all manner of trickery in entertainment distribution that attempts to pass itself off as news, then are you not binding yourself up in chains? It’s all too easy to become comfortable in them, especially if one has beliefs that run counter to the public good, and I know I am asking you to hear me, and to hear him, which may seem dangerous in a time where public discourse seems to be shattered, but if you rely purely upon your logic and higher sensibilities, is there anything here that truly seems wrong?
Back once more to the nature of the protests, and further binding them to the numbers and to the history of our nation, did we not once choose to fight one of Europe’s greatest powers as a result of taxes (without representation, which could certainly be an argument for another need for sweeping change in today’s society, where so many of the people are simply not heard due to the overwhelming power of the wealthiest and most influential) and injustices visited upon us? Were these not events like the Boston Massacre? Like the “martial array” deployed by England in our states for usage against our citizenry at the government’s pleasure? Is our police force not militarized? Are they not utilizing gas against our people, which is forbidden in warfare according to the Geneva Protocol?
How many were slain in the Boston Massacre? Five? How does that compare to what we see now? Is our nation truly so dysfunctional, or is this proof that our system is flawed? Few people will argue that our political system remains the envy of the world. Court cases can be skewed according to political affiliation, influence, and wealth. Freedom from imprisonment can be bought through cash bail, which exposes a strange sort of capitalistic discrimination about who can do wrong and walk free, and who must remain stuck in irons, so to speak. And our representative government? All one needs do is follow the flow of money to know who and what they represent. There are some few that may truly stand for the people, but we seem to have shrugged our shoulders and decided this is just how it is. The protest is an indication that not all people are shrugging at the moment. Their focus may be primarily upon law enforcement and its issues with the black communities throughout the nation, but that’s just one change of many that we need to consider; after all, Mr. Washington also stated that we must “resist with care the spirit of innovation” upon our nation. Not carelessly buying into every proposed evolution or revision, but not fearing reasoned adjustments, either. These men and women are Americans. Yes, they’re black, and by virtue of what that color has put them through, that’s important. They’re Americans, as much as any others that struggle to get here and forge a life for themselves and their loved ones. They’re a part of our story, and we would do well to remember that our “independence and liberty … are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes”. Absent their voice, we are not complete, and their voice is not a cohesive part of the American experience as long as they’re suffering injustice so regularly. Listen to what they’re saying. You may need to cut through some passions in order to get to the raw truth, but it’s there and entirely worth considering.
BLM is saying that it is time to change. The death toll is saying it’s time to change. Police forces behaving as military detachments that attack people for exercising their rights say it’s time for change. The United States becoming listed on the world’s most dangerous nations for the press and the expansion of the notion of “lügenpresse” say that it’s time to change. The rapid decay of American unity says it’s time to change.
We’re changing even now. We’re just not going the right direction. Listen to those who are calling out for justice. Weed out the bad. Keep the good. Change the tactics. Experiment. Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to learn. We must, or the turmoil we are experiencing will certainly only continue to grow, or we must surrender ourselves further yet to the cancers of a corporate police state: outsized inequality, failing educational institutions, abuse of the underclass, overpowered plutocrats, overfunded and bloated military and police presence, blatant abuses of power, demagoguery, and empty-headed, media-manipulated dystopia.