A friend came by yesterday. We sat outside in the back yard and talked about the demonstrations and riots taking place around the country due to the murder of George Floyd. She asked me what I felt.
“My heart is with every demonstrator around the country,” I told her. “But when it turns violent, public opinion turns against us.”
She didn’t agree. “It’s a war out there,” she said, “and it’s time we see it. Glass smashing, fires burning, police cars smoking, bodies on the asphalt, tear gas—that’s not China, that’s not Egypt or Syria—that’s us! That war’s been with us for a long, long time, but we don’t see it till it explodes.”
I look at the photos and news videos of what is happening in cities large and small, with curfews and the National Guard patrolling the streets. Not streets in the Spanish Civil War or during another military insurrection in South America, it’s here, now, on our streets.
There has always been a war. It’s been fought in segregated housing and school systems, in the workforce and workspace, in our prisons and financial systems, in our factual history and the stories we tell ourselves about that history, in movies and TV, and now, in the age of coronavirus, in medical wards with sky-high numbers of people of color coming down with covid. And dying from covid. Or dying early from illness, stress, violent neighborhoods, and waking up exhausted to relentlessly shrinking horizons.
We’re finally meeting the enemy, and we know who that is, right? No, not Donald Trump, not the Daughters of the Confederacy, not even Derek Chauvin and police like him. The enemy is us.
“It’s like lancing a boil or a pimple,” my friend said. “The pimple is right there but we don’t want to look, and it grows and grows till it bursts. It should have had treatment long ago.”
What treatment is that? Other people know the answer far better than I do. I’ll tell you what it isn’t, though.
How many of you know that Barack Obama signed a Native American Apology Resolution almost a decade ago? You might say: We finally apologized for what we did to Native Americans? How come I didn’t know?
One reason may be that nothing was said about it. Our President simply signed a resolution that was hidden in a defense spending bill, so that nobody would know.
Was there a press release? There was, only it talked about the defense spending bill, didn’t say much about an apology to Native Americans.
Did President Obama, noted for his eloquence, give a stirring speech about what we did to Native Americans: the massacres, mass larceny of land, dishonored treaties, the forced marches and reservations? As President and Commander-in-Chief, did he apologize for the what the government and military did and continue to do to Native tribes? Did he by any chance promise to take back the Medals of Honor given to the soldiers who massacred women and children at Wounded Knee?
No speech was given, no celebration of a historic moment covered by television networks worldwide. It was the quietest apology imaginable. The message was unmistakable: We apologized, now let’s move on.
We don’t need that treatment. We don’t need an apology that dishonors rather than honors, that perpetuates ignorance of terror and tragedy. That just wants to move on.
Let’s move on, let’s move on. Our great mantra. Didn’t we do enough? Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty legislation, affirmative action, election of Barack Obama? Hell, we even made a federal holiday out of Martin Luther King’s birthday, what more is needed? Maybe another museum?
One of the demonstrators was quoted as saying: “Can’t breathe with a mask on. Can’t breathe without one.” That’s the koan of America.
Today I picked up my car from the Toyota repair shop and the nice man whom I’ve known for almost a decade of car service was wearing a fabric mask as he brought me the car. “You should wear a medical mask, “ I told him, “since you have to wear one all day. You’ll breathe better.” He said he was fine.
We’re both white. We breathe well without a mask, and somewhat less well with a mask—but we breathe. And then there are Americans who can’t breathe, not with a mask and not without one. Do you wear a mask or not?
If you get beaten standing or kneeling, what do you do?
How do you Stay Safe, our favorite mantra nowadays, when you’re not safe during covid, not safe before, and not safe after?
What’s a person to do?