Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on …
—“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson, and Al Cleveland, 1971
I was too young to understand “What’s Going On” when it was released, or Kent State or any of the other incidents of civil unrest in the 1970s. By the time I was in college, though, with the help of my mom and family friends I had much more of an understanding, and tremendous empathy for those who felt they had no other choice than to protest their treatment.
For me, the protests that have had the biggest impact were those patterned on those of Martin Luther King Jr.: strong and forceful in tone, but peaceful, as violence defeats the purpose. In the past several years, the Women’s March and March For Our Lives both made their points without becoming violent as did the March for Science (which also gave us more than a few laughs; scientists can be real cards). Charlottesville … not so much.
Often what seems to happen in demonstrations that turn violent is that other groups—typically from the political fringes and sometimes from somewhere else—jump in to create chaos, as they reportedly are doing now during the protests against the death of George Floyd, which obscures the true purpose of the protest. Looters take advantage, as do hyperpartisans, leading to even more division.
I really didn’t think that was even possible, but every day, it seems, we see a new low, and more fighting when instead we should be talking and trying to understand why people feel the need to protest.
Marvin Gaye’s plea to talk, to figure out what’s going on, is all the more important today.
Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, has pleaded with people to stop rioting, but instead make their message known peacefully. “If I’m not over here wilin’ out, if I’m not over here blowing up stuff, if I’m not over here messing up my community—then what are y’all doing? What are y’all doing? Nothing, because that’s not going to bring my brother back at all. … Let’s do this another way. Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter and vote.”
I keep envisioning a world where we don’t just say we care about each other, we actually do it, and we do all those things we were taught to do by our churches, schools and families: Be kind. Help each other. Don’t judge a book by its cover (unless that cover includes the word “unauthorized” and/or really bad un-ironic artwork).
But as usual, politics gets in the way.
It gets in the way when a protest that grew naturally as a reaction to a news event is soon beset with claims that it was funded by this or that billionaire who wants to force the world to his or her version of justice. It gets in the way when unarmed protests are replaced by armed protests that are still somehow called peaceful (if you come armed, that doesn’t give the impression of wanting peace, ya know). It gets in the way every time someone shares a false meme or video, or out-of-context quote to try to prove that their side is in the right.
It even gets in the way when it comes to wearing masks for covid-19 (a lot of the pictures I’ve seen of the rioting showed people sans masks; if there’s a spike in a couple of weeks, they were warned). A friend and reader commented on my blog this weekend: “A female friend who was wearing her mask in public was accused of being a PanDemic, or Panicked Democrat, by a man who wasn’t wearing a mask. Yes, this woman is a Democrat.”
Since when is caring about your fellow humans a Democratic or Republican thing? This is just one of the many reasons I won’t join any party. You shouldn’t have to check your morals, or your understanding of science, at the door, no matter what political philosophy you follow.
One more time for the people in the back who refuse to listen to epidemiologists when it comes to disease: No, simple cloth masks won’t necessarily protect you from other people’s germs. However, they will protect other people from your germs, especially if you’re all social distancing and wearing masks. If you sneeze or cough into the mask, your germs are contained, which is especially important around people who have medical conditions that make wearing a mask inadvisable. (And yes, be sure to wash that mask afterward if it’s cloth, or throw it away if it’s disposable.)
It’s a little thing, but it shows you care. You do, right? Or do you just care about your party leader?
Doing something for other people shouldn’t be remarkable, but it seems nowadays it is. We’re given to believe that everyone is out for him or herself, and that anyone who offers to help you has an ulterior motive. We’re told that no protest is organic, that it’s always an organized campaign, usually from the outside. Sure, sometimes it is, though it often starts with one person or group and quickly spreads online. It’s amazing what the Internet can do. On this, I applaud social media, as it can get the word out far quicker than the old methods of organizing.
The people who first began protesting after George Floyd’s death were calling out for justice for him, his family, and other people who have died or been similarly mistreated. They still want that justice, but their voices are being drowned out by violence and hyperpartisan finger-pointing.
It doesn’t negate the need for change, though.
And it certainly doesn’t negate the need for calm, measured responses when things get out of hand as they have across the nation, including right here in Arkansas, where Monday night, one of our reporters was struck by someone at the Little Rock protest-turned-riot, and apparently had his reporter’s notebook stolen. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Tony Holt tweeted Tuesday morning, “I have no memory of the attack last night in Little Rock, but there was a small group among the rioters who clearly didn’t want me there. Suffered a broken nose, but no other fractures. All journos, seriously, be careful. I got too close and paid for it w/ a 5-hour hospital stay.”
You can see some of the responses to his tweets at the link under his photo to the right, but I’ll warn you, you’ll have a dim view of some members of our so-called humanity (some of the comments under our paper’s riot stories online are worse, though … because people suck). In the current atmosphere, just doing your job has now been taken over by politics.
Fie on that.
It wasn’t so long ago that King, in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, wondering why the Peace Prize was being given when the struggle had not yet been won, said he realized the committee recognized that “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”
In that same speech, he said, “nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Would that we remember that today and behave accordingly.
At least some people seem to take King’s words seriously, and more should try to emulate them. There have been reports of protesters and other volunteers returning to areas after riots to clean up the mess that others made. And in Minneapolis, after looting closed stores in a poverty-stricken area that was already a food desert, the principal and staff of a middle school there sent out a request to the community for 85 food kits and other staples to be brought Sunday to be distributed to those who needed them. The request was picked up by social media and news organizations, and, according to The Washington Post:
“[S]taff at Sanford Middle School said they anticipated no more than 150 kits would be delivered Sunday morning. But at 8 a.m., an hour before people were supposed to drop off deliveries, the school loading docks were already full of food.
“‘The donations just kept coming, and coming, and coming,’ [Amy Nelson, principal of Sanford Middle School] said. By 8:30 a.m., a winding line of people waited to drop off food.
“‘There were miles of cars holding food, wrapped around our city blocks,’ said Mara Bernick, family liaison for Sanford Middle School. Hundreds of people showed up to give what they could. Some arrived in U-Haul trucks and trailers, and some came carrying groceries in their hands.
“Soon, the school property was covered with thousands of bags of groceries. By the end of the day, an estimated 30,000 food kits were delivered, and more than 500 families and individuals were able to stock their pantries and fridges.”
That spirit of community is what we should all aspire to, and it starts with us.