The Fire This Time

“There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”

​​​​​- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Although passion is often the enemy of reason, passion can still be the spur to thoughts that, even if malformed or jumbled at first, can eventually resolve into understanding.  

Such is the moment in which we have been living over the past week, the time since we first saw the shocking videos and images of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and, over the course of the eight or nine minutes he continued to apply pressure, killing Mr. Floyd.  The police officer in question, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested and charged with 3rd degree murder and 2nd degree manslaughter, either of which would send him to prison for many years.

However, both the crime and the arrest have become almost tangential to the nationwide riots that have sprung up in reaction to Mr. Floyd’s death.  First came the rage, next came the looting, soon after came the fire, and we finished off with the hatreds and suspicions too often inherent in any discussion of race in America.  Passion still rules, but perhaps a sliver of space is available for the beginnings of reason.  Or one can only hope.

Any discussion of race in modern America begins with America’s original colonial sin, the slavery of Africans and other people of color by European settlers who were, ironically enough, often fleeing oppression in their own countries.  Having been practiced by so many ancient and admired cultures in the past—the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians among many others—human slavery somehow still had a patina of normalcy 400 years ago, although the many who were opposed to its continued existence worked long and hard to eliminate it, which is a blessing to us all.

Slavery, sadly and incredibly, still exists in various forms to this very day, and its pain is not limited to only those of color—my own father was slave labor for the Nazis during almost all of World War II.  However, the realization that slavery has many and sundry forms and facets is small comfort to those whose ancestors were once dragged to America in chains.

Eliminating slavery’s legacy of deprivations passed on from generation to generation of African-Americans has been a focus of discussion, policy, and law since the end of the American Civil War.  Progress has been made, but success is elusive.  Too many lives are still circumscribed by invisible chains that limit dreams and crush hopes.  To presume the playing field is level for all requires a willful—or simply ignorant—blindness to the many harms still perpetrated upon men and women of color each day.

However, there can be no excuse for the mindless violence and destruction that we have seen destroying our nation’s cities and town’s, even if—as some claim—this is being done to promote social justice.  Passion can excuse an vile outburst or angry impatience; the actions of those who have put America to the torch and looted its businesses are inexcusable—but perhaps understandable.  Crimes of opportunity are often the recourse of those who feel their lives are devoid of meaning or opportunity, which engenders a desire to strike out at a world that often seems an impregnable wall of locked doors, studied indifference, and overt slights.  If you are not going to be granted a minimum of respect, the only path available to garner a shred of self-esteem could be to generate a maximum of fear.

The anger of black Americans is not restricted to problems with the police, but high profile episodes of excessive, deadly force by white officers during arrests are an obvious flashpoint.  Issues with deficient healthcare, abysmal systems of public education, subpar housing, and systems of public aid that seem primarily designed to breed dependency and inflict humiliation are all daily reminders of promises unfulfilled and dreams deferred—and the combination of so many barriers, burdens, and petty slights has breed a great deal of rage.

All this said, the arson, looting, and destruction that has exploded across America since the shocking video record of Mr. Floyd’s death was first broadcast has been an incredibly unhelpful response that has certainly alienated many Americans who might otherwise have been allies of those seeking reforms in police departments.  When people see burning buildings, smashed windows, and emptied stores, the reflex is to turn against those who are perceived to be responsible for the disorder.  Even if, as has been suggested, these protests were encouraged toward a violent end by outside agitators with their own agendas, the images of rioting (or of protest, if you prefer) and burnt, broken cityscapes is now indelibly imprinted on the minds of our nation’s people. The battle lines of public opinion are now carved in stone, and common ground will be more difficult than ever to find.

Sympathy and understanding are strained because it is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that scampering down the street with six boxes of sneakers stolen from a burning store is somehow striking a blow for social justice.  Although there is opportunity in chaos, opportunistically using legitimate protest as a pretext for looting and arson is repugnant to the mind, the soul—and the memory of Mr. Floyd. Misguided attempts to legitimize criminality by using the pretzel logic so familiar to Post-Modern social theorists who see conventional morality as a trap and revel in word games that obscure reality only further compound the problem of seeking solutions to what ails American society today.

Where do we go now? Unfortunately, the riots of the past week will likely be yet another conversation killer when it comes to honest, open dialogue. Soothing platitudes about solidarity and shared community are lovely and necessary but provide no more than a placebo effect when strong medicine—this in the form of honest discussions that can survive the firestorm of social media blaming and shaming—is what is needed to begin to heal the deep wounds inflicted upon our nation in both the past and the present.

The bottom line is that no one really hears or understands what others are saying either because of their own life experience impedes their comprehension or it is simply more comfortable and easy to blame others.  If we can accept that everyone is at fault to some degree—which is always the case in any dysfunctional relationship—we can perhaps start talking in a manner that presumes the necessity of personal responsibility and encourages healing for past wrongs that can no longer be righted or exculpated.  

Everyone might have to hear truths they would prefer to avoid, and this will upset many who would prefer to see themselves as blameless.  However, one truth that we can be certain of in these uncertain times is that change is impossible unless we can begin a dialogue that forbids posturing and promotes a commitment to discussions free of rancor, blame, and self-aggrandizement.  I do not know if this will be—or can be—possible, but like all Americans I hope we realize the time for this process is right now.

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