Black Lives Matter protest marches and demonstrations have dominated the past month on the heels of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. This may have been a tipping point, a saturation of reality, or maybe just the beginning of something, but there is no denying the fact that a movement is afoot.
The ‘60’s were packed with peace marches, civil and voting rights demonstrations, and to a lesser degree, women’s liberation events. Eventually, the anti-war protests saw America withdraw from Vietnam and the end of a military draft (which precipitated the all-volunteer Armed Forces). The protests didn’t end the war, but they certain influenced ending the war.
It is a shame that a Civil Rights movement was even necessary, as everyone should have been granted those constitutional guarantees long before the Sixties. The protest marches, sit-in demonstrations, and rallies didn’t necessarily bring about the Civil Rights Act, but they certainly had dramatic influence over it. The intent of the civil rights movement has yet to permeate all our citizenry and institutions. We remain a work in progress (I hope) in that regard.
Women’s liberation made much more modest strides and as with the civil rights movement, we remain a work in progress (hopefully).
The point is, while marches, demonstrations, and protests may not yield immediate results, they precipitate change. Without the marches, there would have been no Civil Rights Act, and Vietnam would have become a 30-year war. Exercising our voice makes a difference.
Wondering what’s next, I reached out to a colleague who has been a crusader for equity. He transformed the race conversations in two school communities where he served as the chief educational officer, raising awareness of equity issues. Spoiler alert, he paid a hefty professional price for exercising his beliefs and moving the needle on equity in both towns. I asked him quite simply, “What now?” After the marches, what happens?
First, he advised, keep the conversations alive, active, and uncomfortable in multiple forums. As an educational leader, and a white male of privilege, I accept that as a responsibility. I am working to keep the difficult conversations focused, aware, and honest.
Next, listen and believe. Listen to the stories being told. Believe them. People are sharing recollections of police brutality, inequitable treatment, and the daily harshness of racism. This is not fiction, and there is no room to rationalize with “yes…but…” Listen, and believe, no matter how unfathomable and non-conforming it is to my life experiences. Don’t look for reasons, understand the depth of the hurt and be willing to wrestle with my own sense of race and equity.
Don’t allow the conversations to be hijacked. A handcuffed George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee upon his neck. There is no room for rationalizing the outcome with reasons for his detainment, arrest, or restraint. Former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was protesting police brutality when he took a knee during the national anthem. Some supported his action, some objected. In those objections the conversation gravitated away from police brutality, and into respect for the flag and the military. Kaepernick clearly stated his actions were about police treatment of minorities, not any protest of the Armed Forces or the flag itself. Nevertheless, the debate migrated from police to the flag/military, and we lost focus.
Black Lives Matter is often refuted with All Lives Matter. No one argues that all lives matter. What is being asserted in the Black Lives Matter movement is the fact that people of color, particularly black males, are subject to more extreme outcomes than their white counterparts. As of this writing, I have not seen any video footage of a white male dying under the knee of a police officer. All lives matter, but right now, Black lives are more at risk than others.
Please don’t interpret this as an anti-police essay. Far from it. Police who protect and serve are a vital societal asset. A vast majority of officers retire without ever having drawn their weapon, much less discharge it. We ask a great deal of police, much as we do educators. As society has changed, we ask both entities to address more and more of our societal ills. What we need to guarantee is that every officer trusted to protect and serve is equipped with the skill sets necessary to do just that. Since words matter, I prefer the reference “Peace Officers” over “Law Enforcement.”
So, what is next? Your Salem Community College has an educational responsibility to keep the Black Lives Matter conversation alive, focused, and productive, no matter how uncomfortable it becomes. We don’t have any quick fixes, rapid answers, or maybe even a solid sense of direction… yet. What we do have is a willingness to engage to find a better way than we have today.