I watch the news and see footage of the protests. I go online and read the blowback: “Why do black people complain about every little thing?” (Apparently murder is a little thing.) “Why does everything have to be about race?” (Apparently being murdered because of your race is about . . . something else.) I see the video of police officers advancing on demonstrators who are standing still and pepper-spraying them for no reason. I have seen this before.
Fifty-seven years ago, a poet asked, How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? Fifty-seven years! And still we turn our heads and pretend.
People are angry. That’s good; anger is a great source of energy for those who would effect change. Me, I’m angered out. I’m too old for this. The things that used to make me angry now just make me want to weep. Everything we’re talking about in these days we’ve already talked about. The lessons we are pledging to learn today we were supposed to have learned long ago. Why didn’t we? Will we ever?
Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.
These words should be relics of a different time. They should be nostalgic. They should not be relevant today. We should know better now. Instead, we make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Then we’re surprised by the consequences. Then we pretend nothing happened.
I see so much white anger at being made to face ugly truths—so much denial. Then the Idiot-in-Chief tweets that Confederate names on military bases symbolize the great American tradition of “Winning, Victory, and Freedom!” I’m pretty sure those are three words you can’t associate with the Confederacy. Losing, defeat, and slavery? Sure thing. Those seem to be the opposites of winning, victory, and freedom, though. I used to wonder if he knew who won that war. Now I’m not convinced he even knows who fought it. Still, I’m sure his base reads that tweet and thinks, “Right on, bro.” After all, history is for weak-kneed Euro girly-men.
And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.
Sometimes I think we need to be more German. Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in Germany. There is no evasion, no turning away. German students are taught, “We did this. Not someone else. Not some long-dead ancestors who aren’t us. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done. We could do it again if we forget.”
We enslaved people. When we weren’t allowed to do that anymore, we used law and government to dehumanize them, make them invisible, and impoverish them for another hundred years. Now that we aren’t allowed to do that anymore, we deny we ever did it, or claim it doesn’t matter anymore. And still we dehumanize them as thugs and predators so that we can kill them in the street with impunity. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Minneapolis is not a Southern city. Neither is Cleveland (Tamir Rice). Neither is New York (Eric Garner). This is not someone else’s problem.
I don’t want to relive my youth. It doesn’t thrill me to listen to old protest songs and think that we finally get to feel that sense of purpose again. No, I just wonder why we don’t learn—why it is so important to resist learning.
Around and around we go. We protest and organize and write letters and run candidates, and still we end up right back where we started. Fifty-seven years later, we have to ask again: How many deaths will it take ‘til they know that too many people have died?