BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
Nature in Chicagoland Readers: This is an extremely challenging time in America, and I hope you won’t mind if I take a break from nature to discuss the events that are currently happening in the United States.
We live in a strange and disturbing world in which African-American athletes are castigated for kneeling during the national anthem (a song that has only been codified as America’s song since 1931) to protest injustice, but it takes sustained national outrage to get a police officer arrested for kneeling on the neck of and then murdering an African American man named George Floyd who was gasping, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly while being recorded on video. Imagine if there wasn’t a video? And imagine how many times this happens when no one takes video or police turn off their body cameras? The nonchalance of Officer Chauvin as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck, as he jammed his hands in his pockets, is chilling.
There are those who think that their skin color protects them from unlawful violence perpetuated by law enforcement, but recent events burst that misconception. Yesterday, a 75-year-old white man tried to talk to a group of police officers and was pushed to the ground by a Buffalo, NY, police officer. As he lay motionless and blood oozed from his ear to the pavement, the police continued to walk by as if nothing had occurred. The video is disturbing. The actions of the police officers–a parade of indifference–were unconscionable. Police abuse stories anger me, yet, I’m not anti-police. I just want better policing. I spent the morning educating my 10-year-old about the current situation in America, reinforcing the fact that there are many good police officers, and telling him stories about the current and retired police officers and other law enforcement officials we have in our family who truly believe in “serving and protecting” the public.
On Monday, law enforcement officials (some with the names of their enforcement agencies hidden—the last thing we need is a secret police force like China and Russia have) used chemical irritants and rubber bullets to remove peaceful demonstrators of all ages and ethnicities from Lafayette Square near the White House so that President Trump could get a photo op holding a Bible (not even his Bible) in front of a nearby church. This was not a violent demonstration and the curfew would not start for another 30 minutes. Yet, this violence occurred so the president could pander to his base.
But while we hear these disturbing stories, let’s remember that the majority of violence committed against Americans is committed against those from minority cultures.
Some people want the protestors to go home and, after the requisite tut-tutting about a few bad apples on the police force, go back to the status quo. Some Americans have forgotten that the process of protesting to make the world a better place did not end in the 1960s. Americans have been patting themselves on the back about what a great country we have for so long that some of us have overlooked the true inequities that are only increasing in our nation. America continues to be riven by racism, the gap between rich and poor continues to increase, unions continue to be attacked by the passage of “right-to-work” laws, and our environment (what gives us our very lives) continues to be damaged on a scale that is unsustainable if we want to keep living on this planet.
Change is needed, and the way things change in America is through protest. Change is accomplished by questioning the established order, identifying what is wrong, proposing solutions, and educating and trying to convince others of the rightness of their beliefs via conversations with people whom with we disagree, reading and writing news articles and blogs, letter-writing campaigns, calling and emailing our Congresspeople, and marching in the streets. In my view, questioning the status quo (I mean “status no”) of racism and other injustices is the most patriotic thing we can do as Americans. People don’t fight and die in wars for the flag, which is just a symbol of something much bigger. They risk their lives and sometimes die for our way of life, our freedom to question the government, assemble peacefully in groups, and enjoy other basic human rights that billions of people do not have in this world.
Some people seek to link protesting with looting as a means to delegitimize our Constitution-given right to free speech and free assembly. But protesting unjust events (such as the murder of George Floyd and continuing racism against minorities) is a righteous activity that empowers participants as they speak up and seek to educate and improve the world. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo summarized the key differences between protesting and looting in his press conference on June 3, 2020:
“Last night, we had continued protests across the state, but there are two very different situations…going on, and we have to keep them separate, and we have to address them as separate situations, because they are night and day. One is protesting, and the other is looting. They are two very different situations. Some people choose to morph those two together, all the protesters are actually looters, and we should treat them as looters. That is not a fact, that is not the truth, that is not the reality of what is going on. There are people who are protesting, and there are people who are looting, very, very different situations. The protesting is righteous indignation over Mr. Floyd’s murder and systemic racism and injustice.”
The term “protest” is a hot-button word in some circles. What if we just called it “marching for justice,” because that’s what it is. Groups of like-minded people getting together because they’ve identified a wrong and want to fix it. In most instances, protestors are our friends and neighbors, the person who teaches our kids, delivers our groceries, operates our favorite restaurant, performs our favorite song, or even leads religious services. Protestors are social workers and engineers, lawyers and accountants, doctors and nurses, airline pilots and flight attendants. They are of every age, nationality, and occupation. They’re often our children (if we have ones who are old enough to do so) and our grandparents.
I have heard the viewpoint that damaging property is the only way to get people’s attention. I disagree. (Eliminating gerrymandering and the Electoral College, implementing ranked-choice voting, actually voting, and participating in economic boycotts of offending companies or organizations seem like better ways to affect change.) But I’m strongly against rioting (including attacking police officers) and looting. I refuse to give rioters and looters a free pass to ruin people’s lives by destroying their businesses. Property can be replaced, but the looters’/rioters’ effects on business owners’ and their employees’ livelihoods last a long time—and sometimes forever. These criminals (and much of the looting is perpetuated by those involved in organized crime) do not have the right to play “judge and jury” with other peoples’ lives. Every destroyed business–especially a mom and pop business—translates into a broken dream, a further reduction of community resources in neighborhoods (often those which are poverty-stricken and which were already food deserts), and joblessness for employees of these businesses. Many of these businesses are operating on razor-thin margins, and could not afford enough property insurance to cover the massive task of rebuilding their businesses. And not every business can be saved by a crowdfunding campaign. As a business owner for nearly 20 years, I can’t imagine how I would feel if one day I woke up and my ability to make a living was destroyed through no fault of my own. I do not own a “brick and mortar” business, but the feeling would be the same if someone destroyed the thousands of books I have warehoused and the computer systems I use to write, market, sell, and ship my books and newsletters. Yesterday, Terrence Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, said the following at a memorial service in Brooklyn that honored his slain brother: “I’m proud of the protests, but I’m not proud of the destruction. My brother wasn’t about that.”
But back to the moral authority of peaceful protest (which can be loud and lively, but not destructive). Almost every improvement in the lives of Americans is based on protest and grassroots lobbying:
- Union organizers protested to eliminate 16-hour workdays, unsafe work conditions, and child labor.
- Women and their supporters marched to convince Congress to give them the right to vote. It was only 100 years ago that women in the U.S. received the right to vote. Crazy, right? Imagine how long it would have taken if no one had been marching in the streets.
- Others marched and advocated for disability rights, to stop wars, and to protect the environment.
- African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans marched to advocate for basic human rights such as being able to live, eat, and work where they wanted, and the right to receive quality health care and education, among other goals.
In this dangerous time in America, I want to focus on African Americans, who were struck by police truncheons, bitten by police dogs, blasted by high-powered fire hoses, and even beaten, tortured, and sometime murdered in the 1950s, 1960s, and beyond as they fought for rights that whites consider the basic benefits of being Americans. African Americans were lynched for allegedly whistling at white women or “not knowing their place” in white society. Many consider the dragging of an African American man named James Byrd, Jr. from the back of a pickup truck in 1998 as one of the last lynchings in America. Only 22 years ago…so disturbing.
It’s distressing that I live in a world in which my parents can recall seeing “Whites Only” restaurants and drinking fountains when they honeymooned in the south in the 1960s. That I live in a world where when I was a teen more than 30 years ago my girlfriend’s uncle (who was a police officer) brought out his scrapbook of African American murder victims to show us. Instead of scenes of weddings or birthday parties, there was page after page of young black men dead on sidewalks and streets at crime scenes. I was deeply disturbed by the “scrapbook,” yet, while I complained to my girlfriend about it, I was too afraid to stand up to this “authority figure” to tell him I thought what he did was wrong. My silence made me complicit in his racism, and I’m still ashamed of that. It’s distressing that I live in a world where redlining made Chicago one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. This may have made those who were most afraid of change comfortable, but it has created geographic winners and losers that reinforce systemic racism. These divisions have only made relations between racial groups more fraught with misunderstanding and stereotypes.
I don’t have any solutions other than all the ideas that have already been proposed or enacted: equal access to education and social services, more diverse police forces and fire departments (especially at management levels), less segregation, more diverse corporate boards, more attempts to get people to better understand each other. More kindness, more understanding. I know we’ve tried these things, but what else is there to do? A better idea combined with these aforementioned efforts: let’s listen to what African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans think about how we should address issues of systemic racism and economic inequity in their communities.
Let’s separate the marchers from the marauders who are destroying property, looting, and committing violence. Marching, when combined with many other peaceful strategies, has brought about vast positive change in America. I don’t have the answers, but I’m eager to see what good can come from the latest efforts toward racial and economic justice in America. Because there is a problem. Black people and other people of color keep getting killed; reported as criminals or lawbreakers when jogging, selling lemonade, birdwatching, and the activities go on and on; and otherwise deprived of the rights that many white people take for granted. And I hope, like many Americans, that I can convert words of empathy and outrage into action to make the world a better place.
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Photos copyrighted as credited; I obtained the George Floyd mural photo from Google Commons