by Larry Smith
It is usually difficult to know when you’re living in a history-altering moment. Hindsight being what it is, we tend to look back and think “Of course!” But in the day-to-day grind of simply trying to exist, the sights and sounds that herald a zeitgeist can be difficult to decipher.
I believe that now is a moment that history will decide was pivotal to our nation.
For whatever reason, the execution of George Floyd has touched a nerve that the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and scores of others did not. Something is different this time — at least it feels that way.
Maybe it was watching Mr. Floyd, a grown man, calling for his mother as his life escaped his body. Maybe it was the defiant, soulless smirk of the killer staring into the camera. Maybe it was the compounding effect of the recent murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Whatever it is, it seems as though these lives will not have been sacrificed in vain. As Sam Cooke sang plaintively, “It’s been a long time comin’, but I know a change is gonna come.”
Despite my cautious optimism, I am distressed that so many white Americans, and a surprising number of African Americans, are more outraged by the violence that has attended some of the recent protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s execution than they are to the execution itself.
While I don’t condone violence for its own sake, I will not simply dismiss the long-smoldering anger that has exploded across America.
Of course, I am also mindful that there are instigators and imposters who have infiltrated the ranks of legitimate protesters for the purpose of discrediting them. But even if there were no opportunists with hidden agendas, too many Americans — of all races — care more about the destruction of property than the death of people.
A kind of collective cognitive dissonance has bedeviled Americans into eschewing certain types of violence, even as we gleefully embrace others. A recent article in The Atlantic speaks to our dual-mindedness regarding violence, such as our full-throated validation of vigilantism during the American Revolution.
Moreover, we valorize gangsters like Al Capone, Bonnie & Clyde and John Gotti. We canonize Billy the Kid and Jesse James. We flock to movies about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Speaking of which, some form of violence plays a major role in eight of the top ten grossing movies of all time. (For those who are wondering, the results are much the same even if you “adjust for inflation.”)
The point is that Americans understand violence. We respond to it. We celebrate it. We even love it — except when it is employed by African Americans, Native Americans and other people of color who fight for their humanity.
Consider, for example, the contrast between white Americans’ response to Cliven Bundy, Randy Weaver, David Koresh and others who threatened — or even engaged in — violence with law enforcement officers. The cry of “thugs” and the thunderous leveling of “anti-American” does not apply to men like them. Men who are white.
In any case, the present violence in our nation will end — sooner rather than later. (Insurrections generally are short-lived in our country. And football season is around the corner.)
One day, the crowds will have dispersed. One day, the curfews will have been lifted. One day, the speeches will have ceased. One day, we will return to the status quo ante.
That will be the most important day. Why? On that day, we will decide whether our current “leaders” are leading us adequately. On that day, we will have the opportunity to use our vote as our voice. On that day, we will decide whether we are part of the problem — or part of the solution.