My heart goes out to the grieving family of George Floyd, following his senseless murder. The family has pushed for communication and change through peaceful methods, in hopes that there will be a solution this time. I share their hope that it can become a reality.
Unfortunately, the recent protests and unrest take me back to the seventies, and it saddens me to realize how much and how little civil rights have progressed. In my own little bubble, I've been able to convince myself from time to time that it had indeed progressed, but headlines and news insist otherwise. Past injustices of racism continue to rear its ugly head.
As a naive high school student, my first day began with riots. Inner city students had been bused to our new school with little to no say in the matter. Lock-downs were commonplace that first week of school. I had been bused the previous year and hated it, so I empathized. I knew that the long bus ride made extra-curricular activities difficult unless you had a car. But I hadn't realized that the rebellion went so much deeper.
Sitting in class one day, a fellow classmate gave a speech that I had difficulty wrapping my head around. She literally shook as she told about her uncle getting stopped for a crime he didn't commit. He was the same dark color as the assailant, and was in the vicinity of where the crime had taken place. When her uncle insisted he was innocent, he was beaten severely then held in custody without any legal counsel. He was only released when the assailant attacked again and was captured. There were no apologies or offers to cover her uncle's medical bills. Enraged family members tried to help him financially, but felt helpless going against the system that repeatedly abused its power. Even the best law enforcement were seen as threats, and back then, cameras did not exist on every street corner, place of business, or on the police officers themselves. When she finished her speech, you could hear a pin drop. That classmate is now a judge, making changes to that very system in her own way.
A year later, as I walked to class with a friend who shared the same schedule as me, we found ourselves cornered in a stairwell. I don't remember all of the insults thrown our way by a kid, who I didn't even know, but I'll never forget the words he spat at my friend, "You're nothing but an Uncle Tom." It felt as though I'd been punched in the gut, but the hit landed harder with my friend. The words had put an ugly spin on a friendship, and in a split second, had moved us from laughter to tears. We were so shocked, we couldn't speak, couldn't defend ourselves. It was as though the wind had been knocked out of us. When I later reflected on the incident, I tried to understand what had happened. I wondered if some members of the Black community were so immersed in years of anger from oppression, that they couldn't let it go , couldn't move toward change. Instead, they lashed out at those who tried.
Years later, when my children had grown, I was once again taught another lesson by my neighbor. She explained to me one day, when I'd been complaining about the difficulties of raising teenagers, that it's much more difficult for parents of black teenage boys. For example, she refused to let her son wear a hoodie for fear that he'd automatically be seen as a thug when walking down the street. She and her husband, as many black parents did, felt it necessary to drill their son on how to act if he was approached by a police officer. There was a whole list of behaviors he needed to learn from them, so they could keep him safe from those who were supposed to be protecting him. The injustice of a classmate"s uncle in the seventies still existed.
Don't get me wrong, there has been progress, but when another black man lies dead, I have to realize the progress hasn't been nearly enough. There have been many lessons this naive individual has learned about the Black community's struggle for civil rights, but I've learned those lessons only because someone was willing to teach me. It scares me, though, to know how much I still have to learn about social injustices. I can only hope that there will always be a brave individual who is willing to patiently talk with me so that I can understand.
- M.A. Koontz