What can a white man, in the nation’s second-whitest state, say about the tragedies of violence and racism that continue to tear our country apart?
I sat down to write this column in Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe, where the flow of coffee and friends on laptops can stir the creative juices.
But I had to go home to finish this. Because I didn’t want to have to explain to everyone in the cafe why I was crying.
Crying for all the decades of murdered black victims of white police violence – people who died because they were black.
Crying for the unresolved, unspoken burden of slavery. The centuries-long crime that haunts our country long after its supposed end.
Crying for brave black Diamond Reynolds, who streamed the shooting death of her black boyfriend, Philando Castile, live on Facebook. Who maintained her dignity throughout it all, even calling the white policeman who had murdered the love of her life “sir.”
“You shot four bullets into him, sir,” she told him..
Crying for Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter in the backseat, who witnessed the shooting and told Reynolds, “I’m here for you, Mommy. I’m here for you.”
Crying for the brave Dallas police officers who died or were injured protecting the rights of peaceful people to gather in protest.
Crying for my friend’s brown-skinned grandson in Burlington. Whose white adoptive parents had to sit him down last week and explain to him that police may treat him differently because of the color of his skin.
He is all of 9 years old.
At age 9 he had to hear that talk. Even in a state as tolerant of diversity as ours.
Crying for the thousands of scarred veterans who’ve come back from our senseless invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. For the consequences of one vet who turned his inner torture — ruled by his training in how to kill — into a night of carnage in Dallas.
They took the police victims of that Dallas terrorist to Parkland Hospital. The same place where JFK died.
Crying because I’ve seen it all before.
It’s April of 1968. In my small hometown in western New York, the trees are beginning to bud and the robins are back.
But we wake one morning to the news that Martin Luther King, Jr. has been murdered in Memphis. Then one big city after another rips itself apart with rage-filled rioting.
I’m only 15 at the time and living in a very white town. But even there the killing reverberates. At the news of King’s death I take the American flag that’s flying on our front porch and hang it at half-staff.
My father takes my brother and me to a gathering of blacks and whites that’s led by a local black minister. He reminds us of Dr. King’s message of healing and nonviolence.
That summer brings more riots. The Kerner Report, commissioned by LBJ in the riots’ aftermath, famously concludes “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
But really, it wasn’t moving in that direction.
It’s always been that way.
Then it’s 1992 and I’m living in Southern California. A jury acquits four white police officers in the arrest of a black man, Rodney King. They were acquitted despite videotapes that clearly showed the unarmed King was subjected to a senselessly brutal beating.
Los Angeles explodes in anger. And Rodney King pleads with everyone, “Can we all get along?”
At a community meeting of black and whites in response to the riots, a local city council member stands up to speak. He’s a fellow whom we righteous liberals have labeled a conservative wingnut.
But he’s there to voice his anguish at the wounds of racism.
It’s a powerful reminder to me that whatever our politics, most of us recognize that race is the great American sorrow.
Last summer it was Ferguson and the public shooting of Michael Brown, yet another black man killed by white police. The shooting came after an altercation, and the police officer was exonerated of any wrongdoing after a careful investigation.
But Brown’s dead body has been left uncovered in the stinking Missouri heat for many long hours. Another reminder from white police to blacks everywhere: Mess with us and this is what will happen to you.
Let’s be clear: It’s tough for the cops out there. They have a demanding job. I’m glad they are there to protect (most of) us, and I can’t imagine doing that difficult work day after day.
As the dignified Dallas police chief — a black man named David Brown — has reminded us, both cops and the black community have legitimate concerns.
In the aftermath of losing five of his men, Brown has become a powerful voice for better gun safety laws, telling Congress to do its job. He’s also made it clear that “open carry” laws – which make it legal to carry assault rifles in public in Texas and other states –make it harder for cops to do their work.
Ohio is an open-carry state. Does anyone really believe that people around the Republican National Convention in Cleveland will be safer with hundreds of individuals openly carrying guns in public?
My heart aches at the tragedy of it all, at the long history of violence in this country I love.
So what to do? What to say?
This week is one of my favorites of the year, as the Middlebury Festival on the Green brings joyful free music to the downtown.
So I’m making it a point to get to the festival. To lighten my heart and celebrate the Vermont summer with music.
And I’m working it all off physically.
On the basketball court last Friday during our regular pickup game, I told my fellow players that with everything going on in America now, I was so grateful to be there with them.
There with friends black and white. Just to play together.