There is a fine line between two types of historic events. One is noteworthy in its singularity; it stands out as a unique or rare occurrence, calling attention to itself because it is out of the ordinary—the COVID-19 outbreak, the eruption of Mount St. Helens, even the Civil War (which, to this point at least, is unique in this nation’s history) are examples.
Equally arresting and spectacular are some emblematic events. The killing of George Floyd was one of these—cataclysmic certainly, but emblematic, illustrative, symptomatic even, of the way things are. Tragically, not unique, and not rare. This second type of event attracts our notice because it crystallizes a set of experiences into a hard deposit of intense, in this case painful, familiarity.
What these two phenomena share is our startled and riveted focus on each—which makes it difficult for some to discern the difference. Many whites may have confused the death of George Floyd with the first type of event. That reaction would be uninformed or at least naïve. We should make no mistake: The killing—the charged murder—of George Floyd was emblematic and symptomatic, not the literal explosion of a volcano but yet another, repeated explosion of hate that all too many in our society have come to recognize as a familiar, personal, intimate experience.
The Washington Post keeps a database that contains records of every fatal shooting in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since January 1, 2015. It records the deaths of nearly 1300 African Americans at the hands of police in that four-year period alone. In the days following the burial of Floyd, videos of more “restraint” encounters with police that resulted in fatalities have appeared on the public airwaves. Imagine the tally of black lives, and losses to this nation, over the 400-plus years of oppression African Americans have endured since their arrival on this continent in 1619.
The intense response to the killing of Floyd on May 25 may prove to be a tipping point toward the good, thanks to the massive, widespread, and diverse protests against this social pandemic despite the biologic pandemic of COVID-19. That is hopeful news. It points to changing hearts and more open minds. The tragedy is that yet another African American has died to bring forth this fragile hope of possible reform.
It is not the job of African Americans to die in this cause, or to shoulder the work of reform. All of us are called. What can I do, what can you do, to stop enabling the systemic racism that silently perpetuates ongoing injustice? In this issue Dorothy Keane and Laurie Barlow have shared a list of actions whites can take to advance racial justice. We can start by identifying our faulty internal biases rather than denying them—acknowledging that biases, good or ill, are part of everyone’s innate conditioning and often need correction. We can protest, demonstrate, speak out, support the League’s positions on policing, make donations, pay our dues. We can have difficult conversations.
And we can, must, vote. Not just vote—encourage and educate others to vote. We all know those who, exhausted by developments in this country over the past four years, find comfort in apathy and have occasionally “forgotten” or were “too busy” to vote. They need our attention and care. Understand the new voting system, its strengths and weaknesses, and encourage them to vote by mail or vote early to avoid lines we have witnessed elsewhere. Show young and new voters how to register.
In her book The Echo of Greece, Edith Hamilton wrote about the demise of Athenian democracy in the fourth century BCE. There is much to say about this rich and relevant piece of writing, but the gist is this: Athens of the fifth century had developed into a society in which the citizens “thought of public affairs as being their own responsibility; the reason was that they saw clearly . . . what Athens was to each one of them . . . the city of freedom in a world of despotic rulers and slavish subjects.” By the fourth century, however, Athens had devolved into a society where the citizens expected material compensation for fulfilling their civic duties and took for granted the freedoms they had won. They regarded the government as separate from themselves and forgot that they, themselves, were the state:
Now instead of men giving to the state the state was to give to them. What the people wanted was a government which would provide a comfortable life for them. . . . Athens had reached the point of rejecting independence, and the freedom she now wanted was freedom from responsibility. There could be only one result. . . . If men insisted on being free from the burden of a life that was self-dependent and also responsible for the common good, they would cease to be free at all. . . . Responsibility was the price every man must pay for freedom.
It still is. The November election may be the tipping point not only for this American generation but for this American experiment in democracy. Freedom is not free. It is time to bend the arc of our history toward the good and not go the way of Athens. It is time to speak—with advocacy, with GOTV efforts, and soon, with votes.
—Chris Moose, Editor, the Voter