Turning Point

    America’s Moment for Change

    Turning Point

    Like few times else in recent history, America has been awakened to the plight of racism and especially to the way African Americans are unequally maltreated by our legal system, including by police. Everywhere we look, every channel we tune in to, we see and hear “Black Lives Matter!” The streets of America are witness to unprecedented numbers of protests. One recent news report stated that there are some 700 protests in cities across the country. They have spilled over into other nations as well: England, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, and elsewhere.

    The world is watching.

    I have been reminded that “White Silence” is deafening during tense and tumultuous times such as these, when too many White people say nothing and do nothing in support of the protests—protests that simply demand the right to live free of fear from our own police and legal system—a system sworn to protect and serve communities and citizens. But who has protected African Americans from the protectors? This historical moment is rife with turmoil, but it is equally rife with hope. Hope for change. Hope for a better future. This is no time to remain silent or indifferent. Reach out to your Black friends, colleagues, co-workers, and church members. Let them know you care, that you stand with them, that you hear them. Let them know they are not alone. Get out and join the peaceful protests. Say something on your social media. Help organizers. Donate money. Vote for change. My family participated in a peaceful protest in memory of George Floyd. Hundreds of other protesters lined the sidewalk along our town’s main thoroughfare. A pick-up truck kept driving back and forth in front of us with two flags with pictures of the president on them waving in the wind. Clearly, the driver considered the protests as a Us versus Them issue, and he was taking an obvious side. Several days later, a man in Seattle drove through a crowd of protestors and shot a bystander. Like so many Americans, people like them fail to understand the problem. Worse, like so many Americans, they perceive the protestors and anyone who supports them as adversaries. They are not. They are American citizens striving for a better future for all of us and for future generations.

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    (The author’s 9 year old daughter at BLM protest for George Floyd)

    Some of my own long-time White friends bemoan, “What about us White people? Don’t White lives matter?” I try to convince them that this isn’t about Us versus Them, Whites versus Blacks. This is not a Black problem. It is a quintessential American problem. These protests are about righting wrongs, ensuring equality in every sense of the word, about elevating the Promise of America to its fullest expression for every citizen. I offer up sociological and socioeconomic statistics proving gross inequalities such as the fact that the probability of a Black man dying from police violence is double that of a White man and that the net worth of the average White household is ten times that of the average Black household. I recite historical facts about slavery and discrimination all to no avail. My words are wasted on them. Instead, they complain bitterly about Black football players kneeling in protest to police brutality. “We just want to watch the damn game. Sports are no place for protests,” they grumble. I ask them what public venue is appropriate and they scratch their heads. I wish my friends could examine their racial biases, for they exist, whether they acknowledge them or not.

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    (Black Lives Matter protestors at Lafayette Square, Washington DC)

    The most profoundly moving argument I ever heard for why Black Lives Matter came from a young Black activist and elected official from Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Every year, for many years now, my family has attended an annual dinner hosted by African American students and Multicultural Affairs at our local university during National African American Heritage Month. It’s a wonderful event: Nicely set tables, a buffet, live music, and even a special guest speaker. A few years ago, I had the honor of hearing the young Black activist from Ferguson. In his astounding speech, he told us that he estimated he had attended 150 funerals of Black friends who had died from gang violence, drive-by shootings, domestic violence, and even at the hands of police. One hundred fifty funerals and yet he was only in his mid-twenties! His words really put things in perspective for me. As a cultural anthropologist, I understood the issues from a cultural and sociological perspective, but his heartrending personal story made me think. I have to tell you, I’m in my sixth decade on earth. I can count the number of funerals I’ve attended in my life on one hand, maybe two if I really think about it. Only two were related to violence: the death of my younger brother and one of my Native American cousins, both by suicide (self-violence).

    How many funerals related to violence have you attended in your life?

    In my search to understand how to create a world with more love and compassion and tolerance, I have learned from many of history’s most influential figures—Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus—that compassion equals justice and justice requires action. You have to do something to bring about justice and to end injustice. You have to take action. Your voice has to be heard. Isn’t that exactly what these Black Lives Matter protests are doing?

     

    JSmelcer 4Dr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, peace, and the spiritual life. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in 2015.

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