If, as a nation, we are to emerge from the protests and demonstrations that have kept the nation on edge for more than a week, it likely will be because of the leadership of groups such as the Newtown Florist Club, the responsible activism of engaged young people, and the professional demeanor of law enforcement agencies such as those found in Gainesville and Hall County.
All were evident at a rally in Gainesville on Monday, where members of diverse communities gathered as one to denounce the sort of police brutality that led to the death of George Floyd, but did so in a peaceful and thoughtful manner befitting an event that was about building brotherhood and searching for equality rather than seeking confrontation and promoting anarchy.
The local rally, organized by the respected Newtown Florist Club, served both as a reminder that there remains much to be done to combat racial inequality in our nation, and as an example of how well-intentioned people can work together to make clear their anger at the status quo without resorting to unnecessary confrontation and criminal behavior.
In watching events unfold across the country over the past week, it is increasingly obvious there are two distinctly different ways of viewing what has happened in the streets of cities and towns of all sizes and demographics.
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In one view are the vast numbers of peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional right to assemble in order to address their grievances. These are the protesters with whom we have seen law enforcement officers praying, hugging, kneeling, marching and even dancing.
In the other view are the smaller numbers of agitators, looters, vandals and thieves who have taken advantage of a national crisis of consciousness by espousing lawlessness and anarchy while endangering the lives of all involved. There is no doubt some have damaged property out of anger and frustration, which is understandable but not acceptable.
We should not allow the message of the peaceful to be lost in the discordant noise created by the criminal.
Those who protest legitimately need to be heard, their concerns addressed. Those who break the law need to be arrested, their misdeeds punished. That we expect law enforcement to make split-second decisions in determining which is which reflects the heavy burden we place upon those shoulders.
In such situations, mistakes of judgment are inevitable. Given that, we would hope those who wear the badge would err on the side of the protesters. Spray paint will wash off, vehicles can be replaced, what is broken can be fixed, but lost lives cannot be regained.
Those who advocate more aggressive actions would do well to remember Kent State, 1970.
After a week of protests and demonstrations, most peaceful, some deadly, the question at the national level has to be, “What now?”
What, indeed. Do we continue to slowly, gradually, chip away at racial inequities that are seemingly inherent in our society, hoping that at some point down the road we can reach a level of equality that has so far proven to be impossible? Do we pretend the issue doesn’t really exist, and allow the current unrest to fade away as we careen into the next national crisis?
Do we get serious about a national dialogue on perceived and actual prejudices within law enforcement, the judicial system and correctional institutes, or do we pretend the numbers aren’t there to justify action?
It isn’t enough to shout in unison that “Black Lives Matter” and expect change. We have to get beyond the slogans and hashtags and social media memes to the foundational humanity from which acceptance, compassion and mutual respect must spring.
If there is going to be change, then it will come as the result of a collective effort of diverse populations, not as the result of minority activism, legislative change or governmental dictate.
“If we want to move something, it takes everybody. When we’re all together, it’s better. It’s better together. It takes everybody sitting at the table so we can understand each other. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. And this is how we fight,” the Rev. Michael Thurmond said at Monday’s rally.
For the most part, Gainesville has seen the sort of coming together envisioned by the Rev. Thurmond, the Newtown Florist Club and local law enforcement. Our protests have not been uneventful. Limited criminal damage has been done and arrests have been made, but the willingness of community spirit has so far outshone the feeble dark light of those with evil intent.
The past week has shown us that despite how far we’ve come in the search for racial equality, we still have far to go. Yet it’s hard to see uniformed officers marching side-by-side with those protesting police brutality, to hear the articulate voices of young people of all races passionately engaged in the debate, to witness hundreds of individual acts of human kindness, and not believe there is still hope that, one day, together, we can get there.