The year 2020 will be recorded in the history books as many things, none of them good:
Year of the Pandemic
Year of Quarantine
Year of the Fires
Year of the Floods
Year of the Riots
For just a little bit of context, this is what “civil” race riots looked like half a century ago:
After weeks of quarantine, after years of denial, after another incident, it all boiled over in America. Finally. May 25, 2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota, footage is taken of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8+ minutes after which he is declared dead. The footage goes viral within hours and tensions simmer, the Black Lives Matter organization rallies and stage protests the next weekend, many which end in violence. In downtown Minneapolis, citizens storm and burn the city’s police HQ. The unrest was mimicked across the country in dozens of protests, many also turning violent or destructive. The country has decided that the time to look the other way is over, there can be no further incidents of police brutality concerning race or any citizens in the country. Over the course of the next week public discourse and media outlets are focused on nothing but the incidents of the past weekend as protests continued in cities across the country. The differing news factions took their predictable sides: Fox supporting the President’s opinions calling the protesters “thugs and terrorists” and CNN siding with the activism, labeling it “revolutionary” By the following weekend, the majority of protests were peaceful despite citywide curfews declared in light of the chaos and vandalism that occurred. Some communities still experienced vandalism and looting despite efforts of civic leaders and protest organizers to keep their efforts focused and productive instead of destructive. This is the way events unwind when a sleeping dragon is released: fire and fury. Social change is messy.
Separate But Equal?
Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor are the names who protest movements have etched into history most recently, but they are the modern day descendants of Emmett Till, victims of the Tulsa Riots, and countless others slain in the brutal lynchings of the Jim Crow years. The white mobs have disintegrated from the scene of these modern lynchings only to be replaced by the institutionalized brutality of law enforcement. Additionally, the revisionist sterilization of the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s managed to erase the images of a police force using dogs and fire hoses on black crowds from many references such as textbooks. Authoritarian control had evolved once again to occupy an unquestionable position over society. One that up until now acted with impunity towards citizens when it came to matters of “law enforcement”, especially concerning minorities. The institutional excuse has always been, “But it’s only a few bad apples, the majority of police are benevolent public servants.” This point is rather hard to continue to make when incident after incident is recorded in states coast to coast of citizens suffering abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents. Most of us would agree that there are plenty of bad guys in the world, it falls to the police to take care of them. When some of these bad guys happen to be those we entrust with our security, then the cure can truly be worse than the harm. The past 20 years has seen an increasing militarization of police forces and SWAT units. Higher caliber weapons, riot gear, military tactical training, armored vehicles; you would think that our country already was at civil war. Are the streets really tougher? Are citizens really more violent and hostile towards one another and law enforcement? That is not a question that can be answered easily but certainly one that is being taken up by a multitude of causes and outlets at this time. At the core of the matter are many socioeconomic factors that include mental healthcare, economic disparities, educational quality, financial hierarchy and yes, race-relations among many others. To many, the fact remains that the United States of America has never grappled with its history; the foundation of our nation from revolutionary war and slavery. The genocides of a pre-existing race of peoples who once occupied the land. The rise of a system of exchange that favored the established elite. These are not easy conversations to have and many do not want to engage them or acknowledge the truth.
Revising Revisionist History
Monuments and statues are a tribute to history and those who helped shape it. The debate has raged for decades if not centuries over whether the Founding Forefathers should be looked upon as heroes or regarded with more honesty as slaveholders and elitist bourgeois of a foundling nation. Confederate Generals are memorialized through the South where they fought and lost a war to preserve slavery as a means of attaining economic prosperity for select families of white property owners. The Confederate Flag itself is seen as a symbol of oppression and racism to many while it is defended passionately by generations raised with a differing concept of its symbolism.
Regardless of the intentions behind their establishment, these monuments are under scrutiny from coast to coast which is resulting in their removal by crowds of protesters or city officials. Civil War Generals Lee and Sherman have seen their statues removed from public spaces along with Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to name a few. This has caused plenty of controversy and raised the ire of historians and everyday citizens who see them as icons of a national history which needs to be preserved, not vilified. Although the removal of these artifacts that not only symbolized the triumphs of our young country but also the systemic oppression of races is buoyed by the current passion of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are always alternative options to erasure. Even Fredrick Douglass had an opinion of one of these monuments which he dedicated himself, commenting that although it might have been construed as oppressive that, “There is room in Lincoln park for another monument.” Douglass was referring to the Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. which was funded by freed slaves and depicted Abraham Lincoln with a freed slave kneeling in broken shackles. Even then, with the wounds of the Civil War and slavery fresh, Douglass recognized both the frustration with America’s imperfections and the need to amend historical context instead of obliterate it.
The spirit of the moment may have caught us up. Just as those who were so fast to erect monuments to a failed revolution is it the right course of action to remove the vestige of that scar from our history completely? The arguments for and against this will rage for decades and centuries to come. Many see public spaces as bastions of solace and escapism, especially in stressful times when social interaction is limited to say the least. Does the strong argument that some of these monuments, particularly ones that appear to immortalize those on the wrong side of history, do more harm to society than good hold precedence over their educational and historical value? No single person can determine the truth between perceptions today or in 20 years. Most important will be in what regard will this time be looked at, as a turning point for our nation to reconcile its wounds or as another missed opportunity?
The Revolution Never Ends
Everyone knows that society does not change overnight, even the most progressive of them are imperfect at best. History has shown that oppressive societies tend to collapse due to revolution or their own self-defeating structures. As has happened for the last 200+ years America is undergoing social upheaval which, in the past, has almost alway resulted in the betterment of society. We’ve only had one true Civil War but we’ve fought on foreign soil in numerous wars to uphold our ideals of freedom and democracy. Conflict is the last means of change and it signals the unmaking of civility and order. What the summer of 2020 has seen is not only the testing of democracy’s control over the complex network of social order, but the emotions of generations of our ancestors again asking to be heard and urging us forward to evolve the Republic towards a better state. When the smoke has cleared and the protests have ended, we must see to it that the conversations continue and the dialogue is not wasted rhetoric.
Our history is unchangeable but our future is not. The struggles of the founders and those who worked and suffered to get us to this point laid the foundation of who we are and can become. Perhaps the most powerful form of activism is enlightenment. Creating a sea-change in culture and awareness in American history would honor both the past and educate the present as to where this country came from and what it can become. Mistakes along the way should ideally lead to a more well formed philosophy of where we are going and the significance of why the struggles were so important. There is something to be said in the fact that social change meant suffering and chaos without exception 50 years ago. As demonstrated, these unfortunate factors of protest remain primary tools, but the inception of art, literature, performance have also found their place. Social media has empowered the masses to congregate digitally in an age of pandemic risk and geographical isolation. In the end, violence will not be the hallmark of change, action through changing legislation and social awareness will facilitate progressiveness.
There is the saying that “The destination isn’t the important part of the trip so much as the journey itself.” If this is true, then we can truly say that the people who suffered to escape/abolish slavery, to vote, to own property, to sit with whites at diner counters, would see what we have today as success…but still just a stop along the way to a larger goal.