Students protest segregation, Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s, 1960

Peace on the left, justice on the right

I tell you all this because what’s new is old to me. And I have a slightly different perspective on the events following George Floyd’s murder.

As long as I’ve lived, there have been two Americas. I knew this as a boy even though so many around me tried so hard to pretend it wasn’t so. I’m sure some others felt it, but because my parents, trade union organizers, fought relentlessly for a fair America, it was a reality they shared with me, their eldest. It didn’t often help me at P.S. 86, or J.H.S. 22. Teachers in the ‘50s were teaching America the Beautiful, especially when we kids were huddled beneath our desks, heads faced away from the large windows, clutching our dog tags so our parents, if they for some bizarre reason survived the Russian nuclear attack just a few blocks away in their apartments, would at least be able to sift through the ashes and identify their son or daughter among the remains of their neighbors’ kids — a tame reassurance.

I was reading about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Touissant L’Ouverture, and most of my friends weren’t reading. Thank God for our shared love of punch-ball and stickball and Skully. Growing up in a white working-class/lower middle-class neighborhood of the Bronx, the thugs, if you will, the presidential expression of the day, were all white. The bullies were white, the street gangs were white, and lucky for us, the weapons of choice were thick black leather Garrison belts and the occasional switchblade knife — no guns, semi-automatic or otherwise. In those blessed days, guns were reserved for the cops.

And I never forgot the story repeated many times in my neighborhood about one of those cops and one of those guns. In the 1950s Bronx, some stores had open front-facing windows with displays of gum, Mars bars and Three Musketeers, and large glass bowls filled with pretzel rods to tempt us as we walked past. Well, the temptation was too much for this kid — unfortunately black in a white neighborhood — and because he reached in and boosted a pack of gum without paying, he ended up with a bullet in his back — no cellphone video, no protest marches. In those days, for most white people in New York, New York, there were pretty much only a few tolerable blacks: Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers and Monte Irvin on the Giants. The kid was neither.

Pretty much all of my friends, and all of their families like mine, had little money. One friend’s father sold subway tokens in a little booth on the IND line; another friend’s father was the superintendent in the building across the street and he was reluctant to have us over to their tiny basement apartment. My parents, unlike theirs, were radicals, and I was taught a different America, marched atop my father’s shoulders in a May Day parade in Union Square.

Anyway, it took enough energy for my teachers — and of course in those days they were all women, many unmarried — to maintain the “Leave It To Beaver,” “Father Knows Best” unrelenting white optimism the Eisenhower years required. The last kid they needed in their class was a brat raising questions about the inequities of segregation and America’s overwhelming and wasteful and dangerous nuclear superiority — no surprise that I occasionally found myself on a chair by the principal’s office or forced to stay late and clean the chalk from the blackboard.

My discomfort with the six-hours-a-day torture of P.S. 86 and J.H.S. 22 earned me a trip, not to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science where smart white kids were sent to escape the worst of the melting pot, but to New York City’s maximum security version of high school: DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was home to many of the Bronx’s least adept white learners and large numbers of black kids sent north via bus and subway from Harlem. As an ironic result, we had a small minority of white kids, scared straight into excelling beyond their families’ wildest expectations, and some of the city’s most remarkable sports teams. Clinton raised some of the best point guards in all of basketball. My lousy grades meant I was put in classes with those the administration figured were lost causes, an act which enabled me to sit amongst some extraordinary black boys/men, who saved and changed my life. One of the smallest kids in the school, I’m sure the student bookies placed the odds of my surviving year one at close to zero. But my new friends protected me and I enthusiastically helped us all with homework.

So my experience varied greatly from others. I wasn’t afraid of black people. In my life I was more at threat from the Fordham Baldies, a white Irish gang known to roam the streets about a mile south.

When the brave black students of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee refused to get up from the white section of their North Carolina Woolworth’s, the issue of segregation once again penetrated the consciousness of the nation. I decided to hand out leaflets urging a boycott of my local Woolworth’s on Fordham Road. Of course, no one with ears in those days didn’t hear n* this and n* that, but there’s nothing like experiencing racism unleashed on a white 15-year-old for merely suggesting, in supposedly the most enlightened city in the north in 1960, that black people and white sit beside each other for lunch. Some would actually screech at me; some would move as far away on the sidewalk as they could. A few months later I found myself picketing in the East Bronx before a White Castle, another chain that was segregated in the South, and more white screams, eerily primitive, enraged, as if their very lives were threatened, white folks scared enough to throw luckily lukewarm coffee my way.

I tell you all this because what’s new is old to me. And I have a slightly different perspective on the events following George Floyd’s murder.

Devastated by the Birmingham church bombing just a bit after the glory of the 1963 March on Washington, I watched in 1965 as the Selma marchers were brutally beaten, ashamed and horrified. Many people have forgotten the precipitating event — the shooting death of unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson marching for voting rights in Marion, Alabama, that February — a killing that prompted Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to march to Montgomery, the state capital. The 600 nonviolent black marchers were viciously beaten, some unconscious; 17 were hospitalized.

SNCC’s John Lewis clubbed by Alabama state trooper, Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. Photo courtesy AP

Like some white Americans who watched that vicious travesty, I made my way south. I took a bus from City College, filled with my fellow students, white and black, to drive 24 hours to join the tail end of the Selma to Montgomery March.

There is no forgetting what happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as there will be no forgetting President Donald Trump’s Edmund Pettus moment. Many have tried to compare the events of today with 1968, the riots following the death of Martin to the looting following the death of George Floyd. But to me, the more apt comparison is to 1965. For me, it’s not about the buildings burnt, the actions of a small minority, but the renewed energy of a sometimes massive multiracial movement for social change.

Selma was both terrifying and exhilarating: terrifying to experience for a time the overwhelming force of racism — the armed Alabama State Police arrayed on both sides of us, proudly sporting their confederate flag patches in case anyone wanted to delude themselves into imagining they were peace officers. And yet it was exhilarating to experience the great appreciation of the black men and women of Montgomery on both sides of the streets of their neighborhoods, singing and cheering us on, they who knew the daily costs of racism and weren’t willing to surrender. I will never ever, forget the singing: “Oh Wallace, you never can jail us all. Oh, Wallace, segregation is gonna fall.”

The people of Montgomery cheering on the marchers. Photo: James Karales

I marched on knowing in my bones someone would die, hoping it wouldn’t be me.

Many of you never experienced hearing Martin Luther King Jr. in person. Well, “speak” doesn’t do justice to how he made words soar. Religion doesn’t quite do it for me, but I could listen to him preach for hours. And I did: in Washington in 1963, on Fifth Avenue, at City College, in Riverside Church, and later transcribing his sermons for SCLC. But in Montgomery, the air was electric, for it was crystal-clear the stakes were life or death. Despite everything, he made it a church, with a continuing call and response.

“They told us we wouldn’t get here” he emphasized. “And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’ …

“Montgomery was the first city in the South in which the entire Negro community united and squarely faced its age-old oppressors. Out of this struggle, more than bus desegregation was won; a new idea, more powerful than guns or clubs was born. Negroes took it and carried it across the South in epic battles that electrified the nation and the world …

“But not until the colossus of segregation was challenged in Birmingham did the conscience of America begin to bleed. White America was profoundly aroused by Birmingham because it witnessed the whole community of Negroes facing terror and brutality with majestic scorn and heroic courage. And from the wells of this democratic spirit, the nation finally forced Congress to write legislation in the hope that it would eradicate the stain of Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.

Once more the method of nonviolent resistance was unsheathed from its scabbard, and once again an entire community was mobilized to confront the adversary. And again the brutality of a dying order shrieks across the land. Yet, Selma, Alabama, became a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in its dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it. There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.” (Emphasis added.

It’s important to remember how central the right to vote was in this struggle, and such a necessary reminder as we approach the most important election in our lives.

“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote,” then launching into teaching us all that “the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.”

We live with the legacy of this cruel and deliberate strategy to pit poor white against poor black. A most recent study, “Deaths of Despair” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, notes its effectiveness: “As Jim Crow weakened, along with other forms of discrimination, working-class whites lost whatever benefits they got from it. More than half of white working-class Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while only 30 percent of white, college-educated Americans agree.”

So if you want to better understand MAGA, consider this: “for white men without a four-year degree, median earnings lost 13 percent of their purchasing power between 1979 and 2017. Over the same period, national income per head grew by 85 percent … Since the end of the Great Recession, between January 2010 and January 2019 nearly sixteen million new jobs were created, but fewer than three million were for those without a four-year degree. Only fifty-five thousand were for those with only a high school degree …”

One of the greatest strengths of Dr. King was his commitment to inspire, to lift all up. And Americans today would be wise to embrace and adopt his ethical and strategic commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience. Likewise, his deep understanding of how segregation and racism pitted poor whites against poor blacks provides an answer to those who offer up the slogan “All Lives Matter” as if it’s a response to “Black Lives Matter.” Martin Luther King Jr. knew better, and as he grew and learned along the way, he connected the dots between racism and colonialism, between Selma and Saigon, and developed an agenda for a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign. Allow me the presumption to suggest to those promoting “All Lives Matter” that they feed the white poor, organize an army of the white unemployed, demand a living wage and create an education system that prepares their young for the jobs of the near future — less talk and more action. Oh yeah, and work to create a police force that protects and serves us all.

In 2016, the British newspaper the Guardian counted and memorialized those Americans killed by U.S. police during that one year alone. It’s shocking to see the multicolored faces of 1,093, one after another.

It’s hard to know why one beating is ignored while another electrifies. God knows a horrifyingly and unending number of innocent black Americans have been killed by police. But like the beating of John Lewis and the savage attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the completely unnecessary, inhumane murder of George Floyd was just too much. It was inconceivable, unjustified times a thousand.

So the dam broke. To all those, like me, who wondered what indignity, what act of Trumpian malfeasance it would take to get people back into the streets, well, it was that egregious murder happening so quickly after the other murders that did it.

Still, there are two Americas. But I’m less interested in the oh-so-predictable Fox News, right-wing, Trumpian focus on the few lawless looters. Is it really surprising in the age of TV-fed super-charged materialism that the pissed-off and deprived might bust windows to get for free the watch that Roger Federer tells us is the best or the sneakers that enable LeBron to fly, made all the more easy now that the COVID mask is the perfect cover?

Not surprisingly, all the president could see was the presumption of all those demonstrators who seemed unable to appreciate how great he had made their America. All he wanted to talk about was not police violence that mobilized the many, but the inappropriate actions of the few:

Donald Trump tweet, May 29, 2020

What’s remarkable is the multiracial response in cities and towns across the nation, not to mention the support for equal justice all around the world. What’s also remarkable is the perseverance of the demonstrators, day after day, night after night. I know first-hand what it’s like to be clubbed, to be hemmed in by the horses, the night in jail. There is now another generation baptized with tear gas, to have endured being on the wrong end of the inappropriate violence of the police and the National Guard. Do not underestimate the bravery of going out there, not knowing whether the policeman/-woman who comes your way is just doing his or her job in the face of a terribly difficult situation, or is already over the edge, too angry and too pissed to do the job, much too ready and willing to punish you for challenging their authority.

The president began in the Rose Garden declaring he would re-impose order:

Law and justice statement by President Donald Trump, June 1, 2020

Donald Trump thought he’d teach these people a lesson. He thought he’d reincarnate Richard Nixon and reprise the law and order election of 1968. His delusionary and spoiled daughter Ivanka thought he’d inspire her Dad’s evangelical base by hoisting a Bible before boarded up St. John’s Episcopal Church, God-loving Donald Trump versus the atheist, thuggish, radical hoards.

But to make that short walk happen with the gravity it deserved and the presidential safety the Secret Service required, they decided to evict the thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park. So he and Attorney General Bill Barr sicced a variety of Federal agents on them, shooting pepper balls, and tear gassing, and smashing their shields into protestors and the press alike, riding their horses straight at them.

New York Times story ‘How Trump’s Idea for a Photo Op Led to Havoc in a Park.’

It was Donald Trump’s Edmund Pettus moment, and those images will be appended to any and every account of his presidency. He probably doesn’t understand that because there isn’t anyone smart enough left in his White House who understands how he cracked his up-to-now teflon “I can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” exterior. His call to send American troops to American cities, his call to answer looting with shooting, his pointless cruelty, his willingness to beat people to enact such a silly and inept photo op was so brazen and blasphemous that only the most craven could accept it.

A variety of federal officers readying to clear Lafayette Park. Image courtesy New York Times

The response was so undisciplined and so indiscriminately violent that victims included U.S. and foreign reporters. News7 from Australia reported that Seven Network reporter Amelia Brace and cameraman Tim Myers were beaten by police outside the White House: “Brace was clubbed with a truncheon and Myers hit with a riot shield while covering peaceful protests in Washington DC’s Lafayette Square on Monday.

“The beatings happened when police and National Guard units aggressively cleared the square to allow US President Donald Trump to pose for photos outside a church holding a bible. Brace and Myers were shot with rubber bullets and struggled to breathe after tear gas was fired at the crowd. Brace said they were ‘pretty bruised, but okay.’”

The great irony is that he has absolutely no law-and-order money in the bank. His brag that he could kiss any woman, grab her by the genitals, was captured on audio. Michael Cohen, his one-time consiglieri, held up before cameras during the Feb. 27, 2019, televised hearing of the House Intelligence Committee the president’s signed blackmail checks to porn star Stormy Daniels. One Trump cabinet official after another was forced to resign: EPA administrator Scott Pruitt was being investigated for his taxpayer-funded travel, and using taxpayer-paid aides to conduct personal errands. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left the Trump administration in January amid mounting federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest. Tom Price of Health and Human Services utilized insider trading to make money from Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd. Michael Flynn, national security advisor, lied about a $530,000 consulting contract to benefit Turkey, and was negotiating kidnapping a critic of Turkey’s authoritarian president from his Pennsylvania residence.

And of course, there are the many potential conflicts of interests of his children, the corrupt use of the Trump Foundation, and the exorbitant charges levied on his protection detail when they stay at Trump properties.

It’s hard to imagine convincing many of us that he truly cares about enforcing the law.

Here’s several examples of his epic fail. First, the IPSOS/Reuters poll:

IPSOS Reuters poll, June 2, 2020. Image courtesy IPSOS

And a Morning Consult poll comparing changing American attitudes about the protests:

Morning Consult poll, June 5, 2020. Image courtesy Morning Consult

To fully appreciate this data, go back only as far as 2016 and look at the racial divide about policing. The Cato Institute declared: “Although 64% of Americans overall have a favorable opinion of their local police, only 40% of black Americans and 59% of Hispanic Americans agree. In contrast, white Americans have a much more favorable (68%) perception of the police in their communities. This striking divide across racial and ethnic groups’ attitudes toward the police particularly merits additional investigation … Republicans (81%) are far more favorable toward the police than independents (59%) and Democrats (59%). Nevertheless, majorities of all three groups share a favorable view.”

2016 Cato Institute criminal justice survey. Image courtesy Cato Institute

What we are witnessing is an extraordinary sea change in attitude, in consciousness, a remarkable willingness of white Americans to appreciate what policing has felt like for people of color. There is nothing like experiencing first-hand the overreaction to peaceful action, the tear gas, the pepper spray, the out-of-control anger of a police officer, the sting of the baton, the indignity of being bullied by someone whose salary you’ve been paying, the betrayal of our public servants. Finally, the cries of black and brown and Native American victims of out-of-control policing, ignored and unheard for decade after decade, are now broadcast for all to hear, ignored only by the tone-deaf.

Let me offer the words Martin Luther King Jr. left us with in Montgomery, Alabama:

“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgment to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy of brotherhood, the normalcy of true peace, the normalcy of justice.

And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering in many of the black belt counties of Alabama, many areas of Mississippi, many areas of Louisiana. I must admit to you that there are still jail cells waiting for us, and dark and difficult moments. But if we will go on with the faith that nonviolence and its power can transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, we will be able to change all of these conditions.

“And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. (Emphasis added.)

“I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take’” …

“I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’
How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’
How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’
How long? Not long:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
How long? Not long, because:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.”

And finally the call of George Floyd’s brother, Terrence, in Minneapolis, standing on the spot his brother died, addressing the actions of the few who were destroying local businesses: “’That’s not going to bring my brother back’ … So let’s do this another way … Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter and vote.”

As NBC News reported: “Terrence Floyd cried and knelt in prayer. He offered the crowd amassed around him the family’s hopes for peaceful protests and additional arrests in connection with his brother’s death. And he ultimately led the crowd through a series of chants, including ‘Peace on the left, justice on the right,’ as if to say the two must go hand in hand.”

And so I, as I have since I began picketing my local Woolworth’s, continue to believe deeply in fighting for peace with my left hand and justice with my right, in the power of nonviolent civil disobedience.

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Sources

https://7news.com.au/politics/seven-news-attack-raised-with-us-govt-c-1075325

Trump Team’s Conflicts and Scandals: An Interactive Guide
March 14, 2019, Bloomberg
https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/trump-administration-conflicts/

New Era of Public Safety: A Guide to Fair, Safe, and Effective Community Policing © 2019
https://civilrights.org/wp-content/uploads/Policing_Full_Report.pdf

‘Deaths of Despair’ shines spotlight on the growing divide between the wealthy and the working poor
Book Review, Mickey Friedman, May 30, 2020, The Berkshire Edge
https://theberkshireedge.com/book-review-deaths-of-despair-shines-spotlight-on-the-growing-divide-between-the-wealthy-and-the-working-poor/

The Counted: People killed by police in the U.S.
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database

“Reuters/Ipsos Poll: Civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing”
A majority of Americans support peaceful protests and demonstrations, many are sympathetic to demonstrators
June 2, 2020
https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/reuters-ipsos-civil-unrest-george-floyd-2020-06-02

“Backing for Military Presence at Floyd Protests Declines as Support for Demonstrations Grows” Morning Consult, June 5, 2020
https://morningconsult.com/2020/06/05/police-protests-national-guard-military-poll/

Policing in America: Understanding Public Attitudes Toward The Police
Emily Ekins, Cato Institute, Findings from the 2016 Cato Institute Criminal Justice Survey.
https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/survey-reports/pdf/policing-in-america-august-1-2017.pdf

“George Floyd’s brother calls for end to violence”
Janelle Ross, June 1, 2020, NBC News
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/s-not-going-bring-my-brother-back-george-floyd-s-n1221306

“Our God is Marching On!”
Martin Luther King Jr., March 25, 2020
https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching