For more than a week I've been trying to figure out how to put it. I've considered and I've pondered and I've searched, a luxury afforded to me based on my identity and distance from the situation. It is a luxury that I fear I've taken for granted for too long.
Still, I can't help but hold that honesty is the best policy, and so here it is: pure, unadulterated.
The day that George Floyd was killed, I was wearing a shirt. Novel concept, right? In fact, this shirt was not just any shirt, but was indeed a shirt I had purchased nearly three months prior in New York City, in a heartbeat before the world turned itself upside down.
On this shirt, just above the left hand breast pocket is a quote by Andy Warhol. Now, I've never been a huge Warhol fan, but something just struck me about the incumbent assertion of the quote: "Everybody has their own America, and they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can't see…"
I can't help but feel that the America I've seen rend itself apart over the last six months, and particularly over the last 12 days, is of Warhol's description: a story of many Americas and fantasy Americas.
That's not to say there's no empirical truth belying the situation, and that there aren't measured steps to take to meet that truth. That's not to say that racism and the tyranny of police brutality aren't real. The killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor make that fact only the more real. All three were brutally and unjustly slain, adding yet another chapter into the painful racial history of the United States. This is not something new, and that should frighten everyone.
Yet, as much as I believe George Floyd's killing pierced the veil of Warhol's many Americas, it also threatens to exacerbate the ugly racial truths that sit beneath the surface of our world. There are many ways to look at the killing (its straightforward detail notwithstanding) and the riotous response that it has affected in some spaces. There are many ways to look at the peaceful protest it has elicited as well.
From the standpoint of emotionality, there is every capacity to understand the draw, nay the need, to protest. There is every necessity to understand the difference between protest and violent riot. They are not one in the same, not in every facet. Yet, in the past days, I have often thought what my acute response would be if George Floyd was not simply my compatriot American, but rather someone that I knew intimately and loved dearly. I can only conclude that I would be as outraged as ever. Incensed. I can only conclude that I would likely seek to do harm to the officers involved, if only to save the life of my dying friend. I can only conclude that I would be as violent as ever, because that is the essence of self-defense, isn't it?
Now, that's not to write a blank check to those who have rioted and looted. That's not to dismiss the rancor and chaos as some simple cry seeking to morally and rightly redistribute wealth, as some radicals have suggested. Yet, as I've come to point out, a riot is not a faceless scream. It must be instigated by something, must be spurred on by some presence. People don't want to burn down their homes and businesses. With a global pandemic raging, I'm sure many people would like to be home, safe and sound, curled up and nodding off to the faint sounds of Netflix in the distance.
Yet, as Taylor's case and that of others have proven, for persons of color, even being home is not a guarantee of safety. Even the corner store is not safe. Even their own private vehicles, even staid and stationary, are not safe. When the world is not safe, and when the world does not listen to you, how else might you be heard?
As I've come to point out, some of the most fervent and patriotic rallying cries of the American Revolution could have, at the time, been dismissed as little more than senseless riots. As baseless colonial acts of aggression against a divine and righteous authority. Of course, in the present day we learn about such events as the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party as foundational cornerstones of the republic. As cries for justice.
History will be the judge, but who is to say whether the current moment will not be retroactively viewed with the same positive deviance?
Of course, functionally, the riots are not popular, nor are they an effective means of communication. Nor are they judicious in who they target, burning the dreams of black business owners as readily as white ones. Nor do they speak to the (largely white) middle Americans who seem to be the most distant from the anger and revolutionary zeal.
I realized that forcefully these last few days, wandering the sleepy hamlet of my childhood home. As I walked around this evening, I saw no signs of the trouble in the world beyond. People sat around campfires, talking, drinking, singing. Couples strolled the streets, hand-in-hand. Children sped up and down the cool, black asphalt on their bikes, laughing, playing, racing one another home. These people, if they are aware of the George Floyd killing might think it awful, but they are certainly not going to endorse a riot, not when there is no need for one in the immediacy before them. Not when, as they see it, avenues of justice are still being pursued. Not when, as they see it, it was just "one bad cop" or "a few bad apples."
The distance, the widening gulf between our many Americas, makes it difficult to have these conversations. Makes it all the more difficult to understand a whole host of issues, from police brutality to working-class economic anxiety. And as we bicker over the most righteous way to address modern racism, both in forms nebulous and starkly apparent, the moment slips ever away from us.
What is our own America? Where does the surrealism stop and we begin to live together in fraternal bond, oft sought, but never wholly fulfilled?
For 12 days I've been paralyzed with a sense of dread and hopelessness. Dread at the violence enacted against my fellow citizens by the authority most charged to keep them safe. Dread at the violence that citizenry has enacted in return. And hopelessness that despite all the bellowing and chest-pounding on both sides, this will only happen again. This will only happen again, and things will creep ever worse the next time.
Last night, something finally broke in my brain. I believe it had been a long time coming, but perhaps it was simply my body's rejection of the compounded misery of the present moment. I resolved myself to action. I put my money where my mouth is and donated to the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative, both organizations that are working to stem the terror of the current moment. I also donated to my hometown church for the first time in a long while, sending up a prayer for justice and healing that I know must come. I don't mention this to be boastful, but rather to say as much as I don't know, I'm supporting those who do, and I'm seeking out answers wherever I may find them.
In the coming days and weeks, I've come into my own as a college graduate, who amongst the strife of pandemic and protest and unemployment may not have a great deal individually to offer the world. And yet, I know I have to resolve to do more. To lend my voice, my pen, to supporting the cause of finally satisfying the call of that cherished Enlightenment motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Six months ago, I thought my life was headed in one direction. Now, it has turned to another. Six months from now, I don't know where I'll be. But I do know the direction that I must march, as my state's own motto and resolve decidedly put it: forward. Forward to a better tomorrow.