From New York to Atlanta; San Diego to DC. Nearly 40 cities are facing protests, many of them violent, that haven’t been seen for decades. Fire erupted in the basement of St. John’s Church in Washington as helicopters hovered over a city that has become a war zone.
For a sixth straight day, the violence and vandalism has escalated — all of it in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer while three others stood by.
We’ve seen this too many times before: blatant racism by police; reactive violence. What makes this different is instead of hopeful leadership we get a hapless chief executive who watches TV, blames, provokes, and justifies an executive order labeling a protest group terrorists.
“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2020
I don’t know if ANTIFA (anti-fascist) has any responsibility in all the hate-inspired violence and, lacking clear and compelling evidence, I don’t think Washington knows what specific groups are involved either.
Here’s what I do know.
Instead of pleas for calm and order, we get dissension. Instead of words of healing, we get a president who is utterly out-of-touch with reality.
In examining the racial tension, Roxanne Gay wrote in The New York Times, “There is no vaccine for white supremacy.”
I would take it a step further. There is no vaccine for intolerance.
So, how can we recover from this current fever.
“We the people.”
The first three words of the Preamble of the United States Constitution articulate that the people are the ultimate authority. Although we entrust political leadership to carry out our will, we are ultimately responsible for the direction of the country.
While supporters cling to their First Amendment rights, they forget that that same Amendment states that when in dispute, “[the] right of the people [to] peaceably… assemble,” is assured.
While we have the right to freedom of speech, that speech comes with responsibility, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes made clear (Schenck v. United States):
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
I would argue that words that provoke violence, justify hate, and promote division “create a clear and present danger.” And when those words come from the President of the United States, that danger is multiplied.
Former New York governor, Mario Cuomo said, “Outrage is easy, cheap and oversold. The nation needs less anger and more thoughtful reflection, less shouting and more listening, less dissembling and more honesty.
“We cannot afford to revert to a world of ‘us against them,’ whether the divide is economic, racial, regional, or philosophical. It is the one great idea that is indispensable to realizing our full potential as a people.”
When a video showed New York City police kneeling with peaceful protestors, Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted, “This is how change begins.”
Absent national leadership, it’s up to state governors, mayors, local leaders… ALL of us to step back from the easy and cheap, and thoughtfully look for collaborative solutions.
The question before us is the same today as it was when Dr. King wrote these words: “Where do we go from here, chaos or community?”