I recently heard someone compare the challenge of eradicating a virus such as smallpox to the challenge of eradicating an attitude such as racism. The first is sometimes doable; the other is not. So where does the near universal support for the current cry to eradicate racism take us?
One of my concerns is that some people view the direct actions of the 50s and 60s as failures. The goal of the era was to improve the lot of black people and progress was made. Public accommodations opened up to black people; schools were desegregated; voting rights were achieved. Resistance was massive, lives were lost, but progress was made. In fact, we even made headway in achieving the even more lofty goal of creating a society in which people could be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Could it be counterproductive to deny the success of prior efforts to achieve equal rights for all? In my humble opinion, the answer is yes. Here’s why this worries me. If we cannot acknowledge the progress we made, can we acknowledge any progress short of perfection today? But more than that, we need to acknowledge past progress in order to learn how that progress was achieved and craft goals for today. We will not end racism. To me, that’s a given; it distresses me that it’s a slogan.
The effort to reform policing is in the middle of a generational change. If successes cannot be acknowledged, we cannot learn from them. My city has a mess at its core today. Protesters have created a “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone” in which no police are allowed. A few days ago, police had barricaded an area around a precinct station fearing it would be the target of violent protesters. Protesters repeatedly stood at these barriers toying with the police. Occasionally, things happened and police responded with crowd control tactics – which brought howls of “police brutality” and demands for police to cease use of any of the crowd control options.
The protesters won that battle. The police more or less abandoned the precinct; it was boarded up, barriers placed around it, and the street was opened up. Now, new barriers exist, put in place by the protesters. We can still not drive through that intersection. The autonomous zone has created its own gated community, hence safe. No police needed. Well, duh. Police are rarely needed in any gated community. This is not progress.
Perhaps you have developed expert negotiating skills over the years. Perhaps you pride yourself on your mediation successes. If so, please send your resume to Seattle’s mayor, currently being targeted by protesters for not controlling the police. Here are the demands of the Collective Black Voices of Free Capitol Hill (aka, the autonomous zone). I wish you luck should you get the job of trying to reconcile these demands with the reality of governing a large community. Let me know how it goes.
PS: Friends, I know that many of you are more optimistic than I am. I hope your views are rewarded with progress that you will find satisfying. I’m sad. I’m discouraged. I hope I learn that I should have been more optimistic.