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MASKED AND MARCHING

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

June 25, 2020



Nobody can argue that this spring's Black Lives Matter protests accomplished a lot. But what’s now being called “virus superspread” is not one of those accomplishments, it appears.


Not all of the numbers are in yet, but it appears right now that, contrary to a lot of predictions, the mass demonstrations didn’t lead to a new infection spike after all. If true, it seems the reason for that could be that most protesters wore masks, and the protesting took place outdoors.


This virus is always surprising us, and once in a while the surprise is a good one.


Fascinating to consider that the protesters had no way of knowing in advance that the virus might just pass harmlessly over so many of them. Actually, they thought the opposite, as most of us did — that demonstrating in massive crowds, hour after hour, day after day, would inevitably lead to a surge in infections. And those amazing people did it anyway.


Starting on May 25, demonstrators representing more than 2,000 American cities and towns marched for more than 30 straight days and nights. In some places, the demonstrations have continued right up to and including June 19th, or Juneteenth.


American protests sparked protests against police brutality and racism around the globe. Paris, Tokyo, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Kenya, the Philippines, Jerusalem, Ankara, Belgium, Croatia, Ireland, Scandinavia, Poland, Mexico, the Caribbean, and hundreds more places held protests, marches, candlelight vigils and mourning demonstrations in the weeks following George Floyd’s death. They did it in support of us, and for their own reasons too, I’m sure.


Watching it all unfold on TV, I felt moved in the deepest way. I mean, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could come out of this with a world that really is cleaner, better, more just?


Is that a possibility?


In the U.S. and worldwide, the demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. Most of the violence that's taken place has been directed at objects, like buildings, or monuments to repressive eras, like the many statues commemorating the American Confederacy. These relics of a shameful past have been left all over our country, especially in the south, for about 150 years.


Where there has been violence this spring and early summer, much of it has been generated by police — who of course sparked the protests in the first place — and other authority forces. Yes, there was looting at the beginning and some other lawless acts by protestors, but those largely subsided at the urging of BLM leaders and supporters. That’s a blessing, since it looked at first like this could be a bloody time, more riot than peaceful protest.


I saw a statistic that made my heart break a little more, but showed me, too, why it was so important these protests have taken place. In 2019, many more African Americans were killed by police (250, of whom 14 were unarmed) than are estimated to have died during the recent protests (17 to date).


At the height of the uprising, in the first week or so of June, it almost seemed as if police were trying to show America how well-founded the protesters’ objections really were.


OK, sure, the police were shaken by the protests, and even by the Floyd video itself, which I don’t think anyone can watch dispassionately. Likely they were also likely alarmed and offended to find their job performance being critiqued online and on TV screens all over the country. Many cops are honorable. Many are not racist. I have a good many cop friends from an earlier era of my life, I've also had some positive contacts with individual officers who were good at their jobs and worked hard. So part of me was rooting for them to show everyone how different they were from Derek Chauvin and his buddies, and all the terrible ones. I wanted that for our sake as well as theirs! We, the People, absolutely did not need to see more horror, or have more cause for anxiety, than we already had in 2020.


Instead, at a time when it would have helped everyone in the country to see cops behaving peacefully and rationally, we kept seeing outbursts of rage. And then there are no excuses anymore. I am not a believer in de-funding police entirely but I will say now that we can't go on as we've been. Yes, most cops are good people. But there are murderers among them. And those murderers have been protected. And there is no defense for that.


Instead of trying to soothe the nation, now really and truly raw and freaked outbid — all of it, President Trump has actually contributed to the violence. On June 1, he ordered military police to throw tear gas at peaceful protesters so he could walk to a nearby church for a photo op.


The whole shameful episode, starting with his “I stand with you” speech to the demonstrators right before he gave the tear gas order, and ending with his beligerent, fake pose in front of “the church of the Presidents” while holding a Bible, will follow him through the rest of his term and surely beyond.


It displayed everything that’s so appalling about him — the arrogant belief that we can’t see through his groveling appeals to his base; his willingness to harm the American people; his eagerness to aggrandize his own image at any cost — all rolled into one brutal and pathetic act.


The protesters came in for criticism early on, because of looting in the first few days, fires being set and rocks being thrown, but they were protests, weren’t they? Of course I didn’t like it, no one does, but I do understand it. There was prolonged human suffering behind that pent-up rage. There was probably real poverty behind the looting, too. But whatever sparked them, those acts quickly subsided. The last few weeks of protests were peaceful to an extent that amazes me.


Considering the numbers involved, considering how justified the protesters’ anger was (wasn’t it an act of unjustified violence that launched the demonstrations?), considering how long that anger has been simmering (you can go back as far as you want, to the very earliest days of this nation — or you can just go back to 2012, when Trayvon Martin died at the hands of a white community watch volunteer who was then acquitted of his murder) — considering how pent-up society was, our anxiety about corona, the almost constant assaults on middle- and lower-income people in America in the age of Trump, many of whom are African American … well, considering all that, I almost can’t get over how non-violent the protests have been.


Even now, I’m so glad the protests happened and I’m proud of this country. Black Americans want fairness and justice, and they are entitled to demand it, because this is America and it’s promised to us all. I love that they're not the only ones demanding it. There are a lot of us out here wanting it for them — wanting this nation to live up to its own promises, and do so much better than it's done till now.


The fact that the protestors took to the streets during a pandemic, and stayed out there day after day, night after night, tells you how important it was for them to be heard. They could have waited — for the next incident, as there surely would have been one, or maybe until there was a vaccine. They could have turned out in smaller numbers, or gone home curfews after went into place. They could have continued looting — if for no other reason than that many people who were not poor when corona came are poor now, and those who were poor are now destitute.


Instead, they turned out and they stayed out. They stopped looting, they wore masks, they kept marching even with helicopters overhead and flash-bangs going off, and military police in the streets threatening to harm them, or actually charging at them and beating them and throwing tear gas at them and handcuffing them, because they are the ones with the billy sticks and tear gas and handcuffs.


I’ll never forget these 25+ days (and still counting). Much of our nation has been protesting and the rest, I hope, is doing all it can to make sure those demonstrations mark the point of real change.


Remember I’m writing this for posterity most of all. If I could, I’d reach ahead to future generations and say, “Inside the story of corona is the this other story, the one where a new era begins, one that started on Memorial Day 2020, when an indefensible act changed the course of America.”


I hope I actually get to say that someday.



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