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MARCHING ON

It's starting to feel like 2020 may be too much to bear.

After George Floyd's death, I sort of crumpled. I wrote here about how his death gutted me. I’ve also rejoiced here about how support sprang so high afterward for the BLM movement, all over the world, for protecting people of color against police brutality, for ending racism in all its hideous forms. It almost feels like this awakening happened all in a gush — and now look, we have a female Vice Presidential candidate of mixed race.


Last night was the second night of the Democratic convention. I saw some of my favorite people on that strange virtual telecast, a pandemic-era non-convention that feels to me like a long and awkward commercial for liberalism. I’m starting to get — I don’t know what the right word is, goofy maybe, for people I see all the time on TV, who talk about things that matter to me, who give me the idea day after day that hope isn’t lost.


Look at all of us out here who still care, they say to me, masks on their faces as they report on the White House lawn or from the halls of Congress. We’re still fighting. We’re fighting with you.


Am I fighting?


I’m exhausted, and traumatized. I still can’t watch the video of George Floyd’s death but nor can I forget it what I’ve heard about it — or even just the fact that it happened, in daylight, with witnesses. That no one could or did step in and stop it. I can’t get past it. I’m still writing about it now, here, because this is supposed to be a truthful chronicle of a historic time. And that’s my truth today.


I can’t get it out of my mind.


I think about Breonna Taylor, the African American EMT in Louisville, KY who was also murdered by police. Her summer birthday has now come and gone. One of the officers who shot her was fired in June, but no one has been arrested or charged in the five months since she died.


Breonna memorial. Photo: Sam Upshaw, Jr./Courier Journal


I think like a lot of white people, I’m just now getting it. So many of the world’s atrocities are spoken of casually. We’ve all heard the phrase “killed while in police custody.” I’ve never stopped and thought long about it, I’m sorry to say. I must have believed such killings were rare, or occurred while police were trying to stop them. I must have thought prisoners killed one another and perhaps it was gang- or drug-related or …?


I’ve never been in jail or even in police custody, police haven’t come to my door in the middle of the night on a “no-knock warrant” (the very phrase sounding so hair-on-fire unconstitutional to me that I’m amazed it’s apparently used with very little cause? As it was in Breonna’s case). But I’ve had a fair amount to do with law enforcement for other reasons, and yes, there was the time I was pulled over after my best friend beside me said, “Watch, you’ll get pulled over because there’s a black man in your car.” I’d never been pulled over till that day. Not only was I pulled over but officers commanded me through a bullhorn to stay in my car with my hands on the steering wheel. They ran my license plate while screaming at me not to move. I hadn’t been speeding — to this day I have no idea why they pulled me over except, as my friend said, I had a black man in my car.


Adding to the outrage of this, with irony on top, was the fact that I was driving him to take the San Francisco sheriff’s exam. Which he passed, by the way — after the police had impounded my car (my registration was three days overdue), left me on the in a strong neighborhood miles from home with not enough money for cab fare, and rushed him to the exam.


In the company of this same friend, I have been followed by plainclothes security in stores. More irony, since he and I had often teamed up to confront shoplifters at the retail store where we worked. More than once, he actually took off on foot after our store was ripped off, a great runner capable of catching up to any thief (once, even a taxicab the guy had jumped into!), not once returning without the stolen merchandise.


For that and a lot of other reasons, I never doubted that police were racist (not all police), just as many other authority figures were also racist (not all of them) — just as America as a whole is racist. We’re a nation built in part by slave labor, and we have not shed that history — none of us have. Those who immigrated here long after slavery had been officially abolished still participated in social customs that were racist; they still do today. Every American is marked by our slave past in some way.


I’ve studied and written a lot about this subject and have lived according to a personal code, established in childhood, that I could be close to anyone, could like or dislike anyone, based on who they were and not on skin color, religion or anything bigotry might find a footing on. I’ve known a lot of people like me, of all ethnicities and backgrounds. They try not to practice prejudice. They’re serious about it. WE are serious about it. We try to be honest about what we see around us and inside us. Racism and other forms of prejudice are everywhere. We ourselves are guilty of it sometimes. But we try not to be.



Then came George Floyd and I learned I have not really understood at all.


Like so many others, I’ve been shattered by COVID-19, by what has happened to our democracy under this President, by all the filth and wrongdoing of these last four years — the Russian election interference, the Trump Crime Family, the tax cuts for the wealthy, the gluttony and grandiosity, all of it. By the time we got to George Floyd a lot of us were already in rough shape. The outrage was turning to despair and on the other side of despair was … what? Resignation? Something unheard of, something we could feel ourselves approaching, like the edge of a waterfall you can’t see beyond.


Knowing what “killed in police custody” actually looked like, sounded like, exactly how long it took, has harmed our collective soul so badly we don’t know how to get up from it. Anyway, I don’t. I can’t speak for everyone.


But people did get up, and they marched for weeks on end — some are still marching. Right this minute, about 40 people are marching from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., aiming to cover 30 miles a day and arrive on August 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Demonstrators braved tear gas, rubber bullets, police batons and a pandemic to demonstrate day after day for weeks, starting on May 25, the day George Floyd was killed by a police officer for attempting to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.


I think no one can get over it, even though we are all bone-weary of tragedy from COVID. Or maybe because of that.



This year feels Biblical. The plague, the uprising, blistering heat and flooding and even a killer windstorm in Iowa this week. We can’t think straight.


But I think when 2020 is over (though it feels like it never will be), maybe we’ll be glad we were able to summon outrage for what white people finally understood what has been happening to black people for so long. We needed to see and hear it. God forgive us, we didn’t or couldn’t understand until that video was put in front of us.


I’m trying to write the story of coronavirus until the end of 2020, or a vaccine is found, whichever comes first. I didn’t plan on George Floyd. Or Breonna, or losing John Lewis, or any of the other markers of a year when I finally saw what I hadn’t seen before about my fellow humans, both white and black.

Red paint was thrown at this billboard in Louisville, KY.


Most days lately it really feels like I can’t keep going with this. The only thing that keeps me at it is how we are all going through it together: the ones who show up for work in the ICUs, the ones who deliver our mail, those 40 marching from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., and those of us trying just to write it down or take pictures of it or whatever because someday people will want to know what all this horror was like.


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