Look back and weep

Look back and weep

by Michell Marshall

Orcas Island

I feel an urge to share my reactions to recent events. As with so much else involving race, “it’s complicated.”

People my age are reminded of the chaos of the 1960s, which was shaped by dissension over Viet Nam as well as the civil rights marches and the riots of 1965-68. This year’s chaos also reflects many things: numerous killings during recent years of unarmed black Americans, economic inequality of the one percent and the 99 percent, tensions over impeachment, a coronavirus that has killed a disproportionate number of black and brown people, and a huge recession that also disproportionately impacts people of color. Unfairness can bring a society to a tipping point.

Back in February, we saw a video of an unarmed black jogger in Georgia being shot by vigilantes. Just a few weeks ago, an unarmed black woman – an EMT in Louisville — was shot (eight times!) after police stormed into the wrong apartment. And we saw a video taken in Central Park of a woman arguing with a black man (he asked her to put her dog on a leash), and she threatened to dial 911 and tell them she was being harassed by a black man. All this fits a pattern familiar to black Americans, and when I saw the Minneapolis police officer’s knee on the neck of a dying black man, I knew things would explode.

I very much appreciated the recent posting from San Juan County Sheriff Krebs, expressing his sadness that “the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve are once again strained to the breaking point” after years of work attempting to repair those relationships.

I don’t really know Sheriff Krebs, but over the years I have had numerous interactions with the Orcas deputies, and they have always been responsive and helpful to me. They took action when a woman twice harassed me with racial epithets. They helped a group of us business owners to focus on neighborhood problems. And yes, they also have stopped me and, with humor and respect, counseled me about the virtues of driving not quite so fast.

I contrast that with my son Nick’s experiences in Seattle. Once he was taking a break outside the building where he works when he was suddenly detained by two policemen looking for a robbery suspect. He invited them to go inside and verify with his coworkers that he had been in a meeting. The ranking cop refused and instead held Nick while his co-workers looked on. Later the junior officer apologized to Nick and told him he didn’t really match the description they had been given, other than being black. There are good cops and bad cops.

Nick lived for awhile in a prosperous, overwhelmingly white Seattle neighborhood. He was frequently stopped by the police while he was just out for a walk. Should he blame the cops? Or the neighbors who probably had called the cops?

Last winter I was walking with my son in downtown Seattle, when an elderly white man fell, right in front of us. Nick asked him, “May I help you up?” Later, I asked why he hadn’t just helped the man up, as I would have. He explained that some folks might be alarmed when approached by a tall young black man. That is a lesson he learned from life, not from me.

I am fortunate to live on Orcas, even though there is racism here. But I am much more concerned about the lack of communication between races, and about race. It can be an uncomfortable topic.

I love this community. But I also came to feel that there was something missing: a cultural gap. Three years ago I formed Woman in the Woods Productions, in order to bring to Orcas performances by highly talented people of color — artists who might help promote a better understanding and appreciation of racial and cultural differences through various forms of artistic expression. We have held 8 events so far, and the feedback has been very rewarding.

I remember two years ago when Marc Bamuthi Joseph was taking questions from our audience after a wonderful evening of performance, music and poetry. Someone asked about his teenage son growing up in America. Mr. Joseph (who is now VP of Social Impact at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC) shared in thoughtful detail “the talk” he had with his son when he got his driver’s license: if you’re stopped be courteous, keep both hands on the wheel, no sudden moves, etc. During the days that followed, several people told me how powerfully that had struck them.

I grew up in a household that honored the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, the second black American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His core teaching was to press for desegregation and voting rights through nonviolent protest.

Dr. King once observed that “riots are the language of the unheard.” The time for being heard is not after riots break out, the time for dialogue is every day before then. Today, a few police departments use focus groups and task forces to listen, and then better train their officers. Our fellow Islander Norm Stamper wrote a book that drew upon his experience as a police chief to advocate a model of community policing that builds stronger relationships with the community and makes policing more credible and more effective.

All that is hopeful, and it has been interesting to watch police chiefs and their officers embrace peaceful protesters and take a knee with them. But I also watched a protester say, “Peace, but not patience”. For things to change, leaders must work hard to drive change, because patience can allow momentum to dissipate, as it has so often in the past and is likely to do in the future.

Ironically, Dr. King’s life of preaching peaceful, non-violent protest ended with his violent assassination in early 1968. That dizzying year also saw the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and in November Alabama Governor George Wallace, a segregationist actually won 5 states and 13.5% of the popular vote in the 1968 Presidential election.

Now, 52 years later, my husband and I discuss whether things have really changed since the ‘60s. He points to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, lots of big cities have elected black mayors and members of Congress. Boston once was known for racial tension, but recently Massachusetts had a black governor. And a black president.

Yeah, but — a few months ago I was talking with my 92-year-old mother, who grew up in rural Arkansas when that state was mostly segregated. I mentioned to Momma something in the news that was bothering me. “Nothing has changed”, she said sadly. “Nothing has changed.”

I wish I could talk to my father, but before he died he left us a memoir about his difficult experiences growing up in Texas, serving in the Navy, and working as the first and only black engineer at Boeing. Sadly, he entitled it “Look Back and Weep.”