We hear you. Now calm down.
This is what city, state and national government have been saying to protesters across the country. This is what they’ve been offering. Sympathy without action.
Here’s why it’s not enough.
The original sin in this country is racism. You know this, but we have to repeat it. Racism begat slavery, the calling card of a crusade to invalidate universal human rights.
This nation has many other sins to go with our many reasons for celebration, but we remain hobbled by this goddamn apple that we not only bit, we swallowed whole.
Yes, we. We are all carrying the weight of those who made this mistake. Some must bear it differently than others, but it affects us all. My ancestors arrived in this country approximately 125 years ago. I still bear it.
Ahmaud Arbery. Christian Cooper. Tony McDade. George Floyd. These are only a few of the latest manifestations of the original sin.
With all of this as backdrop for the protests, the power structure in this country cannot simply respond with “We hear you. Now calm down.”
When I raised this on Twitter, some people replied, “What are they supposed to do?” And my answer is: More. More ideas for training. More ideas for policy. More soul searching. More something.
Because what’s happening isn’t enough.
If you can’t think of something to try, you’re not trying. And the protestors, particularly the afflicted, are owed your best effort.
If you are silent on proactive steps in response to the issues being raised, you are failing.
Here in Los Angeles, there has been improvement over the past century in the treatment of people of color. There is also, without any shred of doubt, more to be done. So what is the message? What has the LAPD said it will do in response to the issues raised by the protests? What have the mayor or city council offered to move the discussion forward? And to whatever extent there have been ideas, are they being expressed loudly enough?
Here are the six most recent press announcements on the mayor’s website, as of 9 a.m. today.
How, if you’re a protester, can you feel anything but ignored?
Our leaders must do more. For crying out loud, announce a task force or town hall — the easiest and often most hollow gesture in the world — but put that on TV at dinnertime instead of these endless press conferences that don’t get anywhere near the core of the problem.
You want to defuse the violence? Offer something more than violence in return.
The most extreme message to protesters came Monday from the White House, a sight that left me trembling with fury.
American citizens were assembled peacefully and exercising their constitutional rights. They were behaving exactly the way leaders have told them to behave. “Stay away from violence, and we’ll listen.”
We then watched the government attack them. An orchestrated, unprovoked attack.
How can you support firing tear gas against people who have done nothing more than assemble?
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) June 1, 2020
In that moment, the President of the United States showed that you don’t have to be guilty of a crime to be vulnerable to his use of force. You only have to disagree with his politics. It was, by definition, an anti-democratic, authoritarian action.
If you’re a protester, how can you possibly believe your work is done?
If you see members of the press being assaulted by police for nothing more than existing, how can you believe your work is done?
And the crazy thing is, when officials simply join in the conversation, the response is positive. We’ve seen cases where the mere act of law enforcement taking a knee or marching with the protesters, instead of fighting them, has been met with warmth and celebration. I’m not suggesting that singing folk songs will heal our national wound, but it couldn’t be more obvious that conversation is a better strategy than confrontation.
Over the past week, the overriding message is that the protesters need to change their behavior. There is little indication from law enforcement that it needs to change. There may be some cities where change is needed more than other cities, but there is no city where protests are taking place where more can’t be done.
The prevailing signal is that arresting Derek Chauvin is enough. It’s not.
In case you were wondering, I’m not ignoring unprovoked crimes by citizens. Looting, to use that term loosely and non-politically, has gotten out of control. It’s obvious many people are taking advantage of a national existential crisis simply to steal or worse, rather than make a political statement. It’s obvious that this is causing harm to people who, even accounting for the original sin, deserve better. I might be wrong in some cases, but I believe that those who commit looting as a political act are prepared to pay a political price for that. The rest are shamefully exploiting the pain of others.
But the looting didn’t come first. The original sin came first. George Floyd came first. The protesters came first. They deserve the first response.
It is not my place to speak for those most deeply hurt by racism in this country. In fact, I am not speaking for anybody. I am only speaking for myself, based on what I observe.
People deserve more than “We hear you — now calm down.”