It has been an awful and amazing two weeks – a time of reckoning that is long overdue, a time of coming together that, despite the tragic circumstances, has been enlivening. What is so remarkable is that the Black Lives Matter protests have been nested within a larger, unprecedented trauma, the pandemic. I have found the protests riveting and inspiring, and the brazen police brutality enraging. The outpouring has issued a call to all of us, especially white people, to look beyond the engrained American norms that have made life so dangerous and demoralizing for people of color.
Anthropologist/activist David Graeber sees the spontaneous protests as part of a larger movement. As he put it in a tweet: “Direct action and social movement are about the re-creation of society. Society has been taken from us. There has been a 40-year campaign to destroy attachments unmediated by the state or capital. This is the only way to start rebuilding it.” We are witnessing a re-convening of the American people and their ideals.
However, the pain of history is not past, as Faulkner once said. That's because the past is not really past. It is very much with us, internalized, in the present. Thanks to the protests, triggered by a brazen murder carried out by an agent of the state and circulated on social media, a deeper shift in consciousness has begun. It is now clear that there are really no bystanders. We are all implicated, particularly those with white privilege. As the artist Banksy put it, “At first I thought I should just shut up and listen to black people about this issue. But why would I do that? It’s not their problem. It’s mine.”
This very idea enrages President Trump, whose denial is manifest in countless deflections and vile insults aimed at protecting white supremacy. Thankfully, history is not trending in his direction. Already major corporations and even the National Football League, the long-time nemesis of “take a knee” quarterback Colin Kaepernick, now publicly support Black Lives Matter. The burden has visibly shifted to white people to look within themselves and take affirmative steps for change.
How refreshing, too, to see ordinary people assert a new vision of history in real time! Citizens have spontaneously toppled statues honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. In Bristol, England, a crowd threw the statute of 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston – responsible for selling more than 84,000 Africans into slavery -- into the harbor.