By Michael Saltz
The events of the past couple of weeks have been as momentous as any in the past four years with the possible exception of the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America. For the first time, it feels like it may be the beginning of the end.
Since the day after George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, protest marches by tens of thousands of people of all races in 400 or so cities and towns in all 50 states have been ongoing with their cries of “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter”. Protests about American injustice have been mounted around the world, not just about George Floyd but about conditions in their own countries.
Yes, there were also people who were committed to creating mayhem but serious as these incidents were, as much publicity as they got, the numbers of people involved were minuscule compared to the vast majority of protesters. It wasn’t ever clear who the looters and bombers were, what color they were and who interests they thought they were serving.
It may have served what the President conceives of as his interests to threaten to sic “vicious dogs” among other weapons on all protesters, to militarize the federal government’s response to civil protest and the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights, and to generalize the threat of “terrorists” as characterizing the protests. I couldn’t help but hear echoes of Bull Connor and the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a not so long-ago time. Regardless, it didn’t serve the interests of George Floyd, the black community or the majority of white Americans, who have decided that enough is enough, that systemic racism, particularly when it comes to the treatment of black Americans at the hands of police, must end.
As the week went on, there seemed to be fewer incidents of riotous behavior accompanying the protests. Daytime marches seemed to be almost universally peaceful and growing in numbers of participants, with ever decreasing numbers of bad actors only coming out at night.
As we watched on television, Attorney General Barr’s unidentified mounted federal troopers shoved peaceful protesters back accompanied by flash bang grenades, rubber bullets, and tear and/or pepper gas. Reporters were shoved and arrested. The more peaceful demonstrations seemed to be, the remaining few incidents of violence seemed to be committed by police.
At long last, Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis (ret), Trump’s former Defense Secretary, denounced the behavior of the president, and the threat he poses to America’s constitutional form of government. Former Trump Chief of Staff, General John Kelly (ret), quickly endorsed Mattis’s condemnation. While we cheered Kelly’s decision, it was easy to forget that he had overseen the abhorrent separation of immigrants and their children at the border without any visible objection.
It’s easy to say of both of men that their condemnation of Trump was too little, too late. One can only wonder what might have happened to that impeachment vote if they had spoken up when they had the clear opportunity to do so. Might they also have felt that there was a legitimate 25th Amendment case that could have been made? Would their objections to Trump, along with the concurrence of hundreds of other former security and military officials, have given Senate Republicans any more backbone than they have shown in the past few years? Sad to say, there’s no reason to think so.
In his eulogy for George Floyd on Thursday, Rev. Al Sharpton announced another March on Washington for August 28th, the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. The day after the announcement, my wife and two of her friends made plans to join in the march. Given the way listed hotel prices in the DC area seemed to increase overnight, they’re in good company.
Watching Sharpton’s eulogy, I was reminded of the few other services in black Christian churches that I have witnessed over the years. Whether funerals or calls to action by Martin Luther King, the tone, the atmosphere has always been hopeful. The idea that there should be/can be/will be a better days in this life so different than in white Christian churches where a better life requires waiting for one’s death.
It would be silly of me to try to convince anyone who believes otherwise that systemic racism exists in America, most obviously throughout the justice system. There will certainly be whites who say that it isn’t true, that, if anything, blacks have greater privileges than they do. Yet, ask them if they would trade their life with that of a black person. As Sharpton said, “get your knee off our necks.”
Slipping by, almost unnoticed over a thousand people are dying every single day from Covid-19, a number that doesn’t seem to be decreasing. Indeed, even before the protests began, the number of people infected with the virus were increasing by significant amounts. It’s too soon to know if the number of deaths will start increasing. And it’s too soon to know if the massed protesters of the past week will result in increased numbers of Covid cases not to mention deaths. Neither the protests nor the virus seems on the verge of disappearing.
There was some good economic news and some bad economic news. 2.5 million people have apparently been re-employed. 1.9 million more people have become unemployed. And though Trump was, apparently, thrilled with the news saying that it was great for black people, the net number of unemployed black people actually increased during the period. Trump said it was a “great” day for George Floyd. It was not. George Floyd was dead and has no more days, no more good days or bad days.
One thing black people know is that having a job is not a cure for having a knee on your neck. I’ll be frank: I don’t know what it will take for black Americans to be fully free. One thing that I do know is that no one is fully free, no white person is truly free as long as he knowingly or unknowingly has his knee on someone else’s neck.
I also know that as long as Trump is president and as long as Republicans control the levers of government, real systemic change is not possible. Trump has certainly demonstrated that. But Republicans have demonstrated that time and time again for decades, at best giving as little ground as they had to and reversing it whenever they could.
Not to be forgotten in this two week period, is that a couple of days after George Floyd’s murder, members of the G-7, our supposed Western allies began finding excuses not to attend Trump’s G-7 meeting, in which he wanted to include Putin. I can recall no similar event in my lifetime. Clearly, while Trump has been shouting his MAGA slogan, he’s surrendered the role of “leader of the free world.” His preference for dealing with dictators is clear. His decision on Saturday to start removing US soldiers from Germany is a clear indication that his intent is to abandon America’s longtime allies in Europe just as he has indicated his intention of abandoning our allies in other parts of the world. America may or may not be Great Again, but it is increasingly alone.
While mentioning recent events, Joe Biden came out from his basement to deliver his rebuke to Trump’s Rose Garden law and order speech. At last. To me, it signals the real commencement of the 2020 election. Maybe this time Trump and his Republican allies will have met their match. It’s not that Biden and the Democrats are necessarily so wonderful. It is that Trump and his cohorts, silent or not, have lit the torch for their own self-immolation.
While talking of things beginning, like the movement towards a more just society and police accountability, let me note another commencement, that of my twin granddaughters’ graduation from middle school and entrance into high school. Knowing them as I do, they will be part of a generation that I hope will move us forward as a more just society and nation. Most of us, myself included, have not done as much for the world as we had hoped. They have the chance to do better.
The power for change, whether for good or ill, resides in us. It doesn’t reside in Washington, or state capitals or town halls. It doesn’t belong to politicians. The power for change resides in us, in we the people. Only in us. Begin.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.