The Past, The Protests, The Privilege

I’m a middle aged white guy who grew up with that privilege.   Sometimes I’ve been aware of it and sometimes I’ve been blithely unaware.  Right now, well, it’s hard not to be fully awake.

Many tens of thousands of us of all colors have taken to the streets this week, both physically and virtually, both non-violently and occasionally violently, to demand consequences for the death of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, at the literal hands (well, knee) of a Minneapolis police officer as three of his fellow men in blue watched.

Found in Minneapolis

I dislike violence but I’m not surprised or even OUTRAGED by it.  Frankly, I wouldn’t blame many of us if we burned numerous landmarks in numerous cities down at this point.

Don’t take this as an endorsement of violence but more as an observation of the breaking point of human nature and what it seems to take, now and at various points in our history, to achieve any sort of meaningful social change.

Target will recover, trust me

Mr. Floyd, compliant and handcuffed, was nevertheless prone in the gutter with that police officer’s knee to his neck for a full EIGHT MINUTES, cutting off his air.  As Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and called to his dead Mom for help, the officer kept pressing down, on his neck.

In the last three of those minutes Mr. Floyd was no longer breathing and likely dead as the officer blithely looked around him and up at the sky, just sort of passing the time.  Yet his knee never moved, nor did any of his fellow officers.

It’s all captured on video from numerous angles and on numerous cameras.  So don’t even try arguing about it.

The impact of the iPhone cannot be understated

Mr. Floyd’s death is the latest of dozens and dozens and dozens – and dozens – of similar acts perpetrated by police all across the country on an ever-growing list of Black and Brown men, and sometimes women, in the last number of years. They have crossed over the line of guilt or innocence to techniques of interrogation engagement that end in viral recordings of Roman Coliseum-type murders.

What once seemed to many of us informed white Americans as complicated, perhaps nuanced issues of policing are now live examples of what is being perpetrated by representatives of the white patriarchal power structure in our names.  It’s the cost of doing business and what’s perceived as being needed to keep us at the top of the social order and ensure our continued and absolute white privilege.

It’s time to listen

I used to think as an openly gay, Jewish guy from New York City who could never hide who he was because of my surname and less than macho affect, I was not truly the beneficiary of all of this.

But over the years when I’ve considered the fact that I’ve never feared the police, have never been suspected or questioned by law enforcement about crime, and have certainly NEVER been warned by any relatives or friends on how to behave if a policeman happened to pull me over or approach me, I began to recognize the undeniable.

From the perspective of the law, I am LUCKY to be white.

Recognizing your privilege is step 1

Not only was that revelation embarrassing, it was enraging.   Until I indulged in the luxury of partly forgetting about it until the next viral act of racial injustice at the hands of the law came along.

These days it happens if not daily, then weekly or monthly.  So while I am more than able to forget where I put my keys and my wallet I’m seldom EVER able to misplace my white privilege.

What a sorry turn of current events.

Watching spots in Minneapolis and other cities burn as our POTUS fanned the flames of racial injustice and re-tweeted old law and order threats from the 1960s designed to incite more rioting and thus distract from his epic failures in so many other areas, everything seemed hopeless.

It’s hard to even look at a cartoon of him…

But then I began thinking about the death of Larry Kramer, a writer, AIDS activist and one of my personal heroes of courage, and I somehow began to have a vague scintilla of hope – and change.

To call Mr. Kramer a mere AIDS activist is, of course, to sell him short.  By all accounts he was THE FIRST AIDS ACTIVIST in the early 80s, someone who possessed a personal, unrelenting megaphone of activism so loud, unpleasant and in your face that it demanded to be heard until it finally was.

Don’t take my word for it.  Read his NY Times obituary. 

and consider the words of the leading voice of our medical community (Note: And one of Mr. Kramer’s chief nemeses) in 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci: There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country.

The reason Larry did this was that, as he looked around the streets of his neighborhood, he saw dozens and dozens and dozens – and dozens – of his friends being brutally murdered by a relentless foe – the AIDS virus.  But crazy as it was, the white power structure, of which he was theoretically a member of like myself, was doing little to nothing about it.

Worse yet, they seemed to have little interest to radically change their ways and pay more than a little lip service to it despite the pile up of bodies not only in his neighborhood but all across the country.

So he realized if anything were to get done he and his comrades in arms (nee other potential victims) had to take to the streets and do it themselves.

1989, ACT UP protest, Wall Street #thanksLarry

Mr. Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACTUP, two organizations that slowly, and eventually in very impolite ways, pushed AIDS activism and solutions into the public square by EVERY means necessary.

ACTUP, and Mr. Kramer in particular, set a road map for the modern day, post-1960s activists, creating loud, live events that were so disruptive they couldn’t be ignored.  These included theatrical demonstrations that interrupted Mass presided over by unsympathetic priests inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and other Catholic Churches; die-ins at the White House and on Wall Street; name-calling political leaders murderers and much worse on national TV (Note: Dr. Fauci included); as well as very publicly outing any closeted gay person (or suspected gay person) in power who he deemed hiding (nee murdering us) instead of helping.

Combine this with more cutting-edge research done by younger people in the movement that backed up his demands with black and white science, and proposing well thought out solutions for improving current policies using logic, medicine and, most of all common sense.

Rather than say something was impossible based on what had happened in the past, they saw things that were possible by dreaming of and then inventing a better future.

It was yet another iteration of any number of American protest techniques that came before but at a different speed and adjusted to yet another time.  Think Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the Freedom Riders of the 1960s demanding civil rights, the Suffragettes before them fighting for a woman’s right to vote and to use birth control and then go back a century and a half to the Boston Tea Party and the birth of the American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party, or as POTUS would say, “Thugs”

Americans have ALWAYS been all about taking to the street, rattling the cages and engaging in very public, and yeah sometimes a bit over the line and occasionally violent (Note: On BOTH SIDES) social protests.

Of course, those were the pre-social media days, not to mention even pre-Internet, so cutting edge radical solutions look quite different now.   In these times we intellectually refer to it as the weaponization of social media via sophisticated disinformation campaigns using fake bots, algorithms and any other means necessary to achieve our agendas.

That friggin bird

If it’s receiving help from foreign actors, such as Russia, China and North Korea, states hoping for the devaluation of our country, it’s never been more available for the average protestor.  We’re all just any number of clicks and screen windows away from marshaling aid from any where in the world.

The ends justify the means is much more than a dusty old bromide of how to get ahead these days.  In many circles it’s a contemporary marching order that you WILL achieve your agenda by any means necessary, dire consequences of their domino effect into any other areas be damned.

And we’re bridling at people blocking traffic and setting fire to a few landmarks??

What is it that writer and philosopher George Santayana, once said:  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?

Exactly.  And in endless iterations over time.

Hozier featuring Mavis Staples – “Nina Cried Power”

The Chair’s Commencement Address

As I looked into the mostly terrified eyes of my college seniors in our last Zoom chats this week, the following occurred to me.  I’d like to share it with them, and you, in hopes that, well….

Okay, I’d just like to share it.

Dear Class 0f 2020:

It’s easy and even natural for graduating college students to be upset and scared at the state of the world.   There are very, very real things going on.  Too real, if I’m being honest.

On the other hand each American decade, no matter how bright and shiny it might now appear to be in comparison to the present one, had its severe problems.  At least the ones I’ve lived through.  These near insurmountable challenges also came at heavy costs that, at the time, seemed every bit as cataclysmic as the world seems now.

No, no, stay with me here! I promise!

Imagine:

The threat of a nuclear war, the bloody telegenic images of the Vietnam War and the terror of the draft that helped fuel a wild in the streets cultural revolution of the sixties and early seventies.

Pres. Kennedy was shot live on TV, college students were shot by police live at Kent State University in Ohio and the shot up bodies of soldiers on both sides of that pesky conflict in Southeast Asia were displayed everywhere you turned, for all the world to see.  And in those days you got to watch it live on network television with your parents, arguing around the dinner table as you were choking on a meal you barely liked anyway.

This was considered “food”

AIDS ravaged the eighties and a good part of the nineties.  For the longest time, no one was 100% sure of how many different ways you could get it, who had it and whether there would ever be such a thing as sex that couldn’t potentially kill you (Note: And not in a metaphorical way) in anyone’s lifetime.

As if it that wasn’t bad enough, this was set against a backdrop of a new American mantra – greed is good – and a mostly callous disregard on the part of a very vocal majority towards anyone less fortunate than themselves, be it the homeless or the dying.

All that hopeful stuff you now read now about Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America – um, not so much.  Think of that as the MAGA bromide of the era, sans any kind of irony.  At all.  And without the clownish red hat.

The hope of a new century was, well, very hopeful for a minute or two, what with the new digital age and all of its possibilities in the pre Facebook/Cambridge Analytica era.  But then just like that the very early 2000 aughts became a post-911 world and every American walked around shell-shocked and terrified that the party was over.  Certainly the world as we knew or thought we knew it, had ended.

You’re not wrong Anne

When would the next bomb hit, how long would it be before WWIII would start and would WE start it, and wait, on top of all of this the ECONOMY IS CRASHING, too?  We’re DOOMED.

Until we weren’t.

But then here we are in the 2000 teens, awash in Trumpism and COVID- 19.   Up to our eyes and ears with their infections, clinging to the hope that a durable enough mask of any sort will keep them away or, at the very least, neuter their effects on our persons.

Even though masks, be they literal, psychological or symbolic, have historically only gone so far in keeping any type of bad ju-ju at bay.  Like each decade that came before, it takes a lot of diligence, determination and ingenuity from a vocal enough part of the American plurality (that’s you), and then majority (that’s also you), to right our ship from the metaphorical iceberg (Note: Since the real ones barely exist anymore) and ensure our mutual survival.

Your generation would have saved Jack

I’m unclear how this will happen at this particular moment in time, just as I have been in the past. (Note: Remember the CD hadn’t even been close to invented yet when I graduated college).

But if our history is any indication I have great belief that we will manage to do this and somehow once again squeak by with the unlikeliest of American victories, albeit at a far greater cost than was necessary had we acted earlier.

This does seem to be our pattern.  It’s long been credited to Winston Churchill, then discredited he ever uttered the words, but as the famous saying goes:

YOU CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON AMERICANS TO DO THE RIGHT THING – AFTER THEY’VE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER POSSIBILITIES.

That about sums it up!

As we endure a global pandemic and recognize that it and it alone has become the most formidable weapon we’ve had to vanquish Trumpism in the last three years, it’s difficult to celebrate.  Talk about picking your poisons.

And yet, I recall it’s sort of like how I felt about AIDS all during the fight for gay marriage.  I’d throw both my gay marriage license and the historic Supreme Court ruling itself into a raging furnace in a nanosecond if it could undo that plague and bring back all the people – gay, straight and everyone in between – that we lost.

But I can’t pretend that if it weren’t for the horror and the spotlight it put on the gay community that we would have gotten the right to marry so quickly after.  In showing the world just how human and like them we were than they thought, and by forcing the world to SEE our brothers and sisters dying right in front of them, those of us who survived saw the times once again rise from the ashes of despair and morph into something slightly better. Not on all the issues and not entirely, but evolve they did.  Until the next calamity came along.  As it is wont to do.

Art can also be a powerful force for change… especially very popular art.

That’s the universal truth of both history and evolution when you play the long game.  It always comes at a cost.

For People Of Color that’s fighting American racism daily, worrying that any moment you could be shot in cold blood while jogging through a white neighborhood despite the abolition of slavery, the rise of the civil rights movement and the presidency of Barack Obama.

For women it’s the daily fight of sexism and the fact that no female has ever served as an American president or vice-president despite outnumbering men population-wise for centuries, suffrage, Roe Vs. Wade, and….well, the list is endless and yet, um…paltry.

2024 is waiting…

Still, if the truth is a bitter pill to swallow it sure beats sleep walking in a mirage you bought into as truth that was always going to disappear or stab you in the back.

Better to be awake and aware.  You at least have the chance to use your rage, fear, smarts and creativity to fight the bad ju-ju.  And much more so than the rest of us, YOU now have time AND American history on YOUR side.

If the past is prologue, you won’t come out fully unscathed but you will be more than okay.  Plus, you won’t have to live through disco or the eighties.

We will get through this!

That’s more than I can say for the rest of us who helped create this mess for you.

Queen – “The Show Must Go On”