Black Lives Matter

The murder of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25 (Memorial Day) by four white police officers in Minneapolis overshadowed the coronavirus pandemic. The killing triggered enormous protest demonstrations in the streets of cities throughout the United States and around the world. These demonstrations are continuing even now, three weeks later.  

Floyd died when Officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds with the full weight of his knee on Floyd’s neck. The officers had apprehended Floyd for buying cigarettes in a nearby convenience store allegedly with a counterfeit $20 bill.

Two of the other officers, Thomas Lane and Alexander Kueng, assisted Chauvin in holding Floyd to the pavement. The fourth officer, Tou Thao, stood by, keeping bystanders at a distance. All four officers were fired the next day, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. On June 3, a charge of second-degree murder was lodged against Chauvin, and the other officers were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Meanwhile, nightly street demonstrations continued throughout the country, mostly peacefully, but not without property damage, burned businesses and looting. On June 1 in Washington, D.C, after the “law and order” president denounced protesters as “thugs” and threatened to use the military to “dominate” the streets, Lafayette Square was cleared of peaceful protesters with tear gas, horse-mounted police and armed officers in riot gear so that the president could stage a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church armed with the Holy Bible.

The death of Floyd at the hands of the police was, we all know, not an isolated incident. In recent years particularly, street demonstrations have occurred following killings of black people. The organization Black Lives Matter was formed in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. On its website, BLM describes itself as “a global organization in the US, UK, and Canada, whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”

Signs carrying the Black Lives Matter message were everywhere during the protest demonstrations following Floyd’s death. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser authorized the painting of the slogan in giant yellow letters on 16th Street near the White House on June 5. That two-block portion of the street was renamed “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

For a year or more, two large “Black Lives Matter” banners have hung on the church that I attend. The congregation is almost entirely white people. I have felt uncomfortable with these banners, not because of the message—I agree that black lives do and should matter—but because I have questioned whether a white congregation has the moral right to claim ownership of that message.

I have now come to realize that the very asking of that question reinforces in my mind the “othering” of black people. Would it be appropriate only for “them” to proclaim Black Lives Matter? My own questioning is telling me that I am not immune from the effects of implicit racism that are embedded in the culture of America. I could not have lived in the United States for more than seventy years without being molded by that culture and its ill effects. In a country where black lives have been less valued ever since 1619, I have received at no cost the advantage of being white. 

The congregation’s endorsement of the Black Lives Matter message is not a declaration of our white enlightenment or a confession of white guilt. It is an affirmation that we value black lives. It is a message of welcome. It is a pledge of alliance in the necessary and overdue work of shifting the center of American culture away from white advantage, away from the country’s often obscured history of white supremacy.

On June 12, two white police officers in Atlanta confronted Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was sleeping in his car before the officers arrived at a Wendy’s drive-in. Brooks admitted that he had been drinking and said that he could walk to his sister’s house, if the officers would allow him to lock up his car under their supervision, but the officers instead attempted to put him in handcuffs. A scuffle ensued, Brooks getting hold of one officer’s Taser before being shot twice in the back as he attempted to flee.

Meanwhile in the shadow of these events lurked the coronavirus. Between the two killings—Floyd on May 25 and Brooks on June 12—some 15,000 people died from covid-19 in the United States. As if we needed further evidence of the supremacy our culture affords white people, black Americans were dying at a rate 2.3 times higher than the rate of coronavirus death among white people.

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Coronapresident

I don’t know what makes me feel worse: the rampant coronavirus that could kill me if somebody sneezes or the fact that Donald Trump is still the president of the United States. I can protect myself from the virus by staying at home a lot, wearing a mask, and keeping away from other people, but there is no social distancing from this president and from our national nightmare.

Both things—the virus and the president—make me feel a sickness in the pit of my stomach. It is not a stretch to conflate the two. They are both nightmares.

Most of the time, I keep my mind busy with an assortment of activities and distractions because I try not to dwell on things that make me feel bad, and I suppose that’s good for my mental health. But my mind likes to wander, and my thoughts seem often to gravitate toward what’s wrong in my world.

I am getting used to a vaguely queasy sensation that something is not right, that my life is somehow out of balance. It is not just a fear of becoming infected. The coronavirus and the coronapresident are parts of the same pattern. The virus and what the president is doing about it, or failing to do, are not two different things but they are one unresolved story that has been playing over and over in my mind since early March.

The coronavirus does its deadly work by spreading from person to person and by replicating, a process that chokes off our oxygen supply and attacks our vital organs in ways that are not yet well-understood by science. Some of the damage may be permanent. It is both microscopic and bigger than any one of us. Stopping its global trail of death—over 283,000 deaths worldwide as of this writing—demands a national and global response.

An effective national response calls for a kind of leadership that that the coronapresident does not have. Instead, he denies the risk, complains about a hoax, ignores the science, blames the Chinese and Obama, hides or distorts the facts and now has begun to doubt the death toll.

Yet, as John Adams is credited with saying: “facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” As of this writing, the death toll in the United States is approaching 80,000 people.

The medical experts who advise the president speak to the public through a White House filter, careful not to contradict him. He can barely hide his boredom with them but they are useful props, standing by him on the same platform as if he were their equal.  

While there seems to be universal agreement in the medical community that a greatly accelerated testing and contact tracing effort is the only way to begin to stop the coronavirus, the coronapresident is not enthusiastic about testing because he believes that more testing will reveal more cases of COVID-19 and more cases will make him look bad and undermine his reelection campaign. The idea that more testing could prevent infections, reduce suffering and save lives is of little importance to him.

All he wants to talk about now is “reopening” the country because “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” Let me fill in the blanks.

The “problem itself” is a deadly and uncontrolled virus that is super-contagious and for which the world has no treatment or vaccine.

The “cure” is the whole range of measures to reduce the spread of the virus: social distancing, wearing masks, and finding out, by a lot of testing, how widespread the virus has become. The cure, at present, means that some types of social and commercial interaction must be curtailed because those interactions enable the virus to spread and make the problem worse. Such interactions will be unsafe until human ingenuity finds new ways to block viral spread from person to person in workplaces, shops, restaurants, theaters, public transportation, and other places where people come in close contact.

The coronapresident rejects the cure and by implication prefers to do nothing about the problem, even if doing nothing about the problem means more disease and more death. The problem, he says, will go away on its own, without a vaccine and without all that much testing, like a miracle, it will disappear.

The coronapresident is not a real president. He is an accomplice. He is the virus made visible.

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