Tragedy upon Tragedy

It was mid-year 2020, and I could not pick a tragedy.

I reminisced about the days of yesteryear. Yesteryear, in this case, was a year ago. Last year’s top tragedy centered simply on corrosion of our national character. Day-by-day our highest ideals were becoming a mockery. The most destructive president in history was systematically tearing our country apart. I had serious doubts about whether our nation, in Lincoln’s words, would long endure. This was not an exaggeration, I thought.

The nation’s aspiration—Liberty—was becoming a self-destructive force as it devolved into a small, selfish notion. The aspiration of our nation’s founders was liberty from the tyranny of a king. Liberty stood for the ideal of self-government by the people and for the people. But the grand experiment of self-government required a certain amount of good faith, intelligence and compassion—qualities of character not demonstrated by the current president. The cult of “you-can’t-make-me” liberty was the tyranny of a corrupt faction that claimed “liberty” to do as they wished for their own benefit, the lives of others be damned.

Today this selfish notion of liberty, combined with mass advertising (which the founders could not have foreseen) and the instantaneous, subliminal reach of the internet (inconceivable to them), is sufficient to destroy us. Would I spend the last days of my retirement watching the last days of my country?

Ah, yesteryear! It was all so simple then.

The dawning of the age of coronavirus came as the first cases of a viral pneumonia, cause unknown, were reported in Wuhan, China, in December. The world soon learned that a novel coronavirus was causing the outbreak. There was speculation that the virus had passed to humans from contact with animals, possibly bats or pangolins, but now the virus was spreading from human to human.

The first coronavirus case in the US was reported on January 21. France reported three cases of coronavirus, the first cases in Europe. The coronavirus had begun a relentless replication that soon would involve the entire world.

The president declared in February that the coronavirus was under control in the US, but control was illusory, and nothing was done to prepare a real public health response. Believing that he could stop the virus at the border, the president in January barred foreigners entry to the US if they had visited China in the previous 14 days. In March, he barred travelers from European countries for 30 days. But the virus was already here. The tragedy had only begun to reveal itself.

A decree by the Italian government closed down the entire country in March in an effort to stop the contagion there. Italian hospitals were overwhelmed; convoys of trucks rumbled through the streets, carrying away the bodies of coronavirus victims.

The Dow plunged 2,014 points (7.8 %) on March 9, its worst day in 123 years. The number of coronavirus cases worldwide had reached 110,000, and the disease had taken 3,800 lives. Two days later in the Rose Garden, the president announced: “I am officially declaring a national emergency, two very big words.”

In my state, the governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 23. On April 17, the president called for “liberation” of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, broadly encouraging his supporters to resist or ignore stay-at-home orders in their states.

The pandemic had already put 10 million Americans out of work. By summer, more than 20 million jobs would be lost and the unemployment rate would rise to its highest level since the Great Depression. Lost jobs meant loss of health insurance for 5.4 million Americans. There would be no vaccine to forestall the economic tragedy.

Before the end of April, more than 1 million people in the US were infected with coronavirus, more than 2.8 million worldwide. In May, the head of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program said the coronavirus could become “just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away.” It had already killed more than 200,000 people. On May 29, the president announced that the US would pull out of the World Health Organization. He blamed China for “instigating” the global pandemic.

Meanwhile, on May 25 the world watched as a white police officer in Minneapolis calmly pressed his knee on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, killing him (Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who recorded the murder on her cell phone should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize). It was not the first time an unarmed black person had been killed at the hands of the police, and it would not be the last. Around the country and around the world, street protests broke out in response to the Floyd killing.

The effects of racist thinking was the nation’s oldest tragedy, and now a majority of white people supported the Black Lives Matter message. Was it possible that a cultural shift was taking place? Could we learn to honor justice over a tragic tradition?

By mid-July, the US led the world with more than 3.4 million people infected with coronavirus. The worldwide total exceeded 13 million. The coronavirus had killed more than 137,100 people in the US and more than 581,000 worldwide. New coronavirus cases were being reported at a rate of 200,000 per day around the world and more than 60,000 per day in the US.

There were indications that president was losing his marbles, demanding that schools “fully reopen” in the fall, rejecting the “very tough & expensive guidelines” of the Centers for Disease Control. The vice-president said: we don’t want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don’t reopen their schools.” The White House press secretary said: “The science should not stand in the way of this.”   

There was no end.

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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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