Editor’s note: This essay was first published on the author’s Facebook page.
I am writing these words on a quiet Sunday morning in Bismarck, North Dakota, because my conscience tells me that neither I nor any other white American can justify silence in the face of the police murder of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. Every American, and especially every white American, has to speak up now and say, “These killings have to stop. This is unacceptable. It is a moral, even civilizational outrage that policemen can snuff out the life of an unarmed African American who is not in the act of committing a violent crime. We have to do whatever it is going to take to put an end to these murders. We don’t want to live in a country where white cops (or white vigilantes) can kill black people and somehow get away with it. We insist that such actions be universally condemned, the perpetrators tried for murder, and all existing policemen retrained to meet the standard that any absolutely unnecessary killing of a suspect (of any color) will cause immediate termination and legal prosecution.”
I believe that most policemen and women are good and decent professionals doing a tough and exhausting job under often very difficult conditions. I appreciate the work they do to keep order. They give me confidence that my family, my home, and my property are protected against those who would break the law if they thought they could get away with it. I respect who they are and what they do. I know I don’t have the right stuff to do what they do to keep order in a violent and gun-obsessed America. I know, too, that cops are sometimes unjustly subjected to harsh criticism.
Look at it this way. Can you imagine a scenario in which an unarmed white man in his 40s is killed on the streets of Minneapolis, by a cop who keeps his knee on the suspect’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, while pleading that he cannot breathe? Of course not. This would never happen unless the white suspect were resisting arrest with nearly super-human strength.
To be a black man in America, even in 2020, is to be suspect in almost any circumstance, even if you are a Harvard-trained ornithologist observing birds in Central Park. Any white woman who wishes to can damage and perhaps terminate an African-American man’s life by accusing him of menacing her, or perhaps only “leering” in some objectionable way. We like to think that lynching is a phenomenon of the past.
We thought America was more enlightened than it is. Hurricane Katrina lifted the veil in 2005. The savage abuse to which President and First Lady Obama were subjected reminded us of how close to the surface racial hatred is poised, waiting for opportunity to spew out into the community. The current president of the United States gives his not-very-sly endorsement to the worst energies in the bigoted circles of the country.
Ferguson and Baltimore and Orlando showed us that the cops who take the lives of black men (sometimes women) generally are “exonerated,” because they were following acceptable law enforcement protocols. This reminds us all that the para-militarization of our police forces is a national scandal that must be addressed if we wish to live in peace in the 21st century.
North Dakota is a peaceful place. A good and decent people numbering only 760,000, ranking 38th on the scale of diversity, with most of the diversity in the Native American population, North Dakota is usually a little outside the bounds of the dynamics that roil in the rest of the country. North Dakota has historically been late to the party — Vietnam War protests, environmentalism, healthy eating, the farm to table movement, the anti-nuclear protests. In the last few decades North Dakotans have aspired to be more like more cosmopolitan places: Minneapolis and St. Paul one state over, or at least Maple Grove, a ridiculously prosperous suburb; or Aurora, Colorado, or Missoula or Bozeman, Montana.
On Saturday, May 30, 2020, my daughter and I ventured down to Peace Park on Front Street at the top of the south side of Bismarck to join the protest against the murder of George Floyd. We did not expect to see many people there because it was a perfect early summer afternoon in a state with short summers and we were aware that the rally had been hastily organized. When we arrived a few minutes before 4 p.m., there were maybe 50 citizens around a lovely water fountain adjacent to the railroad tracks. Forty minutes later the gathering had swelled to 400 or more citizens, predominantly young, wonderfully diverse, almost every one of them wearing masks, and the older among us practicing social distancing. Well more than half of the protestors carried signs, all of them handmade. Many of them said “Black Lives Matter,” many others “I can’t breathe,” and quite a few, “Say His Name.” Ours said, “…and Justice for Some?,” “No Justice No Peace,” “It Could Happen Here,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
There were no speeches, at least during the 90 minutes we were there. We never heard the F-word, not once, no shouts of “pigs,” no denunciations of the local law enforcement agencies. There was no violence of any sort. The only aggressive moment came when a MAGA man drove by in a big red pickup and said, “Up yours!” to the crowd lining Front Street on both sides. About an hour into the event, the protesters walked a few blocks chanting “Black Lives Matter, “Say His Name,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” Some motorists were inconvenienced for a few minutes, some of them frustrated, more of them just curious and patient. I thought we should parade by the Law Enforcement Center two blocks to the southwest, but the protest leaders evidently wanted to avoid even implied criticism of the Bismarck Police force, so we marched within the vicinity of Peace Park.
The sign that shattered my complacency was held by a young bearded man, painted on tan packing cardboard: “White Silence Equals Violence.” The minute I saw it, I realized that he had articulated the most important truth of the afternoon. The continuing litany of white cops killing black men (most of whom are no immediate threat to anyone) can only exist in a world where the white people of America acquiesce by minding their own business, giving the police the benefit of the doubt, by tacitly agreeing with the cops’ actions, by (perhaps unconsciously) believing that when African-American men encounter white cops, they are probably up to no good, that black men have a statistical propensity to being up to no good, that white cops have seen so much mayhem among people of color that they instinctively react with a show of force, etc.
If the majority of white people in America spoke out about police brutality and police murders of black men and women, the pressure would bring change to police procedures. A few highly visible prosecutions of violent cops would cause every policeman or woman in America to observe greater caution and show greater respect. The silence of white people — like me — is in fact a vote of approval for the beating and the killings. We must speak out. The young man’s placard was tight paraphrase of Edmund Burke’s “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I felt ashamed to have thought that by attending the protest that I was somehow performing an adequate civic duty. It is going to take much more than that.
When the protestors got back to the street in front of Peace Park, my daughter and I thought perhaps it was time to go home. But just then two Native American men walked into the center of the street and began a traditional drum song. It was one of the most moving things I can ever remember. The whole crowd spontaneously walked into the street and formed a perfect circle around the drummers, soon accompanied by a Native American woman whose voice was unbelievably pure and powerful. A dozen African-American men stood silent vigil behind the Native American singers. I began to cry and I could see that my daughter was crying behind her mask.
Suddenly things had gotten real in the fullest sense. The principal minority population of North Dakota is not black but indigenous: Lakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Ojibwe, Arikara, Dakota, Assiniboine. Just imagine for a moment the intersection of white cops, even really responsible white cops, and the Native American community, for where there is severe poverty there will be plenty of pain and crime and intoxication. Anyone who lived through the 2016 DAPL Pipeline debacle knows how deep the racial tensions became in North Dakota. We listened to several haunting songs before we turned and made our way home in silence, in sadness, and in anger.
My daughter said, “You are going to write about this, Dad.”
The protest was so peaceful that it seemed to me a little too peaceful. I’m with Thomas Jefferson both that “I like a little rebellion now and then, it’s as important in the political world as thunderstorms in the natural world,” and that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants; that is its natural manure.” I am a harmony obsessive and I have never struck another human being in the whole course of my life, but I know that we are only having this national conversation because the citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd. If they had merely stood in silent vigil the whole incident would already be fading in the rearview mirror of a hectic national culture with a very short attention span.
It was the fires, the broken windows, and even the looting in Minneapolis that forced America to face this awful moment, and to stop pretending that cops killing black men and women is a rare and unsystematic phenomenon. Nothing could make me throw a brick through the window of a Fargo hotel, a St. Paul restaurant, or a Louisville auto parts store. But I cannot merely denounce the property damage as if it were not the desperate spasm of rage built up over months, years, and — if we are honest — centuries of systematic oppression of African Americans and other minorities. We need to try to understand before we condemn such actions. At the very least we need to read them as a sign of how much very basic work needs to be done to make America a place where justice is blind, violence is discouraged in all of its expressions, both by mere citizens and by those entrusted, with my tax dollars, to keep order and make our streets and homes safe.
I commend the various law enforcement agencies in Bismarck for not intruding on the peaceful protest at Peace Park. It took some wise leadership to let things unfold without a police presence.
And ask yourself this: If 50 heavily armed black men stood in the gallery of the Michigan state capitol, do you think the police of Lansing would have stood by and explained that peaceful protest, even with AR-15s, is a protected right of American citizens? Of course not. Imagine Sean Hannity’s and Laura Ingraham’s and Rush Limbaugh’s comments on that expression of protest?
If the men who killed George Floyd are simply a few rogue cops, then get rid of them, take them to trial, and let them serve as a warning to the rest of the police of what can happen when good men and women get burned out by the intense pressures of their work. If the men who killed George Floyd are more representative than I believe, then we need fundamental reform. Most white Americans can earnestly say, “Hey, I’m not racist, and I am not responsible for what happened to black people in the course of American history.” Our national conversation needs to inform them that that is not quite true after all, and that structural racism is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we don’t even recognize it.
I’m merely one semi-complacent citizen living in a backwater of America, but I ask each of you, if you agree, to speak out, to demand the end of the slow-motion pogrom of white cops killing black men and getting away with it.