Thursday, July 28, 2016

Disturbed, Distressed, Disillusioned, Hopeful

Fresh from his impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last night, Vice President Joe Biden will be about ten minutes up the road from me today, in Baton Rouge to attend a community memorial service for the three law enforcement officers who were shot and killed here eleven days ago. You've all heard about it on the news. Officers Matthew Gerald, Montrell Jackson and deputy Brad Garafola were murdered by a Missouri man who drove here in a rented car for the express purpose of gunning down police officers.

July has been a terrible month for the Greater Baton Rouge community. The trouble started  on the 5th of July, when Baton Rouge Police shot a black man named Alton Sterling at close range. A viral video of that shooting made the necessity of the police action appear questionable at best. One day later, as outrage about the Sterling shooting grew, a new video surfaced, recorded by a remarkably self-controlled black woman immediately after her fiancĂ©, Philando Castile, was killed by police during a Minnesota traffic stop. The entire nation was shocked and saddened.

On the 7th of July I went to Walmart to buy groceries. My heart was heavy, and I felt reasonably certain everyone else in the store was feeling the same way. I wished I could talk to those strangers, especially the black ones, wished I could hug them, tell them how sad I felt, assure them that most white people are not racist. I believe that last statement to be true, but comments I read on social media make me wonder about the truth of it on an almost daily basis.

I didn't have those conversations, of course; I'm not that outgoing. Most of the black people I saw there had their eyes downcast, appearing to consciously avoid eye contact. They were the ones I most wanted to talk with, but I didn't. Others, mostly younger women, behaved as though it were just another day, nothing unusual about it all. I smiled at them and they smiled back. I exuded friendliness, wanting them to know I wasn't one of "those" white people, filled with hatred instilled in childhood. I've never felt more fake in my whole life. I smiled and exchanged pleasantries when all I really wanted to do was hold them close and cry.

There were protests in Baton Rouge almost every night after Alton Sterling was killed, protests in other cities across the country, too. My step-grandson, a sheriff's deputy, was called out to help keep order at local protests. Day after day, we feared for his well-being.

On July 10th, following a peaceful protest march in Dallas, Texas, a sniper ambushed law enforcement officers, killing five of them, wounding nine others. Our shocked nation wept, including many of those who had been protesting the night before. Most of them hadn't expected or intended for things to get so far out of control.

On Sunday, July 17th, about the time local civil unrest had settled down a small notch or two, the Baton Rouge officers were gunned down by an outsider who had no legitimate business here. It was almost impossible to believe.

Since then we've had vigils instead of protests, fundraisers instead of marches. I've watched three funerals, three processions of police cars and motorcycles, three instances of fire trucks with ladders raised to hoist an enormous American flag over the paths of the processions. I've cried with the sadness of it all and with the beauty of the tributes to the fallen officers, with the coming together of the community, the love demonstrated by citizens of all races.

In between watching news of killings, protests and funerals, I've watched TV coverage of both presidential campaign conventions. The speeches of one party leave me feeling hopeful and inspired; the other party's speeches fulfilled their intended purpose of instilling fear and distrust to motivate voters. Both campaigns appeal to vast numbers of citizens, making me shake my head in amazement that all of us--family, friends, neighbors, co-workers--manage to get along as well as we do when our world views differ so widely. That, too, gives me hope.

I've wanted to document this month's events for days now, but thoughts of what's happened always bring fresh tears, and I am so tired of crying. I'm writing about it now because I must. If my descendants one day read the stories I've written about my life, they need to know what kinds of things were happening in this nation in 2016. What kinds of things were still happening more than fifty years after President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They need to know I cared.

We've come so far. We have so much farther to go.

Monday, July 04, 2016


This morning I asked my daughters if they could remember what our family did to celebrate the 4th of July exactly forty years ago. Neither one could, of course, and they were astounded that I remember. As it happens, it's the only 4th of July ever that I can recall with any specificity. Even last year's holiday has escaped me.

On this day forty years ago, in 1976, America was celebrating the United States Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We lived in Farmingdale, New York, then. It was hot that summer. While many of our fellow Long Islanders spent the 4th at the beach, we headed off instead to the coolness of a second-run movie theater. We'd missed a blockbuster the summer before, and this was our chance to see what all the hoopla had been about.

At first we sat in near darkness, listening to the whispering of parents passing out candy brought from home, hearing the crinkling of candy wrappers and the tinkling of ice in paper cups, wishing everyone around us would be quiet so we could watch the previews. Then the movie started. and everyone did get quiet. Except for occasional audience-wide gasps and screams, they were quiet until the film ended.

That was the day we saw Jaws. Forty years later I only have to think about it for a moment to get shivers running up and down my spine.

Happy Independence Day to you! I hope you're having a great time with your family today. Don't eat the potato salad if it's sat too long in the heat, be careful if you're creating your own fireworks display, and be oh-so watchful if you're about to step into the ocean.