Sam Smith – I can’t think of a time when so many of America’s huge systems have so collapsed. Our scientists can’t stop a massive pandemic, long functioning major businesses are going into bankruptcy, the rest of the economy is a mess, we have the dumbest and cruelest president in our history, Congress is unproductive, our schools are closed, millions are unemployed, six decades of civil rights efforts are in shambles and the police are seen by millions as the enemy of those they were hired to protect.
And yet we keep struggling along. Obviously it’s not thanks to our massive institutions, our so-called leaders or favored principles like capitalism that keeps us going. No, it something more important, namely us.
Even in good times, we tend to underrate the importance of the ordinary citizens of America in keeping the place of that name going. For example, during political campaigns the needs of small business are rarely addressed but now, for example, we have relearned the importance of restaurants by the damage done to them by both the pandemic and the protests. At the very time that we are reviving the tales and experiences of police brutality, we read stories of police officials urging decency on everyone’s part and see pictures of individual cops hugging demonstrators, as well as officers in New Jersey, carrying a a banner that read “Standing in Solidarity,” and Santa Cruz Chief Andy Mills down on his knee with protesters.
Then there is the pandemic disaster that our scientific experts can’t decode and so has been turned over to thousands of doctors, nurses, and EMTs who have saved untold lives and mitigated illness anyway. Tens of thousands of teachers have gone on line and revamped their curricula. And even some traditional true Christian preachers have ended their silent submission to the noisy faith scammers.
Thanks to the overwhelming influence of the media we have been taught to discount the role of ordinary folk in determining the course of our country, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it. A lot of people are comparing what’s happening now to the 1968 riots that I lived through east of the US Capitol. One of the things I learned then was the strange ambivalence of such times. The slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the smoke of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple’s home four and a half blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation, — made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out
I had started a neighborhood newspaper and was part of a small group of blacks and whites who had come together a few months earlier to deal with some of the community’s problems. It was all too little and too late. In the vicinity of nearby H Street some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged further to the south on or near 8th Street.
But even in this chaos, individuals made a difference.. During the riots, black Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Mayor Washington refused, saying that “you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.” Hoover then said, “Well, this conversation is over.” Replied Washington, “That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.”
Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers held a sunrise service outside on a charred 8th Street, refusing what Albert Camus called the sin of despair. The neighborhood had already started rebuilding itself.
Six decades later we have a president who, like Hoover, wants to shoot the looters. And again you have decent souls who know better. We can’t predict the future but we can follow Albert Camus’ advice, avoiding the sin of despair by creating new power thanks to acts and alliances of decency that even bullies can’t overturn. And remembering that regardless of whether we do something or nothing, we are all demonstrating our position and making a difference.