Note to those who do not live in the Finger Lakes: A recent demonstration here in Geneva, against the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, was marred when some of the activists chalked ugly names against the Geneva police in front of the Public Safety Building where the Police Station is housed. Subsequently, the Mayor had a front page article in the Finger Lakes Times, in which Denim Spirit is published each Wednesday. This is a response to the Mayor’s privilege-blind comments.
It is so tempting to lash out at people we disagree with — I have done it myself more times than I like to remember. Ironically, I almost began this column by doing it. But I want to reference leadership and leadership calls for something different.
The only way leaders earn credibility in the midst of conflict and crisis is by accepting personal responsibility and naming their own accountability on the way to resolving issues. Unfortunately, Mayor Valentino did not exhibit such leadership in his weekend lecture to racial justice advocates published in the FLT.
City Council members have engaged in the same kind of vociferous name-calling and demonizing of one another that the Mayor rightly objected to in the chalking of anti-police rhetoric at the Public Safety Building. If he wants to moralize about something so easy to criticize, then talking about it in personal terms related to Council meetings, and taking responsibility for his part in it, would help instead of undermine his credibility.
But what was most glaring to me in his sermon, was a lack of awareness about White privilege that poked its head out from under the moralizing. I do want to recognize and thank him for “supporting the Black Lives Matter movement to eliminate police brutality and racial profiling.” But in the next paragraph he complains about activist’s “…need to draw national issues into our small city” as an “…example of an attempt to magnify their cause.” What he sees as extraneous, perhaps because of privilege, those who live it may feel is essential.
Here is German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous confession, modified for our own time, to answer Valentino’s critique. Niemöller’s original words are also an exquisite example of a leader taking responsibility:
First, they shot Corey Jackson, and I did not speak out— because I was not Black.
Then they shot Andrew Brown, and I did not speak out— because that was in North Carolina.
Then they beat three trans women with a steel rod in Hollywood as by-standers did nothing and a police car drove by, and I did not speak out— because I was not trans.
Then they strangled Antonio Valenzuela to death in a choke-hold, and I did not speak out— because I was not Latino and it happened far away in Las Cruces, NM.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
White privilege is pervasive and entrenched, mine and the Mayor’s, but it need not blind us to the fact that systemic racism in this nation requires that names of victims be named, incidences of racial injustice be raised up no matter where they happened, and our own “small city” does not exist in a social and political vacuum. Magnifying the cause of racial injustice is exactly what needs to be done so that those of us raised under the blanket of privilege with a dim awareness of its history, begin to become deeply uncomfortable with it.
Dehumanizing rhetoric, not respecting the dignity of each human being regardless of class, profession, race, ethnicity, or legal status, and demonizing the opposition to gain political leverage, is painfully divisive whoever it comes from. Amen.