George Floyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott…
The names are important because there are thousands, millions actually, of people who shall remain nameless. The Vietnam War Memorial was a radical new design precisely because it named names, and in no way does it glorify war like the romanticized statues before it.
How long would a new wall have to be in order to list 12.5 million people stolen into slavery from Africa to the New World – 1.8 million dying en route? Rest with that number a moment. Don’t keep reading, just stop and puzzle or stutter over what twelve million faces look like.
Perhaps some would insist we limit this imaginary memorial to a more precise number, like the 3.9 million American slaves in the census of 1860. But wouldn’t we also want to include, though it seems such a paltry number compared to the enslaved, the victims of lynchings? Between 1882-1968 there were 4,743 lynchings recorded – just those recorded. A small number of them were even white people, mostly those who helped an African-American.
So, using the conservative number, our memorial would have to accommodate around 4 million names before we even begin to calculate all the people of color – African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and more – brutalized by local police, sheriffs, judges, jailers, and the military. But let’s not forget that often, if not most of the time, those officers of the law and troops are acting on behalf of civilians calling the shots, who are more often than not, responding to industrialist and capitalists who are paying for them to be in power. Talk about the nameless! Too bad all of those folks couldn’t be named on a wall of shame.
But before this wicked finger of blame points away from myself and others, progressive veterans of protest and human rights advocates though we may be, there is this bit of wisdom from the famous twentieth century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton. It is astoundingly apt for this moment.
With apologies, this is a heavily paraphrased version of what Merton wrote in,“Emblems of a Season of Fury”: We need to be wary of ourselves when the worst that is in the human heart becomes objectified in society and turned into a kind of god – as when hatred becomes patriotism and murder a holy duty, accusation becomes truth, the resentments of frustrated bureaucrats become the social conscience, and a gangster is enthroned in power. When that happens, he says, we must fear the voice of our own hearts because we are all tainted with the same poison.
Tonight, at 6 pm at Bicentennial Park on Exchange Street, the Geneva Chapter of the NAACP is sponsoring a peaceful rally. It is an opportunity to say “yes” to racial justice and human rights, “no” to brutality at the hands of state power, and to remember together that we are all tainted by the same historic poisons. Tonight is one small, local, civic opportunity to witness together to the angels of our better natures. Maybe I will see you there. (For those living elsewhere, find a demonstration on a street near you).