I took a walk around downtown yesterday.
Louisville, the city that I have called my home for the last five years, has been turned on end over the last week. People have gathered to protest the killing of their fellow citizen Breonna Taylor. They have gathered to demand answers for the killing of David McAtee during the police response to those gatherings Sunday night. They have gathered to raise their voices in anguish against a city’s leadership that has not been listening.
A small number of people peripheral to the protests did some damage. Surely for some observers this offers a chance to not listen: a chance to focus on the property damage and not the human toll. But the windows can be repaired, the graffiti scrubbed off, the streets swept clean again. The people lost will not be brought back, their families will not be made whole again, the absence created when their lives were ended prematurely will not be filled.
At the corner of 4th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, there’s a historical marker commemorating a moment of awakening shared by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who gained international fame in the middle of the 20th century for his prolific writings on faith, pacifism and social justice while living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in nearby Bardstown, Kentucky.
The marker, which I’ve passed a number of times before, has always made for a humorous contrast with its present-day setting: it’s right at the entrance to 4th Street Live, a garish retail and entertainment complex full of chain steakhouses, touristy bars, and a stage for summer concerts. It’s the last place you could imagine anyone having a revelation, and also among the last places in town I normally wish to find myself.
History moves on and makes for some odd bedfellows.
In its temporary new context, the sign reads in a different light. The boarded-up windows of a coffee shop offer a chance for reflection that the plate glass does not.
There’s more that can be done, by all of us.
I’ve worried privately this week about when and how to begin discussions with my children about these issues. They’re still young, but if they were not white, discussions about race in society would be a cruel necessity for them before long. It would be resting on our privilege to not open their eyes to the world at this early age.
I want to raise children without prejudice, without instilling belief in a colorblind equality that doesn’t exist, one that stands in the way of real equity or fairness.
I want to raise citizens who can love the individuals within institutions without ignoring the critical need for systemic reform of those institutions.
I want to raise people who are not afraid but who are fully aware.
In times of upheaval like this, it’s likely that you’ll eventually see someone cite a quote by the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and no doubt it’s brought solace to many people over the years, but in citing it we often miss a critical point, which is that the quote was intended to reassure children. I admire Fred Rogers more than almost any other figure outside my own family, and I will likely use this lesson as I open my children’s eyes to the realities of the world.
As adults, as citizens, though, we should not be looking for the helpers. We should be the helpers.
We’re at the point of this crisis cycle where the platitudes come out. Many people —myself included, I’ll admit — posted a blank black square to their Instagram account on Tuesday, a symbolic show of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. It achieves very little, but it also costs nothing to do. As long as you weren’t using the official hashtag and drowning out vital updates, it hurt nothing to do.
But it can’t stop there.
It’s hard to pick a favorite from the many examples of this same symbolic gesture being rendered moot or darkly hilarious by the context of one’s actual behavior, but I think for me yesterday it was one of two National Football League franchises: either the San Francisco 49ers, the team who Colin Kaepernick last played before being apparently blackballed for his silent activism, or their fellow team in Washington, whose very name is a racial slur. To put a black square on your social media doesn’t absolve you from action, from introspection, from asking what have I done and what more can I do?
So what can we do? How can we move beyond platitudes?
If you are able to make a physical stand, place your body in the discussion. Show dedication by showing up in person, by demonstrating your presence with visible solidarity. Use privilege to stand in defense of those without.
If it cannot be those — and many of us have good reasons why financial or physical support are not possible — then let it start with a conversation. Speak in your real-world circles; in your family, in your workplace, in your neighborhood. Have a conversation that is not comfortable, because that is the one that is worth having.
The marker on 4th Street cites Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, a 1966 collection of essays and ruminations on society. I picked up a copy today. Some of it is obviously dated — the book is over a half-century old, and societal attitudes on many issues have shifted well past even Merton’s progressive view of the time — but other parts read like they could’ve been written today.
I leave you with this passage today:
To be “thought of” kindly by many and to “think of” them kindly is only a diluted benevolence, a collective illusion of friendship. Its function is not the sharing of love but complicity in a mutual reassurance that is based on nothing. Instead of cultivating this diffuse aura of benevolence, you should enter with trepidation into the deep and genuine concern for those few persons God has committed to your care—your family, your students, your employees, your parishioners. This concern is an involvement, a distraction, and it is vitally urgent. You are not allowed to evade it even though it may often disturb your “peace of mind”. It is good and right that your peace should be thus disturbed, that you should suffer and bear the small burden of these cares cannot usually be told to anyone. There is no special glory in this; it is only duty. But in the long run it brings with it the best of all gifts: it gives life.
Be safe, and be well.
— Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)