Time for Change

An African-American man in his 40s whom I know well has been crying in despair over the life of George Floyd being pushed out of him during nearly nine minutes lying face down in a Minneapolis street, a life whose brutal end sparked a firestorm of nationwide demonstrations appealing for an end to racial injustice.

“As I watched a few moments of the video [of police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck] I thought that this will never stop,” the guy texted me. I wanted to know his reaction to Floyd’s death. I pledged anonymity so he could speak freely. “Again and again, what do I tell my kids? How do I keep them alive? When will it be me?” He has three young children.

His emotional fervor and nationwide marches by tens of thousands of people seeking a radical change in the way people of color have been targets of discrimination will be for naught if peaceful protests turn violent. The push for racial equality comes first.

The bad and the ugly must be stopped to avoid spoiling the good.

“Please don’t let the destruction of property take away the reasons why we are here at this point,” the black guy texted me. “It’s a common sentiment.”

This is not a time for destruction; it is a time for construction, for rebuilding and healing for change. It may be coming, and not only because of the desperation exercised by marching feet, homemade cardboard signs and placards, expressions of grief.

“It’s time to stand up and say ‘get your knee off our necks,’” said the Rev. Al Sharpton during a eulogy of Floyd in Minneapolis Thursday. His reference was to Chauvin’s bent knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds that snuffed the life from him, even after he gasped, “I can’t breathe.” It’s now a slogan writ large for all.

If there’s hope for change, it may come as more whites demand it, ensure the passage of laws that guarantee it and help build compassion and understanding in the hearts and minds of the wider white population to pursue it. Sharpton alluded to that when he noted whites participated in the protests.

“When I looked this time and saw marches where in some cases young whites outnumbered the blacks marching, I know that it is a different time and a different season.” He referenced Ecclesiastes, which says, “A time to kill and a time to heal/a time to break down and a time to build.”

“I come to tell you, America, this is the time of building accountability in the criminal justice system,” Sharpton said.

For some, change may be a long time coming, “if ever,” said the African-American man.

He was standing in line at a California Department of Motor Vehicles office in Daly City when I texted him for his reaction to Floyd’s death. He texted back saying he “just witnessed an older white male call a worker here a black (expletive expletive). Just now.” Oakland and its metro area have been hit by rioting.

What did he think of that? “Sad, trying to hold back tears,” he responded.

I expressed sorrow for his despair and texted that this is a very difficult time for many of us, whites, too.

“Yeah, but you never had to hear the car doors lock while properly crossing at a crosswalk and telling the people [in a car] their lights aren’t on,” he replied, drawing from his experiences. “Or have someone cross the street because they see you walking toward them. Or have the feeling that anytime the red and blue lights [of a police car] pop up behind you that that might be your last day walking.

“How many of these people who are crying out in outrage are the same white people who, knowingly or not, have done any or all of the above-mentioned? And don’t get me started on all those who are quick to take a knee today but were enraged when CK (football quarterback Colin Kaepernick) did it and sacrificed his NFL career as a result. Now they want to kneel.

“They’re all a bunch of social media ‘Like’ junkies who didn’t want to be left out of the news cycle versus trying to effect real change.”

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.