Last weekend, we all had the opportunity to attend two protests for racial equality and social justice in Enid, America.
I attended both, with the understanding I would not cover either for the news section to maintain separation between news coverage and opinion writing. On Saturday, the Enid chapter of the NAACP hosted a march and rally at the courthouse, and on Sunday a loose affiliation of private citizens organized a protest at the MLK memorial in front of the city administration building.
Both events were worthwhile, and the attendees and organizers at both should be commended. Please do not misconstrue any of what follows in this column as criticism of those who organized or attended either event. But, these were two very different protests, with very different messaging. And, unfortunately, a great opportunity to listen to voices in need of a compassionate ear was lost on Sunday.
Saturday’s protest was uplifting, energetic and congenial. This event was well-attended by the mayor, city commissioners, police, politicians and would-be politicians, and pastors — black and white. That all is good, and a sign of unity and progress. And, I looked forward to seeing most or all of those white faces of authority at Sunday’s event, since it was planned in conjunction with local authorities, covered in advance in this publication, promoted on social media and well-known to city leaders.
But, come noon on Sunday, the congenial atmosphere of Saturday’s event was nowhere to be found. Gone was the polite clapping after pastors’ prayers. Gone was the photo op with city leaders. And notably gone were the city officials, the white pastors (with at least one exception — thank you Rev. Andrew Long) and the many politely smiling and nodding white faces of civic and business leaders.
Just walking within earshot of Sunday’s protest, you could tell it was a very different affair. The tone was of anger, pain, grief, and impatience over generations of broken promises for reform. Voices were loud. Voices were bold. They had a sense of urgency. And yes, the occasional curse word was uttered (pause for the white gentry to clutch their pearls while the latest should-be-X-rated Netflix binge plays in the background).
It is hard to hear these voices, when you have not had to feel their pain. It is hard to stand face-to-face with the reality that your privilege exists because of five centuries of genocide, slavery, rape, murder and oppression on a scale that can’t be called anything less than evil. It is hard to step outside the mythology of white America, and really look into the faces and hear the voices of those whose parents and grandparents were crushed by this system, and who shout in fear and anger over the prospect of that yoke being pressed onto the necks of their children.
But, really, what is the appropriate tone of voice when you’re protesting more than 500 years of oppression and systemic injustice? What’s the right language to protest black men being lynched in the streets, or for that matter, in restraint chairs? What is the right demeanor for genocide?
What are the right words when you see Ahmaud Arbery gunned down in the street for jogging while black? What is the right tone when you watch George Floyd crying out for his mama, while a man kneels on his neck for almost nine minutes? What tone should we use when children are caged, when women still face huge gaps in opportunity and compensation, and when it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people?
Perhaps the appropriate response is more than congenial claps and a photo op. Maybe the voice crying out with honesty in response to our nation’s history and present should be marked with pain, grief and yes, anger.
But, ultimately, it makes little difference in the long run if all that pain, grief and anger is constrained to an echo chamber occupied solely by the marginalized, the oppressed and the poor. Those in positions of authority, those born into privilege — that’s every single one us, white people — need to step into the pain, the grief and the anger. We need to be there, with open hearts and true empathy for what our fellow children of God have endured, and what they feel.
That opportunity was sadly lost on Sunday. I don’t know why certain white city leaders didn’t show up. Perhaps they didn’t receive a direct invitation. You shouldn’t have to be invited to justice. Perhaps it was an inconvenient time. Oppression is always inconvenient for the oppressed. Make time to hear them.
Had you been there, you would have heard voices of pain. Voices of anger. Voices of fear of a system that has stolen, crushed, killed, manipulated and oppressed people of color for centuries. These are hard voices to hear. But they are precisely the voices we need to engage and honor in this time.
If we do not listen, we are simply giving convenient lip service to justice. If we do not listen, we are part of the problem.