Weary Pilgrim – Unwelcome Relief
Just when we needed something to come along to interrupt the damned Pandemic, something actually did – but Black Lives Matter wasn’t exactly what we were expecting – it’s like wishing something would take your mind off of your headache when suddenly a safe falls on your head. For a little while that headache doesn’t bother you at all.
You don’t need me to guide you through the swamp of racism - I would, however, like to share a couple of thoughts on this topic before I return to our normally scheduled pandemic.
As bothered as all of us were at the various stories of choke hold deaths and unwarranted shootings, it was the latest reported story, which actually happened first, that got to me more than any of the others.
Last August, Poor Elijah McLain, a 23 year old massage therapist/violinist, slipped out one night in Aurora Colorado to pick up his brother an iced tea. As luck would have it (and this story is riddled with irony), he was wearing a mask – about nine months too early. Apparently his anemia made his face cold, and he preferred to wear a cloth mask. Someone dropped the dime on him for ‘being sketchy’, and he got stopped by some cops a few hundred yards away from home. In one video, just before things got out of hand, he can be heard to ask in a high, scared voice, “Can’t I just go home?” It probably didn’t help that his words seemed strange to the police when he stated that he was an ‘introvert’, that he lived ‘just over there’, and to ‘respect his boundaries’.
Things went sideways: he got placed in a chokehold, and then the damnedest thing happened: the police called for a paramedic to administer ketamine, a drug that induces paralysis, this in an apparent effort to calm him down. That it did: he was pronounced dead several minutes later.
The greatest irony about Elijah McClain’s death is that, while thousands of African American young people die each year of a drug overdose, this time one of them died because the police injected him. On the sidewalk while they held him down. Talk about Crazytown.
There’s a bizarre and equally tragic postscript to this tragedy – a month later, three cops on the force re-enacted the chokehold in a photograph that actually managed to top the horror and disgust that the entire world has had over the seemingly never-ending stories of senseless police killings – the fact that they thought this was all fun and games is what is responsible for the disgusted look on their police chief’s face when he announced their firing – you could see him asking himself just what the hell is happening to this world when three of his young cops on a night out stop to make fun of the one event in their town’s history that is guaranteed to place the name of Aurora Colorado in the ledger of Places You Don’t Want to Visit.
While we’re on the topic, let’s just touch on the idiocy of the notion that we should defund the police. Unless you can figure a way to defund drug-dealing, domestic abuse, bank robbing, burglary, and the rest of the penal code, you are really not about to let the notion of community policing go by the board. Long ago there was a bumper sticker that read, ” If you don’t like the police, next time you’re in trouble, call a Hippie.” Well, back then, I WAS a hippie, and I didn’t want ANYBODY calling me.
And vilifying police is about to have a really chilling effect on the recruitment of our best law enforcement talents. Who wants to enter a career that appears to promise an easy path to jail for making a mistake in a moment of potential violence – the very thing we count on police to manage on our behalf? Dramatic television has made us idiots in this regard – police are better shots than criminals, they shoot bad guys in the leg or hand, violence is orchestrated to benefit all of the good guys. In real life, things just go all Crazytown in no time flat. Smart, decent, police officers make mistakes, sometimes tragic mistakes. We need to learn to discriminate between those sorts of mistakes and the kind that brought George Floyd and Elijah McClain to the end of their lives all too soon.
Here’s a personal note on racism: a half century back when I was an innocent college lad with a 12-string guitar and not much knowledge of the world, I decided to take a personal detour to fix that ignorance – I enrolled in a black college in the south for one semester. I spent four months
in Denmark, South Carolina as the only white student among 750 black men and women.
It was a lonely time, a bit depressing, somewhat scary, and the food was lousy – but it cured me of that world ignorance just fine.
In the 1830′s a Frenchman named Alexis De Tocqueville travelled to America, and wrote a pretty famous book about his travels called Democracy in America. I remember him pointing out that, while he admired America greatly, it had one huge problem at the time: the presence of African-Americans brought here against their will.
He had a point. It was our biggest problem then – and almost two hundred years later, it’s our biggest problem now. Perhaps we should finally try to fix it. I can tell you what I learned fifty years ago: I learned that, no matter how decent a person you are, at this point in America you are going to have some racist thoughts – it’s just too ingrained to rise above it easily. It will take some work.
I wish I hadn’t heard the police recording of Elijah McClain telling the police “I just want to go home.” I really do. We all want to go home. Unfortunately, only some of us make it.