Most mothers have dreams for their children — grow up healthy, safe, and loved, be happy, live in a peaceful world. A few may wish for fame, or grow up to be president, or an opportunity to change the world, but most parental dreams are pretty basic. I imagine that’s what George Floyd’s mother wished for her son — a healthy, safe, and happy life. No thought of fame, or the infamy that surrounds his tragic and preventable death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, captured on cell phone video now shown around the world.
The horror of that video, a black man basically being crushed to death by a white police officer over an alleged complaint, has re-ignited emotions and protests that have simmered in this nation for a long time. Sadly, among those are some protests that have escalated into violence, and that horror plays out live on television. One horror compounded by another. Where does it stop?
When I was in elementary school, my Army father was stationed at Fort Belvoir for one year. I remember seeing the “For Coloreds Only” drinking fountains and segregated seating areas. County schools were segregated, but our school on the post was integrated. Years later, I started work on Capitol Hill the same summer President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Then, in 1968, the killing of another black man, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., triggered the riots in the District of Columbia and elsewhere. An office colleague told me we could not continue as friends because I could “never see things through her eyes.” I still mourn the loss of that friendship, but she was right. We can try to understand and empathize with others’ experiences, but never really delve into the raw nerves exposed by decades of discrimination. We can remove physical signs and adopt new policies, but the underlying frictions between and among people don’t respond to the stroke of a pen. Fifty-two years after Dr. King’s death, we still are trying to figure out his peaceful path.
It’s not so peaceful anymore, and even when Dr. King counseled “patience,” his advice was tied to an expectation of action, not passive anticipation. On live television coverage Sunday, one protestor confronted a reporter, saying “this is not news. You should be over here (across the barricades) with us; it’s not news.” The youngish protester may have become so used to protests that the news value was diminished in his eyes. Most definitely, though, it is news, and the media, much maligned these days by the occupant in the White House, has a responsibility to tell that story once, or as many times as it takes, to as many people as possible, and help effect the changes needed, in one’s heart and soul, or in one’s litany of laws.
For his family and friends, George Floyd’s appalling and untimely death will be forever painful. For our nation, Mr. Floyd’s death, coupled with the tragic deaths of other people of color, will be an even greater tragedy if it results in little or no positive action to rectify decades of injustice. Dr. King said “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Justice matters. Civility matters. Freedom matters. Let’s not be silent.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.