Martin Luther King’s Day 1/16/23

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Sometimes I wonder if I should write on civil rights and holidays such as today.  I am a white male, so what could I possibly know of the struggles for civil rights?  How can I understand what happened in Los Angeles when the cousin of a Black Lives Matter founder died from being subjected to a taser for over a minute and a half while multiple officers held him down?  How am I affected by the five officers in New Haven, Connecticut who were in charge of a black man in custody that was paralyzed while in transit? 

It matters because I’m an American, damnit.  I live in what is supposed to be the greatest nation on earth, a nation presumably built on justice and rights that are equal for every citizen, not just the privileged.  An assault on the rights of one of us, for any reason (race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status…any reason) is an assault on the rights of all of us and cannot be tolerated. 

I will never understand the fear of police officers.  I’ll never understand what it means to be watched intensely when I walk into a store.  I’ll never understand what it is to be distrusted for the color of my skin, but never do I want to turn away from the truth that it happens. 

To be fair, in the incidents mentioned above, I do not know all of the details.  I suppose that it’s possible that any incident such as this can be justified, but it’s often hard to imagine, and easy to believe it wouldn’t happen to a white man.  And that’s the problem.  I would hope that justice brings those guilty of a crime, even police officers, given time, but it’s also understandable that many do not share my optimism.  I will never know the struggle, but I won’t turn my back on it.

Now, fifty-five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., (April 4, 1968) it feels as if we are losing ground on the civil rights front.  White supremacy is on the rise and supported by the Republican party who apparently uses it as a catalyst to stay in power as they seem to stoke the fear and hatred it raises.  Voter suppression laws are being introduced and passed into law at a rate not seen since the Jim Crow era. 

A few years ago, it seemed as though there were enough people upset with the state of civil rights that we might see some progress.  Mostly peaceful protests by BLM groups (and much of the violence in those protests being shown to originate from white supremacist infiltrators trying to make them look violent) had finally gained traction.  The over-the-top response by Trump and his supporters only fanned the flames of the cries for justice.  That movement lost its drive, as can be expected.  That kind of passion can’t survive for very long, but the results from the movement strike me as woefully weak.  A few cities looked into their laws, but today feels very much like the way it was before the protests.  The hard changes that are required for true and noticeable progress just never happened. 

The changes we need are not just for minorities.  The assault on citizen rights have crept into an assault on women’s rights and starting to chip away at rights based on sexual orientation.  Voter suppression affects us all, and the old white men who keep getting into office by restricting the rights of select groups will keep trying these tactics as long as they keep winning.

If true progress is ever to be made, it must be a joint effort of minorities, white men and women, of every denomination and every facet of life.  Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is what we want America to look like, for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.  Right now, it’s highly divided, and justice is limited to the few.  Civil rights, rights for civilians, is a struggle for us all.  We all must be vigilant to keep it safe, we all must be aware of problems, and we all must work together to ensure fair treatment for all of us.  Loss of civil rights might begin with minorities, but it will spread like a fungus.  Next come the rights of women (rights that are already eroding), then rights for the elderly (like me), rights for the poor, and eventually the rights will be limited, and voices silenced, for anybody who doesn’t look like those in power.  That’s not the nation I want to live in.

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