Marching during the pandemic
Watching the largely peaceful and increasingly good-spirited protests and marches by black, brown and white young people since the terrible death of George Floyd, I have been tempted to imagine that the pandemic had given way to the long-standing challenge of police brutality. But then, seeing a group of masked protesters, my illusion quickly ended, as it becomes clear that the marchers have come together both despite and because of the virus. Many of these marchers are probably unemployed or out of school because of the coronavirus, and their anger at police violence — as well as their kind and good spirited wish to be useful — arises out of this unique period of uncertainty, worry and enforced leisure. Most of these marchers know someone who has been struck by COVID-19, or has even died of the virus. If they aren’t wearing masks, it’s because of a youthful bravado I still remember: there’s a kind of thrill in taking the risk, even as they relish the illusion that they are too young and their lungs too healthy to get ill.
It must have been abundantly clear to both young and older black Americans that their families were becoming ill and dying from the pandemic at significantly higher rates than whites, even as they were suffering higher rates of unemployment during the lockdown. Then came the fateful evening when I along with nearly every American watched the last breath squeezed out of George Floyd by the knee of a Minneapolis policeman pressed down on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. That this last assault came on top of the others has made the resilience and optimism of black marchers walking alongside whites a thing of awe, reminding me of the tradition of forgiveness I have witnessed over and over in black churches. It has brought tears to my eyes to hear some black marchers say how grateful they are that they are no longer marching “alone,” as they were in Ferguson or the many other demonstrations following police violence in their black communities, but have finally been joined by their white peers.
In fact, they are sadly right: it will make a difference (if anything will) that white youth in great numbers have joined the demonstrations in behalf of imagining a system of justice that is actually just for all Americans.
We human beings are a complicated species, easily aroused to be better than we thought we could be, if only the opportunity arises. Who would have thought a month ago that, amidst this relentless pandemic, the opportunity would arise for black and brown youth to fight for a system of justice that did not lean on their necks, and for white youth to join in their behalf?
Remembering my own early participation in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, I know how life-changing it is to take a stand on this critical issue — how suddenly you see yourself and others differently. The young people marching these days will feel strengthened for the rest of their lives by having reached beyond their private lives to make a difference to both blacks and whites in their frayed nation. Gathering together and marching with others — thousands of others in countless cities and towns across the U.S. and abroad — they are physically giving their bodies, masked or not, to an idea that daily becomes more concrete of policing that is protective, rather than violent, and that is executed with the same care for human life, whether the life is that of a poor person or someone who is well-heeled, and whether that life is black, brown or white.
Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. She is trained as a spiritual director.