Something has changed in America. This is different. Some individuals evidently feel threatened by people protesting the death of George Floyd. This time they’re threatening back.
Fifty years ago, when we protested the war in Vietnam, we were never personally threatened that I can remember. With tear gas maybe, but never bullets. No one ever told us, “If you protest, we’ll kill you.” No one ever added that they had the bullets to do it. The worst we had to endure was, “America. Love it or leave it.” We did love America. That’s why we were protesting. We loved America enough to take to the streets to let people know that we thought our country was on the wrong track.
Now we’re doing it again, but this time some people are telling us if we profess our beliefs out in the open, they’ll have to kill us. Here in sleepy little Calaveras County! Something’s changed in America. This is different.
I got word of the demonstration in an email forwarded by a friend. The day before the demonstration was to occur, the lead story in the Enterprise let us all know that threats had been made against the two young organizers who were calling us to action and any protesters that dared show up.
“We know where you live.”
Who writes such a thing? Who thinks it’s OK to threaten people intending to peacefully support a whole race living under deadly oppression? Something’s changed. This is different.
I’d never have known about the threatened violence if it weren’t for the Enterprise article. I’d have unknowingly put myself in harm’s way. When people ask why we need a local newspaper, this is the answer.
These threats were so disturbing I spent the whole day wondering whether it would be safe to go. I’d already made up signs to hold. It seemed unbelievable. In the end I resolved to go. I had to go. We needed to stand up to the bullies and tell them they can’t take away our rights by threatening to take away our lives. When I got home, I thought my wife might try to talk me out of it. Part of me hoped she would. The first words out of her mouth were, “We need to go. This is too important.”
Hundreds of people were there on the corner when we arrived. Traffic was backed up on a Friday afternoon. Drivers were honking, thumbs up out the window, fists in the air, peace signs. It was like 1970 all over again. I was overwhelmingly proud to live in our great nation where free speech is a protected right, a privilege that helps secure our freedom and ensures our democracy.
As the demonstration was breaking up and the streets were no longer so crowded with vehicles, a few cars drove by with people looking at my sign and giving me the finger. Trying to be inclusive, my sign read, “All Lives Matter.” Including the lives of those who threaten to take mine. If that thought gets the finger, I wondered what their sign would say if they were standing on the sidewalk and I was driving by. Maybe it would read, “Only White Lives Matter,” or, “White Lives Matter More,” or maybe, “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” What’s the middle-finger opposite of “All Lives Matter?” I’d have probably given them the finger. I shouldn’t be so fast to judge.
While standing on the street, I thought of a better message for my sign, “Make Your Life Matter.” Resist hatred. Resist racism. Resist threatening violence. Or, just simply, “Make Your Life Matter. Vote.”
Something’s changed in America. And around the world. At the same time that some people are threatening violence against their “others,” those others are proposing an end to violence. Maybe that’s what threatens those who threaten.
White people are starting to have a conversation about what it means to be white in a racist society. It could be that that feels the most threatening to some people. We’re starting to talk among ourselves about the privileges we enjoy but others don’t. The privileges of medical insurance and health, financial security and wealth, owning a home, having a job that pays a living wage. How about the privilege of being able to drive through Calaveras County without being pulled over just because you’re white. These should not be privileges afforded one race but not all races. They’re rights. Like the right to demonstrate without fear of being harmed.
With all this threatening going on, maybe now those white people standing on the corner of Highway 4 and Highway 49 are beginning to understand what it feels like to be Black.
Jim Pesout is a retired high school teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.