As I’ve been watching racial tensions escalate, my mind has wandered into the realm of poetry.
To be precise, I’ve been thinking of the prose of the great African American poet Langston Hughes. The lyricist from Lincoln, Ill., wrote:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The words are as applicable today as when they were written in 1951. Racial discrimination remains all too real in our society.
During my more than three decades in journalism, I’ve become all too aware of this.
I remember my first full-time newspaper job at the Galveston Daily News. I was only a few weeks out of graduate school when I was sent to cover a shooting.
The victim was still bleeding on the dirt when I got there and the smell of gunpowder enveloped the air. I talked to witnesses, police officers and others. I worked the scene hard, just like I’d learned in journalism school.
I hurried back to the newsroom and began pounding out my story. I pitched it for prominent play to the managing editor. He asked one question: “Is the victim black or white?”
When I told him the victim was black, he replied in his syrupy East Texas drawl, “Well just make it a brief and we’ll play it inside.”
Black lives matter. Unfortunately, for some they don’t matter much.
I’d been on the job for all of two or three weeks and he was the top editor in the newsroom.
I left the newsroom that day feeling dirty and compromised. I remember calling home to Illinois and asking my dad, Should I quit?
His response was, “No.” He said no one wants to hire someone who quit their first job after only two weeks. He added, “Work hard and get hired by a better newspaper
after you’ve put in at least a year there.”
It may have been good personal advice, but it’s lousy guidance for how to improve a society. If good people won’t stand up to racism, who will?
This is why I support the Black Lives Matter movement. Peaceful protest is always an appropriate way to seek a redress of grievances from government.
When he ran for president, Donald Trump condemned professional athletes for taking a knee during the National Anthem. They harmed no one, but were disparaged for quietly protesting injustice.
It made people uncomfortable. Good. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.
What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis was shameful and wrong. And sadly, this type of conduct has been tolerated in police departments for far too long.
It is unfortunate but not surprising that urban violence has followed in the wake of this tragedy.
The answer isn’t tear gas. It isn’t rubber bullets. It isn’t glib comments from a politician hunkered behind a wrought iron fence.
Rage is boiling over. We have to ask ourselves, “Why?”
The Minneapolis officer charged with second-degree murder in Floyd’s death had a long history of excessive force complaints. And, yet, he remained employed.
Over the years, I have written on police misconduct issues. In many cities it is difficult to fire a bad cop.
Much of this has to do with labor union rules and the arbitration process, which all too often protects incompetent, abusive officers.
We need to do a better job of policing the police. After all, if good people won’t stand up, who will?
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.