We Have Nothing to Fear, But Fear Itself
Racial Unrest continues to rattle America on the National Stage and in our own Backyard
Sunday Evening Editorial: By Joe Malburg
As hundreds of Romeo community members past and present, united with and as friends and family marched North on Main Street on the afternoon of June 12th, 2020, the feeling in the air was palpable. It was change, a readiness for it and an understanding of how long overdue it was. It was the youth leading the way, in voice and in step. But as the mobilized mass marched down the historic two block corridor of downtown Romeo, a stretch lined with buildings that have stood longer than any of Romeo’s residents, it was a collection of the village's most senior members that caught my eye. The matriarchs of two of Romeo’s oldest families, women for whom many of the buildings along that stretch once would not open their doors. In fact, a lot of the buildings that stand along main street spent more years keeping black folks out than they have letting them in. As the procession passed them by and they stood stoically taking it in, I can only imagine the thoughts running through their minds. The memories that they would just as soon forget, but know well they can’t. Romeo, like all of America, has its share of scars to show. And like most all of America, those scars are primarily apportioned to and worn by the African-American community.
The long overdue demonstration of unity and demand for progress was precipitated by Romeo putting forward its worst side for all to see. The Romeo Rock, an institution as ingrained into the character of the community as any idea or establishment, was defaced with a racial slur bringing a painful but predictable end to a day long battle for artistic control of the Rock’s paint-crusted canvas between Black Lives Matter supporters and those who would rather continue to portray Romeo as a place with no use for such movements. This sparked a chain of events that began with the future of Romeo, members of it’s most recent graduating class, deciding something had to be done. They envisioned a rally or march, but no one could have predicted what their vision would materialize as. The March for Racial Justice and Equality joined the largest Civil Rights Movement in World history. Nationwide, Americans of all backgrounds racially, economically, socially and geographically, spurred on by the needless and tragic murder of George Floyd by a Police Officer, had been gathering to March, to chant and to demand change. Romeo would be no different, how could it be? The derogatory defacing had led to a bevy of local coverage casting a large negative light over the seemingly serine small town. But the response was front-page news and restored Romeo's reputation as a community that cares. That is until after the dust settled.
Following Romeo’s March for Racial Justice and Equality there was a sense of unity in the community. People were reminded that for all the negativity that has boiled up to the surface, at its core Romeo is capable of incredible care and kindness. Then some time passed, and the push back began. It started long before the event when online provocateurs began spreading false rumors about the origins and intentions of the rally. They stoked fear among the community and it’s businesses. Nearly half the establishments myself and another organizer stopped in on as we walked the March route to quell concerns among local business owners, were convinced this was a March to bring violence, chaos and destruction of property. When none of that happened the ugly side of Romeo went back to the drawing board and hatched a new hateful response. It came under the cover of the July 11th March to support Law Enforcement. This was the first pro-police rally in Romeo anyone could ever remember and it just happened to come less than a month after Romeo March, which in part pledged to work to end the type of police brutality that we all watch claim far too many lives every year. The rally, which brought out a fraction of the participants as the Equality March followed the same route to the same destination but with a much different look and feel. While diversity was on display in June, there were less than a handful of people of color in July and one of those there, watching from the sidewalks of mainstream, turned to me to ask, “why do they have to do this now?”. If he had seen what the women who watched the June march from those same sidewalks had seen, he’d already have his answer.
Nationwide that answer is being driven home every day for people of color and their allies marching, chanting and fighting for change. America will resist progress now as it always has. The Black Lives Matter movement has been misrepresented and misunderstood in so many ways that it’s impossible to sort through adequately. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, peaceful protesters who took to the streets have been routinely attacked, beaten, pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets and falsely arrested in cities all over the country. ProPublica, an independent investigative journalism organization has collected over 1,200 individual instances of police brutality caught on tape during the protests and they found that less than 10% of those arrested during protests were ever ticketed or charged. In more than 90% of instances, all charges were dropped. Yet, peaceful protesters are constantly asked to answer for the actions of a small minority, whom they almost unanimously disavow, that resort to violence, rioting and looting. Meanwhile the police are rarely if ever held accountable by their own or their supporters when officers incite violence, use excessive force, act unlawfully or betray the public's trust. This was again on full display this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin when an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back in front of his children and the reaction from much of the Back the Blue crowd was to drag the victim through the mud and make excuses for the attempted execution.
Tuesday, as protests in Kenosha carried on into the night, a 17-year old Trump supporter, Blue Lives Matter and Back the Blue enthusiast, who had traveled from his home in Illinois, illegally armed, picked a fight with protesters leading to him soon after shooting one of them, Joseph Rosenbaum, four times, in the groin, back, hand and in the head, the man would die within the hour. After circling back and seeing the result of his actions up close, the shooter tried to flee on foot while calling a friend and confessing to his crime. While running, he tripped, fell and came up shooting, killing one more person, injuring another and continuing to fire into the crowd afterwards. Then he walked, hands in the air, long gun slung around his neck, right towards and right past the police officers responding to the carnage he created. They never even thought to stop and question him despite the continued cries of witnesses that he had just committed murder in cold blood. Despite his gruesome, heinous and defenseless actions, the worst element of the pro-police movement instead hailed him as a hero, embracing the sort of criminal-worship they often accuse the Black Lives Matter movement of.
Meanwhile, back in Romeo the night before, the Black Lives Matter sign which sits outside the First Congressional Church in Romeo was vandalized for the fourth time. After the first several signs were destroyed, the church went to village police who took the complaint, but also informed the Church that their sign did not comply with code instituted by the village recently. That was the most proactive Law Enforcement has been this far in the investigation, otherwise just taking the reports and never following up. Still, the church refused to be deterred in their mission for inclusiveness and equality and after bringing the sign up to code, they installed a trail cam to monitor the area. The sign stood for barely a week before it was again defaced. Pastor Kim Newport has not been contacted directly by any of the local leaders, though Village President Christine Malzahn did tell us that she has been in touch with the local police and that she too wants to see this end,
“It’s very unfortunate that the video didn’t capture any footage that would help us solve the case.”
The village president further offered to assist in any way she can going forward. Likewise, Bruce Township supervisor Richard Cory hopes that cooler heads and kinder hearts can prevail,
“People should stop doing (these types of) things...always give peace a chance.”
While their support is a welcomed sign and encouraging, the role leadership plays is only part of what’s needed to try and suppress and eventually stamp out the worst instincts of some folks in Romeo and other small towns all across the nation.
The one thing that the June 12th March for Racial Justice and Equality and the July 11th March to support the police have in common is that they both focused on the strengths of the community and painted Romeo as a place where people care about each other. That is unquestionably true, I’ve seen it for myself and lived it. But I’ve also seen and heard first hand the uglier side of the town. Spend an evening in any bar in town and you’ll see it too. For most of us who grew up in Romeo, we already knew. Think back to some of the jokes you heard in high school and remember that those people are still looking over their shoulders and telling them today. Ask someone what they think of Black Lives Matter or NFL players kneeling, or LGBTQ+ rights, and if they're honest, you might wish they had lied to you. And even if you don’t hear the slurs and stereotypes, you can be sure you know someone who will insist that Romeo does not have a race problem, that America does not have a race problem. And while denying the reality that is so crystal clear to so many others does not make someone racist, it is the biggest obstacle to living in a Village and a Country where equality is more than just a concept or slogan. The division between the people of this country is less based on the way we look than the way we experience things. For those who wish to sow dissension, a lack of empathy creates the most fertile soil. If you don’t understand someone's experience and you’re not willing to listen and learn, it’s much easier to paint them with a broad brush and see them as ‘other”.
When it comes to keeping people at odds, fear plays the biggest role. Those who wish to divide us have always clung to fear as their most reliable motivator. The fallacious appeal to fear is probably the oldest and most effective way to stifle progress and blind people to how easy it is to stand for equality. Fear fans the flames, it is essential to sustaining the hate that those people feed off of. Fear is how someone sees a message like Black Lives Matter and thinks it means other lives don’t. Fear is how someone thinks a protest organized by members of your community is a guise for destruction of property. Fear is what makes you think you need to be armed at a peaceful protest and fear is what makes you seek out discord when the path to harmony is plain as day. Fear is what makes you think those who are different than you are against you and those who think differently than you look down on you. Fear is what makes people write racial slurs on The Romeo Rock, destroy private property celebrating diversity and spread rumors to sabotage a show of unity. The First Congressional Church, nor the leaders or participants of the Black Lives Matter Marches in Romeo have ever made a single statement against the police or the people of the community overall. The march was peaceful and there was not then and has not been as of now any destruction of any property, nor any attack on any group or individuals. And yet, neither a peaceful protest or a peaceful display of support could go off without someone reminding everyone why those displays are necessary in the first place.
Richard Nixon, sitting in the White House amidst chaos and protests in the streets over Vietnam, decried the protesters as a vocal minority and declared a debt of gratitude to what he called the great silent majority. The voters who delivered him his victory and in whose image he promised to mold America. Today, president Trump has borrowed the phrase to try and galvanize his base support. But Trump and his supporters are not the silent majority any longer, but rather, the vocal minority. And the Trump administration is ignoring history and the fact that Nixon’s silent majority, which he said needed to see to that America defeated North Vietnam, was proven wrong over time to the extent that even Nixon had to give in. America left Vietnam, a far cry from victory, and Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace after it was discovered his campaign and administration had broken into DNC headquarters prior to the 1972 election. The great silent majority has been waning ever since. Younger voters are moving further and further away from the politics of law and order and instead embracing equality and diversity. Whereas the call forty and fifty years ago was for stability after the turbulent decade of the 1960’s, today’s youth has a reinvigorated appetite for change and a determination to accelerate progress. Change can be scary, and those who wish to see it want it to come fast, which for those who don’t, makes it all the more terrifying. That terror, that fear brings out the worst in us, makes us cling to what we have and long for what we had. It’s how America can be the Greatest Country in the World and still need to be made “Great Again”.
And so here we are. When Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation in 1933 on the first of his four inauguration days, he addressed fear and it’s paralyzing impact. He spoke,
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Roosevelt's words, first spoken eighty-eight years ago could not apropos for today. We again are faced with a choice between facing our fears together or running from them alone. Let’s stand together, let’s fight together, let’s listen to each other and choose compassion over cynicism. Wherever we go as a Nation we will go together, some willingly, some kicking and screaming. And wherever we go as a Nation, when we get there, we will still be there together. We will still need to work together and we will still have the choice that was first laid in 1768 by founding father John Dickinson, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.”