A Lament For Autumn, Now That Spring Is So Far Away
They call it the autumnal equinox. The Earth’s movements line up just right and cause the sun to cross the equator and — for one rotation — day and night are equal. It’s right there in the term, the Latin aequus, meaning “equal,” and nox, “night”. A brief moment of light and dark balanced like some kind of cosmic fortune cookie prophecy. In the American part of the Northern Hemisphere that means various levels of morning chill that for now give way to pleasant days but warn of winter’s relentless approach. The change in the wind, both as a metaphor and in the way the air goes from warm and comforting to going right through you. “The wind makes you ache in some place that is deeper than your bones,” Stephen King wrote in Salem’s Lot: “It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says migrate or die – migrate or die.” It is a lament that is especially bitter here in the real world, after a spring of swearing to ourselves we would not end up here again. Whether that was wistful or an outright lie depends on the individual. But here we are, stuck in a place where we cannot stay, needing to migrate or die, and utterly helpless to do either.
We are not stuck battling King’s vampires, but we do seem to be fighting the same old undead spirits that have haunted America since its founding. Our 240-odd year quest for a more perfect union seems decidedly to be off track as fall 2020 arrives. King talks of writing the novel among his own fears of the future and a backdrop of government malfeasance blanketing the news as he conceived his plot in 1973, which like any good novel reflects timeless concerns. The spring of 2020 was already going poorly for many folks, thanks to the double hit of COVID-19 and the economic shutdown that came with it. Then in May, the simmering tensions of race, policing, and politics once again exploded through the fault line of viral video.
When it happened, the George Floyd video seemed like a moment, where just about everyone looked at the same piece of video and on some level knew something very wrong was going on here. A man dying for eight minutes underneath police seemed like a clear-cut inflection point, something that demanded folks not look away and choose to do something. Perhaps it could have been. Decades if not centuries of issues meant it could have been avoided in the first place. No doubt it should have. Maybe, many thought, this would be the time that was different.
That was not to be.
Protests swept the land. Rioting and destruction marred some of them. More incidents of police harming citizens arose, more names on a too-long list. By the time President Trump had the street cleared to walk from the White House to St John’s Church on the first of June, a show of force for a photo op that galvanized his detractors while playing up his “law & order” at-all-costs message to his supporters, things seemed to be coming to a head. Maybe, some of those same folks from the week before thought, this time will be different.
Then the immediacy of the moment started to give way to the absurdity of the status quo. The very street that had been full of protesters, police, and tear gas on Monday became a much more absurd battleground of egos. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser renamed the street “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and, not content with signposts, had the phrase painted in giant letters. It took one day for “Defund the Police” to get added to the end, put there by protestors who also called out the Mayor for not doing so immediately. Much explaining began trying to nuance the term, but if you are explaining, you are losing.
“Defund the police” was the work of only a minority of those protesting, and an even small number elected officials in a position to actually do it, but many observers noted that this was not the rallying cry of “Justice for…” but rather an insertion of previous existing policy goals. It sure felt like the moment was slipping away. By that following Monday, I feared the datum point for a summer of justice reform had just slid by:
The pincer movement of viral videos and advocacy has achieved a victory in getting attention on the issues of how a free people who self-govern police themselves. It’s not just the usual suspects in the streets, but plenty of new folks who have never protested before feeling like they need to do something. If you told police reform advocates a month ago you would have police joining marchers, the bulk of headlines for two weeks, and Mitt Romney marching in a black lives matter protest they would have laughed at you.
All that happened just yesterday.
Take the win, don’t squander the moment, and don’t trade the good that can be done today with overwhelming support now for an unattainable fantasy laundry list that isn’t coming later. The protests made a statement on the streets. The president made a statement clearing and marching down the street. Mayor Bowers made a statement painting that street. The Black Lives Matter leadership upped the ante by painting even more on the street while declaring the first painting insufficient.
The danger is the high-profile folks keep making statements and counter-statements to one-up each other while nothing gets done at the levels of government necessary to change things for the better for the regular folks who have to live with it.
“This is no longer about George Floyd” isn’t just going to be a talking point; it’s a warning to those seeking change to not let mission creep, or getting caught up in the moment, or just good old fashioned hubris and self-righteousness carry you further than the moment and the people who are on your side right now, today, are willing to go. Take the win, then build for what comes next.
By the time August rolled around, the usual suspects had come full circle to not only dismissing the George Floyd incident along with a half dozen others, but finding ways to make sure that rather than “Justice for George Floyd,” “George Floyd is dead today almost entirely because of George Floyd” was the take away. James Blake being shot in the back after scuffling with officers fell right in line with the already primed and fractured society that not only expected there to be no justice this time around, but for the worst to happen. Which it did, after three nights of rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin produced a shooting that seemed tailor-made to explode the vapors and cinders of the summer of discontent. A summer that seemed to have names of people and places as tragic mileposts as 2020 dragged on. George Floyd, Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor, Louisville, 100 plus days in Portland, CHAZ/CHOP in Seattle, Jacob Blake, Kenosha Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse, plus looting and damage in New York City, Atlanta, Raleigh, Pittsburgh, burned police cars in Washington DC and Columbus, OH and other places and names and hurts. A summer many hoped would mean change and a reckoning seemed closer to same old same old, only seemingly worse than it was.
Unequal margins are part of the problem. Much like the medical warning that cancer may be present in the body, unequal margins are part of the disease of our civil unrest. The majority of protest are peaceful, the majority of police are good folks just trying to do their jobs, the majority of folks try to abide — at least in theory — by live and let live. A small margin of rioters causes violence and destruction, the minority of police are bad, a fraction of police involved shootings are unarmed black men. But margins matter, and in this case the margins feed unequally. The minority of violent destruction feeds into the police’s insistence on taking a posture both tactically and in funding as if violent riots and targeting of officers is the norm, as opposed to the exception. The cause of the majority of peaceful protesters is hurt by the violence done in the name of, and often purposefully under the cover of, chaos makers who seem to warp from scene to violent scene from sea to shining sea.
Elected officials, who seem to only want the issues to go away without impeding the lifestyles of the rich and governing, are certainly part of the problem. While some municipalities took action, most did not. Defund the police not only failed to materialize but with few exceptions police expenditures are set to go up when the fiscal year budgets for 2021 start 1 Oct. The president got his photo op in front of St Johns, and another in Kenosha, and who knows where next that seemed to fit his campaign for re-election just fine. Black Lives Matter the organization continues to rake in high-profile endorsements and money and move on to the next policy goal on their list, while black lives in shattered communities are just trying to get by another day. Communities that started the summer with hopes to survive the year, now must rebuild both emotionally and in physical buildings. A laundry list of demands on printed fliers seemed pointless in front of scattered brick and burned-out businesses that must be rebuilt. Politicians and protestors’ words were little comfort to communities scarred by damage, or families of the dead, or for those who have grown weary in incident after incident after incident.
Now comes Autumn, and what seemed at the end of spring as a chance to leap forward now has the cold chill of having come seemingly so close, but now a million miles, dozens of lives, and destroyed buildings away. Another election looms, another season of folks proclaiming that if we just elect their candidate all will be made well. It’s a lie, of course, and we all know it. No candidate can make all well, especially such things as justice, and peace, and prosperity. Oh, it is true enough a good leader can create an environment to foster such things, allowing such wonderful blooms to grow and blossom amongst the troubles of the time. The reasons the seasons change but do not change things for the better with them isn’t the nebulous “them” of Washington, or a state capitol, or demographic group, or media figure. It isn’t those who think different than us, or look different than us, or make themselves heard in a way we wouldn’t dare join. The reason, the root cause, the restrictive force on true and lasting change is much closer.
It is us. All of us.
Terms like social justice have seemingly all but lost meaning in a buzzword, hashtag drunk culture. But the concept can be reclaimed in small ways, such as how we treat each other, how we tolerate others’ failings and flaws, how we empathize with pain and wrongs that may not have been our fault but might be in our power to alleviate. Maybe if we who are privileged enough to live in peace and prosperity took a moment of that time to find a mirror instead of a trending story that confirms our priors, a few small changes might have a chance to be fruitful and multiple to something bigger. Perhaps, if nothing else, those who are perfectly comfortable could at least not get in the way of those who have legitimate grievances and not judge and condemn the well-meaning whole by the unruly fraction. Especially since those same comfortable folks are quick to demand the same courtesy and benefit of the doubt when their own prejudices and failings come to the fore.
“The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood,” wrote King of the battle to be waged against his undead metaphor of his own angst and fears. Taking to the streets, protesting, supporting sides, political and ideological movements: those are all fine things. Very American things at that, bestowed rights most folks in the world can only dream of let alone participate in. But no nation can stand tearing itself at the seams from within, which is why none have. America will be no different if we don’t fight this battle within night after night, and then together toward the more perfect union that is written in our documents if not yet fully manifest in our society. A society yet to fully grow up, to put aside not the impossible task of all of self, but just enough self to make others less infringed upon. Like any plea for maturity it is a big ask, but ask we must.
We must migrate from here or die. This, the greatest experiment in a free people self-governing, must make perfect the freedom of our people — all of the people — so that they can have equal share of the great things our nation is capable of when we set our minds to it. But we better do it now, today, without delay. 240 odd years is more than long enough to get it right.
Fall’s chill will soon give way to winter, and there will be a season of more darkness than light, both in the days and in the hearts of people. What then when will we make of how we spent this season, when the Spring equinox comes, and the days once again balance? Will we be closer to a more just and free society, or will we again see the days level out, but equality among people in more than just words and slogans still seemingly so far away?
There will be plenty of reasons, excuses, and explainers as to why we didn’t if spring comes to find us no better than today. Folks will pound their chests and send buttons feeling wholly righteous and dead set on their present course. Nothing from outside can sway them, and absent that they are doomed to stay where they are, convincing themselves their sliver of the truth is the whole of the picture. Convinced the darkness and the light change and move to their preferences alone, in a vacuum, and answerable to their thoughts, feels, and whims. But it is not so. The seasons come and go. Winter comes, and it does not care. Only people can do that, if they are willing. We need more willing; there are too few. Someday there may be enough, and then what an equinox that would be.