Even though I am currently a special education teacher, I am a social studies teacher by trade. I taught government and United States history for many years before I earned my Master of Special Education degree. Even then, for the last two years, I have co-taught United States history, world history, and economics, so I still get my social studies fix.
As a student of social studies, especially of history, I am always seeking ways that history connects to the present, validating that age-old question, "Why do we have to study history?" The answer to that question is that we must know our history in order to understand where we come from, to apply lessons of the past to the present, and in some cases, to prevent it from repeating itself. And sometimes, without realizing it, we witness history in the present. Allow me to elaborate...
Recently, a black man by the name of George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Shortly after news broke, news outlets were reporting that Mr. Floyd died after one of the officers held their knee to his neck for several minutes. The four officers involved were terminated and one of them, thus far, has been charged with murder. Protests have erupted not only in Minneapolis but in cities around the country. Many of these protests have been peaceful marches, but some have turned violent with physical altercations, exchanges of gunfire, and looting of businesses caught on camera and posted on social media and beyond.
People are angry. I am angry. There are far too many instances of unarmed individuals, especially black men, that die while in custody. The system is broken and is long overdue for a fix. Racism and profiling are ingrained in our society and it is ridiculous that in the year 2020, we continue to see these types of incidents. It is no wonder that peoples' anger has reared its head.
As a white male, I cannot relate to the experiences with law enforcement that many black men and other people of color have on a regular basis. My worst experience with the police came as a 16-year-old when I was pulled over for driving against a one way on a street in my hometown. In this instance, rather than driving around a concrete barrier to pull into a parking lot, I drove against the one way for about 20 feet and turned into the lot. I had seen people do it 100 times and I happened to have a police officer witness me do it. I did not get a ticket, but I got a lecture from the officer about traffic laws. To this day, I chalk it up to me being young, not because I had broken a traffic law.
My roommate from college is a different story. He and I refer to each other as brothers, we are family through and through. We have confused people on many occasions when we speak of each other as family, he being black and I being white. I wish I could say that his worst experience with the police was as trivial as mine.
One night in college, he was driving through town with my brother when he was pulled over. Neither of us can recall why he was initially pulled over, but when the officer came back to the car with his license, he was informed that there was a warrant for his arrest from his hometown for unpaid child support (which was a couple of days late at the time). The officer told him that he either needed to pay the child support at that moment or he would be taken to jail. Because he and my brother did not have enough cash on hand, he ended up spending the night in jail and was released after my brother went to get the money needed to pay for the child support and his bail. He was also assigned a court date back in his hometown, which was a six-hour drive away. He ended up going to the court date, only to find out that it had been canceled because he had already paid his support and was current.
I can guarantee that if this was me or another white male in my roommate's place, this would have played out differently. Most likely, I would have been given a warning and told to go make the payment needed. I doubt I would have been taken to jail. I doubt that I would have had to go before a judge. And who knows if I would have ever been pulled over in the first place as the reason was so minor that neither of us can remember why he was pulled over. The bottom-line: people of color are treated differently and whites, especially white males, have a privilege in society that most do not enjoy.
Now, back to the current situation. Another side of the debate is how people are protesting. Many are calling for peace, condemning protesters that resort to violence and referring to them as thugs, anarchists, and worse. I do not condone people getting hurt or killed, the destruction of property, or further violence from any side. However, I can understand it. I have had moments in my life where my anger has made me want to express it in a violent manner. And there have been many instances of violent protests that have made this nation what it is. For example:
- American colonists, first as a protest to taxation and eventually to other perceived violations of individual rights by the British, rioted in the streets with British soldiers, destroyed British property and goods (i.e. Boston Tea Party), tarred and feathered tax collectors and burned the homes of British agents and sympathizers, before clashing with the British Army and declaring independence, fighting a bloody war for independence
- Working in horrific conditions for long hours and little pay, workers created labor unions to demand better conditions only to be met by violent strikebreakers. Hundreds died in the late 1800s and early 1900s in events like the Haymarket Square incident, the Homestead Massacre, the Pullman Strike.
- Veterans of World War I, hoping to get their service bonuses early, in 1932, protested in shadows of the Capitol, only to have the US Army, led by a young Douglas MacArthur, burn the Bonus Army out of Washington, DC
- The Civil Rights Movement, focusing on peaceful protest, was met by violence such as the murders of civil rights workers throughout the South, mass arrests and brutality by police such as the use of high-powered fire hoses and dogs on marchers in Birmingham, Alabama
- After a black man was beaten during a traffic stop in Los Angeles and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved, riots broke out in the streets in LA for days in 1992, eventually killing dozens, injuring hundreds, and doing millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses
This is just a sliver of the history of ONLY the United States in which violence has erupted but eventually led to significant changes. The US wouldn't exist without those that were brave enough to stand up to oppression from the British. Laws addressing civil rights, labor, veterans affairs and more have been passed as a result, but we are still experiencing issues with racial profiling and police brutality.
Again, I don't want issues to be solved with violence, but I understand it. People are fed up and enough is enough! As an educator, it starts with US to end this! We are the ones that need to use our powers of building relationships and community to inspire tough conversations, call out instances of racism, and unite people. Then, and only then, will our society truly be one created for all.
Until next time...