This moment for lasting reform on racial inequities didn’t come cheap. Don’t waste it.

June 26, 2020 12:05 am

A cloud of tear gas wafts behind protesters last month as they defied an 8 p.m. curfew ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

There’s never been a moment like this for significant change in the way our nation deals with fundamental inequities in its treatment of people of color – certainly not in my more than six decades on this planet.

The righteous wrath unleashed by the fresh police killings of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd – all Black, all unarmed – has achieved what the clashes of the 1960s could not: it has enlisted significant White support in protests over manifest, systemic and intolerable injustices toward Black people.

This moment has come at a precious toll of human blood and life. It presents an opportunity for political change equal to or even greater than President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms and his Voting Rights Act of 1965, which swept away Jim Crow’s brutal suppression of Black suffrage, particularly across the South. This moment has focused the nation’s attention and established a political imperative to enact lasting reforms that address sharp racial disparities in employment, health care, education, housing and, particularly, criminal justice.

In a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, 74 percent said they believe Floyd’s killing signals broader problems with police treatment of Black people rather than an isolated incident.

A Washington Post/George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government poll, also conducted in early June, showed that 74 percent support the protests and nearly two-thirds believed Floyd’s death illustrates a broader problem in policing toward African-Americans.

A poll last week from The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 69 percent of respondents said the criminal justice system is due a “complete overhaul” or “major change.” It also found overwhelming support for requiring cops to wear body cameras, establishing clear use-of-force standards, prosecuting police who use excessive force and compelling officers to report other officers’ misdeeds.

The moment is there, but it is perishable. This window of opportunity can be shortened by those who embrace lawlessness over the due processes of government that would make their gains official, legitimate and lasting.

As peaceful protests diminish in size and frequency, an attention-deficit media focuses its cameras on vandals and outlaws hell-bent on randomized disorder and gorging their own egos; actors disinterested in, if not hostile toward, the orderly process of changing the law to right history’s wrongs.

Using mobs to topple statues satisfies an immediate lust for vengeance. And it’s easy to comprehend. Centuries of pent-up rage over atrocities and indignities do not melt easily away, particularly when the world is witness to lethal actions by police.

Sharp reactions to the monuments’ defacement or destruction abound from the establishment, most of it comfortably White. “We’re destroying our history!” they exclaim on social media as bronze likenesses to notable Caucasians fall at the hands of crowds across the country, including Richmond, Virginia, perhaps the nation’s most target-rich environment.

Whose history?

What did Jefferson Davis, whose statue was yanked from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue by a rope and a truck late one night earlier this month, achieve for African Americans? He presided over a government determined to keep them in bondage.

What did Andrew Jackson, whose horseback bronze stands within sight of the White House was an unsuccessful target of protesters, achieve for Blacks or Native Americans? History shows him to have been a harsh slaveholder who, as an Army general, carried out brutal campaigns against indigenous tribes when he wasn’t fighting the British in the War of 1812.

There’s also a distasteful irony in complaints about mobs using ropes to take down statues of Confederates and slave owners by protesters whose ancestors died at the hands of a mob and the end of a rope.

People of color whose own culture and heritage wasn’t considered when those statues were erected a century or more ago now have a voice. It’s their time to be heard – unless louder voices upstage them. It has happened before.

Larry Sabato, a longtime University of Virginia political science professor and founding leader of UVA’s Center for Politics, saw lawless and extremist groups hijack earnest protests for their own destructive ends during his youth the 1960s.

“Civil protests eventually deteriorate, only to be taken over by fringe types. I personally saw that in the Vietnam era,” he said, recounting how radicalized groups including the Weathermen, Yippies and Students for a Democratic Society pre-empted the “Clean for Gene” college followers of 1968 Democratic presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy.

America’s apostle of non-violent protest, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had just been silenced by a sniper’s bullet in Memphis. In the central cities, looters in that presidential election year created the “long, hot summer” that fed the fears of moderates and independents and drove “law-and-order” President Richard Nixon’s election, Sabato added.

“If the mainstream civil rights movement had been able to maintain control, progress would have been made much faster,” Sabato said.

This is another long, hot summer in a presidential election year. Again the actions in our cities will help influence its outcome and, in so doing, which of the reforms, now past due and payable, become law.

“As usual, the winners will be determined by politics,” Sabato said.

President Donald Trump, who has demonstrated his willingness to employ smashmouth tactics against protests, is hoping he can recapture the combination that won for Nixon, though polls referenced previously suggest his approach is highly unpopular. Democrat Joe Biden, vice president to the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, appears to be a beneficiary of that disaffection, according to recent polling.

“Despite the excesses, those who want serious police reform will prevail if Biden wins and Democrats take the Senate,” Sabato said.

“If Trump gets a second term and the GOP holds the Senate, anger in the streets may go off the charts but the crackdown will be severe,” he added.

And then?

“We’re back to fundamentals.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]