Rake: The struggle for a more perfect union continues
So, here we are — in the midst of a pandemic, in the throes of civil unrest — just weeks away from celebrating the Fourth of July.
And a distance of 25 miles has been on my mind.
I've been thinking a lot about 1965. I was a teenager in Southern California, in the 'burbs. I remember the trembling and fear (and a tinge of racial bias?) in my father's voice talking about the Watts Riots.
Los Angeles was burning as my father made his daily 25-mile commute down Imperial Highway from the pastoral setting of rural Orange County to an office downtown on Wilshire Boulevard. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he saw the smoke rising in East L.A. under the blaze of the August sun. The only thing we kids witnessed was the hazy residue of smoke drifting east and the boldface headlines in the Los Angeles Times, which didn't seem to interrupt our days of idyll around the pool at the Country Club, where Dad's corporate membership was our anointment in privilege.
Almost 60 years later, after civil rights law and voting rights law, busing and desegregation of schools and affirmative action and election of the first black president, here we are. In America, in the midst of a pandemic. Smoldering again under the oppressive encumbrance of racism, which has barely lifted in its slow path down 25 miles of highway to the lily-white suburbs of America.
It has been 60 years — no, rather, 245 years since these words of Thomas Jefferson:
"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...
"But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object...
"Such has been the patient sufferance of...
"To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world..."
And instead of a list of grievances of colonists to some distant king, we might begin the long list of unarmed Black citizens shot, choked or otherwise rendered lifeless by white vigilantes or police over the half dozen years since fires raged in Ferguson, Missouri, in reaction to the death of Michael Brown.
And now the latest: George Floyd.
So why, therefore, is it surprising that we should see hundreds of thousands in the streets with a don't-give-a-damn-what-do-we-have-to-lose attitude, echoing the very sentiment of Thomas Jefferson, 245 years ago: "We, therefore … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions..."
I am not surprised, and while I don't condone any of the violence and looting, let's also be honest with ourselves: One, it will surely come to be shown that much violence has been perpetrated by extremists on the Left and the Right who have sought to further their own agenda (anarchy or a race war?); two, as 245 years have shown, the power of the state in the USA has long since proven that it has broken the social contract with its citizens of color. Why therefore, should they be bound to honor a contract that has served to bind them in conditions of poverty, inequality, racial inferiority, fear for their lives and livelihood? Why?
The American War for Independence began with acts of looting (Boston Tea Party) and terrorism (known as "Tory Hunting" or the tar and feathering of unpopular customs officials). Yes, a "more perfect union" was born out of looting and acts of violence. The British response to all this? What King George's troops referred to as "desolation warfare." Today it's just called "most vicious dogs and ominous weapons." Didn't succeed then, probably won't now, either.
Finally, while one can revere MLK and Gandhi and the doctrine of non-violent protest, I also admire and recognize that even "Saint" Nelson Mandela turned to violence in his youth when the apartheid state did not yield to reason or protests or boycotts or embargoes. He pledged his life and his fortune and sacred honor and spent years on the run before spending most of 3 decades in jail under the oppression of a racist state.
In the end, the British crown did not prevail in 18th-century America, and neither did the racist Afrikaners' regime of South Africa. There is no bunker deep enough to ensure the survival of those who believe they can preserve this State of the Union as it is. Today, ironically, I find myself sitting comfortably, if begrudgingly, "self-isolating" almost exactly 25 miles west of downtown Portland, a city burning, too, with unrest. And I'm left with this thought: However far we've come since 1965, since 1775, the last 25 miles are, will be, the hardest.
Timothy Rake is a a professional translator, retired educator and Returned Peace Corps volunteer. He lives in Forest Grove.
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