What you’re reading now isn’t the column I intended for today. But after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and its aftermath, riots both here and elsewhere are much more important. Questions have answers we’d rather not hear, certainly not deal with. For me: the reawakening of memories from 1968 Viet Nam protests — the death of Martin Luther King — the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with blood running in the streets.
It’s 65 years since Emmett Till, age 14, was lynched in Mississippi for having forbidden contact with a white woman. This wasn’t true, but truth didn’t matter. We still visualize lynching as it was then: a tight rope around the neck, cutting off all breath. George Floyd’s recent death was a ground-level lynching: the knee of now-former policeman Derek Chauvin on his neck as he managed his last words: “I can’t breathe.”
Did any of our Jewish community take part in the peaceful downtown Dallas demonstration that morphed into that ugly riot? Why the transformation? My answer: inevitability. Eventually, the underdog will become Top Dog, if only for a moment. Think of the bystanders who became active participants in inflicting Holocaust horrors, and then of the fiercely fighting survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. Violence is contagious. The heated pot bubbles before it boils. Minneapolis bubbled over into several cities, including Dallas.
There was ample precedent: Watts in Los Angeles, 1965; Detroit and Newark, 1967. Chicago’s 1968 headlines read “The Whole World Is Watching”; ours today read differently, but the meaning is the same. Even the not guilty must share the guilt.
I knew a Jewish man in Chicago who lost his business in 1968’s riots. He was stunned. He, and others like him, there and now also here, repeat the mantra which is their question: “We always treated them fairly. Why did they do this to us?” The answer: The crucial word is “them.” Fair treatment does not make a black customer white. “They” are still not “Us.” But knowing this doesn’t stop rioting from happening, or make it right. It can begin with any oppressed minority that has had enough unfair treatment outside of that “fair” store; it can be started by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto as well as any others marginalized in any way by any majority. It can begin with those visualizing, after the fact, a black man with a white policeman’s knee on his neck. Then, color merges for a time with brutality, and in the end, everyone suffers.
Mike Bloomfield was once my student as a pre-confirmand in an affluent Chicago suburb’s Reform synagogue. His Judaism had only tenuous connections to our history and culture, but at 15, Mike was already a fine musician, itching to buy a top-quality guitar. I “contracted” with him: If he promised to continue in religious school through Confirmation, I would connect him with people to help him make his best buy. And all this did happen. One decade later, one year after the Chicago rioting, filmmaker Haskell Wexler memorialized it with “Medium Cool,” his cousin Mike Bloomfield providing the music.
Will anyone make a film about what happened on the streets of Dallas? Should, would, could that help us all to understand, and heal? “Medium Cool” did not; it was a brief, flashy sideshow, long since faded into history. But memories of the riots have never faded.
To help us now, let’s all reread Harper Lee’s two books: “Go Set a Watchman” as well as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In that order, as she actually wrote them, they detail the inevitabilities of her place and time, which in so many ways are still ours. And I also recommend for us as Jews the much newer “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, subtitled “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
Above all, we must remember this: “Knowledge alone cannot save us. But we cannot be saved without it.” Let us go forth and learn.