My heart is heavy. I went to the downtown San Diego protest yesterday in solidarity for all communities of color and against the senseless murder of George Floyd. I felt compelled to be there. As an enrolled member of the Ottawa Tribe who serves extensively in Indian Country, I’ve seen first-hand the continuing lack of care and concern for our tribal communities, where our nation’s first peoples are consistently treated last (or completely ignored). As an Air Force veteran, I’ve been heartsick seeing our Commander-in-Chief inciting violence against our fellow Americans. And as an American, I wanted to join like minds with hopeful intention to heal the painful, widening fractures we see in our nation today. I’ve never been political and not intending to be here. But I do consider myself a rational, caring human being and the proud dad of two teenage daughters – and worry about the state of the country they’re living in right now.
In the crowd, the anger and frustration were apparent, but things were peaceful. I had some engaging conversations with many others, including fellow veterans, about the issues. Around us were huge lines of police and National Guard in tactical gear, armed to the teeth. I was confused. I thought this was a peaceful protest. And as a veteran, I’d never been on the other side of U.S. military force, which is what it felt like. One guy I spoke with had served in the Marine Corps for almost twenty years and in Afghanistan. He said, in reference to all the tactical gear and the armored vehicle in front of us, “I never thought I’d see this used here at home. On us.” Reflecting on how bad the ugliness and division has become, and seeing unarmed protesters of every race and age facing a line of militarized police in riot gear, brought tears to my eyes.
Then someone tossed a plastic water bottle toward the police and all hell broke loose – loud concussive explosions erupted from flash-bangs as police opened up on the crowd, firing tear gas and pepper balls at us. One hit the wall next to my head and my eyes, nose and mouth felt on fire. I was gagging, coughing and had to rinse my eyes out. Being in law enforcement is a dangerous, often thankless job and I have many good friends and a relative in law enforcement and they have my utmost respect. I know that there are good people dedicated to upholding the law and serving with honor. But the decision to have law enforcement at the protest seemingly “pre-escalated” for conflict with the crowd seemed to seem to facilitate, if not invite, that very thing. If you bring a hammer, things tend to look like nails.
Things calmed for a time and then the same scenario, thrown objects triggering police response, started again until a curfew was ordered to shut it all down. At the San Diego County Administration Building, law enforcement fired pepper balls and teargas into a crowd of peaceful protesters at a candlelight vigil to emphasize the order. At that point, bad actors started to vandalize not only downtown San Diego – but also the concept of peaceful protest and the memory of George Floyd.
How can we be part of creating a better way forward? We must each decide what that looks like for us and how we express it, but it’s desperately needed. I believe the rule of law must be upheld and racism must be confronted in our federal and state institutions, shining light (and law) in those dark corners where it’s been allowed to exist, and even condoned, by those in leadership positions. The law enforcement dynamic that disproportionately targets, incarcerates and kills black Americans has to be systemically uprooted and eliminated like the cancer it is. And if not now, when? What will it take for us to decide we’re better than this?
A Latin quote from the book Life of Pi reads “Nil magnum, nisi bonum” (no greatness without goodness). We need to focus on cultivating goodness in our country and with each other, no exclusions anymore. I have faith that we’re capable of it. Without goodness, being considered a truly great nation will forever be out of reach. My deep hope is that we will stand together in national unity and understand, finally and fully, that continuing injustice to any group in our nation is injustice to everyone in it. And then act accordingly.