For some years now, the warnings about fascism have increased. Now, we witness federal troops taking protesters from the streets of Portland, Oregon, and expanding their presence to other cities. Who knows what will happen between the time I write this column and you read it?
This series of events may have been impossible without the on-going pandemic. With the pandemic, many things that looked impossible have happened. Every type of meeting imaginable–worship services, classrooms, happy hours, birthday parties, press conferences, and political assemblies–moved on-line almost overnight. A majority of the country has embraced Black Lives Matter as more than a slogan. Mississippi has jettisoned its flag, a legacy of the Confederacy that refused to die for more than a hundred and fifty years. The Washington football team has announced a name change, the owner’s staunch resistance evaporating after years of fighting it.
Changes, once impossible, have tumbled along more quickly than anyone could have imagined. And the pandemic has probably been part of that because so much that was familiar had disappeared in a sudden burst. Change suddenly seemed possible.
Yet, resistance to needed change has deep roots. Racism and white supremacy cling like static on a dry day, invisible and persistent, despite efforts to disperse. And, we learned during the 1960’s that elected leaders can and will block progress, even if it means resorting to violence and misuse of police authority.
When we see these extreme reactions, we begin to know the depth of the changes being advocated. As Unitarian Universalists, we may think that equal treatment for all races under the law is a no-brainer. That is a naïve reaction, misunderstanding the complex history of race and policing. Slave patrols captured fugitives seeking freedom. Bull Conner’s officers beat Freedom Riders. And, in the same way today, racist policies and ideas will be reasserted through force when they cannot be argued with reason.
The potentially good news is that with force the only argument left, the time for a real reckoning with race in America may be nigh. Providence, Rhode Island, has initiated a truth commission that expects to come up with recommendations for reparations, another once-impossible event coming into being.
However, the potentially bad news is that force can sometimes win–at least temporarily. And as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in her book Fascism: A Warning: “The real question is: who has the responsibility to uphold human rights? The answer to that is: everyone.”
As Unitarian Universalists, we embrace the responsibility to uphold human rights. We support the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We may not know how, exactly, to respond. However, we know that we must do what we can to keep force from defeating the human spirit.Stay safe out there, Jonalu Johnstone