From Ferguson to Charlottesville to Bratislava: Hopes for the State of Our Union
Last week my family and I went to St. Louis for my mother-in-law’s 92nd birthday. We had a terrific time visiting family and friends, swilling a bit of whiskey in old haunts, and walking (or driving) down memory lane.
On one of these jaunts into the past, we drove our children through Ferguson, MO. Yes, that Ferguson. Ground zero, essentially, for the Black Lives Matter movement. The place where Michael Brown was shot two years ago and riots ensued. Coincidentally, we were there on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and on the eve of the riots that would break out in our adopted hometown of Charlottesville, VA, where we’ve lived for the past thirteen years. We stalked the ghosts of one tragic event, as another was beginning to unfold.
Our kids had been to Ferguson before — both prior to and after the riots that trashed its main drag, leaving its residents heartbroken, and the country stunned. They know the old-fashioned store front strip — once a staple of middle class prosperity, the Dollar General, McDonalds, and the tiny, brick bungalows with signs reading We Must Stop Killing Each Other and We Must Start Loving Each Other pierced into their lawns. These are all familiar sights.
My husband grew up only a short bike ride from where most of the violence and tear gas and looting took place. In a small, three bedroom house with no air conditioning. One shared by ten people, who in the midst of a hot, humid Missouri summer, shared a single squeaky, oscillating fan.
But he and his seven older sisters talk with a hearty fondness about their hard-scrabble childhood. The white-labeled, generic cans of “near beer” lined up in their fridge, and the butcher scraps their dad would bring home from his job behind a meat counter at a local grocery chain. Their’s was a mixed race working class neighborhood. Mostly peaceful and dignified. And most of his friends — ones from both black and white families — made it out of there, too.
It’s been hard watching our country stumble, especially with our home towns at the epicenter of our foibles. It has caused us to turn inward, searching our souls and looking for historical parallels that might teach us something, give us an idea of where we could be headed and how we can avoid a crash and burn. How did we get here? My husband and I pose that question at our dinner table often. Because it didn’t happen over night, and it didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump. Love Trumps Hate may be today’s slogan, just as Make Love Not War was popularized during the turmoil of the late 1960s, but it can’t begin to explain what is happening now. “Hate” doesn’t score a win just with the election of a divisive candidate. In a democracy, the state of politics and public discourse is a bipartisan endeavor — much like a marriage. Hate scores a win only when we turn on each other.
I was reminded of that, when in another coincidence, I came across an old journal entry from my days when I was living in Europe. It was spookily analogous in regards to some of what we’re experiencing today, so I think it’s worth sharing.
Back in the mid-nineteen nineties, my friend Kate was in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, directing Romeo and Juliet for the Slovak National Theater. In the world of Shakespeare, Kate is this really big deal and gets to fly all over the world doing this sort of thing. It’s a great gig and she’s a wonderful woman.
But at the time, Slovakia was going through a difficult period and Kate found the cultural and political climate a bit challenging.
Eastern Europe was exploding with growth and democracy, while Slovakia was stuck with a third-rate quasi-socialist thug in power and was enjoying none of the optimism and opportunity that was sweeping through its neighboring countries with gale-force wind.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a noticeable subset of Slovak youth found power and solace in the neo-Nazi movement.
One day, Kate was sitting at a cafe with the director of the Slovak National Theater when a teenage neo-Nazi stomped into the place and thunked down next to them — feet spread wide, hands drumming on the cafe table top. When he heard the women speaking English and surmised — correctly — that Kate was American, he began acting out. He started making all the cracks you’d expect him to make — about the filthy Jews controlling the U.S. and well, you get the picture. It was an ugly scene and Kate would have none of it. She scowled at him, picked up her chair and turned it around, putting her back to him — loudly, angrily. It felt good, she said.
Amen, sister, I thought as she described the scene.
“Kate, what are you doing?” her Slovak friend asked her.
Kate told her how disgusting she found this young man’s views, and the woman nodded, in complete agreement. But then the woman leaned forward and said with sadness, kindness, “Kate, our young people are lost and you are a great teacher from America. Please teach them. Don’t turn your back.”
That story had a tremendous impact on me, and I suspect it did on Kate, too. I remember she told her Slovak friend that she’d been given a lot to think about and dissected the experience in her journal that evening. Knowing Kate, who is one of the best teachers I’ve ever met, she internalized this incident and wrote down all of the things she should have said to the young man. Maybe, if she had a do-over, she would’ve started with, “Won’t you join us?” That seems like something Kate would do.
As for me, I’d like to say that I’ve so taken Kate’s story to heart that whenever I hear a smug politico or a chauvinist or racist or elitist or even an entitled millennial say something that makes my blood boil, I attempt to engage and teach them the way I’ll bet Kate has done going forward. But the truth is, I usually don’t. I take the easy road, what makes me feel good and righteous, but in truth doesn’t do a damn thing to actually try to bridge a gap and help the situation. I turn my back loudly, angrily. I glare, condescend or insult. Then I blame the pundits and the politicians and all the “stupid” people for our state of discourse.
But even if I haven’t lived up to my potential as a proud citizen in this great country, as a participant in our increasingly global culture, all is not lost.
Maybe, after reading the story of my friend Kate, someone will endeavor to use his brain and his heart to do better. And it will be people like him who will be able to soften us towards one another again.
“See the good in people and help them.” — Mahatma Gandhi