We knelt on one knee; there were well over 200 of us. There was total silence. We knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It seemed like an eternity. It was uncomfortable. The kneeling became a bit painful, actually.
During the first 5 minutes, I lost my balance once and had to put my hands on the grass beneath my knee to get steady. I could not imagine having my hands in my pockets while kneeling that way.
It seemed like we were kneeling forever. Eight minutes and 46 seconds is really a long time. A person could take a shower in less time, dry hair in less time, shave in less time, empty the dishwasher in less time, fall asleep, eat a burger, even suffocate a person in less than 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
A lot of thoughts, too, can run through a person’s mind in 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Many thoughts surely ran through my mind. I wondered why our civil rights rallies and demonstrations a lifetime ago weren’t more successful in eliminating systemic racism in America. We did manage to get the Civil Rights Act of ’64 passed, ending segregation. And the Voting Rights Act of ’65 … there was that.
Speaking of voting, we managed a 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age to 18 years old. That was in ’71. Hey, if a guy could get drafted at 18, he surely should be allowed to vote … right? Managed to end the draft too; in ’73. Lots of activism and advocacy going on back in the day.
But yet, here I was again at another rally.
Yes, 8 minutes and 46 seconds gives a person a lot of time to think. We had achieved a lot back in the day, but we obviously didn’t finish the work. The time following the initial minutes during last week’s Jefferson Township Peaceful Teach-in – an active response to the murder of George Floyd – would demonstrate “why.”
Sure, we had fixed obvious injustices decades ago, but we had not learned; not listened carefully with open hearts to the roots and evolution of systemic American racism. Tuesday evening, we were called to listen actively. We heard the passionate and compelling stories of four people of color. It was a time for reckoning, not just “fixing.”
We listened to the stories of two township residents – Keith Peters, a married biracial father of two, and Kate Vialet, a young Black woman and graduate of Jefferson Township High School. We heard as well the stories of another Black Jefferson Township High School alumnus Ina Joseph, as well as Lynette Denison, a married Latina mom of two biracial kids.
During their stories we “lived” being pulled over for “driving while Black.” We lived being asked time and again to have our hair touched. We lived being fearful for our kids to simply leave the house. We lived being asked why we just don’t paint our bodies white. We lived what it’s like having our true history “brushed over” in school. We lived trying to “fit in,” and being excluded. We lived what it felt like to feel “dirty.”
We sat spellbound during every single story. Each person received a sustained standing ovation. It cannot be easy to reopen wounds and explain the hurt, but Keith, Lynette, Ina and Kate did so nevertheless. They won the hearts and opened the minds of an unequivocally supportive audience.
Afterward, there were a surprising number of questions and answers, as well as suggestions from the audience.
Even the township’s Chief of Police, Sean Conrad, stepped up to answer a very direct question about police enforcement. He reiterated the department’s rejection of racism and said he welcomed calls from residents regarding any incidents that appeared biased.
Jefferson’s Teach-In – just one of countless reactions throughout the country – to the recurring and most recent appalling acts of racism by law enforcement, can be counted as one of the township’s most outstanding moments. It was peaceful, affirmative, supportive, and truly enlightening.
We can only hope the lessons taught last week finally lead to active anti-racism and mindful covert racism … and that once and for all we can write the final chapter of racism in our American history.