As relentless and unwanted as the march of the coronavirus across the country has been, the lightning speed with which outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd spread nationwide has been as welcome as it is overdue.
Across this region, protesters have gathered from Brattleboro to Keene to Peterborough to voice, with passion, condemnation of Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis by a police officer now charged with murder, and calls for steps to address social, legal and economic inequalities facing black Americans in particular, and other communities of color and minorities as well.
Fortunately, the gatherings here have been as peaceable as they have been impassioned. And an important message from public officials was sent locally as members of local law enforcement, including Keene Police Chief Steven Russo and Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera, participated in the Keene protest, consistent with the heartening images of police in other cities kneeling in solidarity with protesters.
But there has been accompanying violence and destruction in many cities across the nation. That not only is wrong and mostly harms those already suffering injustice, but it threatens to divert attention from the critical issue — achieving justice and racial equality.
Leadership is needed at all levels that not only calls for justice for George Floyd — and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and other victims of racially motivated injustice — but takes appropriate steps to end the violence while protecting peaceable protesting. Even more, there must be an unrelenting focus on the underlying problems and achieving visible, meaningful progress toward addressing them.
We are in a time when not only has the systemic mistreatment of minorities by law enforcement and the criminal justice system in so many parts of the country been laid bare, but also when a sweeping pandemic has afflicted and killed black Americans, Latinos and other minorities in far greater numbers and the accompanying economic shutdown has far more adversely affected lower-income people, particularly communities of color. Without solutions and the hope of progress, what’s left of the American dream for them?
Sadly, leadership at the national level — particularly from the president — has focused almost exclusively on addressing the violence, lacking any acknowledgement by him, apart from expressing the need for justice for George Floyd, of the significant racial and other societal issues driving the nationwide outrage. That’s why widespread protesting in towns and cities of all sizes is important, to demonstrate that outrage and the desire for change are shared across the country and keep pressure on leaders to achieve it. This is the critical role the protesting in this region has been playing and it should continue, peacefully and passionately, as part of the wider effort.
Also important, though, is understanding that this region has a role in seeking solutions. Keene Mayor George Hansel Wednesday announced plans to form an ad hoc committee charged with “developing concrete recommendations for making Keene a more welcoming and equitable community” — perhaps reflective of the omnipresent “All Are Welcome Here” signs that adorn many local lawns. He also pledged to seek city Human Rights Committee recommendations when he makes nominations to city boards and commissions to seek more local government diversity, and he plans to hold a public forum on racial injustice.
At the state level, Gov. Chris Sununu has expressed support for peaceful protests against racial injustice and rejected comparisons between them and demonstrations against his stay-at-home order, saying anyone making that comparison is “missing the point.” And he has formed a COVID-19 Equity Response Team, whose members include Keene State College Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dottie Morris, to address the disproportionate racial and ethnic impact of the pandemic. While his charge to the group emphasizes identifying steps relating to public health impacts, he also seeks an examination of social, cultural and systemic factors, including economic ones, contributing to disparate pandemic outcomes.
Both the city’s and state’s initiatives are promising, but only initial, steps. Follow-through and tangible action will be critical. In the city’s case, we’d urge a broadening of the desire to be more welcoming to also more proactively encourage and attract community and business diversity. And we hope the governor’s initiative will also equally emphasize steps to address the systemic economic inequality the pandemic has spotlighted.
The problems of racial, social and economic inequality George Floyd’s killing and the pandemic have brought into renewed and sharper focus are deep-seated. Progress in solving them will be neither quick nor easy, but without meaningful initial steps and ongoing resolve to address them, we will fail in our national aspiration of equal treatment and opportunity for all. The initial steps announced by city and state leadership hold promise, but a meaningful national response will require the continued pressure of peaceful, passionate protesting across the nation.