By: Madonna Hamel
When John F. Kennedy was shot the reporter Mary McCordy turned to her typewriter and the task at hand, then stopped and looked up at her friend. ” We’ll never laugh again,” she said. “Oh we’ll laugh”, he replied. ‘We’ll just never be young again.” I imagine by young he meant: innocent. We all have a time or incident in our lives we proclaim the moment we lost our innocence. Every decade it seems, someone declares the loss of a nation’s innocence. But then the children rouse our energies and potentialities, revive our spirits and melt our icy little hearts. The moment we truly lose our innocence is the moment the child in us laughs at others in derision. When we emulate bullies. When we can’t play well with others.
Last week there was a lot of laughter going on at the absurd and outrageous language of the president of America showing either a total inability to grasp the situation in Charlottesville, or worse, an inability to feel an iota of compassion for anything other than a statue. The laughter, on my part, is a kind of head-shaking when-will-all-it -all end response to a situation I have no control over. But it’s wrong to laugh. He has used the power of his office to make America hate again. He’s made many feel they don’t belong in their own home.
Dear Reverend King, I’ve seen photos of you laughing at absurdities, too. There’s the one of you and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young and others standing in the Lorraine Motel parking lot the night before you died, being handed a court injunction to stop the huge sanitation workers support march planned for a few days hence. A court injunction? At this point? It seemed absurd.
Last week, caught up in my own fascination with all the lurid details, I was hypnotized for two hours by the same CNN clips, watching over and over and over and over and over, as Mr. Trump claimed there were “fine people on both sides”. I never saw any “fine people” among the white supremacists or Neo-Nazis or KKK or Evropa; they were spoiling for a fight. I’m not sure the media could be described as ‘fine’ either, caught like I was in the time-worn directive: if it bleeds it leads. Only it’s not just leading the show, as in ‘top story’, it’s leading us deeper into a fascination with violence instead of a dedication to peaceful contentedness.
The antifascist group Antifa were there too. As well as Redneck Revolt, a citizen’s militia group who show up at protests to purportedly stand guard and run interference between peaceful protestors and right wing extremists. But I couldn’t tell who was who because both sides were carrying guns. At one point, when fighting broke out, a white supremacist said to another white supremacist about to hit him: “I’m one of you!” Apparently they couldn’t tell either.
What I could tell was that there were not just two sides, there were many, I just couldn’t find the ‘fine’ ones. Rev. King, I knew there had to be ‘fine’ people carrying on in your tradition of nonviolence, gathering somewhere in prayer and doing their best to hold a peaceful space, not strengthening the habit of hate. But I had to go looking for them on the internet. Sure enough there they were, standing together, arm in arm, a coalition of preachers, members of Black Life Matters and other concerned citizens who still believed in what you believe in bearing witness, holding firm, difficult as it must have been, in their own habit of agapic love. When things started to get nasty the armed leftists held their ranks, brandishing firearms and preventing some, like professor and black activist-theologian Cornel West from, as he says, being squished like cockroaches.
When you look at the Redneck Revolt website you hear voices of smart young people who sound like they actually care about people. But I can’t get past the “Piece first. Then Peace ” slogans, which makes about as much sense as “Shoot first. Ask questions later”. The chief of police in Charlottesville, who didn’t appear to be of much help to anybody, said that some members of Redneck Revolt had better equipment than his own force. But after all, the gun is their symbol. They “love guns. Hate racists”. They also say they fashion themselves after the abolitionist John Brown and The Black Panthers. They say they defend black people. There are actually no, or few, blacks in Redneck Revolt because, even though open-carry states permit everybody – regardless of colour, creed or gender- to show their piece, what black person in America would risk it considering ‘he had a gun’ has been the defense for trigger happy cops off for years?
When it comes to most of these groups, guns are the solution to the problem of guns. But I’m sure I’ve also heard it said by Einstein that the consciousness required to solve a problem cannot be the same consciousness that gets you out of it. And surely, Reverend King, when you said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, you didn’t mean “the arm”, as in firearm? No, I just checked, and sure enough you said “arc”. But who does the bending? The ones who claim guns are the “voice of authority”? Guns don’t have voices. I always thought the bend in the arc comes from the forge of mercy, or compassion. I remember you said, near the end, that we must make the shift from being a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society”. What must you think of a thing being the “voice of authority”.
At a recent country fair Redneck Revolt showed up to “show support” to a community. Some of the members decided to leave their pieces at home because it was a “family friendly” event. If you can’t have your gun and your family in the same public space maybe that says something. When the alt-right fascists turned up they were outnumbered, so there was no significant confrontation, although the local townsfolk, who were part of neither group, just wanted everybody gone.
As it turned out the fascists were “chased away by three teenage girls”. What I wouldn’t give to have seen that. And while I have no idea what was said, I bet they weren’t bearing arms. In fact, it might be teenage girls, no make that tweenies – before the hormones that make girls do whatever will make the boys like them kick in – who remind us how to get along. Here, in Val Marie, they play together, help each other with homework, keep an eye on the younger ones in the playground and walk them home. Yep kids seem to be the example. And moms and aunties. Making us wash our hands before supper, reminding us to be thankful for all we’ve got.
Dear Reverend King, when reporter Mary McCordy was sent on her first difficult assignment her editor suggested she write it with her favourite aunt in mind. With all respect to my favourite Aunt Adelle, I chose to write to you because the day you died happened to be my tenth birthday. And when my mother sank to the couch stunned and deflated, holding a wooden spoon still covered in birthday cake icing, that’s when I lost my innocence, but gained a social conscience. You set me on a trajectory with a long arc that I hope soon bends in the forge of compassion.
Dear Reverend King, I didn’t even know who you were when you died, but my mom said you were a holy man. (And she also whispered “they are taking all the good ones”.) I grew aware that standing up for what was right was getting some people killed. At least here, even though we all harbour own little hatreds. most people grow up knowing how to hunt from an early age, and yet walking around with your gun hanging out just to remind everyone your lethal potential seems like… overkill. Here the guy covered in ink and piercings has Don Cherry’s signature tattooed on his head, not a symbol of hatred. Here we still have seniors suppers and dances where we two-step with each other and people don’t lock their doors at night.
You were once called the moral voice of America. I can’t put my finger on who that would be now. But surely they shouldn’t be carrying a gun, considering its function. It wouldn’t look too good to be talking about love with a gun in your hand. Maybe a newborn baby. Or a bouquet of flowers. Or this season’s giant zucchini. Or a pie server. Come to think of it, the moral authorities in my life have always held mixing spoons or pie servers. I recall a supper at my ex’s relatives in Philadelphia. Upon hearing the news of a man who shot his neighbour over a parking spot, I blurted: “I don’t understand America!” Aunt Jeri responded with a world-weary sigh. “Some of us Americans don’t understand America. Hand me your plate, child.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.