In it for the long haul

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Defeating hate and dogma demands dedication

Dozens of Virginia Commonwealth University grads walked out of their commencement ceremony in Richmond on May 11 as Gov. Glenn Youngkin took the stage to speak.

Youngkin is a good target for protests because he puts a friendlier face on MAGA politics than the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, which makes him more dangerous. He is being touted as a possible running mate for Donald Trump.

Protests are an example of a concept I first learned in mathematics, of something being necessary but not sufficient. To make sustained progress on a public policy issue, it is not enough to get attention. We must engage the political process and do our homework.

Remember that advocates of forced birth worked for half a century to overturn Roe v. Wade.

We cannot afford to be single-issue voters in a country with so many challenges and with our democracy under threat.

People who call themselves pro-life endanger women's lives with cruel restrictions on emergency abortion care. Restrictions on child labor are lifted while feeding programs are cut. Bigots seek to erase queer lives and ban our literature. Republican legislators echo Russian disinformation on the floor of Congress.

In confronting injustices, it is frustrating to know that even problems long targeted for change, like racially biased policing, stubbornly resist reform efforts.

Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson, a black man, was shot to death on May 3 by a sheriff's office deputy in the Florida Panhandle who had gone to the wrong apartment.

According to Tom McGlaughlin of the Pensacola News Journal, Fortson's girlfriend, with whom he was talking on Facetime when the incident occurred, "said Fortson was startled by an aggressive pounding on the door of the apartment, but when he peered through the peephole could see no one on the other side, so he went and retrieved his legally registered gun."

Police bodycam footage showed that Fortson was holding his gun at his side, pointing it down. The deputy quickly fired six shots at him. What the camera doesn't show are differences in cultural attitudes that cause police to use deadly force more often against black people.

There is a long, dispiriting list of such incidents. It is hard to stop these tragedies when so many react to them either by being outraged at anyone who calls out biased policing, or with numbed indifference.

I worked on police reform for decades as part of a broad-based coalition. The organization most resistant to our efforts was the Fraternal Order of Police. Its leaders routinely circled the wagons, indignant at any suggestion that officers should not be above the law.

Some conservatives complain that black people do not cooperate with police. But how can people be expected to trust law enforcement when their lives are accorded so little value?

It doesn't stop at police. On May 9, the school board in Virginia's Shenandoah County voted to restore the names of Confederate leaders to two schools that had previously honored them.

The refusal ever to let go of the Lost Cause, the indignant denial of racial double standards, the insistent clinging to grievance while waving a treasonous banner—those are not signs of an easy solution ahead.

It can be hard to accept being part of a multi-generational struggle whose fruits we may not live to see. But if we are about more than venting—if we seriously intend to address systemic problems—we cannot prepare for a marathon as if it were a fifty-yard dash.

Roger Fortson bought a flight suit for his adoring little sister to match his own. He was saving to buy his mother a new house. He was 23. His death leaves an empty space with his loved ones and community. Even if the sheriff's deputy is tried and convicted of wrongful death—so far he has only been placed on leave—it will not bring the young man back.

We have a nation not so much to restore as to create. When innocent people are cut down so easily and often, mostly without consequence to those doing it, we are not the nation or people that we claim to be.

Amid our grief, we need moments of unaccountable joy to remind us of what has been taken from our fellow citizens in a way not evenly distributed. We must find the grace to listen and learn from those who have borne the brunt. And we cannot leave it to others to beat back the forces of ignorance, fanaticism, and authoritarianism on Election Day.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at [email protected].

Copyright © 2024 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.