If feelings make a difference, and if the energy they generate has the power of influence, then Tuesday’s rally in Niagara Square and the memorial service in Dallas surely will help to move the country toward a better place.
Those are big “ifs,” of course, and it will take more than soothing words and several hundred open hearts to heal what feels like a gaping wound in the nation’s soul. But the more important point is that without those factors, no healing is possible. These, at least, offered the country a start.
Locally, the rally in Niagara Square brought together people from a spectrum of backgrounds, all to make the statement that the ties that bind us together are stronger – and must be stronger – than the differences that too often drive us part.
In Dallas, meanwhile, President Obama delivered what may have been his strongest speech on the divisions that were once again revealed last week in the police killings of two black men and, later, in the ambush of police in Dallas. Five officers were killed and seven others were wounded in a frightening escalation of violence that threatens to become routine.
The local event served as a civic meeting ground where defenses were down. The rally was proposed by Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde and adeptly organized by the Rev. Darius Pridgen, president of the Buffalo Common Council, and longtime social justice leader Lana Benatovich.
It was Pridgen who made the critical decision that there be no speakers and no microphones. “It made sure that everyone here was equal,” he said. “Not black and white, not Republican or Democrat, not Baptist or Jew. Just people, mourning the deaths of other people.”
No individual dominated. Humanity did.
That rediscovery of shared humanity is a necessary ingredient in whatever kind of reconciliation is needed, and not just in terms of relations between police and the community, especially minority members. The problem is broader than that.
American public life has become so toxic in so many ways that belonging to one group too often enforces a kind of groupthink that requires members to conclude the worst of the other, automatically and in all cases. No thoughtful evaluation is necessary and is certainly not wanted.
Thus, many citizens leap to the worst possible conclusion about controversial police actions, ignoring any other possible – and more likely – explanations. Police, unless they are well trained, can easily fall into the same trap about the people they deal with.
The same occurs in politics. Over the past 20 or so years, Democrats and Republicans have become not just adversaries, but at daggers – mortal enemies. The other’s agenda is based not on honest conviction, but on evil intent. No one simply makes a mistake, but is guilty of evil.
It’s all cut from the same damaged cloth, and it’s why Obama was correct when he observed Tuesday in Dallas that many Americans are worrying “the center may not hold.” Indeed, it’s the animating public fear in the opening act of the new millennium – that we are drifting so far apart, the entire enterprise will fracture.
We have red states and blue states. Guns, sexuality and abortion open deep, seemingly unbridgeable fissures. Suspicions are inflamed: Many Texans worry that a military exercise is really a covert federal plot to invade the state. Some talk aloud about seceding. Is it what Benjamin Franklin warned about when, after the Framers drafted the Constitution, he told a questioner that what they had produced was “a republic – if you can keep it”?
Into that simmering social environment, Obama offered reassurance that while public life feels unstable right now, it has also felt that way before. He dealt forthrightly with the conflicting perspectives that are driving wedges between Americans, truthfully observing that African-Americans continue to be victimized by systemic racial bias, but also that protesters within the Black Lives Matter movement fail to acknowledge the hazards that police face in some communities.
They were points that needed to be made, not just by anyone, but by a president whose goal is to bring the nation’s factions closer together. And he made a difference, at least to some observers.
“To me, this is one of his best speeches I’ve ever heard,” said Chief Warren Asmus of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “He started to build that bridge that I think hasn’t been built for a long time. From what I heard today, I see it as a turning point.”
All Americans can hope that is true, but it will take more than hope to make it so. It will also take patience, thoughtfulness, good intentions, professional training and, as important as anything else, a willingness to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
That can be hard, but it’s not impossible. And although making it happen will take more than a downtown rally or a wrenching memorial service, they at least count as a start.