Rage, rage against the dying of the light

As Space X’s Crew Dragon docked with the International Space Station last Sunday after a 19-hour flight from the Kennedy Space Center, someone tweeted: “To the astronauts of Crew Dragon: well done for escaping Planet Earth”.

As if the Coronavirus and a culture war weren’t enough, yet another killing of a black man has sent America’s racial antipathy into its own kind of orbit. Tweets from the President were, as usual, nothing less than incendiary. National Guard patrols in black neighbourhoods would inflame the already febrile atmosphere. Add to all this the looting, arson and assault and there is a howling note over the land.

Despite the lofty peaks of America’s grand experiment in democracy, racial injustice remains a problem. According to Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history and Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan: “Protests keep happening precisely because white supremacy has never been sufficiently reined in.”

In these times when some leaders just add heat to the issue, it’s heartening to see those who bring light to it. Some of the brightest come from women. New Zealand’s Jacinda Adern, for instance, has been a comfort and inspiration to her people during the lockdown. And in America in recent days, it is two women who have moved the masses.

Erika Shields - Atlanta Police Chief

As arson broke out in downtown Atlanta, not even the CNN building was spared. Shields delivered a no-nonsense message to protesters. Reminding them that Atlanta was the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Shields acknowledged that protest action was legitimate and even necessary. “We know we’re going to get spat on and that’s okay because that’s part of our job. We will accommodate the protests because people have a right to be heard”. But then Shields shifted gear: most protest action was peaceful, she explained, except for a minority who represented a “highly calculating terrorist organisation”. “They are not fighting for anyone’s civil rights”, Shields explained, “They are here to destroy Atlanta”. Few were left in any doubt that no quarter would be shown to this minority.

Keisha Lance Bottoms - Atlanta Mayor

Sometimes it takes a mother to rip everybody a new one. Speaking alongside her Police Chief the Atlanta mayor said: “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt as a mother would hurt. So you’re not going to out-concern me or out-care me about where we are in America. But this is not a protest! This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King! This is chaos! If you care about this city then GO HOME!”

So much of this loops back to MLK who I wrote about in this post. It also loops back to Senator Bobby Kennedy who visited South Africa in 1966 and delivered his landmark “Ripples of Hope” speech at UCT on June 6. Ironically, on that very day 2 years later Kennedy was killed, felled by an assassin’s bullet shortly after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Though only 42, Kennedy was a preternaturally gifted orator. Two months prior to his death, Kennedy was at Ball State University Indiana addressing some 9000 students. During question time, a black student asked: "Your speech implies that have a great deal of faith in white America. Is that faith justified?". "Yes" answered Kennedy, adding that his faith in black America was both equally strong and justified. “But there are extremists on both sides”, he warned presciently. Those words would live in infamy. At that very moment, Martin Luther King lay dying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, himself the target of an assassin’s bullet. Hours later, though warned by the Indianapolis police chief of the dangers, Kennedy broke the news at a rally site in one of that city’s black neighbourhoods. Speaking from the back of a truck, Kennedy’s extemporised for five minutes, guided only by a few notes he had scribbled on a sheet of scrap paper. Kennedy’s closing words provide some perspective in today’s troubled times:

“This is not the end of violence, disorder and lawlessness. But we can all do well in this country”

Just as in June 2020, violence would soon spread and smoulder in some 100 cities across America. But not in this corner of the land: “Rather than exploding in anger at the tragic news, the crowd exploded in applause and enthusiasm before dispersing quietly” noted author Ray Boomhower. “It was politics in its grandest form and highest purpose. It marked the end of an era before American political life was taken over by consultants and pollsters” remarked Journalist Joe Klein.

The week after Bobby Kennedy’s death, BBC Journalist Alistair Cooke wrote his weekly “Letter from America”. In it, he mourned not just Bobby, but also his brother Jack, MLK and scores of black people who had suffered and died during Jim Crow. It distils the mood of both the 60s and the Noughties.

“In that moment, all the decent grief of a nation was taunted and outraged. So that along with the sorrow, there is a desperate and howling note over the land. We may pray on our knees, but when we get up from them, we cry with the poet:

Do not go gentle into that good night

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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