As printed in the Dunkirk Observer on June 6, 2020
When I initially thought of this headline, I thought of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has affected the entire world, including Chautauqua County. More than 100,000 people have died in this country alone, and at least four people have died from it in our county. We also mourn the loss of businesses that have closed, jobs that have been lost, and the collective disorientation and restlessness the virus and our quarantines have created.
Sadly, this title also applies to the racism pandemic, the one that led to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer. This is an all too familiar tragedy in America, one that has repeated itself throughout our young nation’s history. Just in the last 30 years: Rodney King in 1991, Amadou Diallo in 1999, and since 2014, names such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and now George Floyd evoke a flood of outrage and sadness. My heart goes out to all their families, their friends and loved ones.
Racism at its root is based on fear and ignorance of other human beings who happen to look different. To overcome racism, we must overcome fear. Love is the strongest force to do so. Love is at the heart of Jesus’s golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7.12). Love is the ultimate family value. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22.39).
If we love one another as humans, we will respect social distancing guidelines and wear masks until the situation changes. If we love one another as humans, we won’t dehumanize black men and women and we won’t murder them, whether it is a police officer’s knee or a father and son’s shotgun. And if we love one another, we won’t destroy a business owner’s property in anger who had nothing to do with the death of Floyd, be it in Buffalo, Minneapolis or Atlanta. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
To overcome fear, we must engage in uncomfortable situations. We must be brave. And we must take risks, just like the first time jumping off a diving board, or the first time riding a bicycle. Sometimes, it is as simple as breaking bread with someone whose skin color is different. The churches call this fellowship.
We cannot legislate love. Nor can we dictate it. As much as we have made strides in changing laws, we still have too many hearts hardened, too much fear ingrained into the “isms” that plague us–racism, sexism, xenophobia (fear of immigrants), homophobia (fear of gay people), etc. How do we adjust? How do we move forward?
As a community, we must work together to recover from the coronavirus’ toll on the world and its economies. We must work together to overcome fear and ignorance, and the “isms” they breed. Here at a local level, there are steps we can take. Chautauqua County can create spaces for us to break bread, have open discussions, cry together, get angry and then, perhaps, understand one another. We can create cultural exchange programs so that people in the county’s rural areas get to know people in the cities of Dunkirk and Jamestown. Political leadership can work together with leaders in the churches, the nonprofits, the social clubs, and the businesses to make this happen.
As to police brutality and murder, prevention efforts should include more de-escalation, cultural competency, implicit bias, and soft skills training. Learning to listen and respond, versus ignore and react, is as important for law enforcement as it is for our families, especially when they must make split second decisions in emergency situations. Moreover, officers are exposed to constant trauma. More opportunities for counseling and mental health assistance should be negotiated into collective bargaining agreements. Lastly, when incidents do occur, perpetrators must be held accountable. Zero tolerance clauses should be negotiated into union contracts as well when misbehavior occurs beyond a reasonable doubt, as in Floyd’s case.
Join me in mourning the loss of lives to the pandemics of the novel coronavirus and racism. Join me in helping our communities adjust by combating fear and ignorance with engagement, empathy, knowledge, and love. Join me in helping law enforcement prevent senseless racial brutality and murder with better training, more care for their mental and emotional well-being, and for zero tolerance when the wrong is obvious. Join me so that Chautauqua County, New York, and the United States of America can move forward by embracing love, not hate.
Richard J. Morrisroe is the Dunkirk City Attorney and the Democratic & Working Families Candidate for Chautauqua County Executive.