by Barbara Joy Cooley
My dad’s business was vandalized and looted in the Cincinnati riots of 1967-68, yet what concerned him was not his losses, but the injustices and racism that sparked the riots. He empathized with the people who were suffering so much. I don’t know if he had heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., say that the riot is the language of the unheard,(1) but my dad certainly understood that truth. I was just an adolescent at the time, but my dad’s words and sentiment about the people who were protesting, and his valuing these people’s yearning for basic human rights and fairness made an impression on me. I will never forget it.
So after I listened to the audio stream of the Sanibel City Council meeting on June 2, I had to write these words in Facebook:
“It troubles me that the discussion at the beginning of today’s Sanibel city council meeting seemed to focus on the council members’ concerns about the rioting in cities across the country, and not on the racism and injustices that sparked those riots. This troubles me a lot. The racism and injustices break my heart. Vandalism and looting are wrong but it is racism and injustice that break my heart.”
I would have been present in city hall and would have spoken these words into the record at the podium had I not been in self isolation, at home with my husband due to his underlying medical condition and the Covid epidemic.
The city council members are good people who have good intentions; they are community-minded volunteers who are dedicated to serving the people of Sanibel. But as one friend commented, “You can tell a lot about a person by what they focus on.”
Another friend responded, “We live in a homogeneous community. As sad as it is, the council’s tone deafness, while probably not intentional, does not surprise me one bit. Disconnects often happen when we’re not exposed to other cultures, creeds, colors and orientations on a regular basis. I love Sanibel but we live in a bubble. One of the things I miss most about living in Miami was the mix of cultures living and mingling side by side. We have a lot going for us on the island but diversity isn’t on that list.”
No, diversity is not on that list.
After the Rev. Dr. King said that the riot is the language of the unheard, he stated what it is that America has failed to hear. “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met,” he said. “And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” Those failures to hear are still with us today.
The heartbreak caused by words not spoken on Tuesday started to turn into depression, but then I remembered the mantra that I turn to in troubled times, “The power of love is greater than anything, even death itself.”
The power of love is being shown by police across the country who have been kneeling in front of demonstrators in order to show respect for them and an understanding of their grievances. Would these city council members ever do something like that? I do not know. But I know they can open their hearts and minds to try to love and understand the unheard, even if those people live miles away. The world is small, after all, and love can conquer it. Or, as the Rev. Dr. King said, ““I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
(1) “The Other America,” speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Grosse Pointe High School, March 14, 1968. https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/index.htm