Protests have erupted across the United States after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man taken into police custody in Minneapolis. Exacerbated by the ever-growing list of similar incidents, the perception of inaction, and the months of quarantine and record unemployment, Floyd’s death has sparked an outcry against police brutality and racial injustice at the national, state, and local levels.
Undoubtedly, we are living in history. But this does not mean that history cannot also be our guide. The events the past two weeks are reminiscent of the unrest following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. During the “Holy Week Uprising” following King’s assassination, riots erupted in over 100 cities. Interestingly, however, Indianapolis was silent the night of April 4, 1968. The peace in Indiana is primarily credited to an impassioned speech given by Senator Robert F. Kennedy that evening. Amidst the outrage of the injustice of MLK’s assassination, Kennedy implored the crowd in Indianapolis to choose a different direction for their frustrations. He told the people of Indianapolis:
In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.
Kennedy’s words are unique not only for their elegant rhetoric but for their neurological and psychiatric effects. Kennedy tapped into the psychotherapeutic technique of “logotherapy,” developed by concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl. Through his experience in multiple Nazi death camps and treating holocaust survivors after the war, Frankl developed a framework around how humans create meaning. His three pillars of meaning include: (1) creating a work or doing a deed; (2) experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) choosing the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. As it did for Kennedy and Indianapolis, Frankl’s framework can provide some peace and healing for our turbulent times today.
What we choose to do
Discontent is purported to be the first necessity of progress. Suffice to say, a large portion of the country is discontented. Tens of thousands of protesters have shown up all across America, honoring the hallowed tradition of free speech and assembly in the United States. Those who have not shown up are generally supportive. Polls show that up to 78% of Americans believe that protesters are justified or partially justified in their anger over George Floyd’s killing.
Beyond that, though, opinions are mixed, and a debate has emerged over the tactics of the protests. Monmouth finds that only 17% of Americans say that the actions taken by demonstrators are fully justified, while 37% say they are partially justified, and 38% say they are not at all justified. Reuters similarly finds that while majorities of Republicans and Democrats support peaceful protests, respondents believe that property damage undermined the demonstrators’ cause. Less than one quarter said that violence was an appropriate response. Nonetheless, a debate has reemerged over the effectiveness of non-violence as a tactic for social change, including questioning the assumption of peaceful protests and remaking arguments in defense of looting. Some have gone so far as to advocate defunding police departments, even though the majority of Americans still significantly trust the police.
Thankfully, it appears that calmer heads will prevail. Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon, urged protests by peaceful means: “Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.” Former President Barack Obama has called on protestors to “channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action.” He continues: “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.” Floyd’s own family has condemned violent protests.
In the age of performative social media and hashtag virtue signaling, it is easy to forget what change looks like. It is slow and difficult. It is dressed up in overalls and looks like work. It deals in specifics and nuances. President Obama provides more guidance: “eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” He continues: “The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels… Unfortunately, voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.” For a change—real change—to happen, what we chose to do in the wake of George Floyd’s death will have to evolve from outburst to action.
Who we choose to do it with
Kennedy warned about the potential for polarization after MLKs assassination: “black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.” Frankl, again, provides the solution: we can choose to create meaning by encountering someone. While the potential for racial polarization exists today, the reality of political polarization is perhaps even greater.
If we seek change, then gridlock and partisanship are what we must prevent. However, the politicizing of the George Floyd protests has already occurred. President Trump has fanned the flames of discord, while other prominent Republicans have taken a hard “law and order” stance on the issue. Meanwhile, the Progressive Left has led a mass mobilization across the country while continuing to estrange moderates and independents. If one doesn’t say the right words, use the right hashtags, or donate to the right organizations, you will be ostracized (at best) or called a racist (at worst). If you are white and say nothing at all, you might even be accused of being criminal: Google “white silence is violence.”
The problem here is that change in a democracy requires a majority. Whether you like it or not, politics is the art of consensus and coalition building. Protesters and activists alike must ask themselves what is the most helpful strategy for creating change. Does it further your efforts to include or to exclude? To reduce the conflict to us versus them? Or would it be more useful to reach out to the other? To view your 20% enemy as your 80% friend, as Ronald Reagan once advised?
Here, too, there are signs of hope. All across the country, law enforcement and protesters have been shown marching in solidarity, kneeling together, shaking hands, and embracing. Prominent Republicans, including President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, have voiced support. Military leaders, current and former, have spoken up and spoken out. The opportunity for change exists if we only take it. But we have to take it together. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln put it best: “Do we not defeat our enemies when we make them our friends?”
How we choose to meet unavoidable suffering
Kennedy challenged the people in Indianapolis to choose a different path than the rest of the country on the night of April 4. He implored them: “But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.” In so doing, he tapped into the final and perhaps most unique pillar of Frankl’s logotherapy framework, which holds that man creates meaning through “the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Frankl uncovered this truth in the depths of the Nazi concentration camps. He observed that mankind can be stripped of literally everything except how it chooses to respond to its situation. This extreme faith in individual agency is comforting in the uncertain world of today. With the protests around George Floyd and the COVID pandemic before that, anxiety in America was already running high. William Faulkner summarized it well: “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.”
Frankl would argue that we can allow external events to dictate how we should feel. We can choose to be victims of circumstance, feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, and exhausted by recent events. Or, we can choose to respond differently. We can respond by transforming “fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking,” in the words of Nicolas Nassim Taleb.
If we do, we will remember the words that Senator Robert Kennedy spoke on that hallowed night in April 1968: “The vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.” This moment, for all of its difficulty, can matter. It can bring about the change we seek, but only through our choices. Let us dedicate ourselves to that.