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Making the Words Matter

Terry H. Schwadron

June 6, 2020

Reparative actions about policing and about addressing the racial divide are the important measures after George Floyd. Maybe the only measures.

But this week, I saw. glimmer that words just might be proving important too. Still, getting good, comforting words from the top is proving as stubborn as useful actions.

Words from various unexpected voices in high places calling out the divisiveness and egotism of Donald Trump are challenging the usual pattern: Bad things happen, leaders, even Donald Trump, make some kind of sympathetic remark, and then nothing happens to fix the underlying issues. We’ve seen it in church, synagogue, mosque and school shootings. In natural disasters, with pandemic and now police murder.

In his harsh, militaristic words, Trump can hardly even manage the basic acknowledgement that there was a police murder, and that it represents just the latest in a too-long string of police killings of police killings — which ironically is being extended in response to protests. Even when there is good news — yesterday’s job gains, for example, Trump manages to smash it with strange but hurtful words that called the news a wonderful thing for George Floyd, victim of police murder. What? Trump saying that he hoped George Floyd was “looking down” from heaven “and saying, ‘This is a great thing happening for our country’” (for whites, not blacks) simply came across as bizarre and clueless about the nature of the protests.

Words aside, protest is a narrative that runs counter to the image that Trump would prefer to project. So, action: The White House has sharpshooters on the roof and is bristling with weaponry and protective fencing — against protest? More would-be looting in the city?

Trump’s Militaristic Words

For Donald Trump, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AR, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, and other leaders, the word of the week is “domination” — that curious sado-masochistic term of complete control over the streets to squash rioters, yes, but protests and curfew-breakers too, since Team Trump seems to have difficulty finding a difference.

To them, the important emphasis on restoring order, even at the price of turning the U.S. military on American citizens, depend on the words that are ugly and that show a total disregard for what is upsetting all of us. That Trump is incapable of offering a hand in empathy is an explanation, not an excuse. He can’t help us. He can’t even find the right target, blaming only left-wing anarchists, even as there appears to be white supremacist infiltration of protests as well. Last month, these leaders wanted to “dominate” disease.

What matters is whether we actually do something about guns, or real hurricane aid or coronavirus testing, Otherwise, what we have is a never-ending series of photo ops, particularly for this egocentric would-be strongman president — even at the cost of sending in unmarked federal troops to break up that Lafayette Park peaceful protest with flash bangs and aerial irritants.

Trump on Thursday shared a letter that referred to peaceful protesters who were forcibly removed from the park as “terrorists.” Here, too, words matter, since the White House insists that the chemical used was not “tear gas,” despite emptied canisters labeled with the ingredients of tear gas. Of course, this is the same Trump who said his time in the bunker was for an “inspection,” which no one believes.

Domination vs. Speaking Truth

But the words… It is worth noting that some of the words are changing.

Even if military units did “dominate,” nothing here would address the underlying conditions of policing procedures, or of caring about other people. Of course, there was no call for domination of white, gun-toting protesters who went to state houses to threaten officials not moving fast enough to lift stay-at-home orders.

But suddenly there is a break in that dike, and we’re hearing words of calming not only from Barack Obama, George Bush and other ex-presidents, not only from clergy, not only from liberals, but from an increasing number of police chiefs and voices inside the Pentagon leadership.

The idea that former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and now former Chief of Staff John Kelly Jr. would lower utter broadsides against Donald Trump as immature and divisive is remarkable in these times. That the current defense secretary (for now) Mark Esper would (too late) separate himself over the church photo op is significant — if bizarre (“I didn’t know where I was going,” said Esper). That the internal standoffs in the Trump White House leave a military confused about its role in an outwardly political strategy is simply shameful — and dangerous to all.

Some Republican senators, including Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney are saying it outright, and even Lindsey Graham suggests that that Trump is making things worse rather than better. Taken together, they are evidence that words, too, actually may matter.

Words Are Unusually Welcome

And, then, from a completely other point of view, the words from Rev. Al Sharpton at the memorial service were at once elevating, emotional and thought-provoking.

In any case, one cannot escape that the words of dissent are as sharply pointed at Trump as at the Minneapolis police.

Words alone are not the solution, obviously. But they help.

Certainly, we’ve seen that the words matter on an individual level. A word to a friend or acquaintance in crisis can be of comfort — if ever so much better when backed by local action. We know as individuals that we can’t wave a magic wand and eliminate an entire societal ill like racism, but we can take personal responsibility for affecting what we actually touch.

When we hear empathetic words from our leaders, though, it becomes a wider note of hope.

Why else would Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser have BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on city streets leading to the White House? Words still have power.

We may dismiss the words later over inaction. But for the moment, it is interesting that good words can be unusually welcome. It’s a sign that we’re not nuts, that there is a realistic assessment that is being shared even among Republicans that we have responsibility for what we do as a society to others, for living up to our promise of American equality.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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