Merlene Davis: Now is the time to confront wrongs and create diamonds

About 40 protesters held a silent "die-in" demonstration Tuesday at the University of Kentucky's Patterson Office Tower to protest police killings of black men. The protest which lasted about 30 minutes.
About 40 protesters held a silent "die-in" demonstration Tuesday at the University of Kentucky's Patterson Office Tower to protest police killings of black men. The protest which lasted about 30 minutes. Lexington Herald-Leader

Years ago, I was a member of an intentionally multicultural church. The minister himself was biracial.

In that setting, you would assume we all were in agreement about racism and its negative effects on people in these United States, and our need for reconciliation.

For the most part, we were.

But a fellow white member questioned my desire to shine a glaring light on the racism I had experienced as often as I had combed my hair or brushed my teeth. He said I was too "confrontational," that I should be nicer about it. Then people might change more readily, he said.

I remembered that when anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise closed his speech a few days ago at the MOSAIIC conference, hosted by the Bluegrass Community and Technical College and several area institutions of higher learning. He said, "Nice people are the problem sometimes."

"Interrupting traffic is not nice, but necessary," Wise said. "Interrupting the St. Louis Symphony to protest the killing of Mike Brown is not nice, but necessary. Interrupting business-as-usual is not nice, but necessary."

I wish I had come up with those words when I was talking to my fellow church member.

Instead, I told him I didn't think being confrontational was a negative. And I still don't. Without pressure, a piece of coal would never become a diamond.

Young people in Lexington, in Kentucky, and in the U.S. are trying their best to make their country sparkle like a diamond. Forty years ago, I would have been right in the thick of things.

Young people were the ones who created a movement that would become the "Arab Spring." Young people gave their lives to end apartheid in South Africa. And, as Wise pointed out, young people led the fight for civil rights in this country.

The young people who are participating in peaceful marches and die-ins should be seen as heroes, Wise said.

I agree.

But, some people have problems with peaceful protests.

JazMene Landing, a UK senior who has been participating in die-ins on campus, said some apparently fellow students are using a social media app called Yik Yak to denigrate protesters.

"There is a pile of mud on the Willy T Library floor," one post read. "Someone better mop it up!"

"I'm sure a boat ride back home costs less than 5 pairs of Jordans, Polo draws showin' 7 days a week, and 2 tubs of coco(sp) butter for this cold weather," another post read. "Pack up and row if you can't roll in the USA."

Two other posters liked that one.

Then another poster replied, "OK, the basketball team is coming with us then."

Landing said that last response came from a fellow protester. "It was meant to lessen the ignorance that came before it," she said. They wanted to inject a little humor rather than show anger.

It's a new era in the fight for equality. The digital blow-back is basically as anonymous as a pointed hood, but the hurt inflicted is just as disconcerting.

UK President Eli Capilouto condemned what he called "hate-filled" comments and praised the students willing to protest: "... hate-filled slurs hurled for no reason other than to demean another person have no place here," he wrote in a campus-wide email in response. "Such language is indicative of narrow mindedness and mean spirit; and what I have read sickens me. It is not who we are or wish to be."

Regarding the protesters, Capilouto wrote, "I am proud of the leadership of our students who have organized silent protests to express their outrage. These efforts are a demonstration, too, of the unyielding and unbreakable hope that we can finally muster the will and conceive the way to break down the unnecessary barriers that separate us."

Landing said that is exactly what is happening.

She said there have been three demonstrations and each has been larger and more diverse than the ones before.

"We don't want people to think it is a black thing," Landing said. "We are all on the same campus, so everyone is affected."

She said the negative comments serve as motivation to continue demonstrations that highlight racial inequities in this country as well as on the UK campus.

Thank goodness.

Wise said young protesters "are showing us the way that apparently we have forgotten.

"This is solvable," he said. "I started listening to black people, and it is amazing what that will do for you, when you actually start believing people of color know their lives better than you know their lives."

We should be listening to women, the poor, the disabled and the LGBT community as well, he said. They know more about their own lives than men, the rich, the able-bodied, and the straight communities that try to define them.

"Nice can be the enemy of action," Wise said. "Nice keeps its voice to a whisper. Nice doesn't get agitated. Nice smiles all the time. Nice does not do sit-ins and does not protest.

"We need less nice and more truth," Wise said.

Healthcare and medical students at more than 70 medical schools held die-ins on Dec. 10, organized through the hashtag #WhiteCoats4BlackLives. They called the recent deaths a "public health crisis."

Professional athletes have donned "I can't breathe" T-shirts, or entered football stadiums with their hands raised.

The police chief in Richmond, Calif., joined protesters last week, holding a sign that read "black lives matter."

And dozens of Congressional staff members gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Thursday in protest of the recent police shootings.

Some folks don't see those actions as nice. But they are necessary to keep the issue in the public eye.

Diamonds can't be too far away.

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