In the unyielding avalanche over several days of video, news and opinion about the rage against police, economic collapse, a failing U.S. administration and a pandemic that seems certain to rally back — while we strain absurdly to re-start major American sports — a single remark spoke to the gravity of the moment.
As he stood on the Minneapolis street Wednesday where four policemen casually murdered George Floyd last week, Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, offered CNN something trenchant.
“I don’t think we get another chance to fix this; I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t think that’s hyperbole.”
For me, the statement paused the avalanche.
I can’t be sure — who is sure of anything these days? — but it sounded right. Until we can come up with a direction that draws protesters and police off the streets, reducing the mass increase in targets freshly available to the coronavirus, while pursuing competent, compassionate leadership that understands racism’s pernicious virality and venality, we risk being buried alive.
A small sign of the urgency came a couple of hours later in the despairing ramble of Russell Wilson. On a Zoom conference from his home in Los Angeles with Seattle reporters after the Walz interview, the Seahawks’ fountain of perpetual optimism couldn’t talk ball.
“I don’t even want to talk about football right now,” he said. “I don’t even know what that looks like down the road, or anything else. I think none of that matters.
“I can’t compare football to life, and what what black communities are going through right now.”
In a word, Wilson was morose.
“It’s staggering to watch these things happen right in front of our faces,” he said. “I have a heavy heart right now. In my opinion, there’s a lot of hate in America, a lot of division.
“Police brutality is staggering, and honestly, it’s not something I understand fully . . . I don’t have all the answers sometimes. Being black is a real thing and, in America, the history and the pain . . . even my own family, my great-great grandparents were slaves. Racism is heavier than ever.”
Wilson talked of the small indignities common to people of color. He recalled as a boy his father warning him at gas stations not to to put his hands in his pockets. Of walking into a store fearful of being accused of stealing; “a terrifying thought,” he said.
Not long after winning the Super Bowl in 2014, he was in line at a California restaurant and was told by an older white man behind him, “That’s not for you.”
Wilson said he told the man, “I don’t appreciate you speaking to me that way.
“He kind of walked off, but in that little glimpse . . . Even though it didn’t turn into something, what if it did?”
Little things? Sure. For those who may have missed it, Floyd was being investigated for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. We’ll never know if he knew it was fake.
In his eight seasons in Seattle, we’ve seen Wilson overcome formidable odds again and again. But this is different. This is a cultural crisis of a breadth and depth that Wilson has not seen in his 31 years. The collection of calamities is unprecedented for those who are older.
Tuesday, a podcast by Steve Kerr — three NBA championships as a Bulls player, three as Golden State Warriors coach — and co-host Pete Carroll called Flying Coach on The Ringer, invited San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (five NBA titles) to join for a discussion of the American grimness.
It’s an hour worthy of your time. Together they have 12 pro championships, and Carroll had a college championship at USC. They have had great success in the only high-profile industries in the U.S. employing a labor force in which African Americans are a majority.
Carroll obviously understood Wilson’s despair directly, and implicitly the existential warning from Walz.
“We can’t live with an oblivious way of looking at this,’’ Carroll said of the racial divide. “We can’t do that. It’s the privilege that white people have, living obliviously to what is going on. That ain’t OK. And so I’m trying to convey that to our guys that they see it that way. That we are trying to learn from each other and move ahead together.
“The problem lies in the white communities not responding and the awareness not being adequate enough to see, hear, feel the indiscretions that have happened . . . (That) our consciences don’t allow us to do anything but respond’’ reflexively.
That is what we see these days in the streets. As we saw in earlier years in Baltimore, Ferguson, Los Angeles, Washington, Newark, Brooklyn, Watts, Detroit, etc. For all the uprisings, the backstory is that this land has been a place for the scourge of slavery for longer than it has been without it.
Even after the Civil War ended the legal fact of slavery that began in 1619, it took a century until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Yet here we are, 58 years later — 28 years after Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by four Los Angeles policemen, who were acquitted by a jury.
We joined a shocked world watching a white authority figure armed not only with a gun but with impunity, audacity, criminality and nonchalance, asphyxiate a handcuffed black man in daylight on a public street with cameras recording the deed, including the audio of Floyd’s repetitive final pleadings: “I can’t breathe.”
Four hundred years, and this ghastly moment is what we have to show for progress?
Remember in the Pledge of Allegiance that claim about liberty and justice for all? We’re still in the early innings.
Keeping to the historical sweep, Kerr said a national reckoning of racial history is overdue.
“I think probably the thing that has to be done before anything is an understanding and an awareness that there needs to be a reconciliation, an admission of guilt,” he said. “I don’t think it should be — this is not a message of, ‘Hey, all you white people, you should feel guilty; this is your fault.’ That’s not the point.
“But this is the way our country is. It’s our responsibility to admit that this is what’s going on in our country, and let’s truly examine our past.”
The big picture is hard to see when almost every minute, our eyes are bombarded with chaos and our ears with cacophony. But the three coaches have lived long enough to see such social convulsions produce worthy outcomes.
Popovich offered up how drunk driving was a more or less a tolerated behavior until the national campaign by Mothers Against Drunk Driving rose up to grab the nation’s leaders by the figurative neck and shook out significant national legislation that made drunk drivers “pariahs,” he said.
In the 1960s, a years-long national uprising against the Vietnam War forced President Lyndon Johnson from office and eventually helped drag home the battered American war machine from its futility.
Among the movements, differences are many and solutions imperfect. Yet the nation ended up better off even when gloom seemed impervious and unending.
It is, however, urgent, as Walz observed. The 400-year contest within the American conscience is down to a two-minute drill.