Recently, as I stood with #BLM supporters on Southbury, Conn.'s Main Street, trading shouts with Trump supporters, I was struck by the futility of our exchange.
No explanations were offered about why each of us had taken our respective stands. Later, in a calmer moment, I asked myself: Why do I support the Black Lives Matter movement?
I support #BLM because half the year I live in a part of Northern Florida where the N-word is still used with malice and where a third-generation Klansman once told me the Klan no longer kills Black men accused of assaulting white women, "We make sure they get long prison sentences."
I support #BLM because Dr. Luther Ivory, in his office at Rhodes College in Memphis, told me about seeing the body of "Big Boy," a Korean War veteran and family friend, hanging from a tree in his backyard. Big Boy's "crime"? Not stepping off the sidewalk to let a white couple pass. As an 11-year-old, he found the sight so traumatizing that even a few years ago, as Dr. Ivory recalled these events, he seemed on the verge of panic.
I support #BLM because of Judge Helen Shores Lee, the daughter of a civil rights lawyer whose home in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed twice during the turbulent 1960s. A few years ago, her 10-year-old granddaughter was told by a classmate that she couldn't sit with her at lunch. "Can't you see I'm white?" the little girl told her. As the judge told me, "You can change laws, but you can't change people's hearts."
I support #BLM because Sherry Dupree, a retired university librarian, told me in her Florida living room how her grandfather's farm was taken by armed Klansmen. Her grandfather, who fled North Carolina for his life, did not return for several years. To do so, he first had to ask permission of his town's white establishment. These were the same people who took his farm and whose descendants still own the land. Years later, the Klan came again, this time to kill her father and take his property. Only the intervention of a white judge, brandishing a shotgun, kept the Klan from completing their crime.
Most of these events happened years ago but, still, during my lifetime. In the memories of the victims, they live on, as does the enduring psychological damage. In the case of Sherry Dupree's grandfather, he lost valuable land that could have been passed down to successive generations, just as it has been in the families of the men who stole it.
I support #BLM because every time Black people proclaim "enough," there has been a white backlash. Every time, whether it concerned lunch counters, schools, public transportation, the right to vote or to join a union, the white response has been quick and predictable: that the protesters hate America, hate white people, are to be feared and are controlled by communists or what were once called "outside agitators." When bad actors have crashed peaceful protests, violence and looting become the central issue in the minds of many, who then brush aside the legitimacy of Black grievances.
Non-violent protests are no different. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee in a gesture that asked the people who love the flag to help America live up to the ideals of our founding documents, the backlash was the same.
Racism has been part of this nation's DNA since 1619, when a group of Virginia colonists became enslavers. It is the river in which we all swim. For this reason, it strikes me as counterproductive to call each other "racists." To some extent, we all are, because as a nation, not only have we swum in that river, we've drunk deeply from it.
In spite of all this, the current moment seems more hopeful. Committed people of all colors are demonstrating in large numbers despite fear-mongering that overstates violence in places like Portland, Ore. A friend living there told me that even considering his city's turmoil, the core of the movement in Portland is resolute and peaceful, adding "There are beautiful, determined protests and gatherings happening all over the U.S."
That alone should give us hope.
Chris Armentano lives in Bethlehem, Conn. Armentano and his producing partner, Emmy Award-winning director Daniel H. Forer, are developing "Memphis and the Mountaintop," a five-part docuseries that explores the dramatic transformation of Memphis following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This piece was written for The Hartford Courant.