Written on the Body #21: June 15, 2020 — Pandemic of Racism and Police Violence

Note: I started this on May 29, but only completed it on June 15 — for reasons mentioned below.

It’s been a critical few weeks for the U.S., since the police killing of George Floyd, but the epidemic of racial hatred and racist violence by those supposedly charged to uphold the law and protect citizens (even those being arrested) is rampant in Canada and throughout the world, in various forms. I was going to write about some reflections on the virus pandemic, but this mental/emotional/spiritual violence and the fight against it is definitely more urgent.

Despite the fact that many of us are seeing this violence on television (as we have, time after time in the past), it is disturbingly real for those who live through it every day: those who are killed and their families, and for millions of Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina, Asians in the U.S., Canada, and other countries who fear for their safety each time they leave home, or say goodbye to their children in the morning. And the same is true, with changes of name, in other countries around the world, and in different periods of history. More and more, it is clear how much the U.S. — despite the words of the Declaration of Independence — was built on attitudes of white superiority toward Africans, brought to the U.S as slaves, and toward the Indigenous people. This included the use of violence, both during slavery and later. In Canada, too, there was an ongoing attitude toward Indigenous people, which led to the Residential and Day Schools and policies of removing children from their families and culture. Eventually, other groups — Blacks, Asians, other people of colour, also experienced these racist attitudes, which translate into housing, education, employment, nutrition, policing and law, and other areas of society,

As someone who grew up in the U.S., born in 1945, I witnessed the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s (and let’s not forget Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia in 1947, and similar fights for racial justice in Ontario during this period). I still feel the shock and horror I felt on hearing about 4 little girls bombed in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1962, for instance. And I worked with a writing group in a ghetto area of Brooklyn for Black and Puerto Rican young people.

There were, indeed, some changes after the sixties, new legistation, new awareness. But not enough — and with opportunities to “get around” the required changes., one way or another. So it seems we are on a repeating loop. Or we go a few steps forward (Obama’s election is one highly public example), and then fall several back.

So watching the latest videos, including police actions during the protests, I am heartsick. And I am also encouraged by the military personnel, as well as others , who have spoken out against Trump’s wanting to use the U.S. military against U.S. citizens, by the articulate young Black people I listened to, and by former President Obama’s seeing this time as an “awakening” for the whole country. Initiatives in Canada, such as the “Black Like Me” panel discussion by actors and other theatre professionals from Stratford — broadcast on youtube, with over 2000 listeners (and recorded for later viewing) show both the pain of systemic racism, and point to ways we can work to truky overcome racism.

It has been hard to finish this blog: partly because so much was happening in the protests every day, and with new incidents of violence in Canada and the U.S.; partly because we are still worried about COVID-19, and partly because I was getting ready for my new chemotherapy regime, which started on June 4 and involved several preliminary tests at the hospital. So far, it is going well — I have been tired, but not as much as usual; that’s probably also made it hard to write. I feel overwhelmed by all of this. And I am grieving for the country where I grew up (and which I chose to leave, during the Vietnam War era), and for the country I have chosen to live in for over 40 years. I am thinking about my son, who is in the RCMP after several years as a social worker: I know he brings those skills and a non-racist attitude to his work — but he is working in an organization that (like so many) is fraught with systemic racism. How does he deal with this? I am impressed that Brenda Lucki, Conmisioner of the RCMP, could admit that she should have said there is systemic racism in the RCMP, when she made an earlier statement, and I hope she will deal with this effectively. Thinking about being Jewish: My ancestors in Europe were oppressed;if my family had stayed in Europe, we could have been in the Nazi death camps; even in the U.S. my family had faced a few incidents of anti-Semitism. And yet, I grew up and have lived with white privilege, including economic privilege, and definitely would be “white” when people see me on the street, the TCC, a store, etc. And I need to recognize the complexities of all that. It’s also been good to talk with friends and relatives about what is going on, and what people really live with.

I hope you are all staying well, and dealing with these issues as best you can. My next chemo. treatment is June 25. ‘Til next time.

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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