This was not the blog post I was going to write today, but Steven Barnes asked me to write something up about what I saw and experienced, so here it goes.
I don’t often say that I am proud to live and work in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up here, and have lived most of my adult life here, as well. It isn’t and never will be a tourist destination. But yesterday, I was proud of my city.
Black Lives Matter, in the form of a local group called IGYB (I Got Your Back) had planned to hold a protest here on Sunday. Rather than oppose it or warn people, our new Chief of Police, Gordon Ramsay (really!) spoke with IGYB and decided to hold a public cookout for any and all who wanted to come and play and talk and eat together. I have to credit my wife for our participation: I would never have seen that the event existed without her.
At first, when Mr. Barnes asked me to write this essay, I was unsure of what I was going to say. I wasn’t able to really join in the discussion or listen to the speakers. By the time people were speaking, my children, who are seven, five, and three, were up past their bedtime and were starting to melt down. I would have done nothing by staying except frustrate them (and doubtless the people around us). Nothing earth-shattering happened, either in general or to me and my family. I didn’t make a new friend, sadly. I’m not the kind of person that easily begins conversations with people I don’t know. And I didn’t say or hear anything life-changing. I didn’t have a conversation that opened my or anyone else’s eyes.
But as the conversation on Steven’s Facebook page grew, I could see how much people wanted to know about this event, and how very, very basic the questions were. So this is what I saw:
I saw my White and my Black neighbors there. I’d say that the races were pretty evenly present. Maybe about 45/45 Black/White and 10% Other.
I saw dozens, if not scores of Wichita Police officers (and Kansas Highway Patrolmen, and Firemen and EMTs) mixing in with the community, smiling, and glad to be there. I saw them speaking with people with Black Lives Matter shirts on. I saw both groups speaking with men who looked like bikers. Everyone was greeting one another. No one looked afraid.
I listened to a young Black singer while we ate. He had a good voice. I regret I got caught up in my children and didn’t find out his name.
I had a brief discussion with an officer who seemed optimistic about the way the city was headed, and he’d been on the force since 1988, when I was entering high school.
I saw my children jumping through bounce-houses with my Black neighbors’ children, with huge smiles on their faces.
I watched my children enthralled by a couple of eight-week old puppies that were being carried by a pair of Black men who were a little older than I am. They let the puppies down on the ground to play with my enthralled kids. I thanked them for their time.
As we left, I heard a speaker. I don’t know who he was and I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but he was saying it to a crowd of all ages and races, several hundred strong, who were giving him their undivided attention. And he called on them to become more active in their community, and to be involved in the political process. He had faith in our democracy, and our people, that we would be able to come together and to do what is right.
And this morning I saw photos posted by a young Jewish officer holding Black children and dancing with them. Ten years ago, that young man was sitting in my history classroom. And I was proud of him, and grateful to have had the privilege of seeing him grow into his dream of serving our community, and doing it well.
And today I am remembering Dallas, and how easily Wichita and Dallas might have changed places. Because right before the terrible act of violence that seared Dallas across our minds, they, like we, had come together — White, Black, Police, and Civilian — to talk to each other, confident that they could make peace.
Today, because of the leadership of our police chief and our Black community leaders, I have new faith that we here in America can make peace with one another. No people on God’s Earth ever had a better chance. Things are really and truly getting better in our nation, despite the terrible things that some choose to do. I am a history teacher, and I can tell you that this is not usually the way that things go. When a nation has a history of conquest and enslavement, it’s much more common to see increased separation leading to violence, oppression and revenge. And all those things are still with us, yes. But the pain that we are now going through is in may ways because our expectations of ourselves and of others are rising. I can tell you from living in them that many other countries do not go through this pain — but it is not because they are less oppressive than we. It is because prejudice and concepts of race superiority are so entrenched that they are not even questioned.
I know there are those who will think that I only say such things as a justification for maintaining a status quo. I do not. I say it because I see the good that began in Dallas swallowed up and lost in the horror of its ending. And I know that while Mr. Barnes had no need to ask me or anyone else about the terror in Dallas, he needed me to show him the good in Wichita. If we do not believe that good is possible, then how will we ever invest our fortunes in it, much less pledge our lives and our sacred honors?
The last thing I said at the cookout was to exchange greetings with a Black family that I don’t know. I think it was probably a father, his children, and his mother. We said hello, and the older woman said, “God bless you.” Yes, ma’am. May His blessing be upon us all. And I hope to see you again, at another cookout. There’s talk there may be more of them. I do hope so. If we can, we’ll be there.