DENVER — Public protest reveals America at its righteous best. Hundreds, and at times thousands, join to shout for the equality and justice promised in our Constitution.
And protest reveals America at its unruly and sickly worst. Mayhem and bloodshed pollute the idealism. Looters scurry into stores. Graffiti “artists” deface property. Fear spreads, including fear of our basic right to gather in a mass demand for a better America.
For decades, the corner of Colfax and Broadway in downtown Denver has delivered a magic feel. The corner, at its best, serves as the glowing center of our state. As a child, I rode my bike to Denver’s sprawling public library, the biggest I had ever seen, and spent hours roaming the aisles. I stood admiring the glimmering gold dome of the Capitol .
Those memories were hard to see this week. I drove along Colfax and Broadway while examining boarded-up windows and acres of graffiti that often featured a word that begins with “f.” As is usual in American mass protest, the worst of us polluted the best of us.
George Floyd’s murder ignited a storm across America. This storm both lifted us and torched us. The protests revealed the willingness of tens of thousands of Americans to depart their homes in the middle of a vicious pandemic to mourn a dead man who should still walk among us. The protests seized the attention of the nation, and the world.
After weeks of obsessive, nonstop coverage of the coronavirus, the protests took over our TV sets. And when those protests were about shouts of idealism, that takeover was good news.
“The world seldom believes the horror stories of history unless they are documented via mass media,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, speaking words full of truth, in 1961.
I’ve heard this week from idealistic young women and men who marched and shouted at rallies in Colorado and across America. They talk of the camaraderie and joy of the rallies. They speak of courage and respect.
And, yes, they bemoan the criminality that often followed their cries for justice.
Six decades ago, King devised a brilliant, if dangerous, plan. He employed the worst of America to highlight the best of America. He employed frightened and violent bigots to showcase his demand for America to deliver equal rights to all. The Civil War had never truly ended. The descendants of former slaves remained stuck in inequality in the Land of the Free. In certain corners of the South, the beliefs of the Confederacy had triumphed.
King described his plan as “creative dissent.”
His plan carried a great cost, but it worked. He expected bloodshed to blend with idealism, and he was a prophet. American heroes such as John Lewis emerged, as did American villains such as Bull Connor. The bad guys, at times wearing police uniforms, sent attack dogs against unarmed marchers. Skulls were broken. Young people who believed in the best of America were murdered.
The world watched as American injustice was revealed on television. Evil, as King expected, delivered good.
“It was bad white folks in Birmingham that gave us Civil Rights Bill,” Andrew Young, a King disciple, later said. “It was bad white folks … that gave us the right to vote.”
Today, the bad guys do not amplify the urgency and purity of legitimate protest.
Today, the bad guys threaten to muffle the protest. The burning cars and smashed storefronts threaten to become the message and our collective memory from the protests of the summer of 2020.
While roaming downtown Denver, it was hard to see the idealism of the protests. Floyd deserved better than to have his life snuffed by a police officer. And now his memory is being desecrated by rampaging criminals who exploit peaceful protest.
The protests began as a righteous cry and a hope that his death would change America, for the better.
But as of now, the bad folks have stolen the message.