There is a photo of Norm Coleman that angered me the first time I saw it. And each time I remember it, it angers me again. He is marching in 2006 at the front of a parade for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commemoration, arm in arm with current local African-American community leaders — as if Coleman would have taken that march when it mattered, when it was dangerous, when it could have ruined his career.
Instead he took that march when our reflection back on the civil rights movement had concluded that institutionalized degradation of other human beings had been wrong. By the time Coleman was willing to march at the front of a civil rights march, we had tamed that activism into a story of American goodness. We had made it into a national holiday.
He was in the front line of that march to tell us and perhaps to tell himself, “I would have been there at the front line if I could.”
I remember him dismissing a small (successful) campaign I participated in to return human rights protection to LGBT St. Paulites in 1991 as the “radical fringe.” I could not believe he would have embraced the civil rights movement when its success was uncertain.
I think he proved my assumption with “Defund and disband City Hall leadership” (June 17).
When movements are still alive, they upend our understanding of our social structures. Marching to decry segregation more than 30 years after the civil rights movement succeeded was a meaningless act. But when success was uncertain, the movement scared many people: It created an uncertain future. It threatened the security of those whose wealth, prominence and security rested on being white.
Now activists are asking us to consider whether the way we have designed policing in the 21st century is the right way to design policing. In what ways do our current police practices keep some people safe and result in some people dying? Why have we decided that violence and force are the response to so many situations? Why don’t we respond to people in a mental health crisis with those with mental health expertise? Why do we treat relatively small property crimes with handcuffs, beatings and jailings and not with tickets? Why do we provide the police we have asked to keep us safe in a democracy with military equipment?
These are worthwhile questions to ask. They’re frightening because we don’t yet know all the answers, because we have not yet experienced a world in which we ensure public safety using different practices.
Being willing to explore the possibilities is what it really means to be in front of a movement that can bring us to a better place. And it is why it takes courage and a sense of moral necessity to do it. It is how we make history and how we make progress.
Deborah Schlick lives in St. Paul.