On Saturday, the BDN posted a story describing a noose hanging from a telephone line in Deer Isle on Juneteenth, the day that memorializes President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of Black people from slavery.
The perpetrators who threw the noose over the line are cowards and they are racists. What they did was despicable.
The scourge of lynching of Black people has created terror in Black communities since before the Lincoln’s emancipation declaration. The killing of George Floyd by police officers is not the first time that police officers have taken the lives of Black men and boys for no valid reason.
Deer Isle held a silent vigil for light and love on Saturday and a Black Lives Matters gathering on Sunday.
In addition to the noose the BDN reported that Black Lives Matters posters were vandalized in Deer Isle. There also is a long history in this country of white people trying to silence Black civil rights activists. It did not work in the 1960s, and it will not work now.
So what can white people do to support Black Lives Matter? How many of us have heard white people tell a so-called joke about Black people? How many of us have heard the N-word said by a white person. How many of us have heard degrading language and stereotypes about other people of color? About Mexicans and other Latinx people, about Asians, about Native Americans, about Middle Eastern people, about people from Pakistan.
And how many of us have been silent?
The racists who placed the noose on that telephone line in Deer Isle, the racists who defaced Black Lives Matter signs did not erupt out of thin air.
No, those people are empowered by those of us who are silent. Silent when the so-called joke about Black people and other peoples of color is told in the workplace. Silent when a friend expresses a degrading stereotype about Black people or other peoples of color. Silent when high government leaders have spoken those same stereotypes.
The racists who threw the noose over the telephone line are empowered by our silence.
It is uncomfortable for white people to speak up. It is uncomfortable for white people to confront their unconscious racial bias. Being uncomfortable is part of creating a society where no Black girl or boy will have to look up at a telephone line and see a noose and worry “is this message directed at me?”
When I directed the Civil Rights Unit in the Maine attorney general’s office many years ago, my colleagues and I brought people to court who had engaged in violence, threats and property damage because of bias: toward Black people, toward other people of color, toward immigrants, toward LGBTQ people, toward Muslims and toward Jews.
The restraining orders that we brought to court stopped the violence and the threats. But the more lasting change in those cities and towns did not come from the attorney general’s office. No, that lasting change came from people of color and from white people speaking up. Speaking up from churches, synagogues and mosques. Speaking up at the family dinner table. Speaking up in our workplace.
Violent racism is a problem created by white people. Speaking up against bigotry is an obligation of white people.
Steve Wessler of Bar Harbor created and led the Civil Rights Unit in the Maine attorney’s general’s office. He now teaches courses on human rights issues at College of the Atlantic and the University of Maine at Augusta.