Way back when our children were younger, I volunteered to coach their soccer teams. I remember the cool evenings in the fall when we gathered at community parks and had kids as young as six or seven chase the ball. At times, I felt like a babysitter, but there was one tradition that I admired: The moment a player from the same or opposite team was down on the ground because of a fall or a push, the very same kids who had fought and yelled at each other would kneel down, waiting respectfully and silently, for the signal to start again. It was magic!
It all came back to me recently, when I was marching in a protest that was organized by the Black Lives Matter activists in Portland. We had marched peacefully through a few streets when the group paused and kneeled. As my aging knees sighed, I imagined George Floyd, who had died face down in a street in Minneapolis, with a police officer’s knee, heavy with the load of 400 years of oppression, pressing on his neck, belonging to Team America. He had been one of us.
I liked to think we had paused and taken a knee to show our respect to a fallen fellow team member. The hard surface of Commercial Street where we lay down to re-enact the last eight minutes of George Floyd’s life, felt warm and sacred, like a stone flooring of an ancient shrine. The normally noisy street was quiet, its silence broken by the sound of chatty sparrows. We waited silently.
America has interesting traditions. Some, such as volunteering or helping those in need, are honorable. A few are barbaric. Lynching Black Americans, a common practice in parts of the U.S., was once sanctioned by the society. Families with children would come to watch.
We have come to tolerate school shootings and police brutality as normal. America is complicated. It puts more people in prison than any other country in the world yet makes room for immigrants and citizen engagement and activism. Fighting for social justice is a cherished tradition in America.
Maine has a rich history of community organizing and social action involving the young and old. Samantha Smith, the 13-year-old peace activist, gained fame beyond Maine for writing a letter to the leader of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Gerald E. Talbot, Maine’s senior civil rights leader, has fought discrimination in its every form. And the tradition continues. Today’s young people march, shout with a closed fist in the air, kneel and die-in to help us dream of a better America. We are leaving them with a broken world that they are trying their best to repair.
It is said America, a social experiment, is a work in progress. It needs rebooting every now and then. Now, in the absence of a national “coach” to take care of the nation that feels hurt, to offer encouraging words to its members, to offer a helping hand, tend to those bruised and show compassion, we have little choice but to pause and kneel on our own. And we will do so out of love to ensure Team America has a chance to succeed.
Reza Jalali is a writer and an educator.