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Editorial: What 8 minutes, 46 seconds have done to our country

This past week has been America’s most unsettling and frightful in decades.

FDR once said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But today, that 1933 declaration, made as Americans were being crushed by the Depression, seems naïve.

Americans are fighting other Americans in the streets. Looting, lawlessness and property destruction are rampant. The horror now unleashed in this country — where video documents a black man being slowly murdered by a white police officer sworn to uphold the law — did not come out of nowhere. This is the reality we are now living in.

As Americans who believe in the country’s ideals, we should be united in our outrage at what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. We should all demand that justice be served. But we should also be deeply disgusted by the warped societal norms that form its backdrop: Entrenched poverty, income inequality, long lines at food pantries, diseases that disproportionately claim minorities and political parties that brazenly cheat in order to win by suppressing voting rights.

Contempt for the rule of law, political corruption and the arrogance of those in power who do what they want, while demanding that everyone else do something different, are smothering our democracy. The refusal of some politicians to hold leaders accountable — or even to offer mild criticism — because they are members of the same party is grotesque. They have looked the other way as the swamp overflowed. And they are fully culpable.

We’ve all seen the video of Mr. Floyd being killed. We have witnessed one human being’s complete disregard for the life of another. We’ve watched a man’s life drain away while a police officer — who knows he’s being filmed but doesn’t seem to care — presses his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Three other officers do nothing to stop it — even after it’s clear Mr. Floyd no longer has a pulse. And all of this over a counterfeit $20 bill. There isn’t even a small chance a white man suspected of passing a counterfeit bill would have been treated this way.

The result has been nationwide rioting that has destroyed millions of dollars in property, including minority-owned businesses their owners had worked so hard to build. Rioters in New York City looted Macy’s in Midtown and carted off the merchandise, which had nothing at all to do with Mr. Floyd’s death. This is what anarchy looks like.

As chaos and despair play out for all the world to see, our leaders must be held accountable for their incompetence, their willful refusal to acknowledge and deal with what’s going on in America and their failure to guide its citizens through this crisis. The bully pulpit was invented for this purpose; someone needs to take it. We haven’t see it yet.

This past week also marked the grim milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., compounded by the misery of 40 million unemployed Americans and long bread lines. We are in a perfect storm of American horror that many of us had considered unimaginable.

So what do we do here on the North Fork? A peaceful protest to honor Mr. Floyd brought out people in Riverhead on Sunday; a vigil is also planned for Greenport. These are very good developments. But what more can we do?

We need to get ahead of the national discussion on racial disparity and unequal treatment under the law. We need to talk about how African Americans and other people of color have been treated in our towns — by government, by police, by real estate brokers — and stare it down. This past can be buried no more if we are to come to terms with the present.

Southold and Riverhead towns both have anti-bias task forces in place. These groups could team up with local historians and archivists and begin a serious study of our recent history. Oral histories could be collected. Town historians of the past didn’t care about black history. Those people didn’t count. There was only white history. So, in terms of our shared past, we started off on the wrong foot. This has to be corrected.

To better talk about today, we need to peel back the history we think we know and study, among other areas, the dozens of squalid farm labor camps that once existed here and the African Americans who lived in them; we need to study past practices of redlining by the real estate industry and policing issues and see how African Americans in our towns have been treated. 

The umbrella theme of this work would be the uniquely American words “equal protection under the law.” Once we know and confront it, we can better deal with the here and now.