The guy in the red shirt

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Last Friday was another hot day in a summer of hot days. Still, a group from Indivisible Mohawk Valley and the Kirland Democrats were on the Clinton Village Green for a socially-distanced mostly-silent Black Lives Matter protest.

The cars that drove by were anything but silent. Most honked their horns in approval; a few rolled down their windows to shout curses or scream, “All Lives Matter.” 

“We started doing this in the beginning of June,” one of the organizers told me. “The goal was to have a weekly protest in our own community to witness to Black Lives Matter and stand up and say that we know that there is a lot of work to be done on policing and every racist policy in this country and we need to start doing it right here in Clinton where we live.”

While I was talking to her, an enraged man drove by and screamed something at us. I caught it on tape, but I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.

I have permission to name all of the people I spoke to and could provide those names to the editor, but I decided not to include them in this column for reasons that will be made clear.

“Did he just say, ‘White lives matter a hell of a lot more?” I asked her.

“Usually they yell, ‘All lives matter,’ but that guy yelled, ‘My life matters a hell of a lot more,’” She replied. “I think the idea that black bodies and black lives have value is, for some reason…well, a lot of white people take that as an attack on their bodies and their lives, which are already very prized in our society…”

She shook her head slightly.

“So that just doesn’t make sense to me,” she concluded.

I nodded and moved on to the next person who said that she was appalled to learn how much police brutality there was against black people.

“It’s been hidden, and now it’s coming out, and somebody has to do something,” she explained. “I don’t know what to do but stand out here with signs and write letters to my legislators, but it can’t continue, it has to stop.”

She said that she would be there every Friday until she sees progress. 

“I’m here for justice for George Floyd and all the other black men and women who have been killed by the police,” a woman holding a sign saying, “Demilitarize the police,” told me.

“What do you say to the people who shout, ‘All lives matter?’” I asked her. 

“We ignore them,” she shrugged. 

She told me that someone at one of the protests had a sign that said, “All lives will matter when black lives matter.”

I asked her what most of the people driving by were saying.

“Mostly, it’s good,” she answered. “We’ve had lots of honking and thumbs up. Sometimes they’re saying good things; sometimes they’re not.”

It was about 4:30, so traffic was picking up—more honks, more support, but also more hostility. 

“There’s always some idiots, some bigots,” she said pragmatically. “That’s why we’re here.”

I walked all the way around the corner to where it became College Street, across from the church. I brought a bottle of water with me, but I forgot where I left it, and I wondered if I could get a soda at the coffee shop on the corner. 

Before I had the chance to do that, I stopped to talk to someone who works with international students at Hamilton College. Her sign said, “Criminal Justice Reform Now!”

I asked her what “Demilitarize the police” meant.

“When we say defund or demilitarize the police, we’re talking about making the police user friendly,” she explained. “So that kids walking down from College Street into town that can feel comfortable and not be self-conscious about who they are.”

We were interrupted by a protester rushing over and frantically asking me to call the police because there was a man “harassing the women and not wearing a mask.”

I looked across the green and saw a man in a red shirt yelling at the women protesting. I dialed 911 and handed her the phone. I went to talk to him then realized I had left my phone with her. I turned back, and she had already flagged down a Clinton police officer who was driving by. I got my phone back and ran over to him.

“I heard him shout, ‘white lives matter,’” at them. He seemed very angry and frustrated. It seemed dangerous, or at least intense. But in a moment. I heard a flash of uncertainty in his voice.  

I’ve been going to protests for three and a half years now. I always wondered what I would do if a situation like that were to happen. I’m sure it’s something everyone has thought about if they are a civil rights protester. 

It all seemed to happen fast, but later that night, I saw a video of it on his Facebook page. In the recording, I go up to him, tell him I am a journalist and ask if I can talk to him.

He said he would, and suddenly, I felt responsible and weird because I realized the 911 operator I had dialed at the frantic woman’s request was still on the line. 

“There’s already a cop here,” I said and hung up.

I followed him over to a tree and stood back a ways while he talked to the police officer. I suddenly felt oddly responsible for him. The cop asked him if he had been drinking. I thought he had, and as I write this, I suddenly realize that the officer also probably thought that he was with me. By that point, he sort of was.

The officer let him go, and he and I went to sit down on one of the benches that encircle the water fountain. I got my phone out to tape, and he apologized for not wearing a mask. I assured him that it was the very last thing on my mind at that point.

He pointed to my mask. It was the one with a rainbow flag LGBT Pride theme.

“I’m not against gays,” he assured me with tremendous sincerity. I never thought he was. I sensed right away that he was a good guy, and I genuinely wanted to get to know him and to understand his perspective without condemning him or making him look bad.

On my recording, I don’t hear myself replying. I probably nodded. That hadn’t occurred to me.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Black Lives Matter at all,” he said. “My stepfather [who is black] has been with my mother for 30 years. He’s the closest thing I have to a father in my life.”

“So I assume you’re against racism,” I said. “What do you think people should be doing [if not protesting]?”

“What do you object to about this?” I asked, gesturing toward the protesters.

“I understand Black Lives Matter, but all lives matter is the bottom line,” he said. “There is more to what’s going on than meets the eye.”

“Like what?” I pressed him.

“The world. There’s more people dying,” he insisted. “This COVID stuff. I said that ‘Democrats, Republicans, everybody’s crazy.’ That’s what I said.”

On his recording that I saw later that night on his Facebook page, he describes the protesters using a slur for people with developmental disabilities (that starts with an “r”). He mentions their presence in undeniably sexist terms. This was before he approached them; the whole experience made his anger dissipate.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” he told me after. “I get what they’re feeling, but I was asking them, ‘do you have any African American descendants?’ and none of them could answer that. I know [something that] these people don’t.”

“What?” I asked.

“ I just think our government and our Constitution, and everything…everthing’s got to get right,” he explained. I don’t think we need to defund, but we need to restructure definitely. There needs to be massive restructuring. I was military, and I’ll tell you what in the military you couldn’t shoot anyone unless they were shooting on you. The police shouldn’t be shooting them when nothing's happening. They’re running away, and they’re shooting them in the back. So I’m with these guys.”

“It sounds like you’re with them,” I said. “That’s why I don’t understand what happened.”

“Everybody’s got their stuff, you know.” He said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “They sure do.” 

The late actress Elaine Stritch used to say in interviews how her husband, John Bay, had a favorite aphorism, "Everybody's got a sack of rocks." She insisted it was “the wisest thing [she’d] ever heard said — ever!” I think it is too. It explains a lot.

Later that day, I messaged the organizer, who I spoke to at the beginning of this column.

“I feel like there is a meaning in all of this about how everything is so amped up, and tense, and physically hot,” I said. “People on the left like us see Trump as a dictator, people on the right see Cuomo as a dictator, the economy is falling apart; people are dying. It’s like a nightmare world where no matter what your worst fears are-they’re happening.”

I have a friend on Twitter who once wrote, “The truth is never in a single thing, but in the gestalt of things.” 

Afterward, the guy in the red shirt left to get the pizza he ordered. We shook hands. I believe we parted as friends. I still want to understand how or why I ended up playing such a big part in all this. I don’t think he knows why he did either. He was just waiting for a pizza on a hot day. 

The last person I was interviewing before the guy in the red shirt came along said, “Dialogue is essential to change.” It seemed a lot more meaningful after talking to him.

We’ve seen this situation play out so many times recently. Everyone whips out their phone and starts recording. There is rarely any context. Words said in anger can cost someone their reputation, their job, and sometimes they probably deserve it, but sometimes they probably don’t. I think he doesn’t and that maybe, somehow, I prevented that from happening.

“All this crazy [expletive] going on,” the guy in the red shirt told me at one point. “It’s nuts.”

That is true. We all have to find a way through this hot summer together because he’s right, “All this crazy [expletive]” is the gestalt of things, and we’ll never make sense of it unless we talk to each other. That’s what village greens are for.

Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein

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