The tragic deaths of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd strike at the core of what it means to be an American. Peaceful protest is a tradition as old as our Constitution and can salve wounds that won’t heal on their own. Our faith in that tenet was shaken Monday morning, however, when we walked to our office building in Boston to find most of the first floor windows shattered. The mom & pop restaurants, small delis, and cash-only newsstand incurred deep financial and emotional damage from protests gone terribly off course the night before. As Fred Rogers once said, at times like this, look for the helpers. Indeed, workers boarding up the windows represented many threads of the American tapestry, all toiling with solemn diligence to repair the damage. We also look to history to remind us that we are evolving, even if movement is as difficult to perceive as the hour hand of a clock. Fifty two years ago, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the podium after medaling in the 1968 Olympics. Their homage to Black Power in the wake of the MLK assassination earned them an immediate trip home from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It took more than 50 years for the men to eventually be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, but they are now regarded as heroes rather than pariahs.
Largely overlooked that day was a white Australian runner who won the silver medal and shared the podium with Smith and Carlos. Peter Norman was a devout Christian who believed deeply in equality and had witnessed oppression of native people in his home country. Rather than raising his fist with the Americans on the podium, they suggested that he wear a badge from the Olympic Project for Civil Rights. That modest protest ended Norman’s career. Although he qualified for future Olympics, the Australian track governing body barred him from participating. Smith and Carlos served as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.
This week in New York we were encouraged to see another unlikely “helper” who bridged a gap many thought too wide to connect. NYPD Police Chief Terence Monahan, backed by hundreds of officers, confronted Black protesters in the streets. Uh oh. Monahan had seen his share of tragedy during his tenure, including the murder of Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo in 2016 while confronting an armed felon. Last fall, Monahan ran the first three miles of the NYC Marathon with Tuozzolo’s widow, Lisa, to raise money for the families of fallen officers. Standing toe-to-toe with protesters, Monahan grabbed a microphone to bellow his message. He didn’t call for law and order, but instead used his toughest Irish cop voice to condemn the Floyd killing and promise to work with protesters for peace and justice. Coronavirus be damned, Monahan hugged the protesters and led the group in joining hands and taking a knee together.