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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Can You Listen to the Smoke?

Seeing the recent images of rioting took me back to the summer before my senior year in high school. I lived in Montebello, CA, just outside of East LA where a peaceful protest rally turned violent (and deadly). It wasn't Blacks. It was a Chicano Viet Nam protest.

I was very much the minority in my high school of 3,000. None of my friends were blonde. My friendships helped me feel as if I belonged in a world where I clearly stood out. My three years in Montebello provided a perspective not available to everyone. I still treasure the friendships built there.

As the protests began, I understood the purpose; when they turned violent, I also understood some of the conditions that fed that violence. When a reporter who supported the peaceful protests was hit by a tear-gas canister and killed, it escalated the tensions. I could smell the fires and see the smoke from my house which was less than three miles away. I watched the news and wondered if there were any from my school involved in the rioting. Completely possible, I had brushed up against their anger occasionally in the school and community. But mostly that anger was ignored--or labeled. Seldom was it given the honor of legitimacy.

Yesterday, as I saw the images of rioting here in Seattle, my teen emotions surfaced. They were a mixture of fear, frustration, and sadness--that the violence would overshadow the root causes of the anger--just as it has done since my youth. The root causes are societal problems that continue to be ignored--not just for Blacks but for all People of Color. And eventually the voices demand to be heard. While I understand that many who are looting do not appear to be connected to the original protest, the protest gave them an outlet for their anger which they may not even fully understand. This is not to excuse them, but to merely judge them does not address anything at all.

This angry response was aptly expressed by Martin Luther King Jr., "A riot is the language of the unheard." My teenage experience helped me understand this truth. As I watched the smoke rise in the distance, I knew that those who were looting and setting fires were not just protesting the war. They were expressing the underlying anger I felt in my community every day. By judging behavior and labeling it with character traits we excuse ourselves from listening.

It is interesting that during this time, in a poem written for a class, I proclaimed Jesus as the answer. I can still remember finishing the poem and wondering exactly how that could happen without the help of humans. And for 50 years we as a nation have continued not to listen. That includes me. Because just like my teenage self, my primary response to the riots over the years has been fear and concern for my own safety. (Completely normal human response). This was juxtaposed with also seeing the rioters as the people who lived, worked, and went to school with me. I knew their lives were more difficult than mine and recognized how my fair skin was to my advantage in many ways.

As a nation, we must realize we are judging behavior and failing to see it as a symptom of deep societal trauma. This is trauma caused by a society that spends more time punishing than listening to those who needed us most. Unless we listen and look for root causes, the riots will continue and this week has shown us how it will no longer be contained in the city where it begins. It will be coming to a city near you unless we begin to address the cause.

I can do better; we can do better. We are in this mess because we did not listen and act and that should give us hope because now we know exactly what we need to do. For me, that means writing. And here I am. I am listening to the smoke.

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