Byrne: A more perfect union
I was a young teenager in the late 1960s, but I remember the riots and violence that occurred around the country, and especially in the large cities. I was concerned that we were headed down that road again with racial violence around the country in the summer of 2016, President Obama’s last year in office. Over the previous several years we had become an extremely divided country, a clear failure of our national leaders. That seemed ironic inasmuch as President Obama’s election eight years earlier was supposed to have ushered in a new golden era of unity and prosperity.
This past week, as the nation continued to reopen from the extreme social distancing suddenly thrown on us in the early spring, an ugly incident in Minneapolis involving a white law enforcement officer arresting a black man ended with yet another death, and now a criminal case against the officer. The response has been arson, looting, and violence in many cities around the nation. Unfortunately, we had similar incidents in Birmingham and, to a lesser extent, Mobile.
Despair is a strong human emotion and triggers extreme behavior, which all too often results in the destruction of private property owned by people who had nothing to do with the event at issue, and in personal injury or even death to innocent parties. We saw all that last week as well as reports that some groups helped instigate the violence.
The violence detracted from the message the vast majority of the protesters tried to deliver peacefully. They have rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution to peacefully assemble, speak out publicly, and petition their government. No one has a right to commit arson, loot, or engage in violence, and those that did hurt the efforts of those who were peaceful.
Our country has had a tough year. We began with a failed impeachment trial in the Senate and flawed Democrat presidential caucuses, but also with some of the best economic numbers in over 50 years. Indeed, they were the best ever for black Americans who were enjoying record low unemployment and rising wages. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and our leaders, on advice from public health officials, ordered extreme social distancing, which shut down significant parts of our economy. That cost 40 million Americans their jobs, including 500,000 in Alabama and over 70,000 in my congressional district. The negative effect on our economy has been record breaking and so very sudden. The jobs and incomes of black people have been particularly hard hit. Of course that affected people emotionally.
Many people are fearful of COVID and some of us should be, particularly if we are elderly or have a CDC-listed underlying health condition. Black people in Alabama have suffered disproportionately to their share of the population. While only 27% of the Alabama population is black, 44% of all Alabama COVID deaths have been among black people. We should all understand the fear that causes.
Yes, we need to continue to work with law enforcement so that they can continue doing the dangerous job of protecting us in a way that’s safer for everyone. The vast majority of law enforcement play by the rules and respect people, and I want to compliment Chief Battiste and the Mobile Police Department for their professionalism during the Mobile protests. But there is no room for anyone in law enforcement to overstep appropriate processes and procedures. One atrocity is one too many.
This past weekend, the national news media was almost totally focused on this violence around the country. Lost in all their coverage was the thrilling launch of a pair of astronauts on a U.S. rocket for the first time in nine years, which successfully took them to the International Space Station. I will never forget Apollo 8’s 1968 Christmas Eve telecast, the first from lunar orbit, when the astronauts read from Genesis, and Apollo 11’s July 1969 landing on the moon’s surface. Widely broadcast by the media and watched by record numbers, the space program was a source of great pride and unity at a time when we really needed it.
Back then, the national media actually believed that their mission included telling us the good things about our country, while reporting on the not so good things, like inequality and riots. In our present time, the national media acts as if its main role is to fan discontent and disunity.
Racial issues and violence weren’t the only negative stories from the late 1960s. The world faced a severe pandemic from H3N2 flu, which killed 100,000 Americans in 1968 and 1969. We were a smaller country then, so that would be like losing 140,000 Americans now. We didn’t shut our country down and the news media didn’t obsess over it. We dealt with it even as we struggled with inequality and put humans on the moon.
We’re capable of so much more in this country but only if we remember that one of the stated purposes of our Constitution is “to create a more perfect union.” That’s not a one and done thing, it’s a generation after generation thing. This generation must do its part by unifying to solve our problems while celebrating our many achievements.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.