In the middle of his speech yesterday, Governor Baker said: “The tragic events in Ferguson and New York City speak loudly. And their message is a simple one. When people lose hope, bad things happen.” It was a stand alone paragraph. He did not offer it as part of a larger argument. He did not offer any more words to explain his thinking. Instead, he reduced the horror of the two killings of young black men by police officers and the protests that followed to three sentences. More remarkably, he suggested that the issues that have gripped our country for the past many months are “simple.” Forgive me while I catch my breath.
Our democracy is an amazing and wonderful thing. On Wednesday, I stood in the cold at the bottom of the State House stairs to salute the Governor Patrick as he left the building. Yesterday, Governor Baker climbed the same stairs and was saluted by supporters and foes alike. Power shifted from one party to the other, and we all celebrated the possibility of newness and change. Tradition gives the new Governor a window in which to get his footing — and I was fully prepared to swallow hard and stay quiet about the policy shifts he will bring to the office. Indeed, as I write this, I am committed to leaving those issues completely alone. The months to come will give plenty of opportunity for criticism when it is due (and praise when it is earned). Like all of us, I hope that Governor Baker does well and I am encouraged by the decisions he has made about where to spend his time in the first hours of his administration.
Moreover, at the same time as our state government changes, the world is shaking over the events in Paris.
And, Boston will be the US city bidding to host the 2024 Summer Olympic games. Governor Baker got it just right this morning when he said no one should be surprised by our selection. This is a great city and there is much promise in the public/private partnership plans and words at this morning’s announcement.
In all of this, it is tempting to give Governor Baker a pass for these three sentences (and many may have missed them). We should not do so — those of us who care about the greatness of our City and State need to pay attention to the words our leaders use. And the new Governor’s words about Ferguson and New York suggest a failure to understand the significance of the issues our country faces. The die ins, the “I can’t breathe” shirts, the protests across the country are not merely a reflection of lost hope. They evidence a deep distrust of our institutions. They reflect the basic truth that no matter how far we have come on issues of race, we still have a very long way to go. They are direct challenges to governments to react, to listen, and to rebuild trust in communities. We need to get to a place where we can trust that we will all be judged by others, as Dr. Martin King famously wished, “not by the color of [our] skin, but the content of [our] character.” That’s what we hope for, and we have to hope that Governor Baker will understand his responsibility to take a leadership role on the journey.
If his policies improve our schools, and create opportunities across all of our communities, as he promises, Governor Baker will have done important work. At the same time, the creation of economic hope will not answer the questions posed by those protesting the deaths in Missouri and New York. The lesson of those protests is not “simple” and the economic hope is not the answer. It is an important goal — but the protests and t shirts will only go away when we conquer prejudice and build a community in which judgments about us are premised on who we are and how we act and not on what the color of our skin happens to be.
I hope that the three sentences that compel this essay reflect poor speech writing and editing. I worry that they reflect more than that, and I plan to pay close attention as time passes. You should too.