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MARK PORTERIE — Now is the time for enduring change

Last week, the life of a man was taken on the streets of Minneapolis while bystanders watched him beg for his life. “I can’t breathe!” has become the call for action to stand against the abuse black men endure in America every day at the hands of police.

Dr. Mark L. Porterie,
superintendent of schools

While a police officer put his knee on the neck of an unarmed, black man, handcuffed while lying on the pavement, the nation held its collective breath as we witnessed the life fade from George Floyd. For many, it was eye opening.

But for far too many of my black brothers and sisters, it brought home the realities of the dual lives we live in America. The scene made it clear that the racist world of our ancestors is still alive and well today.

We saw it in Mr. Floyd’s senseless death, and we see it every day in our black community.

At the approach of adulthood, every black man of my era was given what is just referred to as “the speech.” The speech is one where a young black teenager is told that if you are stopped by a police officer, your job is to stay alive.

I have no doubt that Mr. Floyd received the talk from his mother, as have many others before him. The speech is still given today. Black girls and boys know that those who are supposed to protect and serve can sometimes become the oppressor.

“All men are created equal” is just a slogan when you are stopped for the crime of just being black. Two hundred and forty-four years after the Declaration of Independence, the senseless murders of African Americans such as Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor and thousands of others remind us that those words do not include us.

These tragic deaths are reminders that the “… land of the free and home of the brave” was built on the backs of our enslaved ancestors.

The question for us all, as a nation, becomes “where do we go from here?” Let me be clear, just as it is wrong for police to judge us because of the color of our skin, it is also wrong for us to condemn every police officer for the criminal actions of those who choose to hide behind their badge and abuse the community that they are sworn to protect.

I proudly served this country in the armed forces in the days of my youth. Our mission was to protect and ensure freedom around the world. Where does the black community go when freedom cannot be found at home?

I am afraid that the national outrage over the killing of this compliant, unarmed, black man will become long forgotten, like the way our outrage over the numerous lives lost in school shootings seem forgotten.

What makes this tragedy different than the other deaths of black men at the hands of police is that the advancement of technology has placed a clearly focused lens on what some in our culture have endured for generations.

This tragedy was filmed and viewed at a time when our nation was on pause with our eyes wide open. America has stopped due to COVID-19, and there is no normal everyday life to crawl back into to drown out what is happening around us every day.

Peaceful protests are happening all over the country. Majority and minority people are demanding answers and accountability. Unfortunately, some have decided to forego playing by the rules and have chosen instead to engage in violence and looting in the streets.

I understand the pain and frustration over a justice system that metes out measures of justice based on the color of your skin. However, we must come together and make a peaceful change. These acts of violence reinforce the image that some want to portray of all African Americans.

Some of our leaders have applauded protesters who rallied for the freedom to get a tattoo or haircut. Conversely, these same leaders order tear gas and flash bombs to oppress peaceful protesters calling for police reform and equal justice.

We have allowed leaders to mislead and redefine kneeling in protest of the type of abuse the nation witnessed last week, into a protest of the American flag and the armed forces. That was never the stated, nor the intended purpose.

With the mindset and actions displayed by our current leaders, it is apparent that those who harbor hatred and bigotry no longer feel the need to hide.

I understand the pain, the outrage and the disgust. However, if there is to be change, we cannot alienate those who want to be a part of the change. Change demands unity. To my brothers and sisters who believe that this moment calls for a violent response, I say breathe. For those who want to use this moment for their own selfish agendas, I say “shame on you.”

We, as a people, have moved mountains. Historically, peaceful protests have brought about a new world order. We can do it again if we focus on the message. We have the world’s attention; we need to set the proper tone and channel this outpouring of rage constructively.

This moment should not incite the burning of buildings and marches that will fade in a few weeks. It should be the catalyst for permanent, systemic reform of our entire police culture.

In a few weeks, or maybe a month, the name “George Floyd” will be added to the list of black men and women who have needlessly died at the hands of law enforcement. We, as African Americans must not become complacent in the ‘new slavery’ in which we find ourselves.

This should remind us that we, as African American people, are not completely free. It should scare us in a way that we would want to arm our children with the ammunition to fight with their minds. We must also continue to fill them with knowledge that will help them when they are faced with the next challenge, for it will surely come.

We should want to gather every African American boy and girl and read the stories of slavery and how we overcame as a people. We should remind them of the struggles that those before us had to endure for us to have opportunities to make decisions for ourselves.

We should remind them of the struggles that those before us had to endure for us to be able to be respected as we wear our pants around our waists and not hanging below our buttocks. We should remind ourselves of the reasons our parents gave us the “speech” and realize the world in which our children are growing up in, is not too different from our own.

The murder of George Floyd should make us angry enough to remove every barrier that is in the way of all Americans voting in the 2020 election. We must do more. Instead of looting, take that energy to respond to the census, register to vote and go to the polls.

We cannot let this moment escape us. In November of 2020, there should not be one African American who is registered to vote and decides not to. This is the perfect time to plan our strategy of attack. Not in the sense of physically fighting, but to fight for the future of our young boys and girls.

Let us take a breath for calm.
Let us take a breath for mercy.
Let us take a breath for enduring change.

Dr. Mark Porterie is Superintendent of Schools for the Port Arthur Independent School District. He can be reached at mporterie@paisd.org.