Let your opinions be strongly stated and loosely held. And listen.

We received a letter this week, telling us we shouldn’t have written about the counter-protesters at the home-grown Black Lives Matter rally in Berne on Aug. 9.

“This plays directly into the hands of those who insist that the BLM movement is a radical departure from our true democracy and is thus an unnecessary, unpatriotic activity,” wrote Jay Baumstein.

We received a letter last week from someone who was handing out flyers indicating that Black Lives Matters is run by a terrorist; Lisa DeGroff told us we should have listened to an hour-long conversation she had, and asserted that the media widens the divide between races.

What we at The Enterprise do as journalists is try to tell as many sides of a story as are relevant, and to put our resources into the parts that matter most.

One of our favorite thoughts on journalism is from Walter Lippmann: “The theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussions, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account.”

The Enterprise isn’t perfect. We keep at it, and run the letters that let the community talk to itself, until we present an understanding that is as close to the truth as we can get it.

In this case, we believe the counter-protesters were part of the story. We were grateful that two of them lent their names to their beliefs. Ken Gonyea, who lives in Berne, told us he was not a racist. “You say ‘all lives matter’ and suddenly you’re a racist,” he said. 

One of the other men, standing with their motorcycles on the edge of the park’s parking lot, chimed in, “There’s not a single person here that would say Black lives don’t matter.”

Gonyea continued, “You’re an American; you’re not Black or white.”

We believe that is an ideal to strive for. It’s what the pledge to our flag ends with: liberty and justice for all.

But how do we get there? Black people have been oppressed in our nation for hundreds of years.  We have, at this moment in time, a chance to make a difference.

The shutdown from the pandemic has upended much in our society that we took for granted and accepted as normal. We’ve seen how the coronavirus has disportionately hurt people of color and low-wage workers. We’ve also seen how something as simple as wearing a mask, which may be inconvenient for us, can protect others — perhaps saving the life of someone we’ll never know.

We so wish that the counter-protesters had heard the words spoken on Aug. 9 by CiCi Ferrara. We chose to spend the bulk of our time at the rally inside the park pavilion, listening to the speakers. If we had spent an hour listening to DeGroff’s conversation, we would have missed the heart of the rally. 

Ferrara told, with excruciating honesty, what it felt like to be the only Black person in her class at rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo. She spoke without bitterness or hatred.

We talked with her for this week’s podcast and we fervently hope those who stood outside the pavilion listen to what she has to say.

Like Gonyea, she, too, wants us as a society to get to “all lives matter.” But being color blind won’t get us there. We have to acknowledge the hurt and the pain that others have gone through. We have to see the common heritage that Black people share. And we have to understand, if we are white, the privilege we’ve enjoyed merely because of the color of our skin.

We need to listen to one another. We need to see the people right in front of us and find our own truths by talking to and learning from them. The listening is not in the slogans. It’s in the experiences and the inequities and the struggles.

Speaking of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, Gonyea told us, “These organizations are burning down towns. I’m sure you’ve seen it on TV. They’re people getting attention by creating a racial divide.”

Why not put aside what we’ve seen on TV, whether we’re conservatives watching Fox News or liberals watching CNN? On that sunny Sunday in Berne, no one was burning down anything. No one organizing the event was trying to create a racial divide.

Rather, there was 14-year-old Lee Thomas who had inspired their grandmother, Laurie Searl, to set up a rally so people in their rural community could come together and start to work on ways to end racism in our midst here and now.

Laurie Searl told the crowd as she opened the event, “This is not an anti-police protest … The problem is racism. Everything needs to reform … None of our institutions are perfect.”

So how do we do that?

DeGroff said she put down the blue-line flag she was carrying because the people she was talking to saw it as an inflammatory symbol. The ardent Black Lives Matter supporter with whom she spoke put down her BLM sign, too, because to DeGroff that was a divisive symbol.

And then they talked for an hour. DeGroff describes the conversation — which appeared to an outside observer as heated, inflamed with passion and conviction — as respectful and informative. “Each of us explaining our point of view, our stand on certain positions, and taking the time to ask each other questions and more importantly, to listen to each other,” she said.

Setting aside symbols of antagonism and looking for common ground is the best way forward.

We don’t know of a single person who was not moved by the video that showed George Floyd — a Black man, lying on his belly, handcuffed and crying out he couldn’t breathe — having the life choked out of him under the knee of a white police officer. Some people were sickened. Some people were enraged. Some people wept.

We heard the county sheriff say he didn’t know a single officer who didn’t think what that Minneapolis police officer did was wrong. That doesn’t mean all police are bad. It means there is a system that for too long has let officers with repeated infractions get away with murder.

How do we change systems that have been unfair? 

The answer is, we start by listening to each other. Then we work together to make changes.


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