Harvey Milk, who was born today 85 years ago and assassinated at age 48 by a fellow member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, had that same combination of fatalism and hope that MLK had — that is, despite a strong sense of his own mortality, he also was an irrepressible fountain of hope for those he inspired. To this day Milk is remembered for iconic sayings such as:
“Ya gotta give ’em hope.”
“If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”
“Hope will never be silent.”
I myself have some specific hopes going into this Memorial Day weekend — at least one of which is looking increasingly unrealistic against the backdrop of today’s America. Then again, things like marriage equality and transgender visibility seemed pretty far off in Harvey Milk’s day, and yet four decades later they’re happening all around us.
So here is my hope: That we can observe a Memorial Day in a time when our nation is not currently at war. Because apparently, that is actually a significant challenge for us — so much so that for the first time in our history, we are raising a generation who have never lived in a United States that wasn’t involved in continuous warfare.
President George W. Bush was fond of referring to America being on a “war footing” — and he used that general claim, alloyed with the idea of a never-ending war on terror, to short-circuit important conversations that should have been happening during his presidency. It’s a culture that hasn’t really gone away, and the playbook is straight out of “1984”.
Now we have war in our streets, in the form of hyper-militarized law enforcement officers who clearly are losing their grip on what policing actually means. But I don’t blame them as individuals. I blame the trappings of the new American law enforcement that make policing feel like warfare — because when that happens, the people you’re policing stop seeming like citizens and start seeming like an enemy. And you begin treating them accordingly.
As humans we’re hard-wired for all these demonizations — of foreign nations, other cultures, other faiths, other people (both foreign and domestic) — and more. It’s a survival instinct that pre-dates civilization. But if we can’t overcome it, I don’t believe we can claim to be truly civilized. Instead, we’re just fancier barbarians.
In Harvey Milk’s time, homosexuals were openly demonized in public discourse as anathema to almost everything America was about, and in language that would be bracing to us today. One of Milk’s campaigns was against the Briggs Initiative, a ballot proposition that would have banned gays and lesbians, and possibly anyone who supported gay rights, from working in California public schools. Yet today, Harvey Milk Day is observed annually in California as “a day of special significance for public schools”.
If that kind of social progress can happen in less four decades, how quickly can we get to a place where we observe a Memorial Day where warfare is in our rearview mirror only? Where police and civilians recognize each other as citizens of the same nation, city, neighborhood? Where we have stopped conflating religion, ethnicity and extremism?
Can we try for next Memorial Day? Or is that too soon for everyone?
Let’s hope it’s not too late.