By Jim Gogek
When I saw the video of a La Mesa Police officer throwing a handcuffed teenage girl to the pavement at Helix Charter High School, I immediately thought what a lot of other people probably assumed: She’s a student of color. And then I thought: They wouldn’t do that to a white girl. And finally: If this can happen at Helix, one of the most wonderfully diverse places on earth, then it can happen anywhere. And it does.
It was just another case of racial discrimination in America. This week, in my neighborhood. Tomorrow or next week, somewhere else.
Sitting at a very emotional community forum of parents, police, students and neighbors held at Helix to discuss this occurrence, I flashed back to the terrible year of 1968. In the summer after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, a group of us kids were at an event downtown in the small Midwestern city where I grew up, when what was then called a “race riot” broke out. Somebody’s mom gathered us into a car and drove us away, moving slowly among the shouting and angry black protesters and the nervous and angry white police. I remember the emotions all around me — the palpable anger and frustration, the lurking fear and hopelessness.
That was 50 years ago! At the Helix forum, I felt the same feelings all around me. Yes, there were some hopeful messages, especially from the students dedicated to do battle with this American curse. But from the neighbors and parents, and especially the parents of students of color, I felt the same anger, frustration, fear and hopelessness. And the white police were nervous. So little has changed in 50 years.
Many people in that room weren’t even born in 1968, and maybe that’s a good thing. I’m particularly glad that the students don’t know what it was like then. Because if they had seen and felt what our country was like in 1968 compared to what it is like now, they might lose all their idealism and enthusiasm for change. They might just shake their heads like I did.
Race in America is like Sisyphus pushing that rock up a hill. And every time another thing happens like a white cop throwing a black girl to the pavement — and much, much worse — the rock rolls back down. All my generation has really accomplished is to conclusively show that racial discrimination exists everywhere in this country. That’s something, I guess, because denial runs so deep. But the healing has hardly even begun. Maybe the next generations can push that rock to the top, or at least a little farther uphill.
Jim Gogek is a writer who lives in La Mesa.