The America Obama Knows

During his remarks at the memorial in Dallas, President Obama talked about the America he knows.

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.

I understand. I understand how Americans are feeling. But, Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life, what I’ve seen of this country and its people — their goodness and decency –as President of the United States. And I know it because of what we’ve seen here in Dallas — how all of you, out of great suffering, have shown us the meaning of perseverance and character, and hope.

Is he simply being wishful and naive? Or does that side of America still exist? As we’re treated to the anger-fest that is currently underway in Cleveland, it is easy to lose sight of the America the President described. That’s why, when I read this story today, I knew that I wanted to pass it along.

“We got pulled over for a busted tail light in the back.”

That’s the first thing Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds says in her video depicting her boyfriend Philando Castile bleeding out in the seat next to her, shot to death by police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop in the Twin Cities suburb of Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

In the wake of Castile’s death, as well as that of Alton Sterling—another black man killed by police over a minor infraction—protestors took to the streets across the country, demanding justice, and calling for police reform. And just a few minutes away from the intersection where Castile was killed, one small business is doing its part to ensure the circumstances which allegedly lead to Castile’s death don’t repeat themselves for anyone else.

“We will be replacing tailight and license plate bulbs indefinitely FOR FREE,” Unity Autoworks, a car repair and customization shop located in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, recently announced on their Facebook page. “A defective bulb should never be a reason to be murdered.”

“We can’t fix everything,” Unity Autoworks co-owner Brandon Jefferson explained to local alt-weekly City Pages, “but this is one less reason for people to get pulled over.”

When we feel powerless to change things, that tends to come from a sense that “we can’t fix everything.” The actions of one person (or one small business) will never solve the problem of police violence. When I feel that way, I often think of this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.

Brandon Jefferson decided to do something insignificant. I call that courageous.

On a more communal level, take a look at what some of our fellow Americans are doing in Wichita, Kansas. They decided to hold a cook-out for Black Lives Matter members and law enforcement to come together. The event apparently included a pretty tough question/answer dialogue with their police chief.

Organizers called this the First Steps Community Cookout – recognizing that old saying about how “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Here’s what happens next:

In response to one of the department’s many tweets about the barbecue, one Twitter user wrote, “This makes me happy! First time in a while that anything in the news made me smile. There is hope.”

Of course shootings and hateful shouting at a political convention are going to grab more headlines than free taillight replacements or cookouts. But the America Obama knows is still out there doing it’s thing…thanks to people like Brandon Jefferson and the folks in Wichita, Kansas.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .