When The Reservoir Runs Dry

“Generations of pain are manifesting itself in front of the world.” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

Like the rest of America, I watched with horror as George Floyd died beneath the knee of a police officer last week as three other now former officers looked on ignoring Mr. Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe.
It saddened me. But sadly, the tragedy didn’t shock me because we have seen this scene play out time and time again across our country.
I watched, like the rest of the country, the scenes of violence and unrest that the murder of George Floyd sparked, in cities ranging from Minneapolis and Detroit to New York, Denver and Atlanta.
We watched as incendiary devices were hurled at police officers guarding the CNN headquarters and we were saddened by the scenes of looting and destruction.
It’s no small thing when the National Guard deploys in a major American city. And it’s no small thing when a man’s life is snuffed out under the knee of another man sworn to serve and protect.
The footage made me sick. Physically sick.
America is struggling right now.
Struggling with a virus. Struggling with racism. Struggling with anti-semitism and struggling with deep economic wounds caused by the pandemic.
But as daunting as those issues are—our biggest challenge is division.
It seems like half this country doesn’t like the other half very much.
We are seeing and experiencing hatred between Americans. One side sees the other as an existential threat to their way of life and a danger to the country and the world.
It’s hard to remember a time of such deep seated division.
It’s hard to remember a time when we’ve written each other off and when there doesn’t even seem to be an attempt to bring us together.  In fact, our so-called leaders seem to enjoy throwing gas on the fire.
We  each  seem to have our own set of facts and beliefs. You have your experts and I have mine.
We can’t seem to tolerate each other, so working together and compromise  seems impossible.
At the core of this division is race—America’s original sin.
We seem to make strides only to fall back again and again.
While racism manifests itself in so many ways the biggest flash points seem to happen when officers take the lives of black men.
Whenever this happens,—all to frequently I’m afraid—I’m reminded of what happened right here in Delray when Jerrod Miller lost his life outside the Delray Full Service Center.
If you weren’t around  15 years ago , Jerrod, 15, was shot by an off-duty officer outside a school dance. You can google the details.
I was mayor of Delray back then and Jerrod’s death tested this community in ways I’ve not seen before or since and I’ve lived here since 1987.

So what did we learn?
We learned that when violence occurs leaders need to de-escalate tensions not throw gas on the fire.
We learned that you have to amplify communications, admit mistakes and share your humanity.
We learned that you have to show up—in church halls, living rooms, community meetings etc.
We learned that you can’t begin to care after the fact, you have to build a reservoir of goodwill before bad things happen. You have to do the hard work of community building, you have to invest in relationships and you have to be in it for the right reasons and for the long haul not just to make friends before an election only to disappear until the next one.
You have to want it and you have to mean it.
If you’re a leader you can’t introduce yourself to the community after tragedy strikes. They better know who you are before hand and that relationship better be a good one.

America’s issues will not be solved by the feds or the tweeter in chief. If problems are to be solved and opportunity to be seized it will happen on the local level with neighborhood leaders working with their local elected officials to build better towns and cities.
It starts at the neighborhood level. You have to be on the ground every day.  You have to share your heart and your soul and you have to listen before you can help. You have to listen and learn before you can lead.

I have to say, we used to do that kind of stuff pretty well here in Delray. Oh we were never perfect and we never quite got there but here’s the secret: you never do. You have to keep at it.
In my opinion, based on 33 years of observation from inside and outside, I think we’ve stopped.
Sure there are some great initiatives and programs, but at one point our whole local government was built around engagement and community building. Somewhere along the way we got off track. One step up, two steps back……

Alongside George Floyd, social media was in the news last week.
And while I love sharing pictures of pets, movie and restaurant reviews on Facebook, I think the platform has driven wedges in our community.
For years now, I’ve seen fights break out between neighbors over development, community driven transformation plans, other important stuff and some nonsense too.
And I wonder where it all leads. I worry about a spark. I worry about the anger I see and sense.
People don’t react well when they feel marginalized and when they feel they aren’t heard.
You can only poke at people so long before you risk an eruption.
That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or that elected officials have to compromise their values. It does mean that we have to find a way to disagree respectfully.
I’ve seen people marginalized, organizations bullied or ignored, long time employees thrown out with the trash and denied benefits they’ve earned. I’ve seen people and groups targeted too.
This kind of culture erodes community. It drains the reservoir of goodwill.
We saw last week what can happen when people feel that our societal contract doesn’t work for them.
It seems to me we have two choices: ignore it or address it.
Ignorance is dangerous; addressing it is hard work but it’s the only way forward. Failure to do so means we all fail.
And we can’t afford that can we?

Comments

  1. Tennille Decoste says:

    Very strong. This article hit me hard. Nice job and thank you

  2. Jim Grubb says:

    Jeff, You are right on point again. Excellent words that are needed at this time. Thank you.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Thanks Dr. Grubb.
      I will be thinking and praying for your son as he serves us during this difficult time.

  3. Frances Bourque says:

    The Gospel according to Jeff! In our midst a voice we must hear! A ray of morning sunshine….. if only it did not seem the hurricane season lurks so close behind…we can not afford to stop listening…. on all sides!

  4. Joycelyn Patrick says:

    Thank you so much Jeff! I knew you would bring us a soul stirring message this morning. This was so needed on the local front.

  5. Ellie Hayman says:

    Jeff, You are an outstanding writer. A gifted man.. You are so right. Words of wisdom. I would love to take your article & display it on my Facebook page..

  6. Shirley Johnson says:

    Mayor Perlman, thank you for your eloquence.
    May I use your space to recommend a book published in April 2016. Stamped From the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. With understanding of why we may be so divided, perhaps we can then begin to heal. Stamped won the National Book Award.

    • Jeff Perlman says:

      Thank you so much.
      I will order and read the book.
      I look forward to discussing it with you over lunch. I miss our talks.

      • Shirley Johnson says:

        I also miss our “break” from normal routine and our sharing of ideas.
        Enjoy the read (so full of “where and why”).
        Looking forward to our first discussion and what we are going to do to affect a change.

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