By Carlos Barón
Column, The Devil's Advocate
A few weeks ago I was having a coffee in a local Coffee House. I favor that place due to the relative scarcity of people immersed into their computers, seeming to avoid any form of social interaction with other humans.
I admit that I daily read a tangible paper copy of the newspaper, beginning with the most creative section, the Sports Page. Nevertheless, I am also generally open for conversation, unless someone with whom I do not wish to engage in conversation, appears. Then, I simply use the paper as a shield.
The day a couple shared the space with me they did not say much, but they smiled at each other fondly. Love was in the air.
Then, two men walked in, together. They seemed to be in their early sixties. One was Euro-American and the other was Asian. They sat close to my table and began a friendly chat, before ordering any food. They seemed to be co-workers of some kind, reminding me of my colleagues at the University.
Soon, two Asian women appeared, also in their sixties. The men, beaming, got up to welcome them. Together, all four approached the counter and ordered some food. Then, they went back to their table and started an animated conversation. Lots of smiles, even some loud laughter, filled the space.
Suddenly I felt the urge to be part of that conversation, of that easy friendship between four people of apparently very different ethnic backgrounds. But I contained myself and went back to my paper.
An African American man, also around sixty, walked in. He sat on the table next to mine and ordered by simply saying “the usual” and smiling. Clearly a regular.
This time, I did engage this newcomer in conversation. He was receptive and we told stories of common interests. When he learned that I had a career in the theater, as a performer and as an acting teacher, he smiled and said “I once acted in a show! A small part, but I loved the experience!” When he left the Café, we exchanged cards and entertained the idea of going to the theater together.
I went back to my paper. Every day, when I check the headlines, I see that we are regularly assaulted by doom. Ongoing, repeated, impending doom. Current, past or present, whatever doom sells. The news could refer to the latest mass killing, a common occurrence in a country that has more guns than people. Shocking images and stories command attention for a couple of days, before a new tragedy, caused by humans or by natural intervention, takes center stage, displacing the now “old news.” Yesterday’s news and yesterday’s paper are good only for fish wrapping.
But, there are lessons to be learned in further examinations of that news.
Recently, in Buffalo, New York, a young white man was condemned to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. In May of 2022, he killed ten Black people in an attack with racial motivations. Prior to his horrible deed, the young killer had published a racist manifesto online, explaining that his goal was “to kill as many Blacks as possible.” Then, he went to a supermarket and used a legally purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to carry on his goal. He also did a livestream of his inhumane attack on social media.
When he was sentenced, some dramatic scenes took place in the tribunal, as relatives of the murdered people confronted the assassin. One of them, a sister of one of the victims, confronted the young killer and said, “You decided that you did not like Black people … but you know nothing about us. […] We are human…we love our children…We never go to other neighborhoods to kill other people.” (SF Chronicle, February, 2023)
Then, the granddaughter of Ruth Whitfield, another victim, expressed this, “We know the pure hatred and the motivations that you had to commit this horrible crime…and we are here to tell you that you failed. We will continue getting better each day and we’ll keep on being all that you are not, all that you hate and tried to destroy. […] We know very well that you are not “a lone wolf”, but merely a peon in a domestic terrorist organization. And we tell those terrorists “We are a people that will not be broken!” (SF Chronicle, February 2023).
The killer apologized and said, “I don’t want to inspire anybody for what I am or for what I did.”
It occurred to me that perhaps the exchanges between the killer and the relatives of the victims had been the first time that the young white assassin had engaged in a meaningful conversation with Black people. I certainly cannot imagine that young follower of a misguided white supremacy movement sitting in a Café and engaging with a Black, Latino, or Asian stranger in a friendly conversation.
He should have done it because ignorance begets fear and fear begets violence.
Turn off our computers, fold our newspapers and let us engage in healthy and necessary conversations with total strangers! Strangers of different colors, different backgrounds, who might speak different languages.
We will discover that, after all, we might not be as different as we think or fear.