The power of small gestures

Even as images of shattered glass have spread, another narrative has emerged: of people hearing each other, and of the power that imparts.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Volunteers walk to help store owners clean up from a night of protests in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City on June 2, 2020.

The importance of powerful words and meaningful action are on full display this year. 

We saw how those resonated as the pandemic crescendoed around the globe. A sense of fear and isolation eased amid reassurances and helping hands, often from strangers. Older people confined to their apartments were uplifted by younger people who shopped for them. Caring volunteers at food banks helped extend a crucial lifeline to those whose livelihoods were abruptly upended. 

Now, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, an African American man who died while being detained by Minneapolis police officers, those words and actions are again offering a salve. Peaceful protests have filled streets across America with evidence of deep frustrations, hurt, and expectations of change. And they’ve been sharply punctuated by nights of looting and violence, as well as police brutality toward some protesters and journalists.

But even as images of burning cars and shattered glass have reverberated around the globe, another narrative has emerged: of people hearing each other, and of the power that imparts.

In Minneapolis one day, for example, as volunteers rallied to clean up from a night of looting, resident and co-organizer Ming-Jinn Tong explained what it meant to him. “This is love in action right now,” he told a local TV station. 

Other residents, seeing the number of businesses that were damaged, fortified a sense of community and caring by launching numerous GoFundMe efforts. Again and again, people spoke of foundational values in a way that would overcome the darkness of the violence. 

In Seattle, after violence broke out amid peaceful protests, hundreds of volunteers flocked to scrub graffiti off walls and board up broken windows. As one of them put it, “It’s … showing each other who we really are.” 

On a fraught night in Louisville, Kentucky, white women linked arms to protect black protesters, while elsewhere in the city, a black protester linked arms with others to protect an officer who had become separated from his squad.  

And across the country, police raised their voices – and their hearts – as well. In Santa Cruz, California, the chief of police took a knee alongside peaceful protesters. In Camden, New Jersey, officers joined a march against racism. 

Just days after Mr. Floyd’s death, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, in a CNN interview that connected him to the Floyd family, removed his hat as he addressed Mr. Floyd’s brother through the TV camera. “Being silent, or not intervening, to me, you’re complicit,” he said, speaking of the group of officers present as Mr. Floyd died. “If there were one solitary voice that had intervened, that’s what I would have hoped for.” 

And in Michigan, we saw a powerful reminder of the meaning of togetherness. Near Flint Township, Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson met protesters. He was accompanied by officers in riot gear. They were carrying batons. But then both sides “stood down.” The protesters sat; the police removed their gear. “You tell us what you need,” Mr. Swanson said. 

“Walk with us! Walk with us!” came the chant. And they did.

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