Remember, opponents are people too

By John Peters

September 1, 2013

The other day I was watching a news show on television, and I saw two groups of people, one simply trying to exercise their right to free speech, while people in the other group were attacking them, throwing bottles and rocks at them.

The television switched to another scene, this one with men in uniform attacking civilians, beating them, kicking them, in one instance three unformed troopers had a woman on the ground hitting her repeatedly with batons.

In still another view I saw four men hitting and kicking another. The man under attack made his way to a uniformed representative of the government, no doubt hoping for help. The uniformed official stepped between those beating the man and the victim, then he turned and began hitting and kicking the victim.

These scenes I describe could easily be ones you may have seen in televised reports from Egypt or Iraq, maybe Afghanistan or Syria.

They weren’t. Those shots were taken from the United States, in Alabama and Mississippi and other southern locales, showing actions going on 45 and 50 years ago. The victims? In each case they were black men and women, either wanting to vote, wanting to exercise their right to gather and peacefully protest, or wanting to simply walk down the street and be left alone.

Many folks alive today still remember when they weren’t allowed to swim in the public pool because their skin color was different, or they weren’t allowed in certain restaurants, or not allowed to vote. They have memories of people being beaten and jailed and, in some cases killed, simply because they were black. Some of our local resident may have known friends and relatives who were subjected to such assaults. Some of our local residents maybe have been among those victims.

And many, many people alive today might not have first-hand memories, but they learned of those stories as children, sitting at the knee of their parents who did experience those events.

As anyone who has a little age on them can attest, 50 years might seem like a long time, but in one’s memory, events from decades ago still carry emotions and feelings as if they happened yesterday. For these folks, the fear of being singled out, of not being allowed to vote because of the color of their skin, is still very real.

That’s why it bothers me to hear politicians, or members of the majority party in North Carolina, so dismissively wave off concerns expressed by minority groups over new voting laws in North Carolina.

This year the North Carolina General Assembly enacted a whole host of election-related laws aimed at stopping a problem that really doesn’t exist — that of voter fraud. Among those measures are a new requirement that voters present a state-issued ID (at significant cost to taxpayers); limiting or downright eliminating the ability of college students to participate in the election process; and even preventing many 18-year-olds from casting a vote if their birthday happens to take place after the registration deadline (even if that birthday is before election day).

I’m not writing this to take issue with those new laws (although I do think they are just flat-out wrong), but to maybe give a different view of why some oppose these laws so vehemently.

I don’t really believe today’s North Carolina General Assembly passed these new laws necessarily to target any racial minority. I’m sure some measure of racism exists in the General Assembly, as it does everywhere, but I think the Republicans who control the General Assembly were simply changing the laws to make it more difficult for likely Democratic voters to participate, just as the Democratic party had done things over the years to try to ensure it would stay in power.

But what bothers me most is when someone from, say, the NAACP will stand up and claim these new laws are reminiscent of the old poll taxes, and that statement will be met with disdain, with reactions from legislators who act as if the person making the claim is unfairly playing the race card or, even worse, is so out of touch with reality as to have his or her sanity questioned.

I know it’s too much to expect legislators in Raleigh to actually think about what they are doing independent of the party line (on either side of the political aisle), but it would be nice if those in the majority remember that sometimes, opposition comes from real people, who have real, painful memories of another time when their voices were ignored.

The new laws might not be changed, but at least those on each side might treat one another a little more humanely, with a little more respect. And that would be good for all involved.