Her eyes filling with tears, Charlotte Zietlow says, “I feel terrible about all this.”
The longstanding doyenne of the Democratic Party here in Bloomington found herself smack dab in the middle of a maelstrom over the weekend. In a clumsy effort to show solidarity with the Enough Is Enough marchers who gathered at Dunn Meadow and then paraded to courthouse square Friday, Charlotte displayed a sign on her balcony railing reading, “This old white lady says All Lives Matter.”
The all-lives-matter variant on the Black Lives Matter is generally viewed as a Trumpist, racist response to the call for justice and equity by people of color.
Charlotte tells me she was unaware of how hurtful the all-lives-matter line is.
She might have known that had she been an habitué of social media. Alas, she’s not. Charlotte can’t see well enough to read her computer screen these days. Now fast approaching her 86th birthday, she’s struggling to remain a step ahead of the inevitable physical breakdown we all will be subject to. Charlotte keeps abreast of world and national events via her TV, always tuned to one or another of the political news and talk channels when she’s not indulging in watching tennis or soccer games. A voracious reader until a few short years ago, she’s now only able to gobble up audio books.
All the latests dos and don’ts many of us learn through Facebook, Instagram, or whatever other instant communication platforms people use today zip right past her. The cable channels, MSNBC for instance, don’t run breaking news chyrons warning the populace that the all-lives-matter thing is taboo (as well it should be).
Charlotte found out the rules of that game the hard way. Almost immediately after the sign was hung on her railing, Charlotte’s phone began ringing. Friends and colleagues, including members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, wanted to know what in the heck she was doing. As soon as her faux pas dawned on her, Charlotte had the sign edited to read Black Lives Matter. That might have been the end of the tempest but activist and a candidate for Bloomington’s city council last year, Daniel Bingham, posted pix of the original sign on his Facebook page.
The reaction was swift and passionate. Commenters suggested she was losing her mind, that she was suffering from Alzheimers’, that she’d been hoodwinked by her caregivers, and even that she was a longtime racist. One fellow, I’ve been told (I did not see his comment), allegedly said her balcony windows would be an easy target for anybody who wished to heave a rock at them. If this person did indeed post that or a similar comment, it would immediately be taken down for violating FB’s violent speech guidelines.
Knowing Charlotte as well as I do — and, I might add, in a way that the most vehement of the commenters under Bingham’s FB post do not — I’ll guess her original message was in keeping with her lifelong belief that we’re all in this together. She became politically active with the rise of John F. Kennedy and cut her activist teeth in the era of the hippies, anti-war protesters, and civil rights marchers of the 1960s and early ’70s. Power to the People, was a favorite line at that time. Black Power might have seemed too divisive for her tastes. All of us are being screwed in one form or another, so let’s not single each other out; let’s, instead, fight the power as one.
That take rankles a lot of people of color these days. Their allies, too.
But that’s only a guess. I will say for certain though, after working with Charlotte for the last six years on her memoir, that she’s as sickened by the mistreatment, the dehumanization, the abuse, the inequity people with dark skin suffer daily, hourly…, hell, by the second as the most vociferous 22-year-old marcher last Friday. She, like me, is unable to walk well enough to join the dramatic, historic protests. We’re both deeply disappointed because of that.
The only difference is I’ve caught on via social media how inflammatory, how wrong, the line All Lives Matter is. Charlotte, again, has come to that chapter of civics class late. Tardiness, of course, does not mean one has lost one’s mind.
And if she is racist, she’s as racist as I am, or any white American, inasmuch as we all were born and raised in a profoundly racist society. I’ve been trying to shake that virus for more than 60 years and I’ll bet I’ll still be doing it by the time I quit this world. That’s how deeply ingrained white supremacy is in us. But Charlotte is no more racist than any of the white marchers Friday nor any of the passionate, enraged commenters under Danial Bingham’s Facebook post. As much as they’ve hollered, rightly, for justice, she’s written and enacted laws, she’s ordered local government agencies and departments to change their ways, she’s spoken to neighborhood groups and political caucuses, for that same justice for people of color.
A little more background on the sign genesis: the caregiver who Charlotte directed to draw up and hang the sign originally declined to do it. “I don’t feel right doing this,” she told Charlotte.
Late this afternoon (Monday) a friend who spoke with Charlotte before the sign was drawn up, posted this comment under Bingham’s FB post:
I happened to speak with Charlotte by phone before the march began. Her intention and her heart was to participate in the march because she cares profoundly about Black Lives Matter. It was all that we could do to persuade her to stay home because of the pandemic. Since she could not go to the march, she asked me if I thought it was a good idea if she were to hang a sign from her balcony that said; “Old white lady says Black Lives Matter.” I told her it was a fabulous idea. As some of you know, her eyesight is failing and she had help making the sign. In the course of the sign’s making, something was lost in translation. Charlotte’s intent was to stand for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Confusion, to be sure, reigned. Perhaps a directive was misspoken or misheard. The incident shouldn’t negate all the good Charlotte’s done since she came to this town in the summer of 1964.
And, for the ten thousandth time, the people on my side of the fence have to — have to! — stop strangling each other.