Editor’s note: During these unprecedented times we have been asking for insights from people from across the community who have something to say about their experiences, the ongoing state of affairs, or their lives that will speak to our current time together. Today we hear from our own On the Ground Battle Creek Engagement Manager Jeff Cotton. If you would like to contribute please let us know.— Kathy Jennings, Managing Editor, Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
In 1993 a rap artist named Tupac Shakur released a single titled “Holler If Ya Hear Me” under Interscope Records. Twenty-seven years later, the subject matter of this song sounds like it could be written tomorrow about today. Full of police brutality innuendos and the all too common machismo that is sometimes an expectation of young African-American males, the track is backed with the same sense of aggressive hopelessness that can be heard in today's Hip-Hop music. Tupac, through the title of this song, asked us to holler if we heard him, and many of us did, but while hearing these same words I memorized 27 years ago, I now have to ask myself, did we listen?
The year 2020 has opened old racial wounds that most of America once thought had healed, and revealed other ethnic injuries that some never even knew were inflicted upon their neighbors and fellow community members. Collective voices and opinions are being highlighted and turned into hashtags. People’s concerns for the future have become the talking points of political ads and campaign speeches. The question we must now ask ourselves is, how can we begin to listen to each other?
In the first six months of this year, results of the COVID-19 pandemic exposed alarming economic and health-care disparities between the white majority and the black/brown minority in America, while protests and riots, which quickly spread across the country after a camera-phone captured the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, exposed levels of anger and frustration over racially motivated injustices that hadn’t been seen since the 1960s.
On May 31st, a number of community leaders in Battle Creek, as well as multiple groups of youth, met at Friendship Park to peacefully protest the killing of an unarmed Black man at the hands of the police. Later that night, while being closely observed but not obstructed but the local police, a group of young men and women occupied the highway exit that connects I-94 and downtown Battle Creek. Both demonstrations were peaceful, and both were full of residents from different communities throughout the city.
At this moment in time, the majority of Battle Creek residents, apparently in alignment with the rest of America, are divided by one critical line drawn through the dynamics and differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, and poverty. On one side of that controversial line of misunderstandings there is a group of people complaining about not being treated fairly here in America, and on the other side of that line is a group of people who either don’t understand or are not aware of these mistreatments that so many claim as their everyday reality.
Regardless of the differences in our residential realities, whether it be within the boundaries of the seven articles of the U.S. constitution, or outside the lines of legal loopholes, America is a place of perpetual change, a complex social experiment that depends on our participation for good, or bad results.
According to mainstream media, we should all dig in on our different sides and stand firmly in our personal beliefs and opinions, but that type of closed-mindedness can possibly be held accountable for the level of civil unrest that America has consistently experienced the entire summer of 2020.
Historically, cultures that ignored the collective voices of the people, and more notably the voices of the youth, eventually suffered ruin after eras of unrest and internal strife. America, the current leader of the free world, has a unique opportunity to navigate away from that predictable destiny that often inflicted other great civilizations.
The peaceful nature of protests in Battle Creek proved inspiring.
Battle Creek is a small city in lower Michigan, with the potential to be a progressive example of ethnic-diversity. The majority of residents from our different ethnic communities are already accepting of each other, and our youth are arguably the most vocal and well-informed generation in this nation’s history. We must take advantage of the opportunity to listen to them as well as each other, especially while our voices and concerns are so loud.
The collective voice of Michigan, from small towns and big cities, to crowds surrounding the state capitol, have protested and been heard loudly over the past few months, but hearing and really listening produce different results. The more we listen to each other, the better we can adjust or respond to each other and help to improve our collective conditions.
What is obvious at this pivotal moment in our present time is that we are hearing and seeing the chants and echos of a generation unwilling to be placed in predesignated pockets of society. We are hearing the screams of those who want better, some who want more. We are witnessing the rage of individuals who have felt left out, the overwhelming energy of those who feel like their American dream was deferred. What we see is our society expressing its confusion, outrage, pain, and even our humiliations, in public.
What we need to be is a community that listens and responds. We have to listen more closely to our youth, so that we can make the necessary social, economic, political, and community adjustments that will ensure the future is not a repeat of the past or present, but a better reality for all.
Jeff Cotton is the Founder & CEO of Big Homies, Inc. and Engagement Manager for On The Ground Battle Creek.