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The Battle of 16th and H

06/11/2020 11:19:00 AM

Jun11

Rabbi Samuel Gordon

The prophet Jeremiah wrote:

Seek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you, and pray to the Eternal on its behalf; for in its prosperity, you shall prosper.” (29:7)

American Jews have always found in these words of Jeremiah the foundation for our contract with America. Our security, well-being, and freedom are inextricably dependent on America’s stability and success, and it is the United States Constitution that is at the heart of this nation’s welfare.

Indeed, the First Amendment has guaranteed the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment also ensured the right of free speech and assembly, and long-standing norms and statutes provide the basis on which the military promises not to intervene in domestic policy.

On June 1, a 'perfect storm' of forces threatened those basic rights and values. Military forces, under pressure from the Executive Branch, attacked unarmed peaceful demonstrators simply in order to allow the President to walk across Lafayette Park and hold up an unopened Bible as a prop for a reality show photo opportunity.

In the space of less than an hour, there was an attack on freedom of speech and assembly, separation of church and state, and military intervention in domestic events. Federal troops, heavily armed, dressed in combat and riot gear, attacked peaceful demonstrators, dressed in jeans, tee-shirts, and shorts. In a further attack on the First Amendment, journalists were singled out and roughed up. I watched in horror as Federal police, National Guard, U.S. Park Police, and assorted other forces assaulted nonviolent protesters at 16th Street and H in Washington with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper balls. There was every possibility that this military offensive would succeed in putting down the free expression of American citizens outraged by police brutality and other oppressive and racist policies.

But I believe American values ultimately held the day. If the “Battle of 16th and H” was a military campaign, it reminded me most of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg in the Civil War. At the crest of Cemetery Ridge, looking out over an open field, there is a simple monument marking the “High-Water Mark” of the Confederacy. This was the farthest point north reached by Robert E. Lee’s soldiers before they were driven back into the South, and ultimately foretold the defeat of the Confederacy two years later.

The “battle” of 16th and H and St. John’s Church might well have been the high-water mark of this current administration’s attempt to push the outer limits of executive authority. The attack was not so much against the protesters but against the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution, and the defenders of the Constitution, Republican and Democrat; Left and Right, pushed back. Key current and past leaders of the military spoke out against the use of military forces against civilian demonstrators. General James Mattis offered the strongest critique, and he was supported by Generals Kelly, Allen, and McChrystal, and Admiral McCraven. General Colin Powell publicly broke with the President. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reaffirmed that the military forces of the United States should not be used domestically against American civilians.

Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde and Roman Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory strongly condemned the President’s appearances at St. John’s Church and at Saint John Paul II National Shrine and rejected the President’s attempt to hold up a Bible like a Christian crusader’s sword.

Many have been calling this time an inflection point or liminal moment in American history that represents a significant change in how race relations are viewed in America. The events at 16th and H, but even more importantly, the nationwide mass peaceful marches and demonstrations that have followed the death of George Floyd, have seemed to galvanize much of this nation in a promise to not go back to the racism of the past and the denial of basic rights to one segment of our nation.

There have been other moments in American history when it appeared that our country was ready to change, but disappointment too often followed. American racism did not end with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s. Racial equality was not achieved with the election of our first African American president. Segregation might have been outlawed, but de facto racial separation has continued through housing redlining, school inequality, municipal service disparities, and an unequal criminal justice system. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted.

The death of George Floyd appears to have been a wake-up call to much of America that our country has a great distance to go to eradicate the deeply ingrained racial inequality that has defined us for four hundred years. There is a great deal of work that we must all do if we are to change the culture of our country. As a sacred congregation and community, we at Sukkat Shalom need to become more committed to learning, confronting, and growing. As we are planning our program for this year, we are beginning to develop and implement reading lists and discussion groups, town hall type gatherings, and religious school curricula, all with the goal of increased awareness of the central issue of racism that threatens America. As Jeremiah taught, it is only when this country is just and equitable that we too can share in the benefits of a more righteous nation.

Next Friday, June 19, marks Juneteenth, the 155th anniversary of the full enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Let us mark that date with a promise of a renewed commitment to the highest ideals that attracted our ancestors to these shores.

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780