Letting Freedom Ring
You could hear them before you could see them, hundreds of voices projecting from somewhere in the darkness beyond the next corner, unintelligible at first, then understandable as they drew closer.
Many had candles in their hands, glowing yellow once full night set in. Some wore school uniforms, others in street clothes, among the children, and there were many of those.
Adults were there, too; but it was the youngsters, primarily, who projected the loudest message.
“They say their way, we say our way,” was one of the chants. “No justice, no peace” was another.
For residents of the Village East neighborhood where the march occurred last Wednesday, there may have been some concern. Hundreds of marching children and teens with a few adults scattered between them is not a sight Village East or Houma in general is used to.
But most people here in this oasis of brick ranch-style homes understood that something really bad had occurred, and that the youngsters were appropriately letting off steam.
Peaceful protest, in large numbers or small, is a tradition not only legally protected but morally justified no matter the opinion.
Law enforcement officials respected that right, taking care not to interfere, to lay back and let the voices of the young people speak their peace.
I have witnessed, in other places, surprisingly peaceful protests. In Staten Island, New York, after a police officer shot a young man under questionable circumstances I saw this done well, with police aiding the march and holding up traffic. In Kokomo, Mississippi, I followed marchers as they responded to the news that a 16-year-old named Raynard Johnson had been found hanged in a pecan tree. The incident, once thoroughly investigated, was determined to be the result of suicide, not the lynching that many had supposed. In New York, also, I saw protest turn to violence, mostly because in the midst of tense circumstances police tried to stem the crowd rather than accommodate it, and people were hurt.
The point here is that the specific message of frustration and doubt needs to be aired, must be spoken, very often en masse, and if it is not done constructively the emotions just simmer with nowhere to go, and that is when, like a pot left to boil with the lid on, bad things happen.
In Ferguson, Missouri, there were cops in riot gear who met people protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown, and things did not go well. If the suggestion or opinion is that a lawman needlessly took a life, then oppression of the protest, by intimidating appearance or by force, generally heightens tensions.
The investigation into the death of Cameron Tillman, who is believed by authorities to have had a pellet gun in his hand that mimicked a deadly automatic weapon, resulting in his death by police bullets, continues as this is written, and is likely to continue for some weeks.
With questions unanswered and plenty of rumors and outright falsehoods around, the neighborhood created its own response.
The message got out, the sky didn’t fall, and after a brief rally in front of the house on Kirkglen Loop where the shooting occurred, at a make-shift shrine of stuffed toys, balloons, placards and yet more candles, the marchers went their separate ways.
Our community, being where it is on the map, might have the misfortune at times of being painted with a broad brush, the one the nation uses to paint the rest of the Deep South. In many places the criticism is justified. In this place, our home, there is too much proof that while things are not perfect, there is a tolerance for varied opinions even on the most controversial of topics.
In that sense the Tuesday marchers served a purpose beyond their immediate attempt, and the law enforcement officers who made wise decisions, who refused to put the lid on top of the pot and just let the bubbles of discontent dissolve into the ether, by leaving everyone alone, supported a noble cause.
They all affirmed, in their own way, that freedom of expression is alive and well in Terrebonne Parish, that the people can express their views without fear of retribution by authorities.
On the streets of Houma, for a night, there was proof that under these skies, in this place, freedom indeed can ring. I will affirm that for that one night there was a greater lesson in civics than could be learned in a classroom for a steady week.