The Outrage In Charleston

I had a nice snarky post prepared about the re-branding of the Los Angeles Clippers, and we will run that post later, but there are times when events require us to use our soapbox – however humble – in a different manner, and this is one of those times.

If we as a company have an “origin story”, it is the role that Jackie Robinson played in changing hearts and minds in the world of baseball, but more importantly, in the larger society. This was the story told to me by my father before I ever saw a ballgame. It is as much part of my DNA as the color of my eyes. Later in life, it was my inspiration for starting this company. If it is only a nice story we tell to help sell baseball shirts, if it has no deeper meaning, then we are not worthy of Robinson’s legacy, and I am not worthy of my father’s.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a political post. We have always thought of Ebbets Field Flannels as a community. This community is open to all. A love of baseball and history is the glue that binds us together, and the only prerequisites of being a member. We have never told anyone how they should vote, how they should feel on issues, what they should believe politically. But when a man can walk into a house of God under the guise of wanting to join a prayer group, gain the trust of good people, then abuse that trust in order to commit the most horrible and hateful act imaginable, it requires that we speak out.

It is very tempting to see race relations in this country as a linear progression: Lincoln freed the slaves, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech, LBJ pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, and we all lived happily ever after. But of course the reality is more complicated, and more disturbing. It is clear that there is a minority in this country who because of fear, ignorance, or their own personal demons, cannot reconcile themselves to the vision of King, and for whom the story of Robinson means nothing. Charleston is not an isolated event. It must be seen in the context of many events and realities that are unfortunately not in the distant past, but part of our everyday American landscape in 2015. For example, the unmitigated hatred directed at this president by some, not because of what he’s done or any policy he advocates, but because of who he is. The gunning down and harassment of black citizens by police in many communities across this country. The different standards of justice for non-violent offenders of different racial and economic backgrounds, and the disproportionate imprisonment of black men in our justice system. There is a darkness in the heart of too many people despite decades of education, evolution, and much true progress on racial issues. First we need to acknowledge that this darkness exists, something too many people for various reasons are unwilling to do. Only then can we deal with it.

There is also the issue of guns, or rather the availability of guns and the ease of the wrong people obtaining them. Now, I respect people’s right to hunt, to shoot for sport, to protect their homes and property. While we can argue about the nuances of the Second Amendment, we do have one and it must be respected. But no constitutional amendment is unlimited. I simply don’t understand, for example, people who feel the need to carry an AK-47 into a restaurant or a school, as so-called “open carry” advocates have been doing recently in some places. More importantly, when the Constitution is used as cover by an industry that reaps unlimited profits by continued gun production and sales, we need to ask some important questions about that industry’s motives and responsibilities. All countries have mentally imbalanced or hateful people, but we need to ask ourselves why in the United States we have such extremes of gun violence which are unmatched in other developed countries. Is this simply the price we must accept for the freedom to exercise our Constitutional rights? I don’t think so.

As I said, it would be a mistake to think of this as a political post. You cannot legislate an end to hatred, and I am not even sure with the amount of guns already circulating that more laws regulating them will help. I am not telling you what the solutions are or even suggesting that I know what they are. I do think, however, that on both of these issues, which tragically came together in a historic church in Charleston, that it’s high time we ask ourselves some important questions as a people and a society. Only then can any progress be made. We have another presidential election cycle beginning now. Will these candidates and the media address these issues and have a serious discussion about them? Or will the focus be – as it almost always is – on trivialities and the “horse race”, who’s up and who’s down?

I deliberately avoided using the word “tragedy” in my post title because that word has been used too much for these type of events that it has been almost stripped of all meaning, and cannot possibly convey the anger that I feel about this event. “Outrage” expresses it better. Maybe when enough of us feel enough outrage to say “enough is enough, no more” the process of change will finally begin.

Jerry Cohen, Founder, EFF