Collateral Damage

When I was in school, Georgia recognized three geographic regions: the mountains, piedmont and coastal plain. We have five now, since the north has been divided into Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge District and Appalachian Plateau. I’m not sure when the official labels changed, but aside from hosting a lot more asphalt and concrete, the land looks much like it always did.  

Such it is with all our labels and the lines on our maps, even our languages and the narratives we create. We humans tend to believe that the way we describe a thing, is the thing. This has always been true of language, and in a world awash with pixels and politics, it is particularly true of narrative.  

I have lived and worked in all of Georgia’s regions, and every one of them was home to good people and bad. I’m convinced that the more you travel, the more you discover that no city, state or region, and no country on earth, has a monopoly on the good or the bad, the ignorant or the sophisticated. 

Some of my best Georgia memories were formed in the coastal plain, and some of the best people I’ve ever known lived there. As director of operations of an outdoor experiential education program, I was sent to South Georgia to setup a base for mounting out river trips for adjudicated youth.  

For several years we were guests of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources at their facility on the Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area, which sits on 8000 acres along the Ocmulgee River between Lumber City and Jacksonville, Georgia. From that location we supported canoe trips of over 300 miles down the winding brackish waters of the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers to the coastal town of Darien, Georgia, not far from Brunswick.  

We carried motley crews of teenage boys, black, white and brown and all with criminal records, down that river corridor. No one was more motley than the staff who worked with us, young men and women from all over the country, of every color, race, creed and religion.  

No matter how presentable you are at the beginning of a month-long river expedition, in an amazingly short period of time you look and smell like someone who lives in an alley in a cardboard box. I’m telling you this to make a point.  We had many adventures, hardships and triumphs, and all along the way we were dependent on the good will and support of little towns like Hawkinsville, Abbeville, Jacksonville, Lumber City, Hazlehurst, Baxley, Jesup and Darien.  

We worked closely with the police and sheriff’s departments in the areas where we traveled, and some of those departments volunteered time to spend with the boys, and they always had our backs in an emergency. We were often overwhelmed by the generosity of local citizens and businesses and churches that donated food and supplies.  

There were simply too many examples of generosity, support and compassion from the little Georgia towns of our travels to be listed here, but one good example of the kind of support we received happened when the river flooded and a canoe capsized near Hawkinsville, Georgia one February. After rescuing the two boys and mitigating against hypothermia, we had to make an emergency landing at the first campsite we could find that wasn’t underwater. 

The next day volunteers from Hawkinsville risked their own safety to come upriver in their personal boats to escort our group down a rising river that had escaped its banks. It’s not pertinent to the story of generosity and compassion, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want you to picture the scene when a group of “bubbas,” the iconic white southerners that the media is so fond of portraying, went out of their way to rescue a bunch of black teenagers and a group of river rats.  

We talked a lot about race in our programs. Racism was something that most of the kids had either experienced or practiced at one time or another, and we knew that for many of our graduates it would be an issue when they returned home to start a new life. If it did happen again, we hoped there would be a difference, and that difference would be in the awareness that things like racism and prejudice are exceptions and not rules.  

Most of our adjudicated kids had learned to see themselves as victims, victims of our culture, of the system, of their family life or lack of it. Victims don’t need to bother making better decisions because the deck is always stacked against them. We tried to teach them to begin rebuilding their lives with the knowledge that every choice has a consequence, and if you want a better life, you must make better choices.  

Politics has always depended heavily on victims. If you can convince any group of people, black, white or brown, that the deck is stacked against them, they are easier to manipulate. Outrage gets votes, and tragedy is an opportunity to groom outrage. The theme has been repeated throughout history ad nauseum.  

We grieve for the family of the young man slain recently in Brunswick, Georgia. It was a tragic and senseless killing and from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like justice was reluctant to appear. We have no intention of detracting from the import of this tragedy, however, when we acknowledge all the other tragic, senseless and hateful killings that did not make the national news.  

In the month of April, there were 52 murders in Chicago. The political narrative did not choose to remind us again and again of that tragedy. No one commented on the race of any of the victims or the racial motivations of the perpetrators.  No headlines shouted, “Hunted and Killed in Illinois.”  

A purely factual headline might have reported a man shot in Brunswick, Georgia. A tragedy used to groom outrage for profit or political gain, however, reports that a black man was hunted and lynched in “Georgia.”  

There is no denying that racism still exists in this country and, in fact, all over the world. If every human on earth was the same race and identical shade of blue, we would still invent ways to divide ourselves, though this does not excuse the practice.

When injustice occurs, we should speak out without hesitation. Too often, however, our pixelated “outrage” is a signal of both our own virtue and our capitulation to the political narrative that has been created. Nevertheless, to capitalize on a tragedy in order to groom outrage is unconscionable. To promote the continued fracturing of the public into red versus blue and to attempt to paint a political party, a region or a state with the broad brush of “racist” for political gain is unconscionable. This time it’s the left, but the right has done the same many times as well, and the pendulum swings.  

I wanted to share this story from the Georgia I know to stand as a counterpoint to the narrative that has been created out of a tragedy for political gain. Many of you know that same Georgia and prefer that the reputation of our state not suffer any more collateral damage in another endless election cycle.  

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