“Defiant Spirit,” by artist Jesse Howard, depicts a masked Black man, likely a protester, facing a law enforcement officer. The Black man wears more than a face mask. (jessehowardstudio.com)

Earlier this month, a group of Oak Park and River Forest High School parents organized a rally in front of the school to protest a decision by District 200 officials to temporarily suspend after-school activities, including sports.

Four days later, on Dec. 6, D200 officials announced that they had reversed course, two days after the Dec. 4 protest, where attendees can be seen on video booing, screaming, yelling and shouting expletives as the village’s public health director spoke.

There’s a lot in this situation to wade through, but instead of dwelling on the particulars, allow me an exercise in radical empathy. Considering my limited knowledge of what happened and who was involved, here is what I will not do.

I will not pass judgment on the protest due to the behavior of some people in the crowd. I will not, prima facie, dismiss the source of the protesters’ collective frustration.

I will not, unsolicited, provide the protesters my personal template for right conduct or attempt to tell angry adults, incensed by what they obviously believed was a pretty big threat to their children and this community, how they should feel.

I will not say that then was not the right time or there was not the right place or yelling out “idiot” at a public health official was not the right mode of expression. I will not try to micromanage anyone’s raw emotions.

In addition, I will not make any assumptions about the motivations or intentions of those involved in this protest. I will not tell them that they are to blame for a pandemic or that their own actions have only exacerbated their suffering.

I will not indulge in any conspiracy theories about the origins of the protest. I will not call it a communist or Marxist plot. I will not even call the protesters racist. I will hold the door open to any interpretations about their motivations grounded in empathy and the understanding that, often, reality is not morally or ethically monochromatic.

What I know, however, is that the protesters felt the cancellation of sports would be to the detriment of their children, they organized, they acted collectively, and they got what they wanted. Whether or not their actions played any role in the district rescinding its original decision is incidental to the fact that they successfully exercised some agency over their own suffering.

Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” I respect that dictum.

Now, I ask those who felt so incensed about the temporary cancellation of high school sports that they decided to protest, to grant others the same radical empathy. Imagine how others might be angry and frustrated, but for different reasons.

Go beyond a temporary emergency suspension of sports due to public health concerns and imagine being told by technocrats and politicians that your child’s school is closing permanently. Imagine the fear of knowing that your child, in order to attend her new school, must daily risk life and limb by navigating terrain so dangerous the school district creates programs with names like “Safe Passage.”

Imagine your child telling you that she is constantly surveilled and discriminated against at school and then, when you bring the matter up, being told by administrators that your child is entertaining phantoms. Imagine this happening for generations, going back to when your mother’s mother attended school, such that you all have mirror experiences.

Imagine being frustrated and pained about all of this and deciding to do something about it, to protest, to act out, only for others to say you’re “playing the victim” or that your protest or way of expressing your frustration is unwarranted or inappropriate or illegitimate or dangerous — indeed, a threat to civility.

If you feel that the cancellation of high school sports will be detrimental to your child, imagine having to get up each morning to go into a space that, you feel, daily cancels your very existence and is administered by people who, oblivious to the erasure, insist that you smile.

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,” a poet once wrote. “It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, this debt we pay to human guile; with torn and bleeding hearts we smile, and mouth with myriad subtleties.”

I understand the frustration over pandemic protocols like masks and cancellations (and trust me, I’m not attempting to pit one kind of experience against another); but please grant me the same radical empathy when I say there are those among us who must deal with masks and cancellations that are an order of magnitude more frustrating.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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