Like many Utahns, I sat in horror last Saturday afternoon and watched my city be destroyed, our public safety and state Capitol buildings defaced by vulgar and hateful messages and our police maligned. It was really upsetting; unnerving.
At first, I blamed it on hooligans and “outsiders” bent on getting attention. I blamed it on a very few “crazies” letting off steam. Like most Utahns, I felt badly for the police officers who stood tall and strong in the face of people insulting, spitting and throwing water bottles and worse at them.
It was hard to sit and watch. I selfishly thought about my law office, just a few hundred yards away from the destruction, and wondered what I would be walking into when I arrived at work Monday morning.
Then Monday morning came. I went to work and it was almost as though nothing had happened. My office was untouched. Volunteers had cleaned the graffiti and almost all of the carnage was barely visible.
Then I blamed myself.
I remembered the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, a man I have always held in the highest possible regard. I remember him saying this at a speech over 50 years ago, “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. ... But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so, in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
When I thought of those words, I felt ashamed. What that great man said a half century ago hit me hard, like it never had before. I understood exactly what he meant; and I no longer felt fear, contempt and rage toward the rioters and looters. I felt some peace, believe it or not. I felt like there was genius in those words and that it is time to harken to them.
Some of you know that I often host radio show podcasts locally. Whenever I quote from King, who I believe to be one of the greatest Americans, I receive texts and emails from people who belittle him, chide me for citing him and make horrible, racist taunts.
Some of you also know that I am a staunch advocate for Utah’s law enforcement community. I represent them; teach them, love them like family and believe that they are the best in the country. The best in the world. I believe that more than ever today.
But I think we can learn something from Saturday’s riots. I think we can learn that we’ve come a long way in race relations; but that we still have a long way to go. I think we can learn that peaceful protest is what this country stands for, but patience in overcoming prejudices isn’t our strong point; nor should it be.
I don’t condone violent protest for a minute. It is self-defeating, and the rioters did themselves no favors at all. I don’t think we’re quite done with that ugliness just yet. But I think in some respects we deserved it. Not our law enforcement community; all of us.
I have no confidence in our national leadership. It has fueled these fires and will only pour more gas on that flame. But I have confidence in our people. I have confidence that a large number of Americans, Utahns, recognize that maybe we’ve gotten too comfortable, too “tranquil” and that we can’t stop pursuing justice, fairness, equity and equality. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m optimistic. I think the “butt-kicking” Salt Lake (and all of America) received Saturday was a long time coming.
I pray we got the message.
Greg Skordas is a Salt Lake City attorney and Democratic candidate for Utah Attorney General.