In 1453, Mikolaj Kopernik, better known by his Latinized name of Nicolaus Copernicus, published a work arguing that the motion of the planets could better be understood if the Sun were placed at the center of the universe rather than the Earth. The accepted dogma that the Earth was the center of the universe derived first from the philosophy of Aristotle in about 350 BCE, then from the model of Claudius Ptolemy from about 130 CE, and had somehow become part of the dogma and mythology of the Roman Catholic Church, though neither Aristotle or Ptolemy were Christians. Over the ensuing 1,300 years, as observations of planetary motion got better and better, Ptolemy’s model required more and more fiddling and jawboning and Mikolaj thought it was time to critically re-evaluate the conventional wisdom and produce a new model.
The Church was annoyed, and their annoyance could be an ominous problem, but Kopernik died the same year his work was published, so the Church did not have a chance to express its displeasure as they did 80 years later when Galileo Galilei defended the Copernican system in his writings. Galileo was forced to recant on pain of death and was sentenced to house arrest for the last eight years of his life. Galileo took the threat of death seriously because, in his lifetime, a monk named Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for several offenses against Church dogma, among them the speculation that, since the Earth was probably not the center of the universe, maybe the stars were suns like ours, with planets like ours, and life like ours, so we might not be the unique creations of God. This was simply too much for the Church and they executed Bruno. (We have now found thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of them are earthlike in size and temperature.) Bruno has not been pardoned. Galileo was, in 1992.
563 years after Mikolaj Kopernik, the scientist, challenged Church dogma, Colin Kaepernick, a football player, challenged American dogma about how free and equitable our society is by not standing for the National Anthem before games. Our modern Kaepernick’s point is that blacks are not treated equally before the law, and by law enforcement personnel particularly, and we as a society need to do something about it. Data supporting his position continued to accumulate a couple of weeks after he started his protest when police shot to death an unarmed black man outside Tulsa, Oklahoma and a questionably armed black man in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both incidents were recorded by police dash cameras and, in the case of the Oklahoma shooting, by a helicopter overhead. In Charlotte, the incident was also recorded on the cell phone camera of the dead man’s wife. The Tulsa police department released the videos quickly and, based on what they showed, and interviews of witnesses, charged the officer who pulled the trigger with first degree manslaughter. In Charlotte, the cell phone video has been released but the police department has not released the dash cam videos as of September 24. The streets of Charlotte have been full of protesters for three days.
The charge of the protesters and of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has grown out of the many police shootings of unarmed black men, is that African Americans, men in particular, are viewed by too many officers in police departments all over the country, as threatening, apparently just for being African American. Many states, generally “Red” states, dominated by Republican legislatures, have passed laws that allow their citizens, not just police, to shoot other citizens if they feel that their lives are threatened. This, of course, causes problems if some white people view black people as threatening as a matter of course. Attempts to deal with such threats have led to policies of random “stop and frisk,” under mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg in New York City and the “offense” of DWB, (driving while black) all over the country, which have both led to a well-documented, disproportionate disruption of the lives of black folks compared to white by the police. Black or mixed race families, such as that of the current mayor of New York, Bill Deblasio, have to have “the talk” with their kids about how to be appropriately subservient around the police so that they won’t get shot.
Just this week, one of Donald Trump’s county campaign managers in Ohio, a Kathy Miller, said in a TV interview that we never had this problem with racism until Barack Obama got elected President and that if a black person had not done well in this country in the last 50 years, it was their own fault. This is a pretty common viewpoint among a disturbingly large percentage of white folks, mostly Republican. However, the Trump campaign called her remarks “inappropriate,” and accepted her resignation. Responding to a question about violence in the black community, Donald Trump has recommended reinstituting “stop and frisk,” and confiscation of any firearms found, which has been declared unconstitutional by a federal judge on the grounds that it violates both the Second and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution. The policy has been discontinued in New York City with no increase, in fact, a further decrease in violence. Hillary Clinton has a much more detailed, extensive, and constitutional plan for the problem of urban crime and gun violence which anyone can read on her website.
Mikolaj Kopernik challenged religious dogma about the structure of the universe we live in with an accumulation of data and a new model. Colin Kaepernick has challenged American mythology and dogma about being “the land of the free and the home of the brave” for everybody and asks us to look at the data and remodel our society. We should listen to him.