“Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on.”
— Marvin Gaye, 1971
I have always been astounded how songs recorded long ago -- like “What’s Going On,” recorded 44 years ago -- could have been recorded yesterday. We are still being racked by protests from Ferguson, Missouri, to incidents such as the recent one in Arlington, Texas. There a 49-year-old rookie cop so feared for his life because he couldn’t see his supervisor-partner 4 feet away but shot and killed an unarmed college football player 10 feet away.
I cannot get into his mind. I don’t know what he was thinking. Certainly, the young man was acting erratically, but if police routinely shot strange-acting young men, where would we be? Oh, did I say the young man was unarmed?
So what is going on? What’s different today than in the 1970s when Gaye, Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson wrote the song that sold 2 million copies, sat at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and for five weeks was No. 1 on the Hot Soul Singles chart? The album was also different, the songs ... hold on, let me explain what an album was to those unfamiliar.
An album was a round flat piece of vinyl about 12-inches in diameter with a small hole in the center. It had grooves in it and when played on a record player, also known as a phonograph, sounds were created. I know in this digital world the concept of a phonograph is hard to grasp, but that’s what records or albums were played on. And no, they weren’t at all portable.
Back to Gaye’s album. There were five songs and all the songs on Side 1 blended together as one continuous stream of music, as did Side 2. I was in college at the time “What’s Going On” was released. I didn’t know then that Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown Records, didn’t want anything to do with the album until sales started mounting. In fact, Gordy had refused to release it because he thought it too controversial. The Vietnam War was raging. Protests were exploding all over the country, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, not far from my own about 80 miles east at the University of the Pacific.
It was a Berkeley demonstration that inspired the song. A year earlier at Kent State, the Ohio National Guard was called out to stop a demonstration. Four students were killed and nine wounded. Yes, what was going on?
And now in 2015, we are again asking, “What’s going on?” As a nation we’re finding out that in times of stress, many of those sworn to serve and protect are caught lying, outed by their own equipment. The era of the phonograph is dead, but a not-so-new-fangled video camera is on almost everyone’s hip. And while not perfect, it has come to expose discrepancies in what officers have said and what a camera can reveal.
I personally don’t expect law enforcement perfection, but in this age where everyone is encouraged to take personal responsibility, where people are told to “Man Up,” I certainly expect that from law enforcement.
But it’s not just law enforcement that makes me wonder what’s going on. I see children talking back to parents like they have a tail -- and the parents afraid to lay a hand on them. I see these same children being disrespectful to adults in authority. There are knuckleheads everywhere I turn, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’m not pointing fingers at others. I have knucklehead as a DNA trait. I am not the pot calling the kettle black. I’m the pot and the kettle.
I don’t know what to do, but I do have a few suggestions as the school year begins. By now, parents should know all of your children’s teachers, the principal and anyone else who has a role in educating them. They should have your contact information and you should be available 24/7. Parents are an integral part of the education team. When you sit with your child daily, don’t just accept one-word answers to “How was your day?” Your children will get tired of hearing it, but you have to constantly tell them how important their education is to you.
And finally, to borrow from the Optimist Creed: “Promise yourself to think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.”
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet@crichard1020.