Trying to sort out all the tragedy of the last week, I flashed back to four decades ago. The first time I ever saw a rubber bullet was more than 40 years ago, when I lived in Belfast in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I arrived there as a two-year volunteer with a group called the Peace People while on leave from Yale Law School.
My very first assignment was with Voluntary Service Belfast (VSB), who sent a hip young social worker to meet me outside the old Great Victoria train station.The real welcoming party for every arriving passenger was a British soldier (younger than my 21 year old self) with an armalite rifle slung across his shoulder, standing at your shoulder as you stepped off the train.
After being “sorted out” by my official greeter, I found my new VSB companion waiting outside the station, which was itself completely barricaded with only one door in or out. She wore a rubber bullet on a chain around her neck, her personal badge of honor, I discovered later, for her role in the long campaign for justice in her country.
There was not then or is there now anything flexible about a rubber bullet. While it may be statistically less lethal than a regular bullet, it maintains the ability to blind, to bruise, to break, to draw blood, to leave an indelible scar on the soul and spirit of the recipient and, sometimes, the shooter.
Like its lead cousin, a rubber bullet conveys a clear message about force and who holds the monopoly on it. I never thought I’d be writing about their use in my country, or after they had been deployed against our own people.
On a call with college presidents earlier this week, one of our colleagues raised the issue of a response to the protests across America after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody in Minneapolis. The four officers involved, all white, face criminal charges.
Some argued that it is our responsibility as Presidents of colleges that serve half of all minority students in this Commonwealth to find a way to lead on the issue. I would argue that it is also our duty because we are educators who help students every day to form value systems that are informed, inclusive, expressive and fair. And we are after all living in veritable “crucible times” for character and value formation.
Many of our students, many of our faculty and staff, many of you, too, may be struggling against the riptide of hopelessness. The cycle of injustice can seem as unending as it is unforgiving.
My experience in Northern Ireland taught me that even cycles that spin for centuries can be halted, and centrifugal forces that push people apart transformed into centripetal ones that bring people closer together to a shared center.
In his poem “A Chorus”, a meditation on justice, Seamus Heaney wrote of his Ireland this way:
It means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means, once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
It did happen—the hope and history rhyming thing, when the two sides signed the Northern Ireland peace accords right before the turn of this century–after 800 years of anguish and injustice and following almost 40 years of the most recent edition of what they call over there “The Troubles.”
Both sides put down their weapons, and the rubber bullets became relics.
On this side of the Atlantic, we have many, many verses yet to write in our struggle against racism and injustice. If we can find ways to write them together, maybe our hope and history will rhyme, too.
Tom Foley spent three years working as a volunteer on justice issues with the Nobel Prize winning Peace People in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the Troubles there in the late 70s and 80s. He is currently president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.