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No More Incremental Change

June 6th, 2020 by dk

After Secret Service agents forcibly displaced peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so that President Trump could stroll from the White House to have his photo taken in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the church’s members voiced outrage. Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, called the president’s actions “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

Episcopalians are big on hierarchy, so next came the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry. He is the Presiding Bishop of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and its 1.7 million members. He exhorted a nationwide audience to seek higher ground on the issue at hand.

A year ago, the Harvard Business Review profiled Curry’s leadership style, asking him how he brings all sides together when faced with a divisive issue. His answer: “If there’s a point of commonality — however small it may be — affirm that first, and then build from there.”

Let’s try it.

What do civil rights protesters and anti-capitalism activists have in common with those who voted for Donald Trump? Each group in its own way has given up on incremental change. Each is determined to overthrow the status quo.

Ideal incrementalism asks so little from each that the burden — the actual change — is imperceptible. It’s not hard to ask for trust when the cost appears to be nothing. Incrementalism cannot correct systemic flaws. Until the status quo is stripped of status, it will keep its quo. Things will stay mostly the same.

As The Daily Show’s host Trevor Noah pointed out, the current outrage against racism did not begin when George Floyd was strangled by a police officer’s knee. It began a few days earlier, when a white woman in Central Park refused to leash her dog.

A black man who was birdwatching asked her to follow the park rules. She then called 911 and claimed that a black man was threatening her. She was placing a metaphorical knee on that man’s neck. She was confident the system would side with her.

When we saw Officer Derek Chauvin, with one hand in his pocket, ignore entreaties from George Floyd, it was more of the same. We could see the pattern. Both the dog walker and the police officer knew the system wouldn’t change on its own.

Donald Trump promised big changes to society if he got elected. He has delivered on that promise. That makes his followers happy, because disruption is what they wanted. It’s always satisfying to get what you were expecting. They barely notice that most of those drastic changes help the very wealthy and hurt the very poor.

The riots we’ve witnessed this week show a combustible mix of two rages. Don’t try to separate racial and economic injustices. Recognize how our systems perpetuate both. America’s last great leader did.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was widening his crusade to include all poor people. And then he was assassinated. We haven’t moved from where he left us. Status quo is still so.

Only large changes will meet the mood of this moment. Incremental change is no longer on the overturned table.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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