Saturday, October 1, 2022

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Stray Thoughts

The optics are not helping demonstrators


“Optics” is a term that has come a long way from the days when it pretty much was the exclusive domain of eye doctors and companies that make telescopes, cameras, binoculars and microscopes.

These days, the word has pretty much morphed into a synonym for “public perception”— as in, “The optics aren’t good when you tell your wife she needs more self-control and you are eating your third brownie of the day.

The optics before us today have nothing to do with eating — or eyeglasses.

The optics on my mind have everything to do with what has played out before us in the past week on live television from Minneapolis to places like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City and right here in Iowa.

Who really thinks the best way to marshal public opinion to deal with racism and the senseless actions by wayward police officers must involve burning a police station or a Wells Fargo Bank or looting a Target store?

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (Oct)

Do demonstrators really believe they are going to win over supporters to their important cause by busting windows out of bars and restaurants and other businesses owned by innocent people, especially as owners try to get back up following the coronavirus shutdown?

Who really thinks torching police cars or pitching bricks and rocks at officers will lead to productive conversations among community leaders and citizen groups about the way our government deals with police officers who violate their oath to protect and serve the public?

Do people really believe that folks who are temporarily out of work while their employers clean up and repair the damage caused by protesters will be more sympathetic to the problem of racism and needless police violence? Or that citizens who see the wanton destruction by demonstrators are going to be galvanized to the side of protesters?

Or, is there a better chance that spray-painting graffiti or breaking windows at the courthouse, or surging afterward toward the State Capitol at midnight, or vandalizing a historic church is going to lead Mr. and Mrs. Joe Citizen to dismiss these people and their legitimate concerns because of the terrible optics that surround these demonstrations?

The United States did not pull out of the Vietnam War because University of Iowa students and ne’er-do-well rabble-rousers decided to take their wrath out on the windows at Iowa Book and Supply, block traffic on Interstate 80, and burn down a building not far from Old Capitol.

No, the anti-war movement gained traction and built public momentum from the terrible optics coming from the other side, from the side of the war’s supporters.

Those optics included Ohio National Guard soldiers killing four unarmed students and wounding nine others during a protest at Kent State University. Eleven days later, at Jackson State University in Mississippi, police killed two students and wounded 12 others during an incident outside a dormitory.

Night after night, there were the television news reports from Vietnam. There were glowing reports from military commanders about the rising enemy body count, about the “gains” U.S. forces supposedly were achieving, and about how a U.S. victory was just around the corner — a corner that never seemed to get closer.

And, in Iowa, Peg Mullen, a farm wife from La Porte City, became a symbol of the true price the United States was paying in Vietnam.

Following the death in 1970 of their son, Michael, who was drafted into the Army, Mullen and her husband, Gene, used his military death benefit to buy a dramatic half-page ad in the Des Moines Sunday Register. The ad showed rows and rows of crosses, 714 in all, one for each Iowan killed thus far in the war.

The ad’s text was equally blunt: “SILENT message to fathers and mothers of Iowa. We have been dying for nine long, miserable years in Vietnam in an undeclared war. How many more lives do you wish to sacrifice because of your SILENCE?”

The ad galvanized public attention on the war’s cost and turned Peg Mullen into a prominent national voice against the war.

Mullen didn’t bust any windows or set fire to any buildings. She didn’t burn any police cars. She didn’t chuck any rocks at Army commanders.

But she did make her voice heard. And she did bring countless Americans around to her view of the tremendous waste of the Vietnam War.

It should be the same with the death of George Floyd.

The horrifying videos of his death last week in Minneapolis are so gripping and so compelling it would be hard for lawmakers, or prosecutors, to ignore them.

There is Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin calmly kneeling on the man’s neck for an agonizing 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd, helpless and in handcuffs, cries out that he cannot breathe.

And then he went silent. 

Americans who believe more needs to be done to deal with police officers who abuse their power and authority— and more is needed — run the risk of losing countless Americans because of the optics from the lawlessness in the streets in recent days.

We need another Peg Mullen to help lead us right now. ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at

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