Kenosha and The Turncoat

I find myself, like so many other people, trying to make sense of the stories of racial injustice that have filled my world and the narrative of my country, my people, and my communities. Often I wonder how it could still be happening.

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By James White

In my musings, I am reminded of what Gary Harper calls the drama triangle, a framework that simplifies stories into three basic roles: the victim, the villain, and the hero. Across genres and cultures, stories boil down to these three roles, with a plot centered around a conflict between the victim and villain that is resolved by the action of the hero. You’ll find these three characters in everything from Disney to Marvel, in galaxies far, far away and in the wild, wild west.

While this drama triangle is an important organizing tool for storytelling, there is a fourth component that is equally critical to the story: the setting. A story’s setting can unconsciously influence our perceptions of the relationships within the drama triangle. One of the most effective uses of setting is what I call the “turncoat setting.” This is a setting that leads you to expect one outcome and then betrays your expectation with a sudden, incongruous twist. Consider, for example, how a horror story becomes profoundly more disturbing when its characters are found in a “normal” family, a place of faith, or a quiet town. In storytelling, a turncoat setting emphasizes the drama by accentuating the contrast between our expectations and our reality.

But what happens when the turncoat isn’t just in a true crime podcast or a Netflix show? What happens when it breaks into our own personal or national reality? This is the question I find myself grappling with. We are in the middle of a setting that has betrayed us, face to face with the unsettling contrast between our expectations and our reality.

Think, for example, of our founding framers—iconic figures of our nation who fought to establish a country on the noble principles of freedom and equality. If I could go back in time, I would shout to the framers of the Declaration of Independence, “The values championed here impugn the current economic engine of slavery!” Like a hero who missed his cue and showed up without his sword, this document boldly proclaimed that all men were created equal while accepting the enslavement of human beings born with the very “inalienable” rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness the Declaration enshrined.

Or think of the thousands of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches across the country – filled with men and women championing virtue and the Christian tradition. If I could go back in time, I would stand in front these congregations and declare, “The values of your sacred texts and traditions cannot coincide with your inhumane treatment of fellow human beings, created by your Heavenly Father.” From a tradition that preaches a human race descended from Adam and Eve, the American church has horrifically failed to recognize and redress the grievances dividing the members of its family.

Or think of those who traveled from Europe to the shores of the New Land, whose towns were built around hopes for economic advancement and self-determination. If I could go back in time, I would stand in their town squares and shout, “Your values of opportunity and advancement contradict the human genocide you have exacted and the destruction you have wreaked upon a land that has given shelter to fellow humans for centuries. With one side of your mouth you speak of progress, yet under your  feet you trample cultures, traditions, and lives.” The “discovery” of this new land and its economic and political opportunities did not justify such desecration.  

Looking back, I see many shocking and devastating stories of turncoats, where the setting provides a pretense of safety, virtue, and freedom only to be starkly contrasted with its destructive reality. These stories, these turncoats of our past, cast a new light on many of the traditional victims, villains, and heroes of American history.

But we don’t need to turn back the clock to find turncoats. Unfortunately, I only have to think of two young men in the setting of Kenosha, Wisconsin to come face to face with this turncoat reality in my own life. These Americans are named Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse.

On August 23, 2020, 29-year-old Jacob Blake was engaged by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin and, while resisting arrest, he was grabbed by the shirt and shot in the back seven times. Sitting inside the car, his three young sons saw the whole thing.

Two days after Jacob’s shooting, 17-year-old Kyle drove to Kenosha saying that he wanted to give medical attention to those who were involved in the local protest. Armed with a Smith and Wesson AR-15, he entered the town and shot three people, killing two and injuring the third.

Both Jacob and Kyle are characters in a story but how can we sort out the setting and roles? My struggle to make sense of this situation only grew when I discovered that both of these men were connected to a place I am familiar with, a place I consider safe, and a place of community and character.

I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life working for the YMCA. Like so many nonprofits in the United States, the YMCA desires to see healing and transformation in American communities. It turns out both Jacob and Kyle had a YMCA story.

Jacob, his father, and his grandfather before him were all involved in YMCA programs over the past decades. In my mind, I imagine a time past when Jacob was in one of our programs or walking through our halls. I wonder, “Did he understand our values? Did they shape his life? Who was his counselor? Did the person who cared for him realize that they were shaping his story?”

While these questions swarmed, I was hit with another blow. I learned that Kyle Rittenhouse was a lifeguard at a YMCA 42 miles outside of Kenosha. This discovery left me grieved, confused, and troubled. How could an organization like the YMCA train and employ a teen who has now murdered two men?

None of it was making sense. The mission of the YMCA is “To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy Spirit, Mind and Body for All.” Our values are Caring, Honesty, Responsibility, and Respect. But are we just a fraud? Is our setting a turncoat or are we really a place of refuge for victims, nurture for everyday heroes, and reformation for villains?

Sometimes I cannot sleep at night as I turn over this question. It is a crucial query not only for me or for the YMCA, but for us as a nation. The uncomfortable reality is that too often we all weave a turncoat story. Despite our well-written statements and expertly marketed creeds, too often our palatable façades belie the underlying reality of trauma and tragedy.

So how are we to understand our story? Or better yet, how are we to shape our story, to dismantle the turncoats and construct realities that match the values we profess? These questions demand an answer. And we cannot wait. Because right now in your hometown, walking the halls of your local YMCA, there are both villains and victims. Our businesses, faith communities, and nonprofit organizations are all the very settings in which we need to affect change. Fairytales may provide us with a conceptual framework, but we are responsible to make sure our values influence the settings of our real lives.

Maybe it is time for us to shine extra light on the lives of the humble heroes who are also part of our setting. On July 30th, we honored the life of Congressman John Lewis. His life story involved many victims and villains and yet, up until the end of his days, he lived as a true hero. By inviting us to get into “good trouble” he offered a heroic example to all of us.  His insistence that we must nonviolently oppose injustice, even when doing so gets us in trouble as it did him, is an example of doing the right thing in the midst of wrong laws. What we need is his consistency of values and actions. The pleasant setting enjoyed by some Americans leads to the false belief that the values of our hallowed national documents have been realized for all. They have not. Too often the platitudes posted in the hallways of our schools and nonprofits do not penetrate the hearts of those who walk them.  My hope is that our values will strategically create heroes who are healers, who provide hope for us all now and in the future.

James White is a scholar at Sagamore Institute and serves as Executive Vice-President of Organizational Relations for the YMCA of the Triangle. The views represented in this essay are based on personal opinion, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the YMCA of the Triangle or the YMCA movement.

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