Today is my birthday, and its approach put me in a reflective mood as I near age 60 (I still have a year to go).
I’m happy that I returned full time to the newspaper business 15 months ago. It’s a gift to be allowed to travel across my native state and write about the people I meet and the places I visit. There’s never a lack of stories in this unique, often quirky place.
When I started freelancing this column almost a decade ago, I decided not to write about national politics even though I used to do politics for a living. I was the Washington bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s. I was the political editor of this newspaper in the early 1990s. I worked about 10 years in the governor’s office for Mike Huckabee and then another four years in the administration of President George W. Bush. I’m sure the folks who invited me to write a column in 2009 figured I would write about politics.
Here’s why I don’t: I’m turned off by the loud voices on the far right and the far left. These voices drown out those of us in the middle. I’m also turned off by the political hobbyists who seem to spend hours each day watching cable news, finding something about which to be outraged and then subjecting us to their uninformed opinions on social media. I’m better off without it.
There’s also this: A pet peeve has always been the small-town sports
editor who writes columns about the World Series or some other national event. I want to say to these types: “There are a lot of really good writers who are actually attending the World Series. Try writing about the local high school football team. Your readers care more about that.”
I don’t believe readers of this newspaper care what I think about the current president (if you’re just dying to know, I think he’s a disaster). If I were still working in Washington, I would write about national politics. But I’m based in Little Rock so I make Arkansas my beat. I find this state to be endlessly fascinating. I also find it to be endlessly frustrating.
I’m frustrated that our governor, legislators and state regulatory agencies aren’t doing more to address the problems surrounding the Buffalo River. As I wrote in last Sunday’s column, the Buffalo, more than any other natural feature, symbolizes who we are as Arkansans. It’s part of our soul. And it’s time for elected officials to do the right thing.
I’m frustrated that our state’s legislative branch has been corrupted. I know good men and women who serve in the Legislature. There were far too many others who forgot the difference between right and wrong. There were also those who, while they didn’t break the law, failed to speak out about those they knew were doing wrong. They preferred to keep quiet so they wouldn’t lose their membership in the good ol’ boys club. Their silence speaks volumes. As someone who spent years working in that beautiful building, I’m deeply saddened to see the state Capitol transformed into a political sewer.
I’m most frustrated by the fact that we still have so far to go in the area of race relations. I’m sickened by the negative comments about Little Rock—much of them based on race—that I hear as I drive through Arkansas. We’re a state of only 3 million people. We can’t afford to be divided. The Little Rock bashing needs to stop.
A week ago, the talk of the state was what some people are now calling the White Flight Riot—the inexplicable mass hysteria that erupted at War Memorial Stadium following a minor incident. People started yelling “gun” and “shooter” even though there was no gun involved, leading others to panic. More than 30,000 people were in attendance at the annual football game between Benton High School and Bryant High School. The mob scene that occurred during the third quarter of the game was unprecedented in the state’s history.
How do you explain students’ initial reaction? It’s true that we’ve raised a generation of young people hyped up on social media and cable news. They’re quick to react to any perceived threat. I fear, however, that it goes deeper than that.
I wrote a cover story recently for the Perspective section that covered the many changes in Saline County since my father grew up in Benton. The massive population growth of recent decades has been driven by white flight out of Little Rock. I hope we can use what resembled a South American soccer riot to have a conversation and ask tough questions. Several of my best friends live in Saline County. Shane Broadway, who does such a fantastic job organizing the Salt Bowl, has been a friend for years. This isn’t about just Saline County. It could be Lonoke County, Perry County, or a lot of other places in Arkansas.
I don’t blame anyone for being scared once the hysteria took over. I was in the middle of a real riot at age 12. I understand. Here’s the question: Why were people screaming “gun” even though they saw no gun? It’s the modern version of screaming fire in a crowded theater. Let’s ask ourselves if some Arkansans are being conditioned to think of Little Rock as a scary place—a place where the Big Bad Black Man might pull a gun. That view of the world could lead to the kind of madness we witnessed at War Memorial Stadium.
“We heard a loud noise. This is Little Rock. So it must be a gunshot.”
I’ve attended games at the stadium for more than 50 years and never had a problem worse than drunk Razorback fans. At a Little Rock Parkview game last year, though, I moved due to the derogatory, uninformed and frankly racist comments being directed by fans of a school outside Pulaski County toward Little Rock in general and Parkview in particular. I read similar comments online after the White Flight Riot—“Little Rock is a hellhole. What should you expect when you come to Little Rock.” Never mind that there were likely only a few Little Rock residents attending the Salt Bowl.
Without assigning blame, let’s at least quit pretending that there is anything normal about this reaction. If this is the new normal, I no longer care to live here. Why were these high school students so fearful? That stadium has been around 70 years, and there have been plenty of loud noises at events during the past seven decades without anything like this. Yes, let’s ask uncomfortable questions. Let’s be brutally honest. We’ll be a better state if we do.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.