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TV images from Selma and Portland: two very different visions of America | COMMENTARY

Justin Mayes spreads rose petals, representing blood shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, for the final crossing of Rep. John Lewis over the bridge, site of the historic 1965 voting rights marches, on Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Selma, Alabama. The congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon died July 17 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Justin Mayes spreads rose petals, representing blood shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, for the final crossing of Rep. John Lewis over the bridge, site of the historic 1965 voting rights marches, on Sunday, July 26, 2020 in Selma, Alabama. The congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon died July 17 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

For all the critical articles I have written about television, there are still moments when I absolutely love its heart and soul.

Sunday morning held one of those moments when I turned on CNN and saw the images of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with red rose petals covering its hard, baked pavement. My first thought at the site of the flowers was not the blood that was spilled there on “Bloody Sunday” as the late Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights workers were brutally beaten in their march for voting rights. My first thought was Mahatma Gandhi, and that Lewis was just as much a man of peace and courage as the man who fought for India’s independence from Britain.

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By the time the horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket of Lewis arrived at the foot of the bridge for what was poetically described as the congressman’s “last crossing,” I was as deeply moved by what I was seeing on the screen as I have been by anything in my real life the last few challenging COVID months.

This was television living up to some of its promise for once. It transported me from a quiet Sunday morning in Baltimore to one of the most sacred sites of the civil rights movement as one of its greatest leaders was being carried over the ground his sacrifice and suffering helped make holy. Television carried images into my home that stirred my soul, fired my imagination and made me want to weep at the intensity of what I was feeling as I stared at the tableau of the horses, the caisson, the top-hatted driver, the familiar beams of that cold steel bridge and the river below.

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In its earliest days of the 1950s, those who championed TV bragged about its ability to vividly transport us to new places filled with great ideas and moments of history. Instead of such greatness, what we mostly got in that decade were junkie, sometimes even rigged, game shows and seductive commercials that made a generation raised during The Great Depression start buying on credit whether they could afford it or not.

But this was a great and historic moment Sunday, and television took me there for an emotional experience I will never forget. Yes, I felt the loss of this great man, but I also felt connected through him to something larger: a march to a better, more equitable, inclusive and maybe even loving America. That’s a journey Lewis’ life has inspired many Americans to take today.

And then, there were the other images that dominated TV screens over the weekend: images of conflict and struggle evoking memories of fascist Europe in the 1930s. These were coming out of Portland, Oregon, and they were mainly the result of President Donald Trump sending federal law enforcement officers in combat gear, that bore no identifying symbols, into that city. Not only did the uniforms have no insignia or words of identification, the people wearing them arrested protesters off the streets by forcing them into unmarked cars and vans. These are the actions of secret police in authoritarian regimes, not federal law enforcement officers in a democracy.

I saw a similar contrast in the images of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings’ funeral and those of President Trump, though I am not talking about images of Mr. Trump here, but rather images he generated.

This dystopian imagery of nighttime streets covered in a tear-gas haze, flash-bang explosions all over the place and video-game-like figures beating unarmed protesters with billy clubs felt like the direct opposite of the rose petals covering the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

But that imagery was everywhere on TV over the weekend. I went to bed with it playing on cable TV Friday night, and I woke to it on the screen Saturday morning. It continued to play across the cable news channels Sunday as Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that the president was sending even more federal officers to Portland. More officers will likely mean even more images of conflict for Mr. Trump’s TV ads warning what a scary place America will be if Joe Biden is elected president.

Visions of two Americas. One on a bridge in Selma offering inspiration, calling us to become a better nation. The others from the streets of Portland trying to scare us into holding fast to the past, to resist the righteous and mighty forces of change sweeping through American life.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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