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Over and over again

New York Senator Robert Kennedy marched in the funeral procession for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
New York Senator Robert Kennedy marched in the funeral procession for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.Bettmann Archive

Paul Hill listens with some regularity to the speech that Bobby Kennedy, the father-in-law he never met, made in Indianapolis moments after Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered.

The cops and mayor told Bobby Kennedy he should cancel his appearance.

But Bobby Kennedy listened to his gut, and his gut told him he needed to talk to Black folks who had gathered to listen to a man running for president in a country that was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War and civil rights movement.

Bobby Kennedy told the crowd King had been assassinated. There was a sharp intake of breath and then silence.

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Into the void which followed, rage and violence roared in, all across America. There were riots in 60 cities after King’s assassination. But not in Indianapolis, not after Bobby Kennedy filled that void with measured words, perspective, and something that is sorely lacking in this country today: national leadership.

“Bobby told them he knew how they felt, because a white man killed his brother, too,” Paul Hill told me.

If you have never listened to the speech, go online and find it.

That’s where Paul Hill, who married Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Courtney almost a quarter-century after Bobby, too, fell to an assassin’s bullet, finds a reservoir of hope, even as the scenes on TV 52 years after RFK’s speech fill him with dread.

Hill has a perspective that leaves him both wary and hopeful.

The fear he harbors is from personal experience. For he, too, grew up in a place — Belfast, Northern Ireland — where people who were subject to institutionalized discrimination regularly felt a literal or figurative knee on their necks. He saw what happened when legitimate grievances and protesters were beaten off the streets.

“All we wanted was an end to discrimination, and the police beat and shot us,” he said. “The police terrorized my community.”

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Police violence triggered retaliatory violence. The British government, using a rationale similar to one advocated by President Trump, sent in the military.

That made things infinitely worse. Rather than address the systemic discrimination against Catholic nationalists, the military propped up the status quo. A long dormant Irish Republican Army was resurrected and given a raison d’être, and Northern Ireland descended into civil war.

Paul Hill went to England, to find work and escape the violence. But when the IRA bombed two pubs in Guildford, England, killing five people, he was arrested because he fit a profile: a Catholic nationalist from Belfast. He was abused and framed, singled out for who he was not what he did, held collectively responsible for what the IRA did.

He spent 15 years in prison, and the miscarriages of justice that put him and so many other Irish nationalists in prison for IRA violence they had nothing to do with had the effect of undermining the legitimacy of the British state while driving more recruits into the arms of the IRA.

In Ireland, as in any nation, violence produced more violence. Hill worries when he sees police in Washington violently push aside peaceful protesters so the president can have a photo-op, with a Bible, no less. Bigots wielding Bibles regularly defended discrimination and injustice in Ireland.

“I am not condoning violence. I am trying to explain how it begins and how it perpetuates itself,” Paul Hill said. “If you dismiss legitimate grievances, if you brush away inequality, you are inviting people to give up hope in peaceful, democratic change. ”

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Paul Hill’s fears of America repeating Northern Ireland’s mistakes are balanced by what he has seen on America’s streets.

“If you watch who is protesting, it’s not just Black people. It’s everybody. All colors. All creeds,” he said. “That is so very different than the past.”

He also said this: For too many people who see themselves in George Floyd — his fear, his helplessness, his senseless fate — it feels like, as was once said about Ireland when violence reigned for generations, there is no future, just the past happening over and over again.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.