1. The Landscape
On July 16, 2019, I walked into a coffee shop at 2nd and Lenora. The New York Times headline inside caught my eye because it mentioned Garner’s name, whom I’d written about in the days following his murder in 2014. Five years later, this headline read, “Eric Garner’s Death Will Not Lead to Federal Charges for N.Y.P.D. Officer.”
For me, the Garner tragedy represented the quintessential contemporary example of the American Problem. Why?
Perhaps a better symbol is the prison system and the legalized slavery it perpetuates. I was as shocked as anyone else to learn about how black men were rebranded as dangerous, rather than merely dense, in the days following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the better to justify their arrest (the 13th amendment prohibits slavery– except among prisoners). “Reconstruction” indeed. Or that our government made widespread, calculated efforts to link blacks and drug use in the public consciousness during the Vietnam era (more by me on all of that here).
These are broad-ranging attempts at subjugation undertaken by the highest institutions in the land and they are infinitely complex, often too pervasive to see clearly. They’re ineffective as symbols.
2. What Eric Garner Means
The Garner murder, conversely, coalesces all those oppressive systems into one succinct moment. Four hundred years of inequality, fear and hatred are wrapped up in a few seconds, and as of the July 16, 2019 Supreme Court announcement, we can sit with the truth of the American state of things. Here, an armed white man can kill an unarmed black man who's crying for help, be recorded on camera, and be legally untouchable.
I first wrote about Garner here, offering some hopeful words on what we can do now, how we can look at others. I noted what the folks on my (largely black) bus were saying after Michael Brown– that cops have a tough job. That there's more than one side to every story. That Black Lives Matter protesters are always white, and that's okay, because we've got other obligations keeping us down. That we've gotta keep on keepin' on. I was struck by their optimism.
Of course there are countless unjust murders of poor blacks by whites in power. But as I stood there in the coffee shop, dumbstruck by the acquittal announcement, I wondered: Do those murders mean less? Or more? How has the Court's decision further solidified our understanding of the state of prejudice in America? To what degree will it help people recognize this is not a problem of individuals but something bigger, the insidious "System" so eloquently articulated in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, of institutional and unchecked government corruption not simply at the local level but every level?
3. Dark Night of the Soul
I looked at the front page and realized I was sobbing in public. It wasn't the picture of Garner's daughter on the steps of the Supreme Court, as you might assume. It wasn't the right-side column about Trump being denounced by the House as racist. It was the Garner article not mentioning the reason for the dropped charges until the end of the article. You had to turn the pages and find it buried.
As if it wasn't important.
It was the reminder, which I'm ashamed to say I sometimes need, that black people are told they are dirt by all levels of society, all the time. Try to imagine it, my white friends, and consider how it might influence your perspective. It's not the same as getting bullied or mistreated by this man or that company. It's the highest, most respected institutions together making decisions which reinforce your suppression and limit your rights. How might you begin to think about the world? About yourself?
Can't keep the black man down, a song says. How quaint. Keeping the black man down is what the American societal infrastructure is all too adept at. Keeping them poor and therefore limited in the chess moves they can make; uneducated, and therefore unaware of the progress they can instigate; demonized, and therefore unattractive to others searching for solidarity.
I wept because I knew how my black friends would read the headline. This was an article whose informed takeaway was, Choking a defenseless black man to death in broad daylight is legal. A strange, sick feeling came over me: the impossible has happened.
They managed to kill a man twice.
5. What I Do Love About America
The most appropriate and inappropriate word for this travesty appear to be the same: Unamerican.
Appropriate, because the values this country is based on emphasize personal freedoms and exist in complete opposition to such a denial of the right to life.
Inappropriate, because America has for so long involved an unspoken problem such that all aspects of American Society are now best understood as they relate to the "peculiar institution." Our government's ongoing decision to ignore the legacy of slavery has come to define what America is: a contradiction at best, a hypocrisy at worst. No, there is only one adjective for this problem:
I write this as someone who loves the idea of America and loves living in it. I am fully aware how much infinitely better life is here, at all class levels, than so many other places. The best evidence for this is the tenacity with which so many people give up their lives to start over here at great cost.
Only here will you find overweight homeless people. Here is where you come so you can speak your mind, pray, wear your hair down, be single, marry as you choose, get a trial, be allowed an education as a woman, vote, drive, divorce, access information, get around though disabled, not have to enlist, speak any language you like (there's no official one), have access to the best passport in the world, and, of course, chew gum. Some countries don't allow you to buy a house, defend yourself, or go outside alone. Some countries consider domestic violence legal. I love this country. It's the only one whose founding concept incorporates the mutable and evolving nature of the human organism. Were it that our founding fathers were alive to remind us, as they already once did, that their documents need to be updated with the same tenacity.
6. Life in the 21st Century
There were no riots on July 16, 2019. I was amazed. Any previous generation would’ve taken to the streets with helpless rage and fire. Isn’t violence the one voice always available to the oppressed?
No, actually. Not anymore.
People are quiet now. The word has gotten out, and I don't have to ask them why. I looked around at my fellow coffee shop customers. These are the youths who should be just as angry as those protesters of old. But we knew our place now. We knew we couldn't protest. Why?
Because modern life carries too great a risk. Societal infrastructure has shifted, such that protesting gets you into trouble in a way it never used to. Life is costlier now, and freedom much easier to lose. You can't afford to get arrested now. To fix a broken limb. The defining aspects of material success in the twentieth century– getting married, buying a house, starting a business, raising children– these are all much harder to do now, and far more expensive. You can't get an apartment with an felony record. You can't buy land anymore. Or trust you can get another good job after being fired from this one. In the 1960s, a waitress job would support a single mother and her child. That's impossible today. The class of people who would protest can no longer guarantee the security of their place as citizens in society. Violence is no longer the voice of the oppressed. Survival is the voice of the oppressed, except that survival is silent. It isn't a voice. But it's how we get by.
Complicating all of this is the emerging truth that systems are too corrupt for protests to accomplish much. No better example exists than the 2017 Women's March (my thoughts on being in it here), the first global protest since the invention of the internet and therefore the largest in history. It was the first time 5 million people did the same thing at the same time, and no meaningful change came of it. (Now, if that many people had voted...)
7. With Blood and Fire
Which brings us to Mr. Floyd.
In this new culture which has tried to suppress protesting by limiting the rights and futures of those who do so; which has attempted to normalize brutality against black men, by way of the court acquittal above and elsewhere; which is set upon by the twin blights and enormous distractions of terrible leadership and a killer virus; in the new contemporary urban culture of docility and retreat from conflict for worse or better…
Even in this environment, under these circumstances, people have shown they still care. They have passionately expressed themselves with the primordial, elemental tool of violent force. What does their unchecked fury reveal?
I would argue it proves real their innate hunger for fairness. It unmasks a long-thwarted but unstoppable boiling desire for balance in the serving and order of things. In their violence, yes, innocents will be destroyed, fears stoked and flamed, wrongs made worse before they are better… but theirs is a thirst for justice.
And while justice may not exist in nature, it most certainly lives in the human soul. We disagree on what it is, but we all believe in each our own ideas, and we lean toward our definitions of goodness. I believe humans are basically good, and I believe the explosive outpouring happening now paradoxically proves that.
I would be crushed if there was no response to this society we live in now. Devastated. I had begun to assume that people cared, but didn’t say so out of fear; that they felt shackled by the physical and institutional dangers of taking to the streets, and thusly that protesting was a thing of the past. I am glad to be wrong. The chaos in the streets is most definitely called for. I don’t condone it because I don’t condone violent action, especially political violence, which too often harms uninvolved persons. I would call it misguided, even hypocritical. There is no dignity in lowering yourself from abused to abuser.
But I also know it is not my place to decide what is condonable.
8. The Boiling Point
George Floyd, a kind man and upstanding citizen by all accounts, will now live forever, if perhaps not as he might have wished. If Mr. Garner’s death represents everything wrong with American race relations in a single gesture, then Mr. Floyd’s murder exemplifies everything wrong with contemporary society in a single gesture. This is about more than race.
Floyd dying is the catalyst for the anger of the masses, but not the origin point. The people are angry about all of it. Floyd forcefully reminds us what we’ve become accustomed to is wrong.
We have tolerated an unaddressed history of slavery, traditions of lynching, shooting, and humiliating black men, a system for perpetuating slavery by way of prisons, judicial and legislative action that targets persons of color in the areas of housing, crime and employment, unchecked abuses of power and appropriation of taxpayer resources, a flawed election system, a casual disregard for women’s equality and safety, a vehement denial of women’s bodily rights and rights as workers, a hyperwealthy elite hoarding most of the world’s wealth, the resulting unchecked poverty, a backbiting political system locked in unceasing standstill, disruption and mistreatment of immigrants seeking asylum, separation of families and concentration camps, a newsmedia swallowed by editorial opinion, a woefully mishandled medical crisis, a president who encourages and normalizes prejudicial attitudes against most demographics, and an ignorant and uneducated populace who perpetuate such prejudices and others.
We tolerated all of those things, until George Floyd forced our eyes open. He was the last straw on this towering heap of injustice, a heap we’ve been feeling all the more potently in these days of poorly checked pestilence and plague. There is a desire for good in our frenzied souls, and people don't know where to put their energy. How to express their passion. Society has taken away the language of kindness. Some of us have always spoken it, sure, but everyone else still carries the memory of principle. I find it almost touching, the way it's coming out, burping forth in formless savagery. You can take issue with the expression, but you can't blame the intent. Today's righteous chaos would be met with pride by the author of these lines:
"Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."
That's not from some anarchist's cookbook. That's the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Thomas Jefferson writes further in the same document: "When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."
Justice does not exist in nature, but it lives in the human soul. And it cannot be eradicated.