Broken Words


I fear a new racial climate change and global warming. There are no more poems left for me to write. Every word is now broken in my hand.
E. Ethelbert Miller

I’ve been a fan of the proposal to make police wear body cameras, but yesterday’s decision not to charge New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner has reminded me to question my own confidence in documentary truth.
Since the decision came down, protesters gathered in Times Square, Columbus Circle, and other locations, often chanting Garner’s last words – “I can’t breathe.” People staged a die-in in Grand Central Station. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio talked about educating his black son about the dangers he faces at the hands of police, and told constituents that Attorney General Eric Holder had assured him that the federal government would investigate the violation of Garner’s rights. At the Ferguson Response site, you can find demonstrations planned across the country under the banner #ThisStopsToday. Color of Change is calling for federal intervention, and many others are taking action.
You see, even without body-cams, there is video of Eric Garner’s arrest and killing that provides better information about what actually happened than a body-cam could. And still, the Grand Jury on Staten Island (the only Republican-dominated borough, two-thirds white) failed to indict.
I should have recognized the flaw in my own thinking, as I’ve pointed out similar lapses so many times. We sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if people only knew how bad things were, they’d support necessary change. But in these times, many people know and act as if they don’t.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said it:

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception, becoming the rule, and in turn being accepted.

We are living amidst a virulent and pervasive racism that expresses itself in many ways, as outright murder and blind indifference.It has created the conditions in which #BlackLivesMatter has become a ubiquitous viral meme. That assertion is a response to both systemic policies and seemingly disconnected incidents in which the lives of African Americans, especially young men and boys, are deemed so negligible that they have been made, in effect, disposable.
Nicholas Kristof’s most recent installment in the New York Times‘ “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series features a large number of links to studies that show marked racial disparities in everything from NBA referee calls to death at police hands (young black men are twenty-one times more likely than their white counterparts to meet their ends that way) to incarceration statistics (the U.S. locks up a higher proportion of black people than apartheid South Africa did). The proof is everywhere; and so is the indifference.
Lately, when I speak out on racial injustice, I am often commended for being a “good ally.” I’ve been thinking about that word, “ally.” The underlying truth of such statements is that my words or actions are in support of those who directly suffer the consequences of racism. I know what is meant, and I want very much to be allied with everyone who seeks a social order of justice permeated by love.
I believe I understand the power relations encoded in that word “ally.” It is meant to indicate a hierarchy that seems right to me: that those closest to an issue – those who feel most keenly the punishments it inflicts – should be the source of solutions. It is meant to indicate that imposing an idea of how a movement should be conducted, that critiquing without entailing the same risks, is also a form of oppression, regardless of intention.
But I also wonder if understanding white people’s duty to stand against racism entirely as a supporting role – which makes it easier to read as “optional” – doesn’t let white people off the hook for a rightful share of responsibility to work toward a society that embraces justice and compassion, that counts no group as disposable, that counts no one as “less than.”
The statistics clearly and horrifically back up Heschel’s point about indifference to evil, with polls showing that a large majority of people who fit the category “white” are more inclined to side with Darren Wilson than Michael Brown and his family. But some white people are on the side of justice: there for the human rights of those living on the frontlines, absorbing the social and personal damage of racism; and also there for their own rights and futures.
When I read the headlines, I start to see my family’s history – the grandfather killed in a pogrom, the forced relocations, the broken bones and lives – and remind myself that no one knows what the future may bring. The Jews of Weimar Germany believed themselves welcome in that country, but history took a turn. Indeed, with this planet holding so many histories of expulsion, persecution, discrimination, scapegoating, extermination, I see only one choice, the golden rule. Tables turned, what would you want others to do to ensure your well-being? Do that now. And now. And now.
So I think the ally notion makes sense, but it isn’t enough. It sets the bar too low. The responsibility to stand is universal: human rights are not divisible. All are obliged to put our lives and energies on the side of a just society in which safety, in which thriving, is not a function of race. When we don’t, in this time and place, the injury is felt most keenly by black families and communities, and the thought and action leaders who have arisen from those experiences are speaking the truths that history demands. In another time, another place, another group may be vilified, another voice may arise. Human rights are not divisible.
I still think it’s a good idea to make body cameras for police officers mandatory. But in the face of massive indifference to evil, it is not a sufficient remedy. As Dante Barry of One Million Hoodies has been quoted as saying, “You can have cameras, but without accountability and oversight it means nothing.”
What accountability and oversight mean in relation to the police is pretty clear: read the National Demands from Ferguson Action for a comprehensive list. But what they mean in relation to the whole society involves all of us, and reaches far beyond policing. Even as the Ferguson and Staten Island Grand Juries made their detestable moves, organizers across the country are taking advantage of the holiday season to demand economic accountability, oversight, human rights.
Around the nation today, #StrikeFastFood actions are being organized in nearly 200 cities. On the day after Thanksgiving, Walmart workers struck across the U.S. for a living wage. The Walton family is arguably the world’s richest, with a combined net worth of $152 billion, yet their employees draw an aggregate $6.2 billion in public assistance to cover the costs of subsistence that aren’t met by the corporation’s low-wage policy. All taxpayers are spending their own money to make it possible for the Walton family to reap obscene profits from the labor of low-wage workers, who are disproportionately people of color.
To a significant degree, white privilege is conferred on every white person in this society by virtue of skin color, a distorting mirror-image of the ubiquity of prejudice experienced by every person whose skin is dark. I will never be stopped by police for walking or driving while white. I don’t think anyone has ever crossed the street to avoid passing near me. Unless he’s bobbing and weaving and carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, a white man is highly unlikely to be harassed for talking to his friends on a street corner. The official default assumptions for white people interfacing with dominant institutions are benign in comparison with the assumptions that shape the experiences of most people of color. There is no way an individual opts out of many of these tacit privileges; they come automatically in a racist society. They shape the common culture.
Class also matters a great deal. The automatic privilege a white person experiences in much of officialdom can be rescinded based on accent, evident education, and other indicators of net worth. In vast swathes of this nation, where population is predominantly white, low-wage workers experience equal-opportunity exploitation. In many of the recent actions, strikers are demonstrating a solidarity that recognizes common threats and common aims, joining race and class.
The quote I began this essay with is by a member of the USDAC National Cabinet. E. Ethelbert Miller serves as Minister of Sacred Words, and writes today in The Nation about the challenges of language in such as time as this. I want to leave you with some words that were written right after Ferguson for the USDAC Call: Creativity for Equity and Justice, and endorsed by a remarkable group of artists and creative activists.

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
As a culture of punishment? Or a culture that values every human life, promoting true public safety grounded in justice and love?
We call on all to break the silence that permits injustice, recalling the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

(You can read my essay on the Call here.)
There is a new meme making the rounds today: #WeCantBreathe.We are allies, yes, and also – regardless of color, creed, or condition – bear equal responsibility to stand against indifference to evil. We sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if people only knew how bad things were, they’d support necessary change. But in these times, many people know and act as if they don’t. Which side are we on?
“When I Come Home” from the new elegiac Beautiful Life by Jimmy Greene and Javier Colon.
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