It is the nonchalance that strikes the conscience as obscene:
Hand on hip, with a knee on his alleged perp’s neck, a white police officer, nonchalantly and unfeelingly, snuffs out the life of yet another black man.
That nonchalance bespeaks the attitude of a certain segment of White America, the segment that crows of its supremacy over all other races. To this segment, Black America and the human beings aggregated therein are — in a word — invisible, the elemental state Ralph Ellison captured in 1952 in his now-classic novel “Invisible Man.” And being invisible — no more than an organism underfoot, not even rising to the level of sentient humanity — justice is absolutely the last thing that organism, face down on the street with a knee on his neck, could expect.
But now: That same nonchalance — of the white officer, hand on hip, snuffing out the life of another black man — has jolted another segment of White America — the conscientious segment — up off the sofa, got its full attention, primed it for action. For you cannot view this ghastly crime unfolding (video reconstruction here) and, if you have any conscience, fail to hear the call to action — for justice.
I am, of course, describing the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department on Monday, May 25 — Memorial Day — the images and sounds of which have reverberated around the nation and the world. Three other officers at the scene, bravehearts all, did nothing to stop the murder (also here).
In reaction, protests have organized, in Minneapolis and more than 140 cities across the country (also here), comprised principally of black Americans called to the streets out of righteous and justifiable anger — with a fair representation of White America also showing up. Yes, in some cities, the protesters were overwhelmed — in number, not in cause — by troublemakers who torched businesses and engaged in looting.
But: No matter how energetically the Demagogue-in-Chief, the current president of the United States, stokes the embers of that looted property for political advantage — “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — the righteousness of the protesters’ cause — equal justice for Black America vis-à-vis the police and the criminal justice system — must stay at the fore. First order of business, then, for conscientious white Americans is to ensure that this righteous call for equal justice remains foremost.
Back to the nonchalance of the white officer killing a black man: Juxtapose that nonchalance with the pain and desperation of Black America denied — over and over and over — the respect and dignity that White America so blithely expects for itself and gets without effort. Every time another black man is killed by the police — without repercussion for the officer(s) involved — is yet another denial of that respect and dignity and justice that black Americans yearn for.
Consider the ultimate message of so much black art and culture: the fiery nonfiction of James Baldwin; the powerful fiction of Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent demand for reparations for the sin of slavery endured by his ancestors; Michelle Alexander’s brilliant and enraging book “The New Jim Crow”; Spike Lee’s films; the historical films “Selma,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Harriet,” about Harriet Tubman spiriting escaped slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. What do all these works, so varied and so powerful, have in common? The cry of an entire people for respect, for dignity, for justice, for their rightful credentials to participate — for mattering.
And not to matter, after 244 years of American history, must be for black Americans — from where this white American sits comfortably in privilege — simply insupportable, not to be borne any longer. No wonder there are protests, going on a week now.
Therefore I, a white American, do state: I do not wish to benefit any longer from a system where a white thumb can tip the scales of justice. And I most emphatically reject an America so corrupt that a white police officer can so casually kill a black man. I have been “woke” since a teen in the ’60s, when I saw on TV another white “lawman,” Bull Connor, order police dogs and fire-hoses turned on Negro men, women, and children in Birmingham, and I instantly understood: That is evil. Millions more white Americans no doubt are “woke” with George Floyd’s killing and see the evil in it.
My fellow white Americans: This is so clear, an easy call, it needs no long night of soul-searching in Gethsemane. It is wrong in every possible way for a white officer of the law to kill a black person so casually. Watch the video again. Hear George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.” White Americans of conscience should find it hard to breathe, too. Polls show nearly four in five — 78% — of all Americans, white and black, agreeing that the officer should be arrested. Joe Biden, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, strikes the right note: “We are a nation furious at injustice.”
What to do? Again, White America must join with Black America to control the narrative of equal justice. In venues personal and public — from the next family Zoom-conference to letters to the editor — restate the validity and necessity of equal justice for Black America, restate how furious we are at the injustice. Push back against Fox News’ characterization of the protesters as “radicals” and The Wall Street Journal’s characterization of “the race-grievance industry.”
We also, together, must control the message and image of peaceful protest. Donald Trump calls the protesters “terrorists” and conflates them with the looters and troublemakers. Best way to exert that control? Plant our pacific selves in the midst of a protest. Short of that, we can plant our pacific presence in virtual town halls and other discussion venues.
In this volatile crisis, the media must refocus — now. Instead of pointing the camera at the fiery and dramatic, like the looted stores of an otherwise vacant Santa Monica, focus instead on the peaceful protests — like the massive protest peopled with blacks and whites in St. Paul, capitol of the state where George Floyd was killed, gathered on the first-week anniversary (other examples here, here, here, and here). Find the drama in the pacific, because Trump is pointing to the media’s fiery and dramatic images as Exhibit A (and B and C and D) as he assembles his case to declare a state of emergency and invoke the Insurrection Act (also here).
Finally: It is crucial also to focus on the good cops in the ranks of the 800,000 police officers in the U.S., whose dedication and daily bravery required to protect us are damaged by the bad cop whose heinous act swamps the news. Hear Houston’s chief of police (also here) and the sheriff of Flint, Michigan, for their humane policing. See the police officers who take the knee with protesters — a heartening spectacle of solidarity (also here and here).
As for the world’s fury at the U.S. for its race relations: I am not sure the world has much to show for pacific examples. We can take the world’s fury as the world’s expectation that America, exceptional nation, can become exceptional again on this point.
All is being revealed in this season of deadly pandemic and turbulent protest. The racism long coursing through America’s depths has erupted into clear view. The malefactors who mean no good for America are likewise on clear view and at work. Will conscientious White America step up, into clear view, and stand with Black America to demand equal justice for all? Nothing less than American democracy is at stake.
But more: If we achieve — finally — our foundational ideal of equal justice for all, it is a New Day in America, a Renaissance.