We all know the basics because we just saw the video. Two security guards who worked together for years get into an altercation on the street: one is a police officer, white, and the other is a man, black. Four officers total, the black man handcuffed and prone, the white officer kneeling on his neck as he begs for air, a crowd begging them to stop asphyxiating him, to do something, the other three officers do nothing, the knee stays and the man dies, on video in front of the world.
Any citizen of any race who is paying attention could list the endless number of incidents: driving while black, birdwatching while black, barbecuing while black, selling lemonade while black, filming a protest while black, trying to breathe while black. Protests erupt nationwide, and the volcanic rage and grief over this endless racist cruelty brings a nation already in crisis on two major fronts to its knees on a third.
When our incendiary president* tweets his latest Molotov cocktail by quoting a Miami police chief’s threat to protestors in 1967, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and then he adds, “Thank you!,” you know he’s not thanking the protesters. That famous high-concept quote about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable has been utterly reversed.
When our president’s* wife tweets, “Our country allows for peaceful protests, but there is no reason for violence,” you know she is willfully ignorant of how people of color who try to protest peacefully in this country are routinely attacked. Remember Selma, Melania? No? If you want more recent, try Standing Rock. I was there, and it seemed that the more peaceful the protest, the more vicious the reaction. If you want to read my graphic account of it, go here. And by the way, Melania, in 2017 alone, 19 states proposed legislation to restrict peoples’ right to protest. Four have enacted it.
When our president’s* daughter tweets “Justice is how we heal,” it might be good to remind her that in this country, justice has a double standard. Can you spell immigration, Ivanka? Your stepmother and her parents certainly can. Can you explain why there were more than two months between the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by three men with a Confederate flag, and their arrest, finally, after three prosecutors declined the case, but only after the video of his murder was leaked? Tell me with a straight face, Ivanka, that it’s not true that money in America buys lawyers who can, in the words of a lawyer, “play a (naïve, dumb) jury like a bass guitar.”
A worried friend from England called this morning to ask, “Are you alright? What is happening to your country?” We talked for half an hour. I told her that decent people in America are trying to use democratic tools to fight an unacknowledged civil war against people using autocratic tools. As a result, the country is slipping further into chaos. Although it was a scratchy connection, my voice sounded loud and strident because I was upset; we were both close to tears.
I’m too tired to list all the insults and degradations by this Administration to the dignity and responsibilities of citizenship, or to the rule of law, or to good public policy and healthy community life. Even my outrage fatigue has outrage fatigue.
So I will take a drop of comfort from another writer in another time: George Orwell. In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, he wrote, “Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’ The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. … Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
I submit to you that our most powerful weapon in this fight is language. It is being used against us, to divide us into factions that objectify and demonize each other. This is about betrayal trauma at a national scale. It’s about keeping us so off balance that we never have time to recover from one incident before the next one kneecaps us. Denial is a useful mechanism when it’s used short-term to give you time to adjust to something awful, but when the awful hits anew every day, it doesn’t give you a chance to process the old injury. Eventually it flattens you, and you succumb to apathy, until one day you end up fighting for your very life, as African Americans have been doing for 400 years. They know denial is a luxury they can’t afford. Martin Luther King’s quote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” could not be more applicable to today’s situation.
The sooner everyone, including the press, recognizes that psychological warfare and gaslighting tactics like DARVO—Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender—which have been identified by psychologists as emotional abuse tactics—are being used as a deliberate strategy by our president* and his minions to inflict emotional abuse on Americans, then the sooner we will stop feeling like a nation of victims and start resisting this slide en masse. Nobody is above the law, and nobody, no matter their race, beliefs, orientation, or political leanings, is beneath its protection.
*not my president
Great blog today! You speak for many off us…
So much is coming to the surface during this crazy time of Trump……but, and this is important, this darkness is surfacing for people to look at and respond to. That’s what is happening in Mpls. It’s time to speak truth to power, and that is what we see. It’s time for a shift in our collective consciousness and a movement back to actions driven by morality and decency, and respect for one another. We are all one race, we are the human race.. You are spot on Karen, thank you for your words.
But racism has been boiling deep as well as on the surface for generations–and we never seem to solve it. I hope this time you’re right, Cate.
Very well thought through. I just wish I felt that an individual response made a difference. The problems are systemic, institutionalized, and for too many of us nearly reflex. Even when the nation’s leadership changes, too many will still embrace the hatefulness against people of color. And I am left feeling like I don’t know what to do. PS Loved the footnote.
I think following your heart and speaking out whenever you find the opportunity is a good and honorable way to start, Charles. As is taking the long view, because societal and public policy change comes slowly, long after it has changed minds. Institutions have been changed, and turbulence can be a sign of growth if we all help steer it with language toward the highest public good. I’ve met Biden a few times and worked with his staff when he was a Senator. He seemed decent enough, and proactive, wanting the best for the public. Can he fix things? Not everything, not even close. The next president will have to be the equivalent of a repairman, as will the next, and the next, if we’re lucky. Biden seems to be the one that more people in the middle could vote for, including disenfranchised Republicans, which is my guess as to why the Democratic party closed ranks around him. But his VP pick will be crucial given his age.
While at this point any functioning adult would be better than what we currently have, someone with a long-term, broad knowledge of how government is supposed to work will be to the public’s advantage, as will a renewed sense of public realism and not magical thinking. Like you, I mostly don’t know what to do except speak out through my writing. And I know that words matter because mine have both gotten me in trouble at times, and have been a catalyst for change at others. Hang in there, my friend.
It’s late, and we are tired, but that’s no excuse for not speaking up.
Amen, Cate. It may be late for us but it’s still early for a lot of young people.
Thank you Karen.
I completely concur with your analysis. I am posting on my Facebook page today. I look forward to working with you and others, again, to address this critical issue for our times. If corrective action does not take hold immediately then I fear that a much more violent chapter lies ahead of the country. Add the challenges of the virus and dead economy then our situation looks even more desperate. Going back to the old Left and Right ways is over. I am totally done with the false equivalences of “there are good people in both sides.”
Like you, Ken, I too fear a new violent chapter, because my experiences at Standing Rock inform my fear of how it will be handled. It is a deliberate and unspeakable strategy to misuse language with the aim of making people objectify and demonize each other. As my cousin said, “Love and hate exist in everyone; the one you feed is the one who wins.” I will add: the kind of thinking that got us into this mess is not the kind that will get us out of it.
I look forward to working with you, too.
I share your dismay if not your eloquence. We are all leaders/followers/boots on the ground at some points in our lives.
“Keep the company of those that seek the truth, but, run from those that know it.” Vaclav Havel
Belief is Optional, Participation is Mandatory
By Leif Knutsen
On the planet, we all reside
Heaven, Hell, side by side
Privileged, yet a chance to choose
Or forced by sword, or coin, or booze
Hell remains for all the rest,
Few allowed to pass the test.
The day of reckoning arrives
With one chance left to just survive
Perhaps we’ll choose the Pearly Gate
End injustice, pillage, hate
By doing nothing we decide
For Planetary ecocide.
When I saw that the protest crowd in Seattle was mostly Caucasian I began wondering if this police killing was a spark that set off deep seated anger about many things – not only racism and police militarism, but also social injustice, economic inequality, political corruption, ineptitude of politicians allowing this pandemic to happen, and an unfair and unforgiving society, etc. Are the many young men burning things throughout the nation really just full of anger about their hopeless lives and futures? The rioting young men now are of many ethnicities where they were once mostly black. I’m sure we’re going to see angry protest outbursts in response from the other side as well, again from chronic frustrations. These are indeed dark times and perhaps the nation’s inherent deep seated faults are quaking beyond repair.
I noticed that too, Denis. The things being chanted by protestors are mostly about justice and fairness. This is a deep-seated, national, chronic anger and despair that has erupted into acute pain, and Trump’s outrageous remarks like, “It’s MAGA night at the White House” while protestors mass outside it, don’t allow people of conscience any neutral ground anymore. He is widening the divide and his intent to provoke is obvious. The fact that he will not try to stop the “accelerators” coming from white supremacy groups who are trying to discredit the real protestors is telling and predictive of the kind of summer we can probably expect. The guy in black with a gas mask and an umbrella who was caught breaking windows is a St Paul, MN police officer. Last night I was shocked at the level of force used by police in some cases–shooting and gassing reporters who were complying with their orders, or shooting quietly observant people on their front porch, is going to backfire on them, and the officers who deplore that kind of behavior are going to have a harder time rebuilding community trust. There seems to be a lot of police rage right now, too, and the racist purchased politicians who’ve enabled all the pain and who will cause more of it seem to be getting away with what appears to be the use of police as their proxies. A police solution to their own leadership failures will never work, because people will not accept such autocratic behavior. So, to see so many people of different races out on the street united in protest was the only ray of hope I could draw on such a dark day. Maybe there’ll be a renewed national will to vote the toxic rot out of office, and reclaim the language of dignity and decency.
I believe that this country’s greatest sin is not, in fact, slavery as has been claimed, but the deep seated, long established world sin of xenophobia. This sin is manifested in racism, misogyny, homophobia and many other ways – slavery being one. As I read and study history, including religious history, this sin has existed long before the founders (male, white, landed ) ever thought about there being a “new world”, much less coming here. And, they brought that sin with them. One of the interesting – unique? – things about this country’s experience with slavery is that many of the anti slavery proponents – including Abraham Lincoln – were racist xenophobes. Also unique is that in many other cultures where slavery existed, it was possible for the enslaved, once free, to assimilate themselves as normative in the dominant culture, often achieving the highest positions of status and leadership. In this country, with some few exceptions, racism, misogyny and xenophobia still run rampant and, under this administration, are not only permissible, but encouraged and celebrated.
Interesting perspectives, Pierre, thank you. I’m going to have to disagree with you on one point. Xenophobia is an attitude, but slavery was a vile, evil act that was our greatest sin. I would add that extermination of millions of Native Americans as government policy also ranks as one of the things we should be most deeply ashamed of. It’s the difference between wanting to kill someone and acting on it. Xenophobia is definitely at the root and is a sin, but the acts of slavery and extermination are the greater sins.
Until Americans acknowledge that this country’s wealth was built on the backs of enslaved human beings and those whose lands and lives were taken, and until we recognize that their descendants have inherited all that pain, which our society continues to reinforce every day, then denial and xenophobia will continue to be a fixture and a racial boundary that keeps reconciliation and healing from ever happening. This administration will be teaching us bitter lessons for many years to come. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
Thank you all who have responded with wisdom to Karen’s posting. Appreciate that it is posted on Facebook. Karen I needed to read the passion that you came to your summation. I have been unable to view the violence without feeling outraged and heartbroken. It will take me awhile before the words will come to me. I lived through the Black Student Strike at San Francisco State University back in the 70’s and was arrested at a demonstration in which I was chased by a cop on horse back so I know how protestors have been viewed by police departments all across this land—-as the lyric of Dylans song said, they. think they have god on their side.
Karen your words were eloquent. And I thank you.
Thank you, Nyla. The thoughtful commenters in this thread are highly thought of, including you. Sometimes the words come all in a torrent, and a force you don’t understand drives your pen, or keyboard, which is how this essay poured out, all in one go. And sometimes it’s impossible to find the words, which is where I am now, feeling like a burned-out shell after seeing a six year-old girl maced in the eyes, and an elderly man with a cane on an otherwise empty street shoved and knocked down. But like him, I’ll get up again, too. I know the words will come for you. We are going to need those words in the days to come.
Orwell’s essay on politics and the english language has been key in my understanding of communication and writing. Glad to see you quoting it.
That essay is a banquet. Glad you use it, too–I don’t think enough people know about it, and its author’s voice is perfect for these dark days.