A Horror of Indifference:
The unmoved observation of brutality and suffering is worse than committing the brutality itself.
When I was a child, concepts pertaining to morality and justice were easy to navigate because, to my eyes, the world and everything in it cleanly fell into one of two categories. Right or wrong. Black or white. Good guy or bad guy. That clarity of vision and conviction is natural for children and comes with a healthy dollop of naivety. Looking back, it makes sense that characters like Raphael the Ninja Turtle or Wolverine or Han Solo or the Punisher were detestable to me. The concept of an antihero was an oxymoron. Either you were the hero or you were the villain. Either you were a good guy or you were not.
If we're lucky, we leave that kind of thinking in our childhoods. Any being of empathy paying attention to the world around her inevitably learns that the world isn’t black-and-white at all but made up of every shade of gray imaginable. (Black and white arguably don't even exist because absolutes arguably don't exist.) Everyone and everything in the world winds up being an antihero, the character made up of as many different kinds of grays as there are people on the planet.
So begins the awkward, challenging, and exhausting work of navigating that reality. For those of us who give a shit, we recognize that this work won't end until they nail shut our coffins, even as we regard those whose narcissism allows them to journey blithely through life without much concern over being the absolute worst of human beings… all the while attempting to ignore the small part of us darkly envious of their ability to just not care.
But every once in a while, maybe once in a blue moon, an incident will happen that isn't gray at all but starkly black and white. There are no grays to consider and burden our assessment of right-doing and wrongdoing. These incidents happen so rarely that the unaware find themselves ensnared in the implications before they realize it. But they are a true gift from the Universe to those who are aware of them in real-time.
A young black man in Memphis, Tennessee was ruthlessly beaten and tased and clubbed by five black police officers after he was pulled over at a traffic stop. As a black man living in America, I harbor an informed fear of police. Terrible as that is, I feel the greater dread when considering the host of other cops also present at the scene. But instead of protecting and serving the innocent, they watched a boy have his life beaten and tased and clubbed out of him, listened to a boy cry out for his mother, whose home was mere feet away. The ease of their revisionist conversations betray a familiarity with such a scene and an understanding of the system and how to use it to get away with brutality and torture. Just like Ahmaud Aubrey's killers, the utter lack of concern on display could only be the product of a long history and familiarity with getting away with murder. The police officer who ended George Floyd's life did so with his hands in his pockets, the look on his face was that of a man pondering what he should pick up for dinner on the way home. That slightly bored look haunted me in ways the act of slowly suffocating a man to death in broad daylight never did. The police officers who so enthusiastically ended that boy's life rightly fill my heart with terror but it's the officers who observed a hopeless and pleading human mercilessly suffer unto death with something akin to disinterest who make my soul run cold.
Lord have mercy.
No reasonable person can watch the footage captured on those officers’ body cams and settle upon those police officers’ actions as being warranted and sanctionable. There is no violation, traffic or otherwise, that warrants such casual savagery and entitled evil. There is nothing that young, unarmed man could have done to make the response from those members of law enforcement, or the lack of response from those police officers who simply observed, acceptable. No, this is one of those rare events that falls into our laps with no confusing or complicated grays mucking up our visceral response to the horror of that day. Every now and then, evil comes to town, no hemming and hawing or complicated debating needed to see it for what it is.
Sometimes, we just know.
It takes a special person to learn of the death of that boy and respond in any way other than instant condemnation of the police officers’ activities that day. A person debating or desperately searching for any series of events possible that could validate the actions of those police officers is a person who is lost. That person is hopelessly committed to personal bias and places the status quo above equal human dignity.
Lost in an ideology that says that if a cop does it, then it was justified, no matter what. Or lost in the prejudice that Black people are all inherently criminals. Or lost in their need to believe that those tasked with keeping the peace and protecting the weak could never abuse their power, and certainly not for obvious bloodlust.
These are the people who turn a blind eye to the millions of people with the same claims of brutality and racism and injustice, begging to be heard, begging to be recognized, begging for help. Alas, they're barking up the wrong tree. To acknowledge the truth and address these problems is to acknowledge that the world isn't all they think it is, what they need it to be. And a world like that is too uncontrollable and dangerous to be considered for these people, who have the privilege of being able to pretend to this degree. To pick and choose what reality they will recognize. Worst of all, to do the right thing would force these people to finally acknowledge that they were wrong, a fate seemingly worse than death for some of them.
Basically, if they must choose between a world of inconvenient truths and uncomfortable realities or a world of privilege, superiority, and comfort, then the choice has already been made. Offering up the millions crying out against injustice and inequality as blood sacrifices for the altar of their manufactured Utopia is but a small price to pay.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe. Martin Luther King Jr had this to say about these individuals: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the White moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice.”
There's a price to maintain the status quo. The cops watching the savage beating of an innocent but doing nothing to help him are just as guilty as those landing the blows. And the American moderates who invent justifications in order to keep the peace are just as guilty as the American domestic terrorists preying on those without a voice and without hope.
Here comes the tricksy part. While these loathsome humans live amongst us all, they are incredibly difficult to weed out in normal times, partially because they themselves often don't even realize (or don't allow themselves to realize) what they are and what their ambivalence is aiding. But in unabashedly black and white times such as what we are experiencing in the wake of Memphis, they reveal themselves.
You're probably wondering how you can determine whether the person you're engaging with is in that camp. Well, they are the people placing blame on the victim. (“Well, he should've just done with the officer said in the first place.”) or lending cover to the transgressors. (“The police have to deal with so much in their day to day jobs, of course sometimes they don't go too far. They are being targeted by those criminals.”) They are the people who refuse to acknowledge that black people and especially black men are being killed while in police custody at a disproportionate rate compared to other races. The people who immediately assume that that dead boy even broke a law in the first place, without any evidence of any kind to suggest that. They are the people who counter these facts by saying that Black men are being killed at a higher rate because more black men are committing crimes than other races. They are the ones who immediately contend that White people are the racial group killed most by the police. They are the people who would tell the millions of minorities who have lived this reality their entire lives that they are simply mistaken. That can't be true because it isn't their personal experience.
You are being called to action. Now is the time to take a long hard look in the mirror. Now is the time to listen to those who are begging for help all around you that you have thus far ignored. Now is the time to save your soul before it's too late.
Is it too late?