Friday, December 5, 2014
What to do in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island
I am sure that I am not the only one who has found it hard to know what to say in response to the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island. It is not enough that two black men lost their lives at the hands of policemen; adding insult to the situation, the justice system does not seem to be capable of fulfilling its role as a blind arbitrator in the face of such crimes. Of course, we have seen this kind of thing before: the Trayvon Martin case is undoubtedly fresh in many minds (even if that crime was not committed by a vetted police officer, although George Zimmerman was a de facto one) and there is little reason to think that the situation will change any time soon. Like most people, I have been struck dumb not knowing what to say and paralyzed not knowing what to do.
The Eric Garner case in particular brought to mind Spike Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing (in fact, Lee himself has made this connection--caution, disturbing footage). At the climax of this film, the character Radio Raheem is choked to death by NYPD as the police are attempting to quell a potential riot. This moment in the film was broadly based on cases where New York authorities had killed black people, although Lee was not referencing any one specific event. Perhaps that makes the parallels between what happens to Radio Raheem and Garner's death even more meaningful.
I realized today that in an ideal world, I would like for this film to no longer be viewed as an exploration of contemporary society (it is twenty-five years old), but instead as a historical document. This statement is meant with no disrespect to Spike Lee; the most persistent theme in the film is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of everyday life, and how complex it can be to determine what the right thing is, much less do it. But I would like us to look at Radio Raheem's death with a sense of disbelief because it should feel antiquated--much as I now look at the antisemitism of the Nazis as peculiar and entirely disconnected from my understanding of the world.
How do we achieve this goal? I don't have the solution, but I do have a suggestion. Follow what Spike Lee says and do the right thing. My response is not meant glibly, nor is it meant as a passive panacea--the imperative to 'do' is vital here. Just as in the film, I can't tell you what the right thing is, but I would like to encourage you to decide what that right thing can be. Draw on your skills and interests, find a way to direct them toward effecting change. Perhaps you can teach others why these issues remain important. Perhaps you can protest. Perhaps you can help change our understanding of how such crimes get reported (or not) and how the justice system operates (or not) in such cases. Perhaps you can be an advocate by making more people aware of why these situations matter. Perhaps you can fight the power. Perhaps you can help from the comfort of your own home by tracking data (this example is far removed from this specific issue, but shows the power that one person can have). Perhaps, as I am doing, you can write down your thoughts and reactions to these events.
Whatever you do, I would urge you to do the right thing for you. It's the only way that I know to make a difference.