- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 6/1/20
Thoughts one week after the death of George Floyd and amidst the protests:
“…he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid…”
--Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Last Monday, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin and attention must be paid. The entire event was caught on video. The circumstances bear repeating. Mr. Floyd was handcuffed and on the ground. Chauvin’s knee was held on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the last 3 minutes of which occurred after Floyd was no longer responsive. Chauvin was a police officer, whose charge is to protect all of us, whether we are walking the dog, doing our business, or suspected of a crime. This murder of a Black man, immobilized and in custody, was committed ostensibly in the performance of Mr. Chauvin’s duties. This is not the first time this has happened.
Who would have thought that the respite from the relentlessness of the COVID crisis, the cacophony of pundits, the endless tweets, and the fear would come from yet another crisis—one not of a biological nature, but of our own doing?
That this act of violence occurred is repugnant but what adds to the tragedy is that the repetition of acts like this, in cities across our nation, has become so regular and we have been desensitized to its repetition. These murders, which might as well have been committed by men in white hoods, have become as second nature to our psyche as have school shootings. We are lesser because we are inured to both of these types of hideous violence. We will be judged harshly by history for our complacency.
THE COVID LESSON
What we have learned from the current viral crisis is our inter-relationship with our fellow citizens. We have come to finally realize that the physical and mental health of others has a profound effect on us and our wellbeing. What we have learned is that public health is a truly a public issue. Whether you wear a mask determines whether I’m going to become sick—or die. And if I act the same, you are safer.
By sheer coincidence, this inter-relationship—both with respect to our collective responsibility for the spread of the virus and with respect to our collective responsibility to demand reforms in policing—was brought home as I was finishing the novel, The Resisters, by Gish Jen. The premise of that book is a future where we are increasingly dependent upon (and ultimately beholden to and enslaved by) a technological “big brother” (think Alexa on steroids). Late in the book, the leader of the “resisters” quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
These words, from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” over 50 years ago, ring as true today (and in the future described by Ms. Jen) as they did then.
In response to the murder of George Floyd, many protests occurred around the country. One of those was here in Los Angeles. We went to witness the protest on Saturday afternoon in Beverly Hills. It was peaceful and emotional. Most of the protesters were wearing masks (many were not, and I worry for them). That these protests occurred is not surprising. It would be surprising if they had not. That there was some graffiti tagged in anger isn’t okay, but understandable.
Demanding simply that the people be kept safe by the police—and from the police—is hardly radical. Two unfortunate byproducts from these protests, which I fear will be the main “takeaway” for many, is the vandalism and violence committed by a relatively few people and the press’s presentation of the protests not as fueled by injustice, but as violent lawlessness.
It is perfectly natural that some subset of any large group of people who are angry (and in this case appropriately angry) will attract the few who opportunistically commit acts of violence. But these are the outliers and they were called out and asked to refrain—both by the peaceful protesters and the security guards at Nordstrom’s. Obviously, the destruction of property is wrong; but it wasn’t the objective of most of those protesting.
Please don’t misinterpret my concern about the serious need for reform in policing in our country as somehow condoning violence in response. Violence of any type—whether committed by protesters, those trouble-makers capitalizing upon the protests to foment violence, the police or the armed populace—is wrong. Notwithstanding that violence is out there and that we may be scared is not the story.
The destruction of property was a story, to be sure. But it wasn’t the story. The real story is the indignation of so many who stood in solidarity together against an epidemic of police violence, the target of which is Black Americans. The minor story is that around the periphery of the protests were acts of vandalism and violence (not justifiable, but explainable). As best as can be determined, these acts were committed by some small segment of opportunists, seizing upon the moment.
THE LAMESTREAM MEDIA
Our President, again not missing the opportunity to flame the fuels of the debate, threatened in his regular tsunami of tweets this week that “looting will be met by shooting.” This is typical of the lack of moral leadership we have come to expect from our President. Rather than a more matured and measured response that seeks to acknowledge the wrong, urge calm, and promise justice, he tosses gasoline on the fire.
Then Sunday morning, our President tweeted:
“The Lamestream Media is doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy. As long as everybody understands what they are doing, that they are FAKE NEWS and truly bad people with a sick agenda, we can easily work through them to GREATNESS!” [emphasis is that of the author]
All those years of English literature and close reading has not imbued in me the skill to parse the foregoing rant into something resembling coherence. It appears he’s complaining about the media. I, too, have a complaint about the media, but perhaps not the same concerns as Mr. Trump. And I certainly do not see them as bad or having some “sick agenda” (which “sick agenda” he does not describe).
The media’s primary focus over this weekend has been the repeated images of graffiti and confrontations with the police. The vast majority of the protesters were no more responsible for the destruction on Saturday than were you and I, sitting in our homes. But news of danger—news of violence—news that makes you scared, outraged, and frightened—that’s what sells. The news is manipulated by its purveyors to stoke our primal fears and force us to consume the news even more, and be further nourished by fear.
It is this same media that ceaselessly followed Mr. Trump through his campaign, providing a platform for his every statement, his every tweet, with minimal analysis. I don’t think they do it with an agenda (sick or otherwise), other than profit. They do it because it gets ratings and sells ads.
There are many in our society who believe that “the other” is a danger to them. There are many who believe that “the other” wants to harm them and make them unsafe. No doubt there are some who do.
But to those whom we might believe are “the other,” perhaps it is we who are “the other.” To them, the police are a danger. To them, racism makes them unsafe. How we police, who is allowed to join the ranks of the police force, how they do their job, and how we reintroduce community policing that builds up neighborhoods—this should be the focus of our concern—not a few outliers in a protest that was otherwise peaceful and certainly justified.
As I write this, the County is on curfew for our own safety. It is wrong that we should feel this way, as wrong as it is for anyone to fear for their safety. I hope we can move from fear to action in the coming weeks and months.
FOR SOME INTERESTING READING
As a big fan of the “showtime” Lakers, I urge you to read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s op-ed from the L.A. Times for some perspective: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-05-30/dont-understand-the-protests-what-youre-seeing-is-people-pushed-to-the-edge.
To learn more about the issues of mass incarceration and racial profiling, I suggest Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson, A Letter to My Nephew, by James Baldwin, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Let’s start by learning about each other. And then doing something about this divide.