Eric Garner, #BlackLivesMatter, and empathy

The Grand Jury investigating the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo decided to not indict. Garner’s murder was videotaped. Officer Pantaleo will not be charged with his death.

Last week the Grand Jury in Missouri voted to not indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Mike Brown.

Tamir Rice was twelve years old. He was killed by police for having a toy gun.

All three of those killed were black.

***

When I was young, a teenager and in my twenties, I was cynical. I was jaded and wise and I knew the score. I knew that the nation was corrupt, that corporate interests ruled everything, that my vote didn’t count. I knew that nothing I did mattered, that I could change nothing.

And so I had the freedom, the privilege, to not try. I had the privilege to not care. Everything’s awful, nothing changes, I can do nothing. How nice for me. How pleasant. How … easy, to stand by and watch others fight. While I, smarter and wiser and more cynical, shook my head at the angry naivette of those who stood up in protest.

***

During the first year of my kids’ lives, I cried a lot. A lot. I was terrified all the time. I love my kids so much, I love them so fucking hard. And yet they are these little mobile and independent creatures! I can’t protect them. I can’t save them. I can’t keep them safe. I can’t keep them unhurt and well.

Ultimately, I can’t keep them alive.

They are my children. Loving them is excrutiating. It hurts if I think about it for more than a moment. They are my heart, my soul, my breath, and they walk around outside my body, outside my reach and my control. What if something bad happens to them? is the endless insomnia of my life. In my ever-present visualization of a deadly car accident, I waver back and forth between the scenario in which I die and leave them alone in the world, and the scenario in which they die and I have to keep fucking breathing without them. I can’t decide which hurts me more.

I am crying, as I type these words.

Love hurts. Caring hurts. It hurts for another person to wear my skin, for their pains to be my pains, for their uncertainties to be my nightly fears.

***

When I was a younger adult, I was not strong enough to care a lot about other people. I wasn’t a vegetarian, because I wasn’t strong enough to bear thinking about the reality of factory farming. I wasn’t a good friend in times of need, because I couldn’t bear being near people in emotional pain. I could care in a limited way about a few people. That was it. That was all the hurt I could bear to take on. That was all the fear I could shoulder.

If I didn’t hear from a friend or loved one every hour or so, I started imagining terrible things. They were hurt. They were dead. They were in a fight. They were alone or scared or cold or abandoned. They were in trouble. They were hurting themselves. They were killing themselves. Caring about more than two or three people at a time was just … not sustainable.

I wasn’t strong enough to have empathy.

***

I am angry so much of the time, these days.

I am angry because I care. I am also angry because I am ashamed. I have a lot of years of not-caring to make up for.

***

The choices I face in my life are never the big ones. I don’t lead the defense of Minas Tirith. I don’t save Earth from an asteroid. I don’t raise an army to fight the White Queen. My choices are not between doing Good and doing Evil.

My choices are between doing Good and doing Not Fucking Much, Thank You.

My choices are between acting on what I know is right, and apathy.

Apathy means coasting on my privilege. I am white, and I have the privilege to remain untouched by racial violence. When the cops pull me over on a pretext, they let me go. When I was arrested for trespassing as a young adult, the charges were dropped. On the rare occasions I have engaged in political protest I have not been arrested, threatened, or abused by police. I get to stand idly by. I have the privilege to be uninvolved.

My country has, from its conception, been founded on the idea that straight white Christian men with a lot of money are better than everyone else. They they innately deserve more than the rest of us. That their lives are more valuable than ours. That their property is, in fact, more valuable than our lives. This is part of my nation, part of my culture, part of the world that surrounds me.

If I do nothing, if I say nothing, that culture and its dehumanizing values continue unchecked.

If I do nothing. If I stay silent. I am complicit.

***

There’s a meme on the internets. “Be the Person Mr. Rogers Always Knew You Could Be.” It appeals to a sort of nostalgia for the optimism of childhood. It appeals to a past in which we all thought we were the heroes of the story. A time when we knew we could and would ride in and save the world. Anything is possible. You are good.

***

The year I turned thirty, I realized I wasn’t a good person.

This knowledge crushed me, at first. I had predicated my life on the misguided idea that I was a Good Person. And that because I was a Good Person, I didn’t hurt other people. That I left a wake, cast a shadow, in which people basically looked on me with warmth and fondness because I was a Good Person.

After I wallowed in self-pity for a year, I had a revelation.

I wasn’t a Good Person. But perhaps I could learn to be one. I became a person who tried to do the right thing.

I don’t always do the right thing, obviously. Some days, I don’t even manage to try to do the right thing. But I already know I’m not a good person, so it’s no major loss. It’s not a massive blow to my self-image and worth if, some days, the best thing I manage to do is not yell at my kids.

Or apologize to them if I do.

But there are other days, better days. Days when I can find it in me to be the person Mr. Rogers always knew I could be. Days when I can sit down in the evening and know that I could look my heroes in the eye, unashamed. There are days when I look at the hurts I have caused in my past and think, “yeah, this thing I did today, it balances those other things I did.”

It just means I have to keep trying to do right things.

***

Caring about Mike Brown hurts. I can’t watch video footage of his family at press conferences. I just can’t. I start to sob. I imagine my son’s funeral after he’s been killed by the police and the details get too vivid and I shake and I cry. I’m not strong enough to watch Mike Brown’s parents.

But I can reblog their words. I can retweet the links. I can spread their words farther, cast them a bit more down the road. I can use my voice to amplify their voices. Slowly, slowly, their voices might be heard.

Caring about Eric Garner hurts. I see the picture of him with his kids and I can hear in my mind his breathless screaming “I can’t breathe” while the three men throttle him. I can imagine the darkness across his vision as he begs for his life, the black spots filling in from the sides as he cries and prays to God that he will see his kids again. I can see it, I can hear it, and I cry at my computer typing this.

It hurts, this caring. It hurts.

***

But I can’t not-care anymore.

I don’t want to be complicit any more. I don’t want to be ashamed of my silence. I don’t want to be nice, be quiet, be unobtrusive. I don’t want to be A Good Person, static and unchanging and defensive of myself. I don’t want to be afraid to move or grow or change lest I do something wrong.

I want to be able to look my heroes in the eye and say, “I did the best I could with the tools I had.”

I want to do the right thing.

I want to be the person Mr. Rogers always knew I could be.

***

There’s not a lot I can do to help tear down the Slavery/Jim Crow/Prejudicial Incarceration river of malice that twists through my culture. I can (and do) vote. I can (and do) read up on race in America, I try to stay educated, I try to stay woke.

I listen to people of color when they speak about race. I try to not interrupt. I rebroadcast their words for others to hear.

I speak up when other white people say racist things. That’s new, that’s just in the last year. Yes, I am ashamed I didn’t start sooner. But I can try to take right action from now on.

I try to share out my privilege, to extend it to others. I’m not sure of the metaphor, here. I try to lend a hand to those with less privilege than I have, to use mine to make more space for them. I try to push a space clear for those little-heard to take a place in the culture. Of course I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I am trampling all over others with my privilege. But I can try to take right action from now on.

***

We don’t all have the same weapons. We can’t all participate in the fight the same way. That’s fine. That’s good, even. This fight is so much bigger than any of us. We need every tool at hand to change the world.

We’ve got to do what we can. We can’t stay silent and compliant and complicit. To do nothing is to do evil. To stand idly by while evil works, that is itself evil.

I do what I can. I try to. I try to do what I can. It hurts to care. But I’ve got a lot of indifference to work off. I owe my community, my world, about thirty years in which I didn’t give a shit. I’ve got a lot of apathy to make up for.

***

Black Lives Matter. That’s the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. They do. Those lives matter to me. They should matter to you.

***

Do what you can. Care about those black lives. Listen. Learn. Speak when you are able. Make space for others’ voices to be heard. Give more if you can.

Care. Be angry. Be afraid, be ashamed, be strong, be in pain, be whoever you are with whatever you bring to this fight.

Care.

Black lives matter.

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