As a white male and conservative columnist, the easiest thing for me to do during our country’s current unrest would be to remain silent. In the past, my efforts to address racial divisions have led black politicians to accuse me of gerrymandering, made me a target for partisan operatives on social media and have been taken out of context by left-leaning publications.
Against that history, engaging again makes me uncomfortable. But the discomfort concordant with silence would be unlivable.
Nothing I feel – the anxiety that I may be misquoted or worry that I’ll be doxed by vengeful extremists, my elevated heart rate or subtle nausea, not even a slight shortness of breath – compares to the discomfort African American protesters across the country, and black men in particular, have made clear they feel every time they come into contact with law enforcement.
And I have never felt anything that could compare to the terror George Floyd must have endured during the eight minutes and 46 seconds it took four police officers to kill him.
Watching that video, I am haunted by the indifference displayed by Derek Chauvin as he casually ended a life. With his left hand stuck in a pants pocket and donning an apathetic facial expression, Chauvin never showed the slightest concern for Floyd’s desperate pleas.
In fact, the only time Chauvin reacted in any fashion was to bystanders shouting at him, lending their voices to the one that had already failed an unconscious Floyd. In that moment Chauvin’s eyes narrowed, his jaw-jutted forward and anger rose within him as he reached for a canister of Mace. If another officer had not stepped between them, Chauvin certainly would have attacked them.
As awful as it is to watch Floyd die, it is the metaphor within that buckles me over time and again. Derek Chauvin is the Dorian Gray-esque picture of silent white America.
Staying quiet, due to fear or discomfort, is indifference to the knee on the neck that systematic racism has placed on black America. African Americans comprise 13.4% of the U.S. population, but represented at least 23.6% of people shot and killed by police in 2019. Given that the race of another 19.3% of those shot is “unknown,” the actual percentage is certain to be substantially higher.
Those statistics do not include people who died in custody through other means of lethal force. They will not include George Floyd. It is reasonable to assume the disparity would be equal, if not greater, for such violence against black men and women in those circumstances.
I highlight the data behind this inequity for several reasons. First and foremost, it gives data-driven support to the desperate pleas of a community begging for its life. Second, it highlights the cost of societal indifference by white Americans.
Of course, it is utterly inappropriate for me or any white person to tell black men or women how to feel, what to do or how to make their voices heard. But the truth is, in our democratic society, they cannot do it alone.
Put another way, 13.4% of the population acting without support is no more able to change the system than a handcuffed man pinned face-down is able to comply with a directive to “get up, get in the car.” Black Americans do not need white saviors, but they do need the support of white allies willing to follow their lead.
The need for allies will become particularly important to counter the many Americans who will instead choose to complete the Chauvin metaphor. Faced with growing protest from bystanders no longer willing to be silent, the anger will well up within them and they will erupt as they reach for their metaphorical – and sometimes literal – Mace and attempt to meet dissent with violence.
Most prominent among those Americans whose face is reflected in the video of Chauvin reaching for his hip holster is President Donald Trump. His administration’s decision to teargas peaceful protesters so they could clear the background for a photo op at a church where he was unwelcome is only eclipsed by Trump’s craven threat to use the U.S. military against its own citizens.
So while I understand and empathize with protesters, it is my fervent hope that they will not fall silent when the most important moments yet to come happen. I pray that they show up to legislative hearings and polling places to demand justice even more loudly than they have in our streets over the past few weeks.
As Atlanta artist and activist Killer Mike summarized, now is the time “to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize” against public officials like Trump who glorify division and violence and buttress the systems choking the life out of black Americans.
It will not be comfortable and it will require steadfast commitment to the often monotonous work of democracy. But as the murder of George Floyd has made clear, silence and indifference are no longer an option.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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