Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Why Death Should Outrage Us
There's a good chance you're seething right now.
If you're unscathed about the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old not getting indicted for it, then you're probably a little disturbed that a New York man was choked to death on camera, and his choker will never go to trial for the incident. And if you're not mad about those two deaths, then you're probably upset that a cop shot a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun on a playground last week. If none of these stories trigger a little bit of outrage from you, WOW. Good job on not having emotions, Spock. Do you kiss your mother with that icy robot mouth?
Actually, don't kiss your mother. It's weird.
Until this month, I had no idea that black moms teach their sons how to survive police encounters. It's called "The Talk," and black boys get it as soon as they start hitting puberty, because their moms realize that there's apparently nothing scarier to cops than a black teenager. I can barely manage reminders for my kids to wear their deodorant. The only good news in this crapstorm of awful is that history tells us that moments like these birth the changes that mean better futures.
In the meantime, it helps to remember a few things.
Shut Up About Riots, White People
Everyone you know falls into one of three camps on the no-indictments stories:
A. People who don't care at all.
B. People who are mad that the police officers weren't indicted.
C. People who are mad that private property has been destroyed.
A Venn diagram of Group B and Group C would look like an old lady's boobs: no overlap and a little bit of distance between them. I'm not suggesting that it's wrong to be in Group C, or that looting is awesome and everyone should do it, but I am suggesting that white people aren't the best consultants on riot advice.
People who are mad that Joe Paterno was fired.
People who are mad about ... pumpkins?
The deadliest riot in American history wasn't in L.A. or Chicago or Violence City, USA, it was in New York during the Civil War. And it happened because poor white people were mad that black people were exempt from the Union draft, and that rich white people could buy their way out of it. But instead of peacefully assembling while listing their concerns, the white people looted a black orphanage before burning it to the ground.
The lady with the rocking horse looks so happy.
And then New Yorkers did this cute thing where they attacked police stations, the mayor's house, fire stations, the office of The New York Times, and any business perceived as "pro-black." Then they started lynching.
So when you think back on the Civil War, do you remember this moment when white northerners went on a killing spree, destroyed property in their own communities, and terrorized their town for three days? Probably not. If you heard about the story at all, you probably picked up on some sympathy for the poor Irish immigrants who started the riot. After all, it wasn't fair that they had to fight in a war that they thought didn't concern them while wealthier New Yorkers could buy their way out of it. Plus, they were super poor, and poverty makes us do terrible things. Here's how one 1991 textbook put it:
A majority of the rioters were Irish, living in pestilential misery. The spark that ignited their grievances and those of other working men and women was the provision in the law that conscription could be avoided by payment of $300, an enormous sum only the rich could afford.
When it comes to our poor Irish ancestors, white people are a little more willing to give some leeway in shaping the narrative. Or suppressing it if it doesn't fit our picture of how we got here.
Change Is a Messy Process
Do you enjoy working in a place that doesn't require 12-hour workdays, six days a week? There's a riot for that!
Are you glad your boss doesn't lock the door behind you when you sit down to work, preventing you from taking bathroom breaks or exiting the building when a fire breaks out? There's a tragic industrial fire that killed 146 young girls to thank for your right to not work in a horrific hellhole.
It's reasonable to assume a doctor or medical student won't illegally dig up your body for research when you're dead, right? There's a riot for that!
Tear gas and rubber bullets suck, but the National Guard used to bayonet and shoot peaceful protesters. It took the killing of four college students in 1970 for them to reexamine their "opening fire on everyone" policies.
Like that right to vote, ladies? A woman named Emily Davison threw herself in front of a horse to help get it for you.
Are you gay? The kickoff to your civil rights movement in America was a 1969 police raid followed by a riot at a gay club in New York. Here's how the New York Daily News covered the story at the time:
No civil rights movement is a walk in the park. We look back on the 1950s and 1960s and pat ourselves on the backs for coming so far. But if you were on the ground at the time, you know it wasn't a clean break from racism to not-racism.
Along with putting up with attack dogs, water cannons, and having to go no-bones while the police dragged you to jail, civil rights activists and their kids were murdered during the messy, debauched process of getting to where we are now. Here's the part that's almost impossible to stomach:
We probably wouldn't have changed ourselves without those deaths.
Our Brains Are Tuned to Deaths
Meaningless, tragic deaths get our attention. Life doesn't.
To understand why, think of your elementary school years. Specifically, try to pick out one quick memory to dwell on for a minute. Chances are, the first thing that popped in your head wasn't that time you won the spelling bee and everyone carried you on their shoulders for two hours, followed by the one time when your fellow classmates demanded to know if you really knew the words to "Walk Like an Egyptian," which you did, so they carried you around on their shoulders even longer. Nope, you're probably going to think of the time you wet your pants and had to wear borrowed undies from the counselor's office home.
And you were a senior.
Our brains are actually programmed to linger over negative feelings. Bad memories invade our brains like a cancer, which double sucks if your worst memory is literally having cancer.
Which is why deaths fuel change. Dead people stay with us so hard that when we finally get through the process of creating laws to fix the thing that killed them, we name the law after the victim themselves. Here's a private message to my family: if I die some stupid way, like falling out of my chair, and you get anti-chair legislation called "Kristi's Law" passed, I will haunt you.
On the other hand, if I die by falling out of my chair, I suspect my family will become the MADD of chair deaths. Nobody is more passionate about causes than people who have been hit with death. Thirty years from now, when cops are wearing body cameras and carrying nonlethal paralyzing mists that smell faintly of vanilla and grandma's cookies, and are walking into every situation knowing that a civilian death will probably result in a Trial of Zod inquiry that will stay with them for years, we're going to remember Eric Garner on the ground dying in a chokehold as the moment that spurred the reforms.
You Can't See Change When You're in the Middle of It
We've been mad about a lot of stuff this year. School shootings, sexual harassment, more sexual harassment -- oh, and those kidnapped Nigerian school girls are still missing. It's been eight months, so I'm guessing that when we find them, they're going to have some newborn babies that need rescuing as well. That's assuming anyone is still looking.
See what I did there? I got mad all over again. That's a good thing. NOTHING CHANGES when people aren't mad. Two years ago, I was one of those foolheads who shared the Kony 2012 video, and I swear to God I'd do it again. I have zero ill will against a filmmaker who raised awareness about one of the world's biggest evils. Why are we still more mad at the guy who made that movie than we are at Joseph Kony? "Kony 2012" is a hilarious joke that people make when they want to bring up a dumb fad that we were all into for 24 hours. Not hilarious: child soldiers.
Oh crap, I digressed again. My point is that I suspect these constant spurts of outrage aren't for nothing. You're not a bad person for hashtagging a cause. In fact, I think we're going to look back on these heady days of hashtag activism as the Civil Rights Movement of the Twenty-Tweenies, assuming that's what we end up calling this decade. We're the new hippies, you guys. And like it or not, hippies changed the world by being loud and stupid-looking and unafraid of looking back on their passionate big talk with regret.
The scariest thing isn't looking back and getting embarrassed that you reblogged the Kony video, the scariest thing is looking back and realizing you never got angry at all.