At The Crossroads: Which Road Will We Choose?

Months before the 2016 election — but just a few days after police officers killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile not far from the site of George Floyd’s murder — I wrote about the call to abolish the police. Two readers challenged me, the first to write next about her contention that “white people have no incentive to change their thinking about their privilege” and the other, who wrote privately, said this: “Wow Arlene — de-fund the police services?? Are you on drugs? Are you an anarchist? What’s the sense of that?”

The first was from a black woman; the second from a white man. I tried to respond to both in the next essay I posted. It’s been nearly four years, but the question hasn’t changed.

The big story we’re living through right now — as with every big story in history — is made up of a zillion little stories, lives in the balance, hard decisions, hopes and fears. Those little stories are as wildly various as human lives. Mothers living in fear every time their sons and daughters leave the house, hoping against hope that people whose indifference has enabled evil to prosper will finally open their eyes and take action. People traumatized down to their last nerves, the pandemic of violence against black people overtaking the COVID-19 pandemic without a moment of respite from either.

Social media has not been not for the faint of heart. There were days when Facebook felt like people standing a few inches apart, screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Some people yearning to be consoled, others rejecting what felt like intrusion, both finding fault with those who failed them. Some people seeing their duty as instructing others on how to speak or act, some people fed up to the brim with being asked to teach in such ways. The floodgates of information and opinion overflowing with horror stories and tales of possibility. The hoping and fearing and not knowing.

It’s a lot to ask right now, that people in the grip of their own fear and anger, remorse and reorientation (I want to use the Hebrew word t’shuvah, which means both repentance and turning) zoom out to take in the big story.

But we all have to ask it, of ourselves and everyone else, because we are at the crossroads. If we are to find a way forward rather than an impasse, we must choose.

And here’s the thing: the proposal to defund the police and take other actions to protect black lives must be at the center now (8toabolition.com is the program to consider and support, so don’t be distracted by campaigns that propose the same old failed interventions, such as 8cantwait). But we can’t stop there.

While we take our own immediate decisions and actions, while each of us lives our own little story with all its joys and heartbreaks and complications, we have to keep the big story in our field of vision.

And what is that story?

Michelle Alexander’s headline in the Times put it plainly: “America, This Is Your Chance; We must get it right this time or risk losing our democracy forever.” In this must-read essay, Alexander lays out three steps in our collective redemption: “We must face our racial history and our racial present….We must reimagine justice….We must fight for economic justice.”

Charles Blow has spelled out the danger that this will be a moment of eye-opening action, followed by a retreat when it is understood that true justice entails surrendering privilege. “This is not the social justice Coachella. This is not systemic racism Woodstock. This has to be a forever commitment, even after protest eventually subsides.”

A huge amount of powerful writing and video is coming out now. And all those stories are nested inside the larger story that the United States is poised at the crossroads with fascism on one side and a social order of justice tempered by love on the other. It will take many to steer the ship of state onto the path of freedom and equality. I am worried that the truth this big story tells is so appalling to contemplate, too many people refuse to see it and therefore cannot act against it. I take as my guide here the towering figure and guide to racial justice James Baldwin, who said “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In #IMPOTUS’ drive toward fascism, a broken and distorted individual enacts his own desire for ultimate power (Masha Gessen, who knows a thing or two about the subject, puts it clearly). He is “performing fascism,” she writes, but he is only the figurehead for a system constructed, fed, and protected for the purpose of putting in their place not only black people, but Indigenous people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and others whose very existence threatens both white supremacy and capitalist domination of both labor and planet.

I ask you — I beg you — to read Anne Applebaum’s recent Atlantic piece, “History Will Judge The Complicit.” Drawing on precedents from postwar Eastern Europe to Lindsay Graham, she highlights the rationales people use to justify their collaboration with evil ends: “We can use this moment to achieve great things….” “We can protect the country from the president….” “I, personally, will benefit….” “I must remain close to power….” “LOL nothing matters….” “My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse….” “I am afraid to speak out….”

Applebaum notes that in her examples from East Germany and Warsaw Pact nations, choosing to escape or oppose illegitimate authority could carry heavy penalties, even death, whereas the fear of speaking out in the present situation can be motivated by something as trivial as not wanting #IMPOTUS to make up a nickname for you and tweet it out:

… a Republican senator who dares to question whether Trump is acting in the interests of the country is in danger of — what, exactly? Losing his seat and winding up with a seven-figure lobbying job or a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School? He might meet the terrible fate of Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, who has been hired as a contributor by CBS News. He might suffer like Romney, who was tragically not invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference, which this year turned out to be a reservoir of COVID‑19.

Most people aren’t Republican toadies, but are most people facing the truth fully so as to change it?

The police as they are presently constituted are an occupying army, dispatched to use the same violence and dehumanizing tools on every problem, from a domestic disturbance to a broken taillight to running while black to peacefully demonstrating for justice, and 1,000 people a year die at their hands. Those whose lives are not taken are stockpiled in the planet’s largest prison-industrial complex, where African Americans are incarcerated at roughly three times their proportion of the population.

Are we facing the truth that a nation proclaiming liberty and justice for all has consistently behaved to deprive a huge proportion of its population of liberty, justice, equity, and — more and more vigorously every day — even the right to vote?

Some remarkable victories are emerging in the wake of the demonstrations that have rocked the country since the police murder of George Floyd. The sheer scale of the uprising speaks for itself. Yes, people are right to be skeptical about apologies from the National Football League and pledges to defund the police. Institutions must be judged on what they do, not merely what they say. But when their spokespeople pledge progress never before heard, there is reason to hope and work and hope some more.

I believe we are at the crossroads. I believe we have the capacity to turn back toward the historic legacy of oppression and exploitation, to further empower the enforcement of white supremacy and thereby to see the death of democracy in our own day. I believe we equally have the capacity to build on our legacy of struggle for self-determination and liberation, to take the path that leads to true democracy, to full human rights, to real restitution. We don’t have to be politicians or establishment operatives to allow fear, or fawning over power, or cynicism about the possible, or delusions about moderation to stop right action.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” To set out on the right path, we have to face the big story.

Tracy Chapman, “Crossroads.”

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