Updated: Jun 15, 2020
Just shy of two weeks ago, one of my best friends in the world wrote an article for this platform entitled “Black and Blue.” Given the way that time passes these days, that day two weeks ago feels like a lifetime away. In that brief time, the world has changed in dramatic ways.
In some positive news, some has changed for the better. Angela Davis said, “this moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced.” On June 7, the Minneapolis City Council, via a veto-proof majority, voted to disband the city’s police department and replace it with a new system of public safety. Although to some that may sound like a risky move, I have a colleague who used to do sensitivity training with the Minneapolis Police Department and claims to know every officer on that force in some capacity. Nevertheless, she described the council’s move as one of the best actions the municipal government has ever taken to improve the city (more as to why, can be found in the Further Links Section).
Meanwhile, on June 4, Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Justin Amash of Michigan, introduced a bill to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that would seek to eliminate the doctrine of Qualified Immunity.
Policy reforms have hit police departments across the country. In Kentucky, the Metropolitan City Council in Louisville unanimously voted to pass “Breonna’s Law”, which outlaws the use of no-knock police raids. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, official policy now dictates that officers have a duty to intervene when another officer is committing abuses. The mayor of San Francisco announced that in lieu of police, trained professionals would respond to calls about “non-criminal” activity such as domestic disputes and homelessness. Lastly, In Colorado, a police accountability bill was passed requiring all police departments to comply with initiatives including the provision of body cams, the creation of a database for problem officers, a limitation in the use of non-lethal projectiles/chemical dispersants, and interventions in the case of officer-led abuse.
In the wake of this positive news however, I ask you to take pause. The world has changed… but has it changed enough?
Some things have failed to change. Breonna’s Law may have passed, but her killers still walk freely. Meanwhile, all of these reforms of policing practices mean nothing if police are not actually held liable for violent actions. We have witnessed continued acts of violence perpetrated by police in the past couple of weeks. We even witnessed over 50 members of the Buffalo PD resign in solidarity with two discharged officers who were caught, on camera, abusing and severely injuring an elderly protestor.
Despite this, it feels as though the world is slowly starting to lose interest in the fight. Although it is hardly an accurate metric for true activism, my Instagram feed is starting to look awfully similar to the way that it looked several weeks ago. It is as if #blacklivesmatter is no longer as trendy as this summer’s newest TikTok dance.
There has been a similar phenomenon in the way people have been treating COVID-19. Although there is good news on that front too – the disease has been completely eradicated in the country of New Zealand – in the United States, the infection rate is spiking as the country opens up.
Despite the increased risk of infection, people seem to be getting less, not more, cautious. In my local grocery store in Sedona, Arizona, about 70% of people are not wearing masks, even though the state has one of the worst infection rates in the country.
It is natural to experience some burnout. ‘Compassion fatigue’ is a concept that has been garnering some attention in psychology circles, which is the idea that people can experience anxiety and distress secondhand when they spend so many of their emotional resources caring for others. This means that it can be hard to continuously watch protests or hear about people dying.
In an effort to confront this anger and anxiety, our bodies then enter what is called ‘outrage fatigue’. According to Psychology Today, outrage fatigue is “where one experiences exhaustion, cynicism, apathy and hopelessness, as they try to take on too many social, political, legal, or economic campaigns at once.”
They go on to say, “Today’s world of social media and constantly connected smartphones offers us the opportunity to express our feelings about a huge range of issues, from police violence towards African-Americans to hyperbolically bad governmental decisions to the never-ending efforts to reform/repeal/replace health care. Every one of these issues, and more, is worthy of upset and outrage. Each demands attention and response. But each response requires us to muster resources and determine what level of investment and response we need to give. Do we merely choose a ‘sad’ reaction to the story on Facebook? Do we share it with others? Do we reach out to people who aren’t involved and implore that they become involved? Do we pick up the phone and call political representatives? Do we donate money to a cause? Do we go out on the street and protest? And do we do this for one day, or do we hang onto these feelings until the issue is resolved?”
Yes, you are probably, angry. I am angry too. The other day I found myself, after a long hike, actually yelling at the world from a mountaintop. That kind of anger is exhausting, but we cannot allow ourselves to give up in the face of that exhaustion. It is our responsibility to confront the injustices present in the world, because the fact of the matter is it is not the world’s fault that there is injustice. It is ours.
I am responsible for George Floyd’s death. You probably are too.
A few days ago, a high school classmate asked me to think back over the past 10 years. He had me ask myself:
Where was I when Trayvon Martin died? What did I do when George Zimmerman was acquitted? How did I react when Eric Garner was murdered? When Michael Brown was tragically stolen from us? When I was called upon to listen to my friends calls for justice, did I lend an ear? When I was called upon to speak up and prevent another one of our friends from dying - What did I do?
Reactivism is important. It is important to be saddened, to be outraged. Life is precious and we should take the time to recognize that emotionally. It is important to lend a hand to those who need our support in times of tragedy. It is important to react. We just shouldn’t let our response end there.root causes of the violence? Did I advocate for reduced budgets for Police Departments? When 5 years had passed, and the dust had settled in Ferguson, was I still out on the streets trying to solve an issue that never had resulted in any meaningful action?
The honest answer is no, and I am ashamed.
In consequentialist ethics, there is a notion of negative responsibility. In essence, it is the idea that every day we have a choice, to act or not to act. When we watch a man harm another man and do nothing, we are equally as responsible for the pain that man endures. As my friend Noah put it, “silence is complicity.”
It took a friend knocking me over the head with his thoughtfully written words to get me to start acting. So, to all the families that have lost someone due to my silence. I am sorry.
The point of my writing this is not to try and relieve my white guilt. The world doesn’t need another white person witnessing tragedy and finding a way to make it about them. I say what I say because only by admitting where we went wrong can we hope to do better in the future.
My failing was in not continuing to act after my initial outrage had fallen prey to fatigue. Ask yourself, did you too fail to persevere?
If you too are angry at the world we live in, ask yourself the questions my classmate asked me. What did you do after Trayvon Martin died? Who did you call when Eric Garner was murdered? What actions have you taken in the years since then to end the everyday injustices plaguing our world? I sincerely hope you can be prouder of your answers than me.
The crux of the issue is what I call activism vs. reactivism.
Reactivism is what we all do when we here news of someone’s unjust death. We head to the streets; we scream and yell and say no more. Reactivism is what we do when a natural disaster hits a developing country; we cry, we lament, we poor out support and donate to relieve suffering.
Reactivism is important. It is important to be saddened, to be outraged. Life is precious and we should take the time to recognize that emotionally. It is important to lend a hand those who need our support in times of tragedy. It is important to react. We just shouldn’t let our response end there.
True change doesn’t come in the weeks following tragedy. It comes from months and years of sustained action. Activism is what we do once the immediate pain has faded. Activism is what we do when our 24-hour news cycle has long since forgotten what is truly important.
Activism requires us to be proactive. If we were to be proactive in the times when our news feeds fall silent, we could actually hope to prevent the tragedies that befall the world. If we were to invest in improved infrastructure in our impoverished communities, the results of natural disasters would not be so severe. If we were to work at changing our policies over the long run, and get more resources into black and other minority communities, then we could replace a perceived need for po