There are myriad qualities that make us human but few, other than the wide bailiwick of ‘culture’, have tentacles that reach – or should reach, as far into our psyches as the pursuit of justice.
All the qualities are evolutionarily useful, of course, and some are shared with other species: tool use for example. Plus we have the category of emotions – but we have no lock on exclusivity there, either; witness your dog jumping for joy when you return to your home (even after being gone for only 10 minutes!) or elephants grieving their dead. Then there is the neurological brain and unfathomed mind terrain of morality, ethics, mutuality, competition and the like.
I, and millions of others on this hunk of rock speeding through the universe, think the historical Buddha was onto something when he hit upon desire as a main cause of human misery. And, again, when he taught that wisdom and compassion were two primary keys to the alleviation of much that passes for our distress in this world. Notice that I used the past-tense ‘taught’ (teach) and not ‘preach’, a signal difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the divine. Preaching is an activity wherein someone with a supposed special insight and connection to the spiritual expounds to a (mostly) passive audience. Other than the “call-and-response” in traditional black churches there is precious little two-way communication going on.
Teaching in the active sense is a whole other endeavor altogether. It is what Doris Lessing (“Introduction” to the Grove Press edition of Ecclesiastes) identifies as the “experiential Path” vs. the “passive” one. When we hear and learn of concepts like “Justice” in our schools and places of worship we internalize, if we do at all, an intellectual concept. When we grow up in an environment with parents and a community that teaches us about “Justice” we internalize it in our hearts. It is closely linked to compassion for the Other. To see a black citizen beaten or killed on an anonymous video stream causes every right-thinking person unease. To walk out of the house knowing that this treatment might be your own lot brings on another level of apprehension altogether.
In many ways ordinary, middle-class white people in our society are privileged not so much by what has happened in their lives as by what has not happened.
The last time I drove cross-country from Ohio, then to Chicago for a Leica meeting and then home to New Mexico I was stopped not once, but twice by states highway patrol. In Illinois the trooper was right behind me as we drove 70+ mph along the Interstate. I decided to move back to the right lanes after passing a car and in a few seconds saw the flashing lights go on in the patrol car. I dutifully pulled over and awaited the standard visit from the cop at my Mercedes Sprinter van window.
When he finally came up I asked what was the problem. He said that in Illinois there is a law that a driver cannot change lanes on an Interstate within 275 feet of signaling a lane change. I asked him to repeat the statement as I was trying to internalize his comment (which was not as succinct as my version of it.) Then I did a quick calculation and said that at the speeds we were driving, 275 feet go by in less than three seconds. I added that I did not have a stop-watch but was pretty certain the legal time had transpired and I had, after all, signaled my intentions. He said, yes, I had signaled but he was pretty certain I had moved into the right lane too early. When I let out an exasperated breath (I was trying to get to my meeting hotel before nightfall) he added that he was not going to give me a ticket, only a ‘Warning’, and that I should leave my van and get into his patrol car. I responded with, “Really!” He said, “Yes, you need to comply, sir.” As I opened the door and stepped out he suddenly said, “Are you armed?” I looked at him with incredulity and said, “Are you serious? No, of course not!”m
As I approached his car I reached for the back door handle but he said, “No, get in the front passenger seat.”
“Okay, cool, I can look at all the toys!”
I did not get much done by way of inspection because there was a police major in the back seat who grilled me on fly-fishing in New Mexico when he saw the Catch & Release sticker in my rear window. I got the idea he was trying to ferret out whether I knew anything about the great art of casting with a fly or had stolen an expensive vehicle.
After several days in Chicago I headed back to the Interstate toward New Mexico. That evening late, just west of St. Louis, a car kept tail-gating me closely for miles. Rather than hit the brakes, which I would have done in my youth, I simply slowed down. Who wants to get the driver behind alarmed and pissed-off enough that he/she pulls up and sends a bullet thru the driver side window?
As I slowed those flashing lights came on! He kept me waiting for a long time before coming up to the window. Tired and (again) exasperated as I was trying to reach my usual hotel, I asked what took so damn long. He said he saw I had an old arrest record at the White House but could not find that it had ever been settled. It took him a long time to find it had been adjudicated (‘don’t return to DC and cause trouble for at least 6 months.’)
Then, I got the only laugh I have ever received from a state cop during the many times I have been stopped: “Officer, first things first. I am very proud of that arrest. It is a sterling moment of civil disobedience from my youth. I made national TV and got a televised comment from my state senator, John Glenn! Second, why did you stop me in the first place?”
“I could not read your license plate or see a sticker to see if it is current.“
“My date sticker is right there for all to see.”
“Yes, I see it now, but in Missouri it is illegal to drive with a license plate that is hard for an officer to read. Now, I’m not going to give you a ticket, but….”
Another ‘Warning’ ticket in my pocket after a stop that lasted ninety minutes.
Many of you will laugh at these stories, and I can, too, now. But, the significance of them is that any ‘untoward’ action or displayed anger on my part could have ended badly for me. Driving while brown can be a risky practice in many places in the United States. What proved to be remarkable was that the very next week the NAACP issued a notice that read, “if you are black you should avoid driving through Missouri if at all possible.” This is an incredible piece of advice in 21st century America.
These examples of state police action would be simply idiosyncratic stories if not for the fact that they are repeated across this nation every day. I am lucky in that I am sure the officers’ calculus of behavior was influenced by my educated flat, mid-Western speech, my demeanor and my expensive set of wheels (both officers were impressed by my great Mercedes vehicle), i.e. ‘he can probably afford an expensive lawyer’.
To sum, dear Reader, do not assume that your peaceful and secure daily existence is the norm for everyone in this country. Do not assume that those who are executed with impunity by state actors had it coming. Do not assume that after we have conquered Covid-19 everyone will return to a life of beauty and personal empowerment. Do not assume we must all color within the lines as dictated by the mandates of the 1%. Yes, applaud those officers who “take a knee” in solidarity with the people they have sworn to serve and protect but remember that real change is not a cosmetic application of soothing words and easy actions. True justice requires vigilance and perseverance – the hard work of all people of good will.
“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill, 1867
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass