I had a conversation with my mother once about how she felt on September 11, 2001. I was living right smack in the middle of everything, but she was safely out on Cape Cod, about to enjoy a beautiful day. I actually managed to catch her before she saw the news, so the very first thing she was aware of was that I was somewhere safe; I was at home when the news broke, and immediately started calling family and farflung friends to tell them “Hi – the first thing you should know is that I’m fine. But something happened….”
Mom says that she took that call and then hung up with me, and then looked outside at the cloudless sky and perfectly peaceful street, and at some point went for a walk on the beach nearby, and the whole time was thinking how surreal it was to know that something so chaotic was happening somewhere else, and that someone she knew was seeing it, but where she was everything was just perking along and everything was normal. She even went to the hairdresser’s that day – she had an appointment, and couldn’t think what else she should do but just go ahead and keep it – and blurted out to the hairdresser while she was sitting in the chair that “you know, my daughter’s in New York right now,” and they were talking about how weird it was to know that was going on, but to not actually be seeing it. It just felt so…removed and helpless.
I’ve been watching the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri this week with a sense of that same helplessness. New York was already a bit raw in the wake of a similar home-grown incident; a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, died one week previously under eerily similar circumstances. But Mayor De Blasio and the NYPD seem to be taking the incident much more seriously, promising an investigation into officer training and into criminal charges against police officer Daniel Pantaleo. (Tellingly, they also made no effort to hide Pantaleo’s name from the press.) So New York did a lot of things right – things which Ferguson did wrong, so at times the news feels like some chilling Goofus-and-Gallant morality tale.
But I’m still hearing accounts of the protests on Twitter and watching the livestreams and seeing tanks roll into Ferguson and seeing them fire tear gas and hearing people say that they’re just trying to get home and the police aren’t letting them and hearing about how Mike Brown most likely had his hands up when he was shot and seeing the CNN anchorwoman wonder why the police don’t use water cannons and hearing people shouting at each other and…and I look out my window and New York’s just being New York, with the occasional traffic sounds and tourists getting confused and people walking dogs and sunbathing in Central Park and getting brunch at the local gastropub on the weekend, and I’m feeling that same sense of “this doesn’t match.” I want to do something, I see the news and want to run out and grab the arm of a Ferguson police officer and beg them stop please think about what you’re doing, but if I run out the door I’ll only run into the little girls who live on the second floor and who like to play on the stoops and pretend they’re pirate queens.
So I just don’t know what to do.
There are plenty of people who’ve said that simply speaking about things helps; talking about how you feel, making sure people are aware of what’s happening. But even here I feel removed, as I’ve never grown up under the thumb of racism. Not only am I white, I’m New England white, with one of the most Anglo-Saxon of names you can find outside actual peerage lists. Sure, I can say that I was “raised to be color-blind” or any one of a thousand lame platitudes, but what the hell good does that do in the face of what’s happening? One person being raised to actually live up to a basic level of human decency doesn’t do anything to help people being treated indecently – not just indecently, but cruelly and unfairly. So even here I feel like anything I say won’t make a damn bit of difference.
There’s a part of me that wants to remove myself even further, to sink back into watching Doctor Who reruns and Ice Bucket Challenge videos or whatever. But that would only help me, that wouldn’t help anyone else. And truth be told, maybe it wouldn’t help me very much either.
So I’m left with that sense of disconnect that you get when you know something is wrong, very very wrong, but you can’t see it clearly enough or hear it clearly enough to point out to everyone else and say “ah-hah! Here!” and have them all join you in fighting it. All I can do, I guess, is keep as aware as I can, tell my truth as clearly as I can, and speak up when I feel I can. Even about how that still feels so weak.
But maybe that’s the point.