What makes me most angry as a member of the public is injustice. Maybe growing up the youngest of three got me attuned to it. I have been angry since watching that asshole cop kneel on George Floyd’s neck last week—sometimes low-level angry, sometimes Unable To Do Anything-level angry—as I imagine you have been.
(If you haven’t been angry, let’s talk, because I can’t understand why and I’d sincerely like to.)
I’ve also been frustrated, and numb, and sad, and confused. My anger at the continuous injustice of cops murdering black people has kept clenching, figuratively, my fists, readying for some fight, but I haven’t been sure what kind of fight. Frankly, I don’t know what to do each day. I wake up mad and unsure.
I haven’t joined in street demonstrations, owing to the virus and a longstanding fear of becoming part of a mass of people. With money to spend right now, I’ve donated to the George Floyd Fund, the Black Visions Collective, and the Bukit Bail Fund of Pittsburgh. I’ve set up a monthly donation to the Anti-Police Terror Project.
And I file my email receipts in the folder I use for tax-deductions and I scroll through Twitter and watch people taking to the streets and I feel once again it’s not enough.
Because it isn’t enough.
I think I’m trying to write about the uncomfortable, not-great feeling of believing in the power of massed bodies to enact change, and yet not placing myself among them. What I might be afraid of is unclear—I’ve got longstanding conformity/community confusions that probably play into it—but I know it has something to do with risk. People on the streets are risking their well-being and safety, and sometimes their lives, to show those in power the urgency of our demands.
People on the streets are the necessary visual. People on the streets are what The Whole World Is Watching. Like, even after I knew I was fully committed to the cause of defunding the police and ending police brutality, seeing this photo of a George Floyd demonstration in Amsterdam was when I first thought Wow, this moment is for real.
The world might be watching donations roll in, but the world is decidedly not watching me follow black justice accounts on Twitter. The world is not reading my tweets to local public officials about the unjust, sweeping curfew San Francisco enacted Sunday night. “Slacktivism” is the neologism. You get to feel like you’re helping enact change but ultimately you aren’t. What you’re doing is assuaging your bad feelings during a moment teeming with bad feelings.
There are, it should be said, many paths to activism. Doing what you can, doing whatever you’re comfortable with, is always better than doing nothing, and I try in my public life to do what I’m comfortable with. But something about the urgency of this moment, and about the enormity of loss that has led to it—not just George Floyd’s life, but the lives of Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the centuries of destruction and oppression wrought on black Americans—all that loss makes Comfortable feel like not enough.
This moment is asking for more from me. Or maybe it’s that I want to rise up stronger to meet the strength of the moment. There are a lot of things I’m not comfortable with, and will seek to avoid doing at all costs. Foremost among them: calling somebody I don’t know on the phone. I’d much rather email a politician than call their office, despite all I’ve heard about the effectiveness of calls over emails.
I’d also rather hug a cop than email friends and family about political decisions I hope they vote for. I want everyone on the planet to vote how they want to, and I don’t feel good talking politics with people I’m close to, even when I know we’re sympatico. Tweeting an opinion about curfews or defunding/disarming police is easy, comfortable. But emailing my sister, as I did yesterday, to consider voting in her primary for Zainab Mohsini, made me deeply uncomfortable.
But I knew it wouldn’t kill me.
And I knew it might help in one small way.
My sister’s reply:
Please don’t feel uncomfortable for sending me an email like this. I am always open to being informed and well educated about my options and I appreciate you taking the time to send this. I will definitely look into this candidate with an open mind because I too am ready for things to change.
I’ll always place people on the streets on a high heroic pedestal. The work they do might be the most vital element of our democracy after voting. Maybe someday I’ll find it in me to join them, but until then I will make sure to do enough of my part, and I’ll know it’s enough when I’ve risked my own discomfort.
So now I’ve got some phone calls to make.