When the news broke about George Floyd, it took time to manage my horror at not only the calmness with which the officer committed murder but also the act of torture in leading up to it. If you’ve never had an adult man put his weight on your throat or neck, you might not think of it as torture. I have. It took a while for my words to catch up with me. Those words are dehumanize, abuse, and fear.
Abuse. I happened to be reading The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah when I saw the photos. The Great Alone is a novel about a Vietnam Vet who brings the war home inside him and takes it out on his wife and daughter. As the images of George Floyd’s death sat in my mind while I continued my way through the book, a connection clicked in my brain. Racism, at its core, is an abusive relationship. It follows all the same patterns and cycles. It ticks all the categories financial, psychological, emotional, sexual, and physical. And just like an abusive relationship, apologizing doesn’t end the behavior. That’s why there is a call to stop doing exactly that. It takes systemic change. However, just like with an abusive relationship, the abuser doesn’t see themselves in that way. I’ve met many abusers in my life. Some of my students have confided in me that they are in jail for perpetrating domestic violence. Only a few seem to think what they did was a problem. Most tell me they had their reasons. There are always reasons, aren’t there?
Along with the call to stop simply apologizing, there is a call to stop wasting time and money and lives on activities like tolerance classes. They don’t work. Merely telling people to tolerate is a lame and useless activity. Tolerance means the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with. That doesn’t create a systemic change. It simply says to hide your feelings better. Hit in places others won’t see. Don’t shout and call names in public, wait until you’re in private. These are tricks abusers learn over time. Never the face, never in public.
Think about how many victims are still told not to make the abuser angry and are often asked what did you do wrong. The first step taken in cases like George Floyds is to blame the victim. Find fault in them, defame their character to make the abuser the hero, or at least less wrong. Victims are humans, and humans, by nature, are imperfect. You see this with victim-blaming all the time, it’s hard to find a perfect victim. Many abusers in my life have been charismatic, admired, respected, and protected. Meanwhile, I was told I wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t behave well enough. I said no when I should have kept my mouth shut. We blame the victim. It’s easier. It’s why we ask, “why didn’t you leave sooner?” Victims learn fast and teach others around them how to behave in order to survive. Racism is an abusive relationship.
Dehumanize. To press a knee on a man’s neck while resting hands in pockets and breathing calmly, you must first dehumanize. Racism, abuse, going to war requires dehumanizing the “enemy.” If we see another as a person, we couldn’t do these things. Look at Amy Cooper. She didn’t see a man. She saw an “African-American” man who she viewed as a threat, so she threatened back. Amy used power and control (the keystones of abuse) over Christian Cooper by saying I’m going to tell the police an “African-American” man is threatening me. Not a man is threatening me, specifically an “African-American” man. She knew the power that threat held and the real risk of a deadly interaction for Christian if the police were called. And what did viewers react to most from that video? Because we could see she was in no actual danger, we were upset with how she treated the dog. I agree that is not a woman who should own a dog; she has no idea what she was doing. But we worried more about the animal in that situation than the human. We dehumanize victims so easily and anthropomorphize the animal. If we’re so worried about the survival of our species, why do we do that?
These are sadly only two of way too many cases. I don’t have time to talk about all of them. The truth is we don’t even know all of them. We don’t know the extent of all the things that are happening. There isn’t always a video or pics to analyze after the fact. We have no idea the breadth of abuse our fellow countrymen suffer every day at our own hands. But I want to talk about torture for a moment.
While I was sick, my veins were so collapsed and ruined that I had to have a port implanted, so I didn’t have to sit through 27-30 needle sticks a week. I was asleep when they put it in, but they left me awake when they removed it. All they said was that I’d want the drugs, that’s it. The drugs essentially paralyzed my body for the time the doctor was there. After removing the port line from my jugular, the doctor pressed his hand and leaned his weight on the right side of my throat as my head was turned to the left. My brain was fully conscious, and tears streamed down my face because, inside my head, I was screaming that he was killing me, but I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move my body to fight him off. No one told me that would happen. It felt like torture.
Torture means the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. What I went through was not torture. As far as I could tell the doctor wasn’t enjoying himself, he was doing his job. Deep inside, I knew it would end, and he wasn’t going to kill me. He simply talked about the latest Star Wars movie and pressed his weight on my throat while I cried and screamed inside my head. The difference was George Floyd knew he was going to die, and he pleaded for help. He knew it was a possibility from the start of that interaction to his last breath. Derek Chauvin knew what he was doing. He was calm and composed with his hands in his pockets. I know the thoughts I had while that hand was on my throat, and I couldn’t move, and I knew there would be an end. I can only imagine the thoughts George had because he knew he was going to die.
When my doctor put on his scrubs, white coat, and gloves, I became a body to him; I wasn’t a person. That’s how he could press that warm blue latex-gloved hand on my throat the way he did. When officers take the lives of those, they are sworn to protect and serve; it’s because they dehumanize that person. Their uniforms, especially the riot gear they don, allow them to shove 75-year-old peaceful protester Martin Gugino and step over him as he lays on the ground bleeding from his fractured skull. Uniforms dehumanize. Not only the victim, but they create anonymity for the person wearing it. You are no longer yourself. You are the uniform. We have a full expectation of our military to act this way, then we send them home and watch them eat themselves from the inside out. How else could people do what they do? Amy Cooper dehumanized Christian before she made that call. What uniform was she wearing?
Fear. Why do we do that? Fear. Fear of “them.” Fear of losing everything we think we have. Fear that “they” will have power. How tiresome and petty the shouts of fear are. It would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous. Those I see flailing with what I hope are the last gasps of abuse act like a wounded animal. Screeching and gnashing their teeth and claws. The problem is wounded animals are dangerous. They can kill you before they die. The victim, and anyone trying to help them, is most likely to be murdered when they are trying to escape an abuser. At that point, the abuser has lost power and control.
I hear that fear in the voices of the Corrections Officers at the jail where I teach. I know they’re scared of losing their jobs and their pensions, I get it. They fear the change that’s coming. They fear what the future holds. In the meantime, they blame the wrong people. CO’s are part of law enforcement. If more people are sent to treatment programs, if more homeless shelters existed, more jobs, more job training, affordable housing, if mental health were easily accessed and offered to those who suffered the most, I would have way fewer students. There would be less of a need for jails. The CO’s would lose their jobs, and so would I. Their fear comes from a position of what about me, I get that. But it’s the same question being asked by those they oversee. I understand their fear and concern, but it doesn’t mean we maintain the status quo. It also doesn’t mean this starts and ends with the police. Law enforcement is simply the fist for a system of abuse.
None of this is to say I’m much better. I, too, was raised inside this system. I was taught these same rules. On an afternoon visitation with my father, he took us to the park, stretched dramatically, and announced loudly, “Ugh, the mosquitos and the negros are out.” I wasn’t raised any differently. I screw up my words, actions, behavior every day. But I want change. We could be a mighty nation if we could figure this out. One step, one magic pill, won’t do it. It never does. It’s always a systematic change. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m open to seeing and acknowledging the issues. It’s a start.
Saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t take away from anyone else. Black Lives Matter is asking for equity and a chance at survival just like everyone else. Saying Black Lives Matter and believing in it gives me hope that We The People can be better. That We The People can see what real power is and what our country has the potential to be. Living in the nostalgia of a pretend greatness of yesteryear is a load of hooey, and it’s lazy. We The People can do better and honestly we should want to. We do a disservice to ourselves, our ancestors, and our patriotism if we settle for a status quo that dehumanizes, tortures, and treats our citizens like they are expendable. If we fear the change that much, we’re lazy and deserve to go extinct. Changing, learning, improving, evolving, moving forward. That’s survival. The mantle of racism is so heavy and exhausting. Don’t you want to lay it down?