Should law and order trump protest and civil unrest? What about justice?
The question unsettles me. It unsettled me when I was a very small girl in 1968, but I know a lot more now. Still…it feels a bit like déjà vu. Growing up next door to the Black Panther movement, I was always aware of the potent sense of anger and the power behind the message. Growing up with my great aunts who told me Ho-Chunk stories, I was also profoundly affected by dissonances in narratives.
Here and now, I am revisiting and reliving those moments.
On March 7th, we headed East to begin dealing with my beloved mother-in-law’s death. The ‘ring of containment’ and a now famous birthday party, a super-spreader event, occurred while we were there. Four days later, we headed to Pennsylvania for the funeral.
Everything changed in that week.
Every day since has been a rerun. Like the movie Groundhog Day.
Get up. Plow through the day. Go to bed. Toss and turn. Next day. Rerun.
Only, a funny feeling started creeping into my bones.
“No one could’ve seen this coming.”
But we did know. All the signs had been there.
I perused my bookshelf brimming with historical and current research on pathogens. Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague. David Quammen’s Spillover. Sonia Shah’s Pandemic. Germs by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad. The Deadliest Enemy by Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker. The Next Pandemic by Ali S. Khan. To name a few. I pulled a recent article in The Atlantic asking if we were ready for the next pandemic.
Angry protestors refused to wear masks or socially distance. They invoked their constitutional rights even though the Constitution is silent on dress codes and social norms.
And then George Floyd was murdered. Now that was our greatest constitutional challenge and yet those same protestors were silent.
“No one could’ve seen this coming.”
And yet all the signs had been there. They had been there a very long time. In fact, in 1951, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) published We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People. Genocide—the word that enrages so many. The 238-page petition was submitted to the UN General Assembly, but was dismissed as “ridiculous” by Eleanor Roosevelt, the first chairperson of the UN Human Rights Commission. Whether one believes the charge or not (genocide is a hotly debated and contested concept), the signs were there. The power that Eleanor Roosevelt wielded in the name of the United States silenced the petition, but her dismissal did not ease the depth of the anger or the breadth of the charge. The charge persists at http://www.wechargegenocide.org.
Power—those who have it and those who don’t—is an uncomfortable issue because it has historically resisted remediation. It gains instead of subtracts.
I wrote about issues of race, justice, and power in my debut novel, Entangled Moon. When my novel launched in June 2018, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests had often descended into violence between peaceful protestors and heavily armed police. #NoDAPL became the hashtag of the moment and became synonymous with brute aggression versus peaceful protest. Until the #MeToo movement exploded.
“Why don’t you write about something more comfortable,” someone asked me.
Sometimes, we must bear the harsh light of uncomfortable things in order to fix what is broken. In the words of my character Mariah, “I am consumer and consumed, cheater and cheated, invader and subsumed.” Pretending otherwise does not change the hard truth.
In March of 2018, three months before Entangled Moon was launched, Stephon Clark was shot six times in the back while standing in his grandmother’s backyard. Three days after Entangled Moon was launched, Antwon Rose was shot and killed. Worse was the case of Elliott Williams who died in Oklahoma seven months after my dad was killed in 2011. Both deaths inspired my writing. The latter, my switch from literary fiction to suspense thriller fiction.
The plot of Entangled Moon “just wasn’t believable. It couldn’t happen today.” But these things do happen. We just have to see them for what they are. We have to be willing to get uncomfortable.
There is nothing more uncomfortable than a pandemic. Historically, they have often laid bare the truth of injustices and inequities that have been hidden by the stability of normal times. The equalizing aspects of raging global pathogens are hard to miss. By disturbing the status quo, law and order is often championed in order to exert some sense of control over a universe thrown off its orbit. That was as true during the great pandemics of the past as it is today.
A well-known man who served in another presidency even downplayed the role of justice in the preamble of the Constitution to stress the importance of domestic tranquility and common defense in the promotion of the general welfare. Law and order should trump justice in his mind.
This discourse is alarming.
The framers of the Constitution were thoughtful, concise, and deliberative in their use of words. Justice was meant to come first. Without it, there is no domestic tranquility nor is there general welfare. Without going into the complexities of history, the Constitution was the most democratic deed ever known to the world at the time. We take it for granted, but our very governing document was radical, rebellious, and revolutionary—far more extreme than what is going on today.
The text to the preamble is “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this CONSTITUTION for the United States of America.”
These words served to illuminate the text of the Constitution and did more than promise popular self-government for the constitutional republic. They enacted it. They performed the function of constituting. Ordinary citizens would govern themselves and the Constitution provided the rules that the populace would ratify and be able to revise.
The framers were not naïve. They understood that they would not get it all right and they assumed that new challenges would require new approaches.
The very first amendment to the Constitution, one of ten that make up the Bill of Rights, is perhaps the most contentious, but it was also foremost in the minds of those who lived and breathed issues of power. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
RIGHT OF PEOPLE TO PEACEABLY ASSEMBLE…PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.
The fact that there are those who co-opted the peaceful protests should never negate the right of those who seek a redress of grievances.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison in Paris, January 30, 1787, “…it prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Whatever we believe about the current situation, the protests are more protected in the Constitution than the right to not wear a mask during a pandemic.
Many authors have addressed the impending limits of the American experience. Our time as a nation has come and gone and we will fade like all empires. Like Rome.
But we are not Rome. If we allow it, the very nature of our republic through renewal and regeneration is our recourse to survival. Our story is one of tough-minded self-appraisal. And we’ve rarely been afraid to make a course correction. Some changes, of course, are more overdue than others.
We sometimes forget that the Constitution, not local laws, is the law of the land. In Article VI, it states, “This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
Perhaps the question should be why the enforcement of laws within the land is allowed to violate the very nature of the law of the land.
But the greater question is why we believe we should allow law and order to trump justice.
Sure. Justice is one of those concepts that means something different for each person and their worldview. However, as Americans, we also share some common meanings. I think we can all agree that holding a man down with a knee to the neck for more than eight minutes until the man dies based upon a mere allegation is not justice. We can agree that shooting a young man in the back six times while he stands in his grandmother’s backyard is not justice. I think we can agree that leaving a man with a broken neck lying on a cold concrete floor for six days without medical care, food, or water is not justice. And I think shooting a teenager because you believe he might have been involved in a crime is not justice. And that is only scratching the surface.
But the thing we forget in much of this discussion is the one thing guaranteed in the Constitution that was denied every one of these victims—the right to a fair trial. The fifth and sixth amendments cover every base of fair and speedy trials.
Justice denied once opens the door to justice being denied always. Deny it to one person and you have opened the door to denying to all.
“But those people were no angels.”
Says the court of public opinion. Without an impartial jury or the assistance of counsel for his/her defense, it is easy enough to justify the “deprivation of life, liberty, and property.” But should we when life, liberty, and property are our most cherished possessions and values? Their chance to save their reputation is denied to boot.
How do we explain the unexplainable. They somehow had done something that put themselves in that situation. Victim blaming is too often a tool of violence apologists. Blaming a victim is one of those terrifying human behaviors that clinches Us-Them thinking and the moral disengagement required of dehumanization. It is a pattern of blame attribution that can also be seen in genocide and mass killings. Whatever one did in the past or whatever one was doing in the present cannot diminish what was done to that person.
If we don’t stand by our most sacred idea of justice, then we will fall beside it.
And while I would assert that the first sin was invasion, conquest, and the enslavement that created the conditions for disease and death of native populations, the second is most certainly the peril and brutality of the deadly Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans. Both “sins” occurred in the early dawn of the Americas. While guilt is a useless emotion or motivator, it is an ugly mark that both populations continue to receive unequal treatment.
It isn’t helpful to say things are better now when the opportunity to catch up was denied for the duration of the country’s progress. It is even less so when visible evidence says the contrary. A crumbling infrastructure can be blamed on inadequate property taxes, but that doesn’t tell the long story of constructed poverty. Being left behind is rarely a passive reality.
Black lives don’t matter more. The point is, they matter. Period.
The real question should be, if it were not for the protests, would redress occur on its own? It is an unfortunate reality that expressing and redressing past mistakes is seen as a sign of weakness when the acts of asking for and giving forgiveness are the strongest measures of a culture’s vitality. It allows you to get it right…henceforth.
That is the “fierce urgency of now.”