Many of us watched a video in which a police officer knelt on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. We watched a man cry out for his dead mother. He was murdered.
Say his name. George Floyd.
Before I left the Guard, I had the opportunity to mentor a delightful young soldier who I’ll refer to only as “S.” She grew up in Lincoln, Maine. She’s served honorably now for several years in the Guard. And as a black woman, much like a Jewish man in a yarmulke and tzitzit in the Maine Guard, she is a unicorn. Just like my own experience in the military, she weathered ethnic jokes and “good natured” ribbing, without those people understanding how those jokes are isolating and make you feel like you’re any kind of a part of a unit.
Mind you, these same people will be the ones that tell you in the military the only color we see is green. That, I’m here to tell you, can be shoveled up from the floor of the horse stable.
But it doesn’t happen in Maine. We were on the right side of the Civil War. We feted abolitionists, and Joshua Chamberlain! Yet, when I took her and other soldiers to Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont for a training exercise, to see her watched like a hawk in several convenience stores from Bangor to there—IN HER UNIFORM—was disgusting.
We can use the n-word with you because we like you and you know we’re joking.
The question is, what do we do as bystanders? It was easy for me with “S.” I stood up for her and said, “not on my watch.” As my soldier, she was my responsibility. I trained, mentored, disciplined, and advocated for her. But how many times have I stood idly by and said nothing when the black person was not my soldier?
Too damn many.
As Jews, most of us all too intimate with the horrors of Shoah, there is a real problem in this society with regards to vorauseilender Gehorsam, or preemptive obedience. This term was used by historian Sir Ian Kershaw’s notion of “working towards the Führer.” This is a theory that many of the horrors of the Nazi regime stemmed not from explicit orders from Hitler, but from the bureaucracy trying to anticipate his wishes.
It’s somewhat connected to Dr. Stanley Milgrim’s famous obedience studies. Not only does our culture give almost automatic deference to “just” authority, but we often will preemptively submit ourselves (or others) to more exercises of authority. Precedent obedience sometimes opts us out of the discomfort of being forced to do something by doing it before we think we’ll be ordered to do it.
There’s not a totalitarian system of government in human history that wasn’t marked by preemptive obedience. I think sometimes it stems from a lack of civil courage, or for us, very legitimate fears. I am very, very reluctant to criticize law enforcement as a Jew, since we are so dependent on them for our security. Our fear leaves us worried that calls for criticism or reform will further expose our vulnerability.
I believe we are living in what is approaching a totalitarian state. When you’re a grand juror being glared at by a state trooper because you ask him to quantify “she looked guilty” as probable cause, it’s hard to feel otherwise. He doesn’t need to put his knee on a black man’s neck to do the damage. The damage is an entire system that sanctifies his judgment as beyond reproach and hands out felony indictments.
And law enforcement isn’t doing anything we didn’t ask them to do. It starts with our discomfort at having our circumstances disrupted by the unfamiliar. We finds ways to codify the protections of that comfort with municipal ordinances, homeowners associations, academic requirements, redlining, and on the other end of that, people of color are on the outside looking in of home ownership, jobs, education, and so much more. Law enforcement becomes our ultimate tool in preserving that comfort. Is it institutionally their fault that they have become too comfortable in their role?
We point at law enforcement, three fingers point back at us.
I’m not advocating anarchy, defunding the police, or anything remotely justifying riotous violence. I would suggest that we desperately need this internal dialog, and then we need to use our unique position as bridge builders. Yes, we have our own fears and interest, but we have nearly every prophetic voice in our tradition calling upon us to be the light.