Empathy for the killer, no justice for the victims

I’ve never understood why anyone would want to be a police officer. Even without the context and history of policing, why would someone want a career enforcing laws? Like, all of the laws? Laws change pretty frequently. What about the laws you find harmful or completely unjust? No matter your beliefs, there’s got to be a few of those, right? Why would anyone want to risk their lives doing that? Unless the law part wasn’t as important as the enforcement part. The staggering number of police lying or dying while defying mask and/or vaccine mandates certainly has its implications.

I’m sure in some cases the romanticized fiction of TV and movies also has something to do with choosing a career in law enforcement. Regardless, fantasy seems to be the key element, but not just for police. The entire legal system in this country was created by a very small selection of the population to prioritize their interests; the fantasy of fairness was sold to everyone else. For example, a whole lot of their interests required keeping human beings as property. Slavery ends, a century and a half passes and current incarceration rates imply the fantasy of freedom in the name of fairness was nothing more than a transfer of deed.

On the ultra-rare occasion a police officer is convicted of murdering a Black person, all I can do is grit my teeth in preparation for the inevitable tidal wave of feel-good white bullshit. “Justice is served!” they cheer as though we don’t have to wait for sentencing, last appeal and a funeral before deciding that. Justice is a top-down judgment—anything else is poetic.

And so, here’s this white lady now-ex-cop on trial for killing Daunte Wright. She takes the stand crying, dressed like Phyllis from The Office and she is surprisingly convicted. “Justice is served!” falls across social media like so much white confetti.

And then the sentencing.

Two years.

The judge takes pity on poor Phyllis, asking for empathy for her, somehow finding the nerve to quote Barack Obama: “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

Except that’s not the quote. I mean, sure, if you Google “Obama empathy quote” you’ll get a bunch of those super untrustworthy quote pages. And, yeah, if you click on the azquotes.com link you’ll find exactly what the judge said Obama said. The trick is, right under the quote it names a source and if you actually go to the source and if you actually read the speech and if you actually scroll all the way to the end where the quote is supposedly from, you’ll see it’s a little different. I’ll include the sentence before just for context.

“I say the same thing to my Jewish friends, which is you have to see the perspective of the Palestinians. Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen.

All right. Thank you very much, everybody. I enjoyed it. (Applause.)”

The speech lasted 45 minutes and in that entire time Obama didn’t say the word “empathy” even once.

They push their fantasy on us. They tell us to pity our killers. They tell us to move on. They tell us the pattern doesn’t count this time because this time was different. Just like last time. And the time before that. And the time before that.

In this country, justice is a disingenuous finger wagged in a grieving Black face by someone too disinterested, too lazy or just too fucking stupid to read past the second Google result. And that’s really too bad, because if the judge had even scrolled just a little further down that azquotes.com page she would’ve found this, more applicable Barack Obama quote on empathy:

“My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.”

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Telling it like it actually is

Joe Rogan has been in my newsfeed for weeks. I have a lot of feelings about Joe Rogan, many of which have already been voiced by Michael Harriot, but they all seem to lead back to the same exact question:

What the hell happened to white boys?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think Joe Rogan types are anything new. They’ve been around a long time, but there also used to be a whole lot of white boys willing to take some lumps for the common cause of what’s right.

I single out white boys because, while Black expression—political, artistic or otherwise—continues to fight the good fight, mine and later generations seem to be at it alone. I mean, my father’s generation had white boys like Kris Kristofferson. If you’re not familiar, Kristofferson was one of the biggest country music stars of his day. Here’s a lyric from his song “The Law is for Protection of the People”:

So thank your lucky stars you’ve got protection
Walk the line and never mind the cost
And don’t wonder who them lawmen was protecting
When they nailed the savior to the cross

Not exactly the type of lyrics you’d expect to hear on pop country radio today, but that song is on an album that went gold.

From another song, “The Best of All Possible Worlds” on the same album:

I was runnin’ through the summer rain try’n’ to catch that evenin’ train
And kill the old familiar pain weavin’ through my tangled brain
When I tipped my bottle back and smacked into a cop I didn’t see

That police man said, “Mister Cool, if you ain’t drunk, then you’re a
I said, “If that’s against the law then tell me why I never saw
A man locked in that jail of yours who wasn’t neither Black or poor as

Again, imagine a pop country star even tweeting something like that today. His contract would be torn up, albums pulled from the stores and an apology letter would be posted by his publicist before Jordan Peterson even got a chance to self-victimize about it.

People like Kristofferson were part of a proud tradition of not just telling it how it is, but how it actually is. These days so many white people confuse telling it how it is with telling it how it’s convenient and the tradition seems to be lost.

The anti-CRT types would have you believe all white people are being blamed for all the injustices of the world. They want their fellow whites to believe that the evil acts committed by white men are not only justified, but must actually be acts of good because they were committed by white men. Suppress the vote, ban books, do everything possible to look away from the past. Not because there’s anything shameful back there, but because if you do look at the past you may just discover that there were other white people who didn’t think like that at all. There were other white people who’d just as soon slap the fuck out of bigots as look at them. And not just a few. At one point there were enough to win an entire Civil War.

But the tradition doesn’t start there. In this country, it goes back as far as the country itself.

We like to believe that racist views were more widely held the further back in the past you look, but again, we love to tell it how it’s convenient. The truth is that as long as there’s been oppression there have been people fighting against it, and they weren’t only the people directly facing that oppression. There was never a time in this country during which bigotry was accepted by the entirety of white people. But believing there was such a time in the past increases the chances that there will be such a time in the future.  

That’s what worries me about the white boys. Now is the time for them to tell it how it is, but all I can hear are the ones telling it how it’s convenient. In other words, on a scale of John Brown to Kris Kristofferson, far too many come up as Joe Rogan. But it doesn’t have to be that way. They can return to the old tradition.

I know they’re out there.

I just know it.

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The truth about truth

The truth bothers me. It always has. Not because I don’t like it, but because of the implied obligations. The truth will out and the truth will set you free and a million other clichés all express the idea that truth is a sort of unstoppable elemental force that, once revealed, will drive away the darkness and force us all onto the path of light.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Factually, truth has only ever been valued as meaningfully less than a privileged person’s slightest inconvenience.

I learned this as a Black person the very time a white person tried to argue with me about race.

Honestly, truth is an odd thing. It’s evergreen. Every time you get a hold of it, it’s new and fresh. Even the ugly ones can be beautiful in their clarity. But like so many beautiful things, truth is fragile. If it is adjusted or calibrated or tampered with in any way at all, it immediately ceases to exist, replaced by hubris or manipulation or some other part of your less-than-best self.

Americans hate the truth, but we love being right. That sounds like a difficult proposition, but it’s actually not. Valuing privilege over truth is really all it takes. And it’s really all we do. Our previous president put that idea on global display as loudly, proudly and frequently as possible. We collectively came to understand that very same thing about the Republican Party as a whole and, at this point, it’s expected behavior.

Another thing about the truth is that it can be a gift from an opponent. Once they’ve tampered with it, it’s yours to hold. You can shine it high, inspire, rally the people! In fact, if the opponent’s tampering is egregious enough, truth itself can be the sole uniting cause. But, if you unite people under the sole cause of truth, you are then bound only by honesty.

During a recent episode of Pod Save America, the hosts—former director of speechwriting for President Obama Jon Favreau and former senior obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer—were discussing Biden’s first year in office. Favreau asked Pfeiffer, “What do you think the president, White House, Democrats in congress could’ve done differently over the last year?” The question had that positive-spin tone that, while necessary for morale during the previous presidency, has made the show sound increasingly like state radio during this administration.

Pfeiffer answered, “I think the biggest mistake that everyone made over the last year—politically—is expectations management.” A confusing response. He went on to clarify that, as Democrats, “We have continually made promises we cannot keep and sort of knew we were unlikely to keep.” Pfeiffer then spoke about the fact that as Democrats were telling the public about all the necessary, dire, and emergency changes they would make with their $6-trillion Build Back Better, they had already agreed months earlier to never ever, ever, ever actually follow through with it.

Expectations management? That’s not what an extended campaign of lying to the public is called where I’m from. And now the Republicans, a group bound by nothing but simple hate and a primal, destructive relationship to anything resembling validity has a hold of the truth anyway. The party of traitors and racists now gets to be right. They will be speaking in complete honesty when they tell you that the Democrats lied to you.

And now what value does the truth even have? The same as before, really.   

That’s why the truth bothers me. We think of it like a goal for society, like an achievement we eventually, collectively unlock. Biden’s win over the previous president was meant to be a victory for truth. We all joined forces to defeat the Liar in Chief returning to our natural state of honesty and freedom across the realm. The problem is that there is an ever-growing divide between citizens and leaders in this country and we’ve never had particularly honest leaders. And we’ve never really been all that free.

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