Is this time different? Where are you in this reckoning?
BY GUEST THINKER: WALKER WILLSE ::
Like many Americans, I have been profoundly struck by the death of George Floyd and the aftermath. I am white and by all accounts privileged. The anger and the sadness that I feel are intense. There is also fear lingering in my stomach and feeding my anger. I have spent the last few days working through why this death has resonated in a way that the countless previous deaths of black citizens have not. What was before an ethical and mental condemnation has now become visceral and personal. Why? What’s different now?
In part, the intensity of my anger lies in how he was killed. It was intimate. We were all there. It is captured on video from 3 angles. He was suffocated in broad daylight under another man’s knee. There were over 8 minutes of pleas from George as well as from the witnesses to the crime against him. This was not a spur of the moment bad decision made under pressure. This was not the accidental discharge of a gun. This was the cold-blooded murder of a unarmed citizen by our government. It cannot be ignored that it happened.
There is more, though. I think the real difference may actually be the coronavirus and what it has forced me to experience firsthand for perhaps the first time: persistent fear for myself and those I love.
Empathy for another person can be a challenge, especially when that person does not share the same skin color, clothes, language, gender, or experiences. Not having those things in common does not make it impossible, nor is it any kind of excuse. It just takes more effort. Empathizing with the protesters, the Black Lives Matter Movement, with all the brown people in our community takes less effort now. I can better relate.
Over the past few days, I have read countless blogs, essays, and social media posts. It seems as though I am listening with new ears to the everyday fear and subsequent anger that black people hold on to at every level of the socioeconomic system. That is what gets me. The everyday slog through fear. There are the generations of mothers and fathers who have had to tell their children not to go outside after dark, that the police are not to be trusted. There are the young men who are eyed with suspicion in the store. There are the white people who cross the street or roll up the windows as a black person comes near. The list is endless and has not changed in my lifetime. This is not news to me.
What has changed for me is that over the past few months, I have been living under seemingly analogous conditions. We all have. Coronavirus, stay at home orders, tornadoes. There is an overriding sense of fear, isolation, and anger in the country that does not discriminate. We are told to shelter in place. Our neighbors can notify the authorities if we are not social distancing. We are not only at risk, we are the risk.
Like parents all over this country, my wife and I had to figure out a way to explain Coronavirus and lockdown to our kids. We have twins who are 11 and a six-year-old. We did our best to make it a case of citizenship and care for others. However, kids are not stupid. They understand that there is a virus out there that is killing people and we don’t have a reliable treatment. They understand that there must be something pretty dangerous if they cannot go to school, play with friends, or see their grandparents. Their world has gotten smaller and scarier.
We know that quarantine is temporary and we can tell ourselves that it is to help others. But what if the danger was only for my kids and not for their friends? What if there was not a “good” reason for it? What if outside = danger was the equation my children were born into? What if I had to teach my children to fear others all the time? Would that spark in their eyes dim just a bit? Would my attitude toward others be a bit harsher?
Like many people, I turn to exercise to help relieve stress. I am still not used to running in the park and seeing people move to the far side of the road as we pass each other. Some people get off the road entirely as if I were the personal embodiment of the plague. I have yet to find anyone who has not had a similar experience. Then there is the grocery store. I am admittedly not the best at personal space. That first week of lockdown, I remember scooting by a woman and piercing the 6 ft radius. She peered at me over her mask with fear and hostility. I was a threat.
I can rationalize these interactions as an oddity and temporary. I know that in 12 months, I will run past the same people and that fear will be gone. I know that I will bump into someone at the grocery and not feel like I assaulted them. We will be the same again.
After all, these are minor and small things. I have only experienced this type of isolation, of presumed guilt within my community for three months. On top of that, it is temporary. It has been stressful and exhausting. Inside our home, tempers are shorter, tears are more plentiful, and we don’t have answers for our kids. We are powerless to not only the virus but to what our government can impose on us. This is a new feeling for me and probably for others like me.
It is not a new feeling for so many of our fellow citizens. I understand that now, in a way I never quite fathomed before. The COVID lockdown and the changes it has brought to my life have gifted me a relatively painless glimpse into what it means to live in fear. To live under control. To be invisible behind mask. I have no idea how I would behave if I experienced this from birth. I can’t imagine how I would relate to a world where that fear of death was not from an obscurely named disease but from the cop in my rear-view mirror.
Walker Willse is a husband, father, generalist, challenger, community member, wayfarer, and amateur lumberjack.