Strange Fruit

‘Hurray!’ We cried out as news spread of a verdict. We breathed a sigh of relief as we watched footage of the judge handing down the verdict for Derek Chauvin: twenty-years without probation in a maximum security prison. ‘Justice has been served,’ we said as we turned off the radio/ television or searched for other distractions on our computers. We can celebrate because the officer that killed George Floyd has been found guilty.

But should we celebrate this one verdict? After all, Chauvin wasn’t the only officer present; two other officers also knelt on Floyd’s back as he lay prone on the ground. None of the officers who burst into Taylor’s home were charged with so much as manslaughter. The district attorney refused to file charges against the officers who shot Stephon Clark more than 20 times in his grandmother’s backyard. The officers who killed Elijah McClain, a young man who was merely walking home from a convenience store when officers attacked him because he ‘looked suspicious,’ are not only at large but still officers. And then there are the officers who shot 12-year old Tamir Rice while he was playing with a toy gun alone at a playground. The department of justice did not file criminal charges against them. And before Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Amadou Diallo there were many many more, stretching back for generations. Further, this list only covers the US. But Americans aren’t alone in this struggle; we’re only exceptional in the extent.

Map of the US

When May 12, 2021 rolled around, I found myself simply going throughout my day, trying not to think about Chauvin. Still I found myself inexplicably grinding my teeth, clenching my fists, and rubbing at an ever-tense neck. Discussing the verdict with my husband, he noted that the verdict was a given as we all saw what he did. Multiple cameras caught him and replayed the horror countless time. ‘Yes,’ I recounted, ‘but we saw officers kill so many others as well, and yet they still roam free.’ He countered, ‘but this time we saw from beginning to end….’ He paused, seeing the counter-argument already: How much video do we have to see to know that it is wrong for officers to kill an unarmed person? How many times do we have to see this same story played out on different victims to know that justice is far from being served?

Protect and Serve

Later that day, the barrage of protests around Chauvin’s verdict began in the news and on social media. Quiet for a time after Trump’s exit from office, facebook lit up once more as people cried out against the ‘lynching’ of Chauvin. (Mind you, his trial ran a month while most Black murder suspects’ trial run a week on average, but anyway…) ‘Where is the justice,’ they cried, returning to the overplayed comments about Floyd’s ‘hulking stature’ (substitute Rice’s ‘criminal parents,’ substitute Diallo’s ‘immigrant accent,’ substitute McClain’s and Taylor’s…).

And they are right. Chauvin’s trial and verdict does not offer justice against the long record of abuse perpetrated by just one part of the problem. ‘But what can we do,’ you may ask. More to the point, given the audience for this blog, you’re possibly asking ‘what does this have to do with teaching the humanities?’ Everything.

standing their ground

In our work, we are charged with perhaps one of the most important roles in the university. We are tasked not just with teaching the history and theories of humanity but with reminding our students of what it means to be human(e). Thus, for instance, the early 2000s saw more medical schools urging pre-med students to take Humanities courses in order to improve their bedside manner. Why? Because the needed to teach the future doctors to connect with their patients as people, not just broken bodies. In teaching in the Humanities, we have the opportunity to show students what it means to see each other as humans and, equally important, to recognize when someone else’s humanity is being denied them. We can contextualize the texts we teach in the socio-political climate of their era to remark upon the injustices which we are subtly taught to accept. We can note what theorists were blind to racial, ethnic, and gendered differences and the holes and blindspots this produces in the work. We can remind students that great writers don’t just come from a couple of different cultures and expose them to new/ marginal artists of disparate origins. We can teach them of the politics behind producing canonical ‘high art’ and encourage them to consider the numerous other manifestations of art. We can remind them of the political power and purpose of art in different eras and cultures. We can show them how much art is a form of and dependent upon community and exchange; in doing so, we unmask the intertextual nature of art and, more importantly, the intersectional nature of existence. In doing so, we not only provide them with a plethora of ways to express themselves but also show them the innumerable ways of seeing other people as humans deserving respect, sympathy and protection.

No, this won’t solve the problem of injustice. But perhaps it will produce more people determined to speak out against it. Perhaps it will produce citizens who will demand respect for others; individuals that recognize the shared humanity in every person they meet. In this way, we begin to fix the problem. As I have been reminded by a good friend recently, many hands make short work of a large task. We’re going to need all hands on deck for this global task.

Featured map: ‘US Police Killings of Black Americans,’ Aljazeera, 31 May 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/5/31/mapping-us-police-killings-of-black-americans

Cartoon 1:  Ted Rall, ‘Protect and Serve,’ 7 Apr. 2021. https://rall.com/comic/protect-and-serve

Cartoon 2: Jim Morin, ‘Standing Their Ground,’ The Miami Herald, 13 Feb 2014. Reprinted at https://policebrutalityagainstblackmen.blogspot.com/2014_02_17_archive.html

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