EMPATHY RECLAIMS ITS POWER AND COMES TO OUR RESCUE
As God is my witness, I believe that the United States is in peril.
Since this is the first time in my life that I have asked a deity to lend me His credibility, I wanted to make sure that I knew the meaning of the words I just used. I learned that the phrase, “as God is my witness,” acts as “an invocation of God as confirmation of the truth of a statement.”
So I use those five words with the full recognition that I am committing an act of enormous presumption. If I am proven wrong, and the United States turns out to have only hit a speed bump or two, my first action item will be an apology to God for dragging Him into this whole misunderstanding, and my second action item will be an expression of enormous relief that the nation turned out to be not in peril.
But, as for now, I am not through making deity-invoking assertions.
As God is my witness, I believe that the majority of American law enforcement officers are as different from Derek Chauvin, the now notorious Minneapolis police officer, as Mr. Rogers is different from Donald J. Trump.
I have had the good fortune to know quite a few law enforcement officers, so I have no shortage of evidence to support that statement. But if I had needed another data point, Denver Police Chief Paul Paven stepped forward (literally!) to seal the case for me. On Monday, June 1, Chief Paven accepted an invitation from a citizen of vision and principle, Neil Yarbrough, to take part in a peaceful protest march. The Chief walked, arm-in-arm, with people who shared his dismay and outrage over Derek Chauvin’s treatment of George Floyd. “This is not an issue of us versus them,” Chief Paven said, “this is all of us versus . . . injustice.”
As God is my witness, I believe the majority of the participants in the demonstrations held to protest the killing of George Floyd are, like Neil Yarbrough, goodhearted people who want their nation to bring its practices into line with its ideals. While evidence is accumulating that unscrupulous figures are taking advantage of the goodhearted and sometimes directing these protests toward destructive ends, only a breathtakingly naïve person could claim to be shocked to discover that the unscrupulous stand ready to take advantage of the goodhearted.
When it comes to the option for remaining breathtakingly naïve, Western American historians got the short end of the stick. We chose a profession that demands that we face up to humanity’s propensity for deceit, treachery, and bad faith, not to mention cruelty, brutality, and violence.
No one in my line of work could have claimed to be caught by surprise upon learning that Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed down on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, even as Floyd kept saying, “Please, I can’t breathe.” No Western American historian could say, “Surely it is impossible for human beings to treat other human beings with such callousness!” Nor could we claim surprise when we learned that three other officers did nothing to persuade their coworker to let George Floyd exercise his fundamental human right to breathe.
Despite the West’s abundance of stories of people putting heart and soul into cutting each other’s lives short, some Western American historians still have tried to sidestep a full reckoning with the region’s history of violence. In fact, I was once a higher achiever in exactly that form of evasion.
In 1986, I finished the manuscript of a book called The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. When Steve Forman, an alert editor at W. W. Norton, reviewed the manuscript, he asked me an obvious question: if this book was about the invasion and conquest of the West, what was my reason for omitting any mention of massacres, battles, or wars?
I had a glib answer ready to roll.
In the struggle for the control of the continent, some tribes fought against the U.S. Army, and other tribes had strategic reasons to fight as the Army’s allies. But whatever choices the tribes made, they all reached the same destination: relocation and confinement to reservations. Therefore, I had chosen to skip the battles since the conquest of Indian people was accomplished by many means besides outright war.
This was an empty rationale, crafted in part to silence an editor and spare me another round of rewriting. But, at a deeper level, I chose to flatten the complexity of the past, and to write a nearly violence-free overview of the region’s history, in order to spare myself discomfort.
In the early 1990s, I called a halt to this awkward effort at self-protection and wrote an essay called “Haunted America” on violent conflicts between whites and Indians. This essay appeared in a book of photographs taken at places where calamities and tragedies had occurred. With rare exceptions, most of these sites had become places of forgetfulness, without any visible indication of the brutal events of the past.
For three months, I read nothing but stories of violent encounters between Indian people and Euro-American soldiers and settlers. When I woke in the middle of the night and when I got up in the morning, my mind found no refuge from bullets, knives, arrows, sabers, ropes for hanging, and torches for burning.
Soon, there was nothing left of the emotional distance I had tried to keep between me and the violence of the Western past.
There is no question of who provoked these wars and who invaded whom. Euro-American people were the invaders, and Indian people were the inhabitants of the lands the invaders wanted.
And yet, immersed in wrenching stories of violence, I lost the ability to choose sides.
I empathized with Indian people, who had been besieged, pursued, and attacked in episodes beyond counting.
I empathized with settlers, who were often genuinely oblivious to their status as disruptive invaders, but who became, for reasons that would be hard to miss, targets of attack.
When people suffered devastating attacks on their homes, I responded with equal anguish to the miseries inflicted on families of Indian people, families of white people, and, maybe most vulnerable of all, families of people of mixed heritage.
Refusing restraint, empathy defied and transgressed the most clearly marked lines of antagonism and opposition, and I found myself unable to discount the ordeals of the soldiers who had been placed squarely in the middle of situations where resentment, retaliation, and rage ruled.
Many of these soldiers were immigrants who arrived in the United States with little money and who saw signing up as soldiers as one of their few routes to opportunity. Others were African American men who were emancipated slaves, or refugees from the injustices of Southern tenant farming and sharecropping. Meanwhile, even if Army officers may have come from origins in what we would now call “white privilege,” there was nothing that could pass for comfort or ease in the life of soldiers from the white working class.
Indisputably an army of invasion, this was also an army of unreliable equipment and inadequate clothing, especially in seasons of heat and cold; meager and often inedible rations; and constant risk of accidents, exposure, illness, exhaustion, and injury and death in battle. Perhaps most important, the soldiers faced these risks because they were following the orders and executing the policies decreed by distant presidents, senators, congressmen, and appointed officials who had only a sketchy knowledge of the conditions in the West.
Yes, these soldiers participated in devastating military campaigns against Indian people. But nothing in their stories could convince me to lead the campaign for their demonization.
By the time I sat down to write the essay, I had empathized with nearly everyone. But a few individuals, who had moved through life with a savage and intentional cruelty, gave empathy a chance to take a break. In truth, it was a relief to come upon dreadful people who I could simply find contemptible.
Now, before I try to connect past and present, several important acknowledgments require attention: 1) the patterns of violence toward Indian people and the patterns of violence toward African American people have as many differences as they have similarities; 2) enormous changes separate the nineteenth century from the twenty-first century; and 3) the situations and experiences of soldiers caught in the bitter conflict of the wars of continental conquest cannot be conflated with the situations and experiences of police officers caught in the contests over justice in American towns and cities today.
With those points of difference acknowledged, I will still declare that the essay “Haunted America” has turned out to be a good training program for life in the late spring of 2020. Immersing myself in the history of violence in the West proved to be an effective exercise program for empathy.
In the United States today, empathy has not disappeared, but it has grown listless and lethargic.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic set in, American empathy had gotten stuck in a “stay-at-home” regime. Empathy could embrace people within the category of “us,” but rarely got to venture into the category of “them.” With its heart weakened from too much time spent in confined space, humanity’s finest emotion became a shadow of its former self.
Empathy needed to get out more. It needed to be told to get off the sofa and come back to life.
It needed to go for a walk, arm-in-arm, with Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen.
For all the grim news of the last days, there is abundant evidence that empathy is back in the world and regaining its power. If the trend continues, episodes when we permit empathy to hold still, become comfortable, settle in, rest in one place, and ease back into torpor will become remembered features of a departed past.
For anyone looking for an empathy refreshment course, here is a method that rarely fails: simply imagine how you would feel if you had a close relative or close friend who had died from excessive force exercised by a law enforcement officer, and who you will never get to see again.
Then refuse to let empathy say, “Am I through now?” and settle back into lethargy. Instead, move on to imagine how you would feel if you had a close relative or close friend who worked in law enforcement, who had been killed in the line of duty, and who you will never get to see again.
But now for the hardest and most consequential exercise of all: try empathizing with the bystanders who could have intervened but did not.
Three Minneapolis police officers–Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J Alexander Kueng—were standing by during those eight minutes and forty-five seconds while Derek Chauvin pressed his knee down on the neck of George Floyd and onlookers, and Floyd himself, begged Chauvin to stop. Two of the three evidently played a part in holding Floyd down.
Stand still and just look at a wall for eight minutes and forty-five seconds. It seems almost certain that you will experience those minutes as quite a long span of time for standing still and doing nothing.
So what was going on in the souls of those three police officers as time moved slowly along on the evening of Monday, May 25?
And how has time passed for them in the days since May 25?
Empathy suggests that they have endured innumerable episodes of thinking to themselves, “Why didn’t I speak? Why didn’t I tell Derek to let that man breathe?” It seems very likely that those moments of internal regret accelerated at mid-week, when charges were filed against these three men for aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
For much of the recent past, the belief that large forces and vast patterns govern human life has served as a major source of demoralization and intimidation, leading millions of individual Americans to persuade themselves that they cannot change the world.
But Derek Chauvin changed the world, and his treatment of George Floyd has already reshaped history.
Chauvin’s cruelty has reacquainted us with the fact that a single individual can change the world and reshape history. And there is no mistaking the fact that the three officers who kept silent and did not intervene also played their part in changing the world and reshaping history.
No profession has an exemption from the fact that policing our peers and speaking out when their conduct alarms us can be very difficult. If police departments have “a blue wall of silence,” it is important to recognize that higher education has its own ivy-covered wall of silence, and medical practice has its wall of silence cloaked in white lab coats.
I cannot think of a profession or occupation that does not have a wall of silence with a color or coating of its own.
As every experienced whistleblower knows, if you break the wall of silence and call attention to a problem, you will quickly find yourself singled out as the real problem. Maybe Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng had seen enough of the world and its operations to think that silence was their wisest choice.
A few days after the death of George Floyd, the astrologer who writes the horoscopes for newspapers tried to remind me of my powerlessness as an individual. “Events you have no power over,” some gloomy configuration of the stars purportedly wanted me to know, “will guide your day.”
At first, I could only think, “How would this be different from any other day?”
And then my second response arrived in full force: “What if one of those three in Minneapolis—Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, or J. Alexnder Kueng—had defied fatalism, refused to be powerless, told Derek Chauvin to let the poor man breathe, and given empathy a new lease on life?”
As God is my witness, I believe that individuals can still make a difference.
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Banner Photo: Denver Police Chief Paul Paven takes part in a peaceful protest on Monday June 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of @realcaptainmorg.
Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Haunted America,” originally published in Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties: Photographs by Drex Brooks (1995) and reprinted in Patricia Nelson Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (2000).
Don Rickey, Jr., Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars (1963)
George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion (2013). George Thompson was an experienced police officer—and a former professor of English literature!—who provided training in de-escalation strategies and techniques for law enforcement officers at this Verbal Judo Institute.
Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism (1975)
Richard Maxwell Brown, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American HIstory and Society (1991)
Nicholas Villanueva, Lynching of Mexican Americans in the Texas Borderlands (2017)
William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (2013)
A list of the many studies of the wars between Indians and whites would be very long, but here are four that focus on how those wars are remembered and forgotten:
Boyd Cothran, Remembering the Modoc War (2017)
Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (2015)
Ben Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe (2016)
Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (2019)