Every so often something happens that shocks the conscience. For those of us that don’t face prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis, we know that it exists; we would condemn it if prompted to do so; but do we go out of our way to do something about it? It is perhaps analogous to when we see images of poverty-stricken children in far away places. Those images are upsetting, even distressing, but I for one would have to admit, if I’m being honest, to feeling a certain detachment from those images, however heartbreaking they may be.
But when you see with your own eyes an African American man being choked to death by a police officer in broad daylight, something stirs deep in the soul. Amongst many other emotions, this was, for me, a wake up call. It was an admonishment of how disconnected I have become from the ideals that led me to go to law school in the first place. Any lawyer who is unmoved by injustice is in the wrong profession.
What is different here? Because of the video footage, there is no ambiguity. There is no room for arguments about whether the amount of force used was reasonable. There is no opportunity to apportion any degree of blame to the poor victim. Instead we bear witness to evil perpetrated brazenly and shamelessly, and to an injustice as grave as any of us can imagine.
I haven’t yet figured out what it is that I should be doing. I do know, though, that silence is no longer an option. Even at times when it feels uncomfortable, speaking up and speaking out is the right thing to do. What happened to George Floyd has highlighted that to be silent is to be complicit. If evil on this scale cannot be extinguished, at the very least I want my children to grow up to recognize it, fight it, and feel pain inside when they witness the suffering of another human being. If that’s how I want my children to be, then I must set the example. I want to do better.
When I first became a lawyer I wanted to be a war crimes prosecutor. I applied for a job at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. They were prosecuting those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and Bosnia at the time. I applied for the job because injustice has always made my blood boil. I ended up moving in a totally different direction, becoming a bank regulatory lawyer and then a trusts and estates attorney. But the desire to right wrongs and fight for justice never left me. Maybe it was sleeping for a while. George Floyd has awakened it.
For me and many people that I have spoken to, enough is enough. We have all at one time or another been in the presence of someone who makes inappropriate comments or jokes, sometimes with a racial undertone. It can be hard to be the one to stand up and condemn the bigotry right there, in real time. It is even harder in an age where people in some communities feel emboldened to say in public what they once only said in private. It will take courage from all of us to turn back the tide. Those of us who have a voice must speak for those who do not. The words of Edmund Burke have never rung more true: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”