I don’t live in one of Connecticut’s big cities anymore. I used to, but I don’t. I live in a residential neighborhood that is decidedly middle-class. I have a dog and I often walk that dog on my street and the streets nearby, as middle-class suburban folk are wont to do.
Last week, after our supreme court issued its opinion and while I was in the midst of getting indignant and demanding that people pay attention, I went for a walk. And it was heavenly. I forgot about everything. I forgot about the anger. I forgot about the frustration. I looked at the trees, neighbors’ yards and their flower gardens. I heard dogs barking from windows, I saw birds at bird feeders. I said hello to a few neighbors mowing their lawns. A man stopped to pet my dog. I smiled at him. I politely made way for some kids bicycling.
It was great. It was serene. It was peaceful.
It was horrible. I forgot all about Jeremy Kelly. I forgot all about Michael Morton. I forgot all about Cameron Todd Willingham. I forgot all about Troy Davis. I forgot all about the sad mentally challenged client who had fondled his younger cousin and who was now going to a very bad place that he would no doubt be completely unable to navigate. I forgot all about the hundreds of drug addicted individuals who were inartfully balancing that fine line between treatment and prison. I forgot all about the innocent man who had been arrested and locked up for weeks, the investigation of whose case had stalled. I forgot all about the institutional racism. I forgot all about prosecutorial misconduct. I forgot all about Trayvon Martin. I forgot all about the NSA and the CIA. Everything was right with the world. It was peaceful, happy, just.
From my stupor, it was easy to see how 5 wizened justices would rule that, of course, officer safety would trump the minor incursion into an individual’s Right to Suspicionless Assembly. Of course, in my neighborhood, if I saw one person up to no good, then his friend was also in on the scam. That’s the way of the world. It was white and black. It made perfect sense.
It felt great.
I hated myself. I hated myself because it was so easy. Because it was so tempting. There was nothing to slipping into that coma of blissful ignorance. I could abandon this career and never have to test my conscience again. I could walk away and never have to justify my principles again. I could take the easy path: the path of apathy. The path of following well-trod progressive trails. I could stick to the easy causes: health care, education, marriage equality. They were hard, but they weren’t controversial. It would be easy. It would be serene. It would be relaxing.
I think about that today. Michael Brown would be forgotten. Ferguson would be forgotten. Dr. King would be a token I would pay infrequent homage to. Leave it all behind and embrace my privilege. I could devote my life to Shark Week and Kim Kardashian. The Central Park Five, The Angola Four, Renisha McBride, that Lockett fellow with the horrible death by lethal injection would all run together as post-it notes to be called upon to appear informed and tut-tut the anomalous shortcomings of our otherwise truly fine institutions. But really, there would be no need to worry. There would be no need to fret. My rights aren’t really going anywhere. No cop is shooting at me 5 times. They aren’t detaining me on the street just because of who I’m standing next to. It would be so easy to wrap myself in that cocoon of privilege and turn up the apathy to 11.
It would be a lie. It would be a betrayal. It would make me a coward. If I only express support for easy causes, then I have no real principles. If I only investigate “trendy” issues, then I am nothing but a fraud. Activism, contributing to society and making a difference are meaningful only if you’re doing more than greasing the wheels that are running fine without your presence.
The easy path isn’t always the right path. I am privileged in many ways, but the people I stand up for, the causes that make me wake up every morning and shout at others for ignoring are causes that affect all of us. Those with privilege and those without. And every day that you let your apathy stand in the way of the protections that I deserve, I will smack you in the face and remind you that you’re part of the problem.
Your rights are my rights. Pay attention, because I don’t want to lose them any time soon just because you’ve decided that you’re too white or middle-class to be bothered.