I can’t settle today. I walk around the house, make tea, forget to drink it, walk some more. This is the behavior of someone in grief, love, or anger—and it isn’t love.
I just learned the entire state of Arizona is under curfew for a week. This surprises me as I stand at the window and look out at my quiet street. It’s so easy not to feel involved, to feel helpless, and to feel that my world is the world under scrutiny for its racism and cruelty, and that I have to find my world to change my world, to be part of the change of my world, and today I don’t know where it is. Is it out there on the quiet street? Is it in Minneapolis with my sister? Is it in New York City with my childhood? Where is my world?
Last Saturday when we had our weekly family Zoom meeting, I told my brothers and sisters that I had no visuals. I have the radio and that brings me the news, but obviously nothing I can see. I said I needed visuals in order to feel immersed in this moment. My strongest memories of the non-violent marches and peaceful protests, the riots and assassinations of the 1960s, are visual memories. The crowds on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The snarling police dogs in Birmingham. The blood of Medgar Evers on his driveway, and the mule-drawn wagon carrying the coffin of Martin Luther King. My eyes soaked in the violence and committed it to memory, and now those images are reemerging, like bloated bodies rising in a river.
And today I have new images—from the Guardian, YouTube, the Star Tribune—but I find myself feeling more lost and isolated, more helpless. We are all sitting alone with our screens, watching the news that suits us, that we are led to by our habits, so there is no one picture, no one iconic photograph that represents this moment to us. We watch a clip of something from somebody’s phone. It’s good we now have the power to publicly witness. In fact, it’s crucial. But it denies us a communal experience, a napalm girl photo, a flower in the barrel of a gun photo, a visual moment we will never forget. The 9-minute footage of the arrest and asphyxiation of George Floyd may be such a moment, or it may be too many moments. Its power is not in delivering a snapshot. Instead, it delivered a galvanizing slogan: I can’t breathe.
But the truth is, this disunification of visual experience makes what’s happening in this time more accurate and real. This desire for one iconic image is the desire to distance, emotionally. If all that’s going on in our country and psyche is able to be contained within the frame of a photograph, then it’s manageable, no matter the brutality of the image itself. But in all the home videos, all the wobbly camera shots taken from ground zero in so many of our cities, I feel dizzy and in the fray, unable to see the larger picture, a picture that might include a future. And this is the very experience of the majority of those who demonstrate. We are bereft of communal understanding in America today, and we can’t see a future. We are isolated from one another by class, race, religion, and gender. My desire for an iconic photograph is a desire for something lost and gone, an American experience we have been moving away from for decades.
I am content not to hear in any of what I watch or listen to, the name of the police officer who is responsible for the death of George Floyd, but if I were to know it I would have to set aside my fixed ideas, and say to him that he is me, and every time I think of him as someone I could never be, I cease to live in a deeper unity and a deeper reality, but instead in a world that creates a wall of separation between what is right and what is wrong, and places me on the right side of it. Is that my world? Where is my world? I am eager to find my place and let change move from me and around me.