A nation is imaginary. Lives aren’t. Yet American policy prioritizes the supposed interests of the former over the preservation of the latter.
The picture is grim in the United States. No perfect union. No justice. No general welfare. Instead — racism, violence, oppression and inequality. A betrayal of the ideals for which this country claims to stand.
Constitutional Convention delegate James Wilson argued that sovereignty removed from people’s rights isn’t sovereignty worth defending: “Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for [people], or for the imaginary beings called States?”
Can we forget for whom police should exist? Can we forget for whom the military should exist? Can we forget for whom institutionalized power should exist?
Too many, especially those in power, have forgotten the answer is “the people.” Or perhaps they never thought about it in the first place. Police mandated to protect instead kill unarmed Black people. A military mandated to defend instead fans out throughout Washington D.C. to intimidate. Institutionalized power mandated to act on people’s behalf instead acts to preserve itself.
Thirty-one years ago, this week, the Chinese military entered Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Students advocating for reform could get out of the way of the tanks, or risk getting crushed or shot. Many suffered the latter two fates.
“We deplore the decision to use force, and I now call on the Chinese leadership publicly as I have in private channels to avoid violence … the demonstrators in Tiananmen square were advocating basic human rights,” responded President George H.W. Bush.
In a speech two decades later on Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings, President Barack Obama asserted that “there are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years.”
Basic human rights. Avoiding cracking down. A longing for freedom. The United States’ rhetoric defends liberal democracy. In practice its policies support authoritarianism when convenient.
We see this hypocrisy in government responses to the current protests. Protests abroad represent the will of the people. But protests at home are allegedly the work of “thugs,” “insurrectionists” and “anarchists.” Defying police and staging mass sit-ins are acceptable in Hong Kong. But somehow not in Minneapolis or New York. Foreign leaders must exercise restraint. But in America we should “send in the troops.”
The grassroots response to George Floyd’s killing, like democracy movements in other countries, harnesses anger at an inept system that is out of touch and refuses to change. But an end to police brutality is only the first step in a reform agenda that must reach further. Mass incarceration, healthcare, economic opportunity and other inequities that play out along lines of race need to be tackled simultaneously.
Mobilization is easier when there is a sudden change to the status quo. Within 24 hours of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire last year, hundreds of millions of dollars were pledged to its restoration. Longstanding inequities in French society didn’t generate similar spurts of assistance. After a natural disaster strikes, images of destroyed houses lead many to open their hearts — and wallets — to those who lost everything they had. Ongoing homelessness rarely makes people think twice.
America is broken in so many ways that those who can may feel the need to retreat. But as I asked in an op-ed after the Tree of Life terror attack in Pittsburgh, “are we willing to accept limits to our empathy?”
We shouldn’t be. And we don’t have to.
As the Darfur genocide began to unfold in 2003, Stanford students took initiative. They launched a local chapter of Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND), raised tens of thousands of dollars for relief efforts, organized fasts to raise awareness, spearheaded a 5,000-person protest in San Francisco and successfully lobbied for Stanford to divest from companies profiting off the genocide. Op-eds in The Daily decried the carnage and urged students to do what they could to help bring it to an end.
There is a similar groundswell now. Students are raising money for bail funds and community organizations. They are speaking out on social media. They are writing op-eds calling on Stanford to provide academic accommodations and allies to do better. And they are educating others and themselves about racism and anti-Blackness.
People are calling on the government to support the same values in America as it claims to support worldwide. Policymakers can listen and enact reform. Or they can abrogate their responsibility and shred any pretense of a social contract. Will they forget for whom this country should exist?
Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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