Each day, I rise early in the morning while the rest of the household still sleeps, and go walking in my neighborhood. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. As long as and hour and a half.
More and more I see signs in people’s windows and yards: Black Live Matter. Hate Has No Home Here. Justice for George Floyd.
I see the signs and briefly they lift my spirits. Briefly.
Because in the next moment, I realize that George Floyd will never receive justice. He is beyond justice’s reach.
No consequence meted out to his killers—though consequences are deserved and have to happen—will bring him back. Nothing will restore him to his loved ones. Nothing will erase the way he was taken. Nothing will replace who he would have been and what he would have given.
The same is true of all the names on the long list of people who’ve died at the specific hands of police and the collective, indifferent hands of our social structures. Our hands.
George Floyd can’t receive justice because justice is a condition, not a single act. He never got to live in that condition, and conditions aren’t retroactive.
How can we give justice to George Floyd, who is gone, when we still aren’t providing justice for the living?
I’m a person of words; they’re my stock in trade. I believe in their power. But I also understand that words by themselves aren’t nearly enough.
Because the words on the signs, on clothes, on people’s lips haven’t changed anything yet. Even the statues now being torn down are only the smallest steps, only the beginning. And sometimes, they’re even less.
Words have been used to do nothing, or to cover over doing wrong.
“We don’t discriminate in hiring,” the university says, “because we have a non-discrimination statement.”
“We can’t be racist,” the business, “because we’ve put anti-racist language into our mission statement.”
“We don’t condone chokeholds and we engage in de-escalation and have rooted out bias because our training says so,” says law enforcement.
Justice is a way of being in the world. It’s words, yes, but also actions and practices and programs and policies and structures and attitudes. Justice is an embodied, living condition.
And nothing that’s happened since George Floyd’s death has embodied justice.
Police are still herding and beating and tear-gassing protesters. We still aren’t spending the money it will take to make marginalized communities whole. At out borders and throughout the country, we are still putting people in cages. We keep putting the people with the fewest resources at the greatest risk in this pandemic.
I don’t mean to say that all the events happening don’t matter. The shifts in hearts and minds are wonderful.
But justice lives in practices.
I’m moved to say this because I’m old enough to have been here before. I was a child in the late 1960s and a teen in the 1970s. I remember the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. I remember the gains affirmative action programs made. I remember the early stirrings of the LGBT movement.
And attitudes changed, but too few of them remained as concrete changes in our social structure and in the way this country operates. That’s why people of color and trans people and people with mental health issues are still dying. It’s why income inequality has grown. It’s why as a nation we’ve disastrously degraded our environment and mismanaged this pandemic. It’s why we’re where we are today.
Justice will not pat us on the head for looking at the long list of the dead and finally saying, “You know, those people shouldn’t be dead. Something is wrong.” Justice won’t congratulate us for having “good hearts.” It doesn’t give a shit how woke we are.
We need to remember that there’s nothing inevitable about how this will turn out. The arc of history only bends toward justice when that’s the way people bend it.
So keep holding up the signs, and keep saying the words. But remember that we’re only at the beginning of the struggle for justice, and we’ve been here again and again throughout out history only to drop the ball.
To create real justice, we—all of us—are going to have to change in uncomfortable ways. The work we face going forward will be harder, not easier. We haven’t achieved anything yet; we’re just getting started.