Helplessness hurts like hell

I’ve been gripped by unease recently, a hopeless feeling that comes from my helplessness in the face of what I can only call evil. It’s painful to sit with helplessness while watching inexorable horrors. It feels like a continual punch in the gut. I think it’s because helplessness serves to underscore the intractable cruelty of the world, and its irrationality — it doesn’t matter if your perceptions, feelings and beliefs are clearly right — you can do nothing about the upsetting unfairness you are witnessing. Particularly if the perpetrators are willing to employ every weapon imaginable to make you shut up, or, if it comes to it, simply die.

It is useless to argue with an enflamed lynch mob, try to convince them that they are mistaken, whipped up by lies that have driven them insane — you can only run like hell from that kind of lust to kill, and hope your trick knee doesn’t give out. It is a nightmare, truly, standing by and watching someone abuse, even murder, somebody else, and being unable to help, being forced to swallow the horror that you are helpless.

Hence the grating Serenity Prayer, about God granting you the wisdom to know when to stop being tormented about terrible things you can do nothing about. There is a time to walk away from a painful situation, but serenity is certainly not the cure for so many bad things we are told we must simply tolerate.

Listening to some of the testimony in the Derek Chauvin trial you hear over and over the pain of witnesses who felt helpless as they tried to intervene, tried to get Chauvin up off the dying man’s neck, tried to get medical attention for the unresponsive George Floyd after he’d gasped out his last pleas for mercy and lost consciousness. Several of the witnesses broke down crying while trying to describe how they’d been unable to get through to the four policeman who worked together to slowly kill the handcuffed, terrified man they had pinned, face down, on the pavement.

It is 2021, this is probably the first internationally televised trial of the perpetrator of a lynching. Hundreds of years of this practice went unaddressed, with shrugs, with filibusters against laws to make lynching a federal crime [1], with practical warnings about how to avoid being lynched — don’t make trouble, keep your eyes on the ground, head down and your mouth shut, except to say “yes, sir.”

When police commit such killings, in the course of doing their job, they are often protected by a legal concept called “qualified immunity” [2] which makes sure they are never even put on trial, and if they are, only long enough for this protection to be invoked and the case against them dismissed. While a concept that only applies in civil suits, a similar logic — holding the police accountable for every split second (or even nine minute plus decision, as in killing George Floyd) would make the job of the police officer impossible to do — works in decisions about whether to prosecute police officers for deaths of unarmed people they may sometimes cause.

It may seem partisan to call the killing of George Floyd a lynching, instead of a tragic mistake, or the result of a split second judgement call, but check out the behavior of the officers, their unchanging demeanor, even after it became clear to every witness that they were killing an unresisting prisoner, over a fake $20 bill.

Picture the impassive face of the former officer Derek Chauvin, one hand in his pocket, as he steadily pressed his weight on the neck of a handcuffed man, avoiding eye contact with the agitated crowd, choking the life out of a man who had long ago ceased struggling. He ignored the crowd that was yelling that he was killing the man who pleaded for his life, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck long after his victim went limp and lost consciousness (which he never regained).

I don’t see any difference between what Chauvin and his colleagues did to George Floyd and what violent strangers did to my family, most dramatically in 1942-3, what violent men did to families of Tutsis, Rohingya, Armenians, lynching victims of every ethnicity throughout the ages. One commonality of all these atrocities is the enforced reality of helplessness in the face of deadly violence. You have moral objections? OK, step right up, you can be next.

My mother, a lifelong practitioner of helplessness (as well as a great reader), used to love Frank Bruni, who has long written for the New York Times. She told me she used to read him when he was the Times restaurant critic, and that his opinion columns were equally good reading. I check him out from time to time, and my hat’s off to him. He wrote a recent op-ed addressing the pain of helplessness and our duty to help destroy certain kinds of helplessness — like the helplessness of a crowd witnessing a police killing of a handcuffed man and unable to stop it. I’ll let Frank Bruni sum it up, this is from the end of his op-ed Listening to Those Who Saw George Floyd Die.

Seeking context for Floyd’s cries to his dead mother just before his own death, one of the prosecutors asked Ross about Floyd’s relation with his mother and how the loss of her affected him.

“He seemed kind of like a shell of himself,” Ross said. “He was broken.”

Her testimony was meant to shed light not on how Chauvin behaved but on how Floyd lived, and that made it essential. She reminded anyone paying attention — and a great many of us are paying close attention — that Floyd, now a symbol, was also a man: loving, loved, strong, weak, with virtues, with vices.

And so very, very vulnerable.

The witnesses who were there at the end of his life came face to face with that. I think they came face to face, too, with their own vulnerability — with the confirmation of how many people are unsafe, and sometimes even helpless, when we let hatred and bigotry fester.

Unable to alter that big picture, a few of the witnesses wondered what, if anything, they might have done differently on that one day.

“If I would’ve just not taken the bill, this could’ve been avoided,” said Christopher Martin, the clerk at Cup Foods, where Floyd used a fake $20, prompting a manager to summon the police.

Martin, 19, seemed to be struggling with a kind of survivor’s guilt. So did other witnesses. They shouldn’t, but I can’t say the same for many of the rest of us. We too seldom turn toward the ills that factored into George Floyd’s fate. We too often look the other way.


imagine what these titans of the former Confederacy would have argued, in opposing a federal law to criminalize lynching, if they hadn’t been allowed, by parliamentary rules, to simply read the phone book aloud


In the United States, qualified immunity is a legal principle that grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known”. Wikipedia

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