Opinion: On reinvesting in the parts of government that nourish and protect us

State patrol members guard at the area in the aftermath of a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of African-American man George Floyd, in Minneapolis
State patrol members guard at the area in the aftermath of a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

A lot has happened this week that is worthy of consideration. On Monday, we celebrated Memorial Day. There are different origin stories for how Memorial Day emerged in the years after the Civil War.

Possibly it comes from the just-freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina honoring the several hundred Union dead buried in their city. Possibly it comes from towns in the north and south — from Mississippi to New York — gathering to put flowers on the graves of their dead soldiers. 

As my friend Jesse, who researched this question, put it, “we’ve come to honor our nation’s war dead in late May because it’s a moment when the mystery of nature’s abundance affords us a counterbalance to the reality of man’s capacity for destruction.”

Do we, as Americans, owe each other obligations that are different from the obligations we owe to all other humans, or to our family and friends, or the members of our community? I’m not sure, but several other events this weekend underscore the truth that some Americans are treated as citizens and others as subjects, based on the color of their skin.

One video, from Minneapolis, shows a white police officer kneeling on the neck of an African-American man until he asphyxiates. Just like Eric Garner of Staten Island in 2014, George Floyd was filmed repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe,” before he died.

Closer to home, another video from Central Park this weekend began when an African-American bird watcher started filming a white woman after he asked her to leash her dog in the Ramble. She called 911, threatening him with police harm in an unmistakably racialized appeal, while he filmed her and she appeared to choke her dog.

I’d like to make three points about this video. First, it’s ironic that bird watcher and dog owner have the same last name. Second, the dog owner was powerful enough that she helped manage hundreds of millions of dollars of investments, but not so powerful that her firm couldn’t fire her within 24 hours of the video going viral. Third, the video of a white female investment manager choking a dog appears to have received a lot more attention than the video of a white male cop choking a human. Admittedly, it’s a harder video to watch.

Some parts of our government protect us and nourish us, and some parts repress us. The parts that repress us claim to protect us, and to some extent they do protect us. Or rather, they protect a large group of us, while killing others and turning some of us into killers. We’ve got to focus on growing the parts of government that nourish people while shrinking the parts that exist to protect the government from its people.