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The Carletonian

A cry for empathy

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The Black Lives matter rally was powerful. There’s no way to deny that. I haven’t witnessed another rally as large or as passionate during my time at Carleton, and there are few issues that are so deserving of that passion. Institutionalized racism is a threat to the fabric of the social pact that America stands on. It blocks upward mobility. It breeds crime and hopelessness. It segregates an extremely important portion of America. Most importantly, it destroys the lives of countless young black men (literally countless, since apparently there are no official statistics on just how many people police departments kill). We, as Carleton students, as Americans, need Black Lives Matter. We all have a stake in this fight, and we need the progress that it promises to bring.

This urgency was tangible in the emotion of the speakers and the careful attention of the crowd at the rally. I was moved. Being a white male from a middle class background I couldn’t fully belong to the struggle we were attending to. Yet for the first time in years I was back at a poetry slam talking about racial injustice at my neighborhood high school, or listening to a friend complain about police harassment. The feeling was the same. The fight was personal again.

I wanted to belong to this movement, to go along, to find nothing wrong, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t ignore the presence of a gnawing problem. The chanting was where the feeling of discontent began, with the phrases “no justice, no peace” and “killer cops.” I understood why the words were being said. I felt like I had some shadow of the emotion behind them, despite never being the target of police violence myself. I knew why the anger on some of the faces was there. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to chant along. I know that as a white man I can’t really understand, but I also know that many police officers are good people. I’ve watched them be cruel, but I’ve also watched them be kind. I watched the officers stationed outside of my racially diverse high school integrate into our student community with warmth. I know how many people police officers kill each year, but I also know that dozens of them are killed and permanently injured trying to do their job. Suddenly I felt like I was no longer attacking the institutions behind racism, but the people that perpetuate it. This was my “gnawing problem,” and as I reflected I came to believe it was not just isolated to Black Lives Matter.

We, as the activists of our institution, need to rally. We need to rally for the downtrodden, against the system that oppresses, for the unity of humankind. But we must rally against actions and institutions, not the combatants that stand opposite us. Attack people, and you only draw battle lines. This has played out in dramatic fashion in the recent shame campaigns that have characterized the aftermath of high-profile hate speech at Carleton. Michael Kane’s Twitter posting was unacceptable and clearly alarming, but it was unclear what the campaign against his words was trying to do. Surely it intimidated Michael, but was that the point? Was the aim to improve the actions of one individual? Was it to call attention to hateful speech in our midst? To make it clear that “we do not accept this behavior in our community”? Does that mean we do not accept people that might say racist things? Or does it mean that we do not accept a system that causes them to be said?

Whatever the intent, the incident and its aftermath drove a wedge into the student body. I heard nobody condoning the awful thing Mr. Kane posted, but few agreed with posting stickers around campus condemning his words. The end result of these sorts of attacks is to drive people with hateful views underground and/ or into their corner. We, the activists, need to change people, not frighten them. We, the activists, need to reach people, not isolate them. We need empathy and understanding. We need reasoned conversation and debate to let us find our shared humanity. People who employ hate speech must change because they want to, because they see the harm that words can do, not because they are apprehensive of their fellow students.

This culture of attacking the people and not the system has yet to pervade Carleton as a whole,
but some student movements stand guiltier than others. As I tried to get a sense of the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement on campus, I turned to the Carleton Organized of Radicals and Leftists (CORAL) and their web presence. CORAL is the most prominent and prolific activist group on campus, with an impressive student following and a clear and admirable commitment to their causes. CORAL has also garnered
a reputation for using a proverbial sledgehammer (or an air-horn) on delicate social issues where a scalpel might have sufficed. Naturally, I was prepared to take their stance with a grain of salt. What I found, however, deeply unsettled me. A posting on their Facebook page called violence against police a “legitimate political strategy.” A poem excerpt under the heading “Alternatives to Non-Violence” asked, “What do you think would happen if everytime they kill a black boy, then we kill a cop?” Is this the new face of activism at Carleton? The CORAL material targeted many ideas, recommended many actions, but it also targeted people and even worse, advocated violence. CORAL has become one of the primary activist groups on campus. We can and must do better. These issues are too important not to.

Carleton needs to see a return to empathetic debate. We need to start seeing police officers as people dealing with a tough set of decisions. Justice must be done. Officers must be punished. But once punishment is dealt the questions remain: “How did we get here? Why is this blood on our hands? What can we do to help?”

As students, we can take direct action. We need to stop posting on Overheard and start discussing in person. We need to stop seeing the Phillip Glasses and the Michael Kanes as the enemy and start seeing them as human beings with views we stand against. They must be held responsible for what they say and how they are, but it must be with the understanding that fosters real change and human connection. Restorative, not punitive, justice is how we make our community stronger. That is how you change a life, and there are too many lives out there that need changing. Change enough, and we just might start saving some.

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