Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. I heard about this mainly through clicking into a blog post linked on Subtle Asian Traits and watching the infamous 9 minute video of a living, breathing man die in front of my eyes. I don’t know why, but this one hit particularly hard. Maybe it was because of the shakiness of the footage, which made me feel like I was right there on the sidewalk with the desperate onlookers. Maybe it was because I saw an Asian American officer nonchalantly guarding the scene and warding off the public as his accomplice killed a man barely two feet away from him.
I have always distanced myself from what I used to call “America’s problems”, both physically and emotionally. I would always turn a blind eye and tell myself: “I’m not a citizen of this country, this doesn’t affect me.” That and the fact that my parents always warned me against openly expressing any political leanings before I came to the States, saying that it would impact my future job prospects and credit score in this country. I think that’s the nature of Asian conformity: don’t say anything and no one will see you as a target, so you’ll be safe (or the old Chinese idiom “枪打出头鸟”).
At first the content of the video didn’t register, and I just continued working on lab work for the rest of the day, until I read in the news about the protests in center city, now at nightfall turning violent, with cars on the fire and stores being demolished and looted. Only then did it become almost impossible to say “it’s not my problem” anymore. Because, truth be told, the video repulsed me and inspired an inexplicably cold, desolate feeling. The gravity of the institutional flaws in the American police system was made once again made painfully clear. “Police brutality” has been a phrase juggled around on our tongues in hushed voices, as if it is food that is too hot to swallow. And most of the time it remains a nebulous concept to most people, until a suffering, screaming face is tacked onto that phrase. Then the problem becomes so blatantly and piercingly tangible that it hurts to look, so we avert our eyes, frown and tear up a little as if we’d just looked inadvertently into the sun.
And that was what that video was for me, granted one of many gun violence and mass shooting videos we learn to turn a blind eye to and become desensitized by. But what struck me with this one was the sheer lack of action. The violence was not conveyed through loud gunshots and a fleeing criminal. Instead, it was utterly static, no fighting, no resistance, no insults, just an officer with his knee pressed against a black man’s carotid artery… Perhaps at first glance it even looks harmless. But the longer the officer maintained that seemingly harmless position, the more it became reminiscent of a horror film. A man being slowly asphyxiated with the kind of apathetic precision that I thought only psychopaths were capable of, but instead here that psychopath wears a uniform and carries a gun.
The complete lack of necessity of such an action appalled me. I wanted to shout: “look at him, he’s incapacitated, he can’t fight back, what are you trying to prove? Do you not see that you’re killing him? Do you really want to live with the blood of a civilian staining your conscience for the rest of your life? Do you really want the rest of the white and asian american population to walk around with that bitter shame in their throats after this incident?”
But the most overwhelming feeling I felt, on top of the shame, was powerlessness. Just like the onlookers at the scene who didn’t come forward for fear that they would be next, who did not fight because they saw themselves in the eyes and the skin color of the dying man on the tarmac. Perhaps that’s why protesters exploded unabated onto the streets, turning increasingly uncontrolled and violent, blinded by anger and sadness, with no cathartic way of expressing the torrent of emotions that poured forth from their fists and tear gas bombs. And the most frightening part is the possibility that those protests will not be heard and that so-called “justice” will never be served. That after the storm passes and the waves stop frothing, we will once again fall into tranquil complacency and mildly disillusioned indifference. That after the fickle media grows disinterested, the name of “George Floyd” will slowly fade away to join the Emmett Tills and Michael Browns of history, relegated from a vibrant life to an insipid name, tucked away from the collective American consciousness once again…