Watching Things Fall Apart From Afar
Kevin Tidmarsh | Oct. 10, 2014, 8:52 p.m.
This week marks the two-month anniversary of the day that Officer Darren Wilson took his gun, squeezed the trigger and unloaded six bullets into a defenseless Michael Brown, killing him.
But you already know all that and more. I don’t have to tell you what happened to Mike Brown, though his story deserves to be told over and over again until our tongues are too tired to speak. The most surreal thing for me is that I’ve witnessed everything that has transpired after that moment in an environment completely separate from the frame of reference that I know. Granted, in the United States, I wouldn’t be witnessing the events in Ferguson firsthand either, but from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I’m studying for the semester, the experience has been a completely alien one.
To be sure, following the events on social media has made it easier to grasp what happened, but I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with how one-dimensional it all is. The night that the judge handed George Zimmerman his verdict, two of my best friends picked me up from my house just after midnight, and we hashed out all of our initial reactions together in my friend’s kitchen for hours. Then, I could have these sorts of conversations with my friends and really feel a part of what was going on.
Here in Argentina, though, trying to get a handle on the news of the moment has felt voyeuristic at best, though perhaps less so than for the journalists who swooped into Missouri two months ago to get a story. I can look to Twitter for updates, participate in discussions through Facebook and use my credit card number to donate money to organizations working for justice in Ferguson and elsewhere—all of which I’ve done—but I’ve had to content myself with these rather impersonal methods, without once engaging in the flesh, not even for a physical show of solidarity. It’s better than nothing but still profoundly unsatisfying when I want to be doing something more.
To the extent that reporting on Ferguson has made its way to the news in Argentina, the information usually arrives a day or two late. What’s more, since almost all of the citizen reporting that was being done on the ground was in English, plenty of the things that turn up on the #Ferguson hashtag wouldn’t be of use to someone who doesn’t speak the language and thus are easily lost in translation. That said, it’s obviously not a unique problem: I see U.S.-based outlets flub their coverage all the time, which is what tends to happen when presenting something to an audience that doesn’t possess the cultural context to understand it.
I could act as a translator of sorts to the people I meet, but it hasn’t been easy to figure out how to explain the situation. I can translate individual words and phrases to describe what’s going on, to give them my take on the situation when they ask, but the United States’ brand of racism is such an unwieldy, multi-faced beast that the necessary background for someone to understand would take much more than one conversation to unravel. I still don’t, and never will, understand it fully myself.
That doesn’t mean I don’t try to explain, but when I do, I feel like I’m giving a 'Racism & Police Violence Lite™' version of the story, something I’m all too aware of as someone who has the privilege to have never been discriminated against on account of race. That isn’t fair at all to anyone, least of all to the average of 96 black civilians who are killed by white police officers per year, according to USA Today.
The fact is that I still don’t know more than a few things, particularly in the communities I know best. For one, I have questions about the police in my hometown of South Bend, Ind.: The racial makeup of the police force, the ratio of arrests among different ethnicities, what is happening to our police chief after four of his officers accused him of racially discriminating against them. Given South Bend's long history of police violence and race-based oppression, it would suffice to say it wouldn’t surprise me if there were something under the surface.
But other than sending off a bunch of emails and receiving a bunch of stock replies there isn’t much I can do from afar. Looking for the answers becomes infinitely more daunting from a hemisphere away, and unless someone else asks the questions, I’m just going to have to wait.
So without any further ado, here’s my advice from abroad: Look at the communities you belong to, on both the micro and the macro levels, be they as small as your friend group or as giant as the United States. Examine the ways in which you can see injustice in each one. Take the time that you have with each to consider how you would answer the following question, posed by the author Teju Cole in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict: “How can I, myself, in my limited sphere of influence, be more just?” Then, when you have the answer, put in the work to make it happen.
Believe me, the next time you find yourself apart from your communities, you’ll thank yourself for having used the opportunity to take action while you could.
Kevin Tidmarsh PO '16 is an international relations major and dulce de leche aficionado from South Bend, Ind. He is the creator of TSL's weekly crossword.