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Seeing, Sadly, Is Believing

by on June 10, 2020 5:00 AM


Ever watch a boxing match where one of the fighters lands a left-right-left in rapid succession and you can’t believe his opponent is still standing? We’re that punchy pug, gone wobbly by pandemic followed by mass unemployment followed by a new round of police violence against unarmed black people.

And through it all, no leadership in Washington. None. 

Not to bum you out even further, but don’t be surprised if we’re in some phony war by Election Day. 

It’s right there in the Incumbent Playbook. What do you when you’ve mismanaged a crisis (or two), the public is sick of your shtick, members of your own party are practicing the political version of social distancing, and none of your usual diversionary tactics (press-baiting, race-baiting, blame-deflecting, name-calling, etc.) are working? 

You manufacture a threat from abroad that only you, Our Commander-in-Chief, Defender of Freedom and Protector of the Flag, can thwart. 

Don’t worry, though. Trump’s toast. (Have I been wrong before? Do bears sell stock on Wall Street?)

In early spring, when the sky was sprinkling ice pellets on the daffodils, we all marveled at the breadth and depth of coronavirus’ impact on our life and times. Now, in late spring, with baby veggies sprouting in back yard gardens, we’re marveling at the breadth and depth of the impact of one Minneapolis cop’s murderous actions on our life and times. And as anyone who has seen or been a masked protester can attest, the two cataclysms have apocalyptically converged.

I stood well back in the over-60 section of each of the Sunday rallies in State College and was amazed and delighted by the turnout, which, per capita, may have been one of the largest anywhere. I was equally amazed and delighted to see photos of a Black Lives Matter rally in Thessaloniki, Greece, where I would still be if coronavirus hadn’t driven me out of the European frying pan and into the American fire.

It’s great to see this worldwide show of support for Black Lives Matter, galling that it takes videographic evidence to galvanize that support. Black people have been telling us and telling us and telling us about the terrors of being black in America for years – decades – centuries. Do we really have to see a cop’s knee on a black man’s neck to believe it? 

Lack of visual evidence is exactly what made it so hard to contain the spread of coronavirus. If the virus left a visible film on our groceries, wiping them down with bleach would have felt more like cleaning something dirty than like a magical ritual. If the droplets expelled by our 200-miles-per-hour sneezes produced a brief rainbow, like mist coming off a waterfall, we might have felt a greater urgency about wearing masks. 

Responding to an invisible threat felt more like a matter of belief, than a matter of fact, like believing in ghosts, or God. 

But if it’s visual evidence you need, I’d like to draw your attention to another video clip that sheds light on being black in America. It’s tame compared to what happened in Minneapolis. This other clip ends with a black man in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car. He’s handled roughly when he struggles against being forced into the car, but he appears to be unharmed.

The setting is Midland, Texas, on May 16. The black man is Tye Anders, 21. Police say he ran a stop sign, ignored a patrol car’s flashing lights, drove a couple more blocks before pulling into his grandmother’s driveway, then remained in his car when ordered out.

After five minutes, Anders exits his car, arms spread wide. The cop draws his gun and gives contradictory orders. First he tells Anders to “walk back.” A few minutes later, he tells him to “walk toward us.”

He also tells Anders to show his hands, though Anders’ hands, palms up, arms still spread wide, are clearly visible.

Anders, meanwhile, asks the cop over and over again why he stopped him. He kneels on the lawn. His response to the walk-toward order: “No, you’re gonna shoot me.” 

He lies face-down on the lawn, arms still outspread, like he’s doing the dead man’s float.
Backup arrives. Now several officers are pointing guns at Anders. Remember, this is a traffic stop and Anders appears to be unarmed. 

The cop repeats the order to stand up and walk toward them multiple times, with the same non-result. 

Finally, four officers approach, arriving at Anders’ prone body at the same time as his 90-year-old grandmother. The grandmother, leaning on a cane, appears to lose her balance and fall on top of her grandson. The cops help her to her feet, march Anders to the street and put on the cuffs. 

A bystander explains to the police what just happened: "He's scared,” she says. “Y'all have guns on him…We're black. They shoot black people."

They do.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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