[Note: This was written on April 22; it’s taken this long to get up in part because of The Filter.]
I have just watched a deeply troubling video of a brutal beating. It shows a transgender woman under attack by two women in a Baltimore McDonald’s. The violence is horrifying, and seems to never end; every time the attackers move off for a moment, they come back. The McDonald’s employees largely do nothing, instead recording the attack on a camera phone; one employee does try to stop the beating, but after a brief time he seems to give up. The pummeling doesn’t end until the attacked woman begins to have a seizure, her blood smeared on the floor, and the man recording the incident warns the attackers to run before the police arrive.
First let me state that the footage is not always clear. The video makes the violence plain, but does not reveal motivations, show what is happening elsewhere, follow the incident all the way to its conclusion, or even provide a clear recording of what the people are saying. All that can truly be understood from the video is the flying fists and the blood on the floor. So my analysis here may be flawed on several levels.
This whole incident cuts across so many divisions in American society. Let us count the chasms…
What first leaped out at me is that the attackers appear to be black while the trans woman appears to be white. I say “appears” because again the footage is not always clear; it is difficult to judge race from a blurry cameraphone video — again, we encounter the limits of anything filmed — but also because the racial lines in this country are themselves increasingly blurred. The attacked woman could identify as white or as Hispanic or as almost anything, which underscores the futility of ever judging by skin tone. But this doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the racial element. There seems to be greater resistance toward non-heteronormative identity and presentation from some in the African-American community. I also note that one of the people to interfere in the violence is white, and while again motivation is unknown, a yelling match between an older white woman and a younger black woman will inevitably have some racial overtones.
A second thing that struck me is that both people who attempt to intervene are older than the attackers, while the bystanders seem to be younger people themselves, setting up an age-imbalance dynamic. Speaking as a teacher, I know that younger people do not always react well to being yelled at by older people, or even just being told what to do. I also note from long personal experience that bullying by young people is always more effectively opposed not by adults but by other young people. While this battering is obviously on a different level entirely, the age of the bystanders makes me wonder: if one or more of the younger employees or customers had even spoken up, would the attack have continued so long? The tacit approval of their peers and the presence of a camera might have added to the vitriol of the assailants.
A third divide worth noting is that of citizens vs. authorities. The bystanders warn the attackers to flee before the police come, indicating that the bystanders have more sympathy for the assailants than for law enforcement. The bystanders also make no move to call for an ambulance at first, as this too would draw official notice, until they realize that with the woman’s seizure they have entered a new level. The racial element returns here, and I may also note that trans people may not always welcome the police, either.
The most obvious division, of course, is between heteronormative and transgender women.
The most fundamental divide, however, is “Us vs. Them,” sameness vs. the other, which runs through all the rifts discussed here.
It seems to me that every act of brutality, from this small-scale viciousness to the most dire genocide, hinges on drawing that line between “like me” and “not like me,” and then cutting off those “not like me” from any common feeling. Those “like me” I will protect; those “not like me” I will attack, or permit to be attacked. We are people, They aren’t. And you only have to be good to people.
This incident teaches us all too viscerally of where that line of thinking leads us: it makes us into victims or villains. It leaves us bloody on the floor, or with blood on our fists, or — most likely — watching idle from the sidelines, inactive and yet just as complicit. There are no other options if we divide the world into Us and Them; every act of human violence has happened because people allow people to suffer what they would not suffer themselves.
This incident also teaches us that all our problems are interconnected. We cannot separate the clash of heteronormative vs. transgender from the clash of race, age, class, or power.
And finally, just as all the problems are entangled — just one problem, really: dividing people — then this incident teaches us that we must be united. I write this on both Earth Day and Good Friday. Just as those two occasions are far more connected than you might think, we are all more connected than we realize. Earth Day reminds us that all the people in the video have more in common than they have differences: the same genetic heritage, the same needs and hopes and aspirations, the same oasis home on the Pale Blue Dot They are all human. Good Friday suggests that — now that what’s happened has been done and cannot be undone — then the absolute best possible outcome from this terrible deed would be all the women, attackers and attacked, becoming friends. If these blows do not lead to an embrace in the end, then the attack’s last tragedy rolls around: it cuts the chasms deeper, and hurts all involved again.
I’ve written of what weapons do to us, the harm they inflict in both directions. That is true even if the weapons are words, or fists, or feet, or power, or paychecks. Harming anyone does damage to the harmer. So I mourn for what the attackers did, both to another person and to themselves. And I mourn for the bystanders who let it happen, as I mourn every time we stand by.
All the problems we face are aspects of the dire knot, humanity’s self-division and civil war. All hope we have rests in our reunion. Unless “Us vs. Them” becomes “Us and the Rest of Us,” we can’t even begin to face the catastrophes we’ve brought on our heads, because we’ll still carry the cracks in our hearts, the cracks that will widen to chasms and divide us yet again.
So speak with me now:
All our woes are one. All people are one. All the earth is one. I must be a friend to all my foes, and they must be friends to me, or everything we have and everything we are will always live in risk.
We are one.
We are one.
We are one.