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At the height of the Ferguson protests, a picture of a crying young black protester hugging a white cop was widely circulated on Facebook. As the photo became increasingly ubiquitous, it received increasingly sharp criticism. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones described it as “a choice to be lulled by cotton candy” while the streets are burning outside.
I disagree. At the moment we need sentiment just as much as we need reality.
Securing justice is only possible when we both recognize the extremely harsh realities we face and somehow retain hope that a better life is possible.
When a St. Louis County grand jury announced that there would be no indictment in the police killing of Michael Brown, I thought I wouldn’t be able to cry. In a perverse way, I had become accustomed to reading about the unprosecuted killings of Black people. I had spent so many tears on Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, and Trayvon Martin, that I felt emptied out and numb. My surprise and sense of injustice had cooled to cynical resignation. When I learned of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case, I could only feel the dull familiarity of cases that had come before it.
The tears finally came three days later while I watched the NewsHour with my parents over Thanksgiving weekend. After reporting the rioting in Ferguson, PBS aired a brief segment describing the Watts Bears—a youth football program designed to strengthen relationships between the police and the community in Watts, Los Angeles. Watching a police officer high five an eight-year old and promise to get him a new football helmet, I felt my dormant grief suddenly and violently stirred awake. I quietly left the living room.
From a cynical perspective, the segment was pure sentimentality—the video equivalent of that viral photo. One cop high fiving an eight-year old does not change the fact that blacks are up to four times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Yet both images present us with a dream to work toward and remind us that as terrible as things are, they could be different. Sentiment helps us to channel our anger and pain into social change.
It would be deeply irresponsible to share the crying protester photo without recognizing the broader context of race relations in America. At the same time, relentlessly focusing on the harsh realities of police brutality and mass incarceration without recognizing exceptions to the rule eventually leads to burnout and apathy.
The challenge is to follow the middle path—to maintain our awareness of oppression without becoming desensitized to it. Perhaps being able to cry, even at a 15-minute segment on the Watts Bears, is a quiet victory.
Taonga R. Leslie ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a sociology concentrator in Winthrop House.
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