Posted on May 8, 2020
I don’t know how many of you have gone shopping recently. Once a week I venture out of the house to buy groceries at Trader Joes. I stand in line, with my mask on keeping a good distance between the person in front of me, and hoping the person behind me is doing similarly. And I wait for about 20-30 minutes before entering the store. I then carefully follow the arrows on the ground to get everything we need for the week.
I’ve been struck by the way that people interact with each other in the shop. There are some who are polite and friendly, people are welcoming each other by stepping to the side, and encouraging one another to go past or go ahead. And then there are others who look around suspiciously, wary of all the other people in the shop and the potential danger associated with each one. The experience over the last few weeks has been even stranger, as we can only see one another’s eyes above the masks we wear.
In many ways this speaks to the current experience of dealing with Covid-19. On the one hand, I think that we are all yearning for physical contact and human interaction, in person, with our friends and loved ones. We want to be able to sit together, to give each other a hug, and just to share company face-to-face. But at the same time in the age of Covid-19 everyone is a potential carrier of this terrible disease, and therefore everyone is someone of whom we could or possibly should be wary. We yearn to be together and we are fearful of being together.
Leaving the house today carries with it a risk that was never present before. When we step outside, we risk exposure and as such we risk our lives. Perhaps we have always been taking a chance when leaving our homes, but I for one have never really given it much thought before.
Over the last several weeks, the most frequent reason for me leaving the house has been to go on a run around our neighborhood. Sometimes early in the morning, before the sun is fully up, and sometimes later in the day. I dress in my running clothes, tie my sneakers, and I put on my headphones, disappearing into a podcast as I jog away from the house. The 30 minutes of running is time for me; an opportunity to be quiet, to listen and to take care of my body. It’s the time that I disconnect, leaving my cares and worries behind as I focus on my feet and the road ahead.
It would never have occurred to me to be afraid while out for a run. The closest I’ve ever come to that was when a skunk darted out in front of me, and even then it was more shock than fear. And today, despite Covid-19, I feel confident that I’m safe, I can avoid other people, running past or around them and I always keep my distance.
I am unfortunately realizing that this is a privilege that I possess. It should be a right for everyone. But it is not a reality that everyone in our society is able to enjoy.
On social media today, the hashtag #RunWithMaud has been trending. People have been running in support, solidarity, and in memory of a man who would have celebrated his 26th birthday today. People are recognizing that while running freely, without fear, should be a right for all people, it is actually a privilege that not everyone possesses. #RunWithMaud has reminded us of the inequality that still persists in our society and the fact that things I, as a white male, take for granted, are not afforded to my brothers and sisters who are black.
On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery went out for a run. He was often seen jogging in and around his neighborhood to stay in shape. But shortly after 1pm, in a suburban neighborhood called Satilla Shores he was gunned down and killed. What crime had he committed? What had happened to warrant this attack? What was this young man guilty of? The answer to all three is nothing. He was simply a 25-year-old man out for a run. No crime was committed, there was no provocation, he was innocent; but he was shot and murdered because of the color of his skin.
George McMichael saw a black man run past his home, he claims that he thought he looked like a man who had been suspected of several break-ins in the area, and so he called his son Travis McMichael. Together they grabbed a .357 Magnum handgun, a shotgun and they got into their pickup truck to chase Mr. Arbery down. They pursued him and killed him. Mr. Arbery’s father has described the incident as a modern-day lynching.
The story of his murder is bad enough, but then we need to realize that it took 10 weeks for George and Travis McMichael to finally be arrested. Prosecutor after prosecutor recused themselves from the case and one even recommended that the perpetrators were acting within Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense statutes. The McMichaels were finally arrested yesterday, after a video showing his horrific murder went viral on social media. The police received the video days after the incident, but it took 10 weeks and a public outcry for these two men to finally be arrested.
Going for a run, feeling safe and free, is not a privilege that should be dependent on the color of a person’s skin. It is a right that every single one of us should be entitled to. And similarly, protection from the law, prosecution for hateful, terrible crimes should be uniform regardless of the race, gender, or sexuality of the perpetrator or the victim.
In the coverage of this story over the last few days, I can’t help but think how many black men have been murdered and how many white men have escaped prosecution because there was no video recording their actions?
Last week in our Torah portion we read the famous and oft quoted line: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It stands at the heart of our Torah. But, there is a shortcoming with this commandment that the Torah recognizes. A few verses later it returns to the theme and states: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I Adonai am your God.” Torah recognizes that loving your neighbor, the person who looks like you, sounds like you and acts like you is easy. The challenge is to take that love and also share it with the person who is different. This is the commandment where we fall down as a society.
When I think about what we’ve learnt over the last couple of months and the spread of Covid-19, first and foremost among the lessons is that we are all part of one human family, regardless of religion, race, nationality or creed. This dreadful disease does not discriminate, it attacks us all. We have also learnt that we cannot respond to this disease as individuals or even as closed off communities, the response has to be from all of humanity coming together against a common enemy. And over this time, I think we have also come to appreciate the interconnectedness of our society, and the importance of roles and people whom we have previously taken for granted.
Going for a run and posting that we have #RunWithMaud is a good start, but it is not enough. I think the time has come, in fact it is long overdue, for us to be outraged. We must be angry that in our society an innocent young man can be murdered because of the color of his skin. And we know that Ahmuad Arbery is not the only one– too many innocent men and women have been killed because of their color of their skin. For all the progress that has been made towards equality, there is still so much work that needs to be done.
The rights, privileges and freedoms that I have as a white man, are not the same for those with a different skin color.
A few months ago, I was watching the Netflix show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. As the title suggests, Jerry Seinfeld takes a comedian out for a drive and they get a cup of coffee. In the episode with Chris Rock, while driving a Lamborghini, they actually get pulled over. Chris Rock makes a couple of jokes about it, but you can see in his eyes that he is anxious as he grips the door handle that bit more tightly. Jerry appears relaxed throughout. But Chris acknowledges, “If you weren’t here, I’d be scared. Yeah, I’m famous. Still black.” And at the end after the policeman has gone, Jerry asks if he was worried and Chris responds: “I was worried the whole time. I’m still worried.” Despite his celebrity, Chris Rock was still afraid because he recognized that the color of his skin meant he was at risk and in danger, in a way that the white man sitting next to him was not.
This problem is present at all levels of society. It is not just in the south, in Georgia, where Mr. Arbery was running, it permeates the whole of this great nation. And it affects everyone. There are the victims who suffer, there are the groups of men and women who live in fear, and there are the rest of us, who are slowly but surely infected and harmed by living in a society where this is possible.
We cannot gather together today and protest. We can #RunWithMaud to show our support. We can post on social media to let others know that we stand together with them. We should be emailing the District Attorney in Liberty County to ensure that these two men are charged with murder. And we need to open our eyes to the inequality that surrounds, listening to those who suffer and educating ourselves to be allies, supporters and advocates.
And we can commit ourselves to endless and boundless love. We are commanded to love the stranger, because we were strangers. We are commanded to love and care for those who are different, because we have been the ones pointed out as different. And we are commanded to love, care for and protect the persecuted, because we have been persecuted.
The message of Covid-19 is not that we should be fearful of each other, but it is a reminder that there are those who do live in fear; those who cannot go run for a run safely. The message is that we are all members of a single humanity, we all have a responsibility to care and protect each other, and when one of us is attacked, it is an attack on all of us. We will defeat this dreadful disease. And when we do; the ferocity, dedication and commitment that we brought to that fight, must be brought to tackling the disease of racism, prejudice and bigotry in our society.