Rumination on what counts as activism
On Sunday I ran with Maud.
Maud is Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot to death on February 23rd while he was out for a run in a suburban neighborhood in Glynn County, Ga. According to the police report, Arbery jogged past a white man who was standing in his front yard. The man, Gregory McMichael, called out to his son, Travis. They then grabbed their weapons, a .357 magnum revolver and a shotgun, jumped into a truck, and began following Mr. Arbery. Moments later, after a struggle over the shotgun, Mr. Arbery was killed, shot at least twice. Gregory McMichael told the police he thought Mr. Arbery looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area.
On May 7th, Gregory McMichael and his son were arrested in connection with the shooting, two days after graphic footage of the incident became public and more than two months after the killing. Both men were charged with murder and aggravated assault.
Additional video has since surfaced from a surveillance camera in the area showing a man, whom a prosecutor identifies as Arbery, briefly entering a home under construction, walking around and leaving shortly before he was shot and killed. Lawyers for Arbery’s family said in a statement that the video “is consistent with the evidence already known to us.”
“[Arbery] stopped by a property under construction where he engaged in no illegal activity and remained for only a brief period,” said a statement from his family’s lawyers.
Last week, prior to the arrests, I received an email from a community of runners I belong to asking that we run, walk, or jog 2.23 miles on May 8th to honor Ahmaud’s memory. The date was chosen because it was his birthday. We were also asked to run that Sunday to honor Ahmaud, who was born on a Mother’s Day, to share photos and videos tagged #RunWithMaud, and to sign a petition to ensure there would be a fair trial.
I don’t know how this case will turn out. New developments unfold every day. All I can say for sure is that what happened to Arbery is shocking, appalling, and wrong. I’m heartbroken for his family and want to participate in raising awareness of this horrific crime. My husband, daughter, and I walked 2.23 miles. I signed the petition and ran in honor of Maud on Sunday morning.
When I went to post my photo online, I was struck by two things. First, the astonishing number of pictures and videos taken by people all over the globe. Doctors, lawyers, coaches, college students, parents with their children. It was an endless stream of solidary and support, and cries for justice. And then there were a few like this:
Hey, white people, now that #RunWithMaud is over, what actionable step will you take today to dismantle white supremacy?
That was cute, but not enough. Do more than be a #RunWithMaud hashtag.
Why is it that white people share everything BUT our injustice. So quick to record and repost every damn dance challenge but now y’all silent when it comes to Ahmaud Arbery.
That is slacktivism.
That last one got me — slacktivism. It’s a concept I think about a lot. First, let’s define our terms per the Oxford Dictionary:
slack·tiv·ism: the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.
I’m not discounting the idea of raising awareness online. Clearly, #RunWithMaud put pressure on law enforcement to make arrests, which they finally did 74 days after Arbery was gunned down. But a flurry or flare around a single case, or several high-profile cases, doesn’t seem to do much to change the thinking and the culture that caused these crimes in the first place.
#MeToo gave a much-needed voice to victims of sexual assault and resulted in a number of powerful men either losing their jobs or getting thrown in prison. But in the 14 years since the movement was founded (yup, look it up), has there been a huge increase or even a small bump in the number of women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies or directing Hollywood blockbusters or running big banks? Has #MeToo changed anything for women who work in low-paying blue collar jobs?
The answer, evidently, is no. In 2019, The New York Times reported, “The movement has had little effect on the broader problem of sexual abuse, harassment and violence by men who are neither famous nor particularly powerful… It has failed to help many ordinary women. If an American factory worker or a Mexican victim of sexual assault tries to call out an individual perpetrator, and maybe even a broader culture of abuse, she cannot count on powerful women and allies to come to her aid. Often, the abuse goes unpunished and the broader culture of harassment unchanged.”
According to Pew Research Center, the MeToo hashtag was shared more than 19 million times from October 2017 to September 2018 on Twitter. However, in her 2019 article for The Atlantic, “The Problem with HR”, Caitlin Flanagan concludes, “Social change that is dependent on a popular movement is destined to fade.”
As I ran with Maud on Sunday, I was listening to an interview podcast. The guest was an Academy-Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, whose work, according to her web site, covers “human rights issues, broader social ills, and extraordinary individuals who have greatly influenced their era.” During the interview, she defined her professional mission as “telling stories of incredible people that you don’t get to meet in your life… and showing our shared humanity.”
She told the interviewer that she lived in New York City, but because of Covid-19 was holed up with her family on Cape Cod and felt “guilty” about it. Guilt is a feeling that arises when you do something you shouldn’t have done or failed to do something you should’ve done. It’s tough to shake because it speaks to your character, courage, and conscience. When the filmmaker said she felt guilty what did she mean? Was she being sincere or did she feel compelled to say she felt guilty because if she didn’t people would judge her as callous or privileged?
If you have the option to escape to the beach during this pandemic, why should you apologize for it? Or fake apologize? I’ll tell you right now I have every intention of getting out of New York City this summer, if I can.
She and the interviewer also talked about “bad actors”, specifically those who are spreading disinformation about Covid-19 on platforms like Facebook. And the “craven” leaders at the highest levels of our government who prioritize saving the economy over people’s lives.
While there was no need to express remorse over her whereabouts, the filmmaker could’ve been a tad less tone deaf speaking from her second home. There’s nothing wrong with having a second home, but maybe think twice about expressing your outrage over the government’s stratification of our citizenry from the comfort of your poolside lanai.
Here’s the thing: Donald Trump may be a racist, sexist, xenophobic narcissist and a first-class moron, but at least he’s out there with it. The lies, the contradicting himself within the same sentence, everything. You’ll never hear him apologize or say he feels guilty about anything. That’s a big part of what his supporters love about him, and while I’m not one of them, I sort of get it. I’ll take a brag over a humblebrag any day. Insincere humility or phony remorse is not a good look. It breeds contempt. It sours people, chafes them, turns them off. And I’m not just talking about the MAGA crowd, I mean liberals, too. A lot of us would like to see less hand-wringing and more ass-kicking.
How can I — and all of us — do better on the slacktivism front? I’d say a big part of it is recognizing that we don’t all have to join the Peace Corps to make a difference. Someone once told me that doing service can be as simple as identifying something useful that you do well and offering it to the world. That could be playing the saxophone in the park or baking cookies for local firefighters or teaching an online course. Use whatever skill you have to lift people’s spirits or teach others or shine a light on something that shouldn’t be in the dark. That’s what the documentarian is doing with her films. She doesn’t need to say she’s sorry for also enjoying a nice life.
Also, don’t be a hypocrite. Stop talking about how bad economic inequality is if you’re making millions of dollars a year and aren’t willing to take a tax hike. Stop screaming about all the fake news on Facebook if you’re on it every day posting photos that make your family look approximately 9000 times happier than it actually is.
And on the flip side, don’t dismiss or deride an empathic response to your cause. Maybe a post to Twitter or a signature on a petition isn’t enough, but it’s a start. I’m not saying effort that’s pretty much effortless should be confused with true activism. But showing appreciation for what people have done rather than ripping them for what they didn’t will encourage more significant action going forward. The Action PAC, which runs campaigns such as “Justice for Ahmaud” does a great job of expressing gratitude (it signed the email I got today with “love and appreciate you”) and reminding people that “our work is not done.”
I don’t have the answer to ridding the world of the hate that killed Ahmaud Arbery or the arrogance that leads powerful men to think it’s okay to force themselves on women. If we want to bring about meaningful change, we can vote, write letters, and make phone calls. We can protest and picket and post photos online. But I’m a firm believer that experience is the most effective way to kill prejudice because it gets at the root cause.
Bring people together who hold vastly different beliefs and world views so they can speak to one another in a calm tone, and listen with an open mind. With any luck, their assumptions and what they’ve been taught will fall away and be eclipsed by what actually is. It may take a long time and repeated attempts, but when a person feels shared humanity rather than watching it on a movie screen, there’s a much better chance of creating a lasting connection.
When I finished my Mother’s Day run with Maud, I hit shuffle on my phone. The song that came on was “Running Away” by Bob Marley.
In his piece for American Songwriter, “What Are the Top 15 Philosophical Songs of All Time?” Grant Maxwell put “Running Away” at number three. He writes that Marley seems to be performing the inner dialogue of someone who “must have done something wrong”. Dean MacNeil writes in The Bible and Bob Marley that the song “presents a long, running internal dialogue of deep introspection and personal questioning.”
In her book When My Mind Met My Soul, Dina Barnes writes, “Like Bob Marley sings, ‘you’re running away, but you can’t run away from yourself.’ Really that’s what many people’s lives are about…running around and trying to avoid the part of themselves that feels lifeless or guilty or burdensome.”
Barnes then refers to “The map that brings you to the road to your soul… This is the tunnel that is carved through the mountain of our ego directly to our own essence. This is how we really learn to stop the constant running away and know the truth. [This] is uncomfortable at first. It takes actual stopping to hear and know everything and your own connections to it all.”
The timing of that song coming into my ears is not lost on me. Was I running Sunday morning or running away? Maybe both. And maybe that’s okay. I did what I pledged to do to the best of my ability. Could I do more? Yes.
I don’t know that I can dismantle white supremacy or share the injustice of a person of color. But I can listen and write and keep up the pressure to get justice for Ahmaud Arbery and his family. I can heed President Obama’s 2019 warning to progressives, which happens to evoke gun violence. He spoke about “a certain kind of rigidity” that can lead to a “circular firing squad where you start shooting at your allies because one of them is straying from purity on the issues. And when that happens, typically the overall effort and movement weakens.”
We shouldn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And we shouldn’t feel guilty if we are doing our best to offer something useful to the world.