On George Floyd, Empathy, and the Road Ahead

Originally published in the TWIML newsletter, 6/2/2020.

What a week. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that, a week ago yesterday, I was expressing my anger over the behavior of Amy Cooper, a white woman who, after being asked to leash her dog in an area of Central Park where this is required, proceeded to call the police on the Black man, Christian Cooper who simply asked her to obey the law. All of this was caught on video, and as a Black man it really made my blood boil because it was obvious to me, and many others in fact, white and Black, that her 911 call was a threat of violence, a call to authorities who would likely hear her tone and his description and respond brashly and harshly.

Little did I know at the time, that while I was tweeting about the Central Park video, another video had surfaced, demonstrating plainly the depraved brutality of four Minneapolis police officers who murdered George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Those officers were called by a shop owner who accused him of using a counterfeit $20 bill.  

George Floyd’s death, as you know, has since set off a powder keg of unrest across the United States and around the world. I think while the catalyst of what we’re seeing may have been, or was the act perpetrated by the officers, the cause is much deeper, it’s a centuries-old tradition of racism and race-based violence that this country, the United States, has not yet been able to come to terms with, and seems unwilling to come to terms with.

Not to mention the backdrop of a global pandemic and record unemployment. Both of which, at least here in America, have disproportionately impacted Blacks, and people of color, and the poor.

Like many of the folks I’ve talked to over the past few days, it’s been really difficult to articulate all of the emotions I’m experiencing right now. As I’ve watched the week’s events unfold, everything that’s been going on this weekend, I’ve personally been in touch with everything from disappointment and anger, and rage, to gratitude, appreciation, and hope, and many more points in between.

Mostly though I’m just dealing with frustration. Of having been here before and knowing that I’ll be here again. Of wanting to do more, of thinking that I should be doing more, but not knowing exactly what that should be. And knowing that it won’t be enough. And knowing how little has really changed when it comes to race and class equity in America, and how much everything just seems to be getting worse.

As much as I want to resolve these emotions, to have the answers, and to be able to give you answers. I know that there are no easy ones, and the solution to what we’re seeing now is not something that is going to happen overnight.

If there is any answer though, I have got to believe that it starts with having empathy for those who are suffering and protesting for change. It’s easy to look at the destruction and violence of the last few days and look for a scapegoat, or to point out the ‘right’ way to protest. I’ve certainly seen plenty of that in my social media feeds. 

But rather, I think it’s an opportunity for us to be introspective and explore ways to be empathetic to the anger and frustrations of those in the thick of protests who feel that they’ve got no other way to air their grievances and effect change. It’s an opportunity for all of us to examine our own biases and prejudices and get to the root of them. Because it’s only then that we’ll be able to start the work of eradicating them. 

Empathy is the right place to start, but beyond empathy, I think we have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of those people whose voices are repressed and for whom justice has been elusive for a very long time. We can use our voices to call attention to the injustice of police brutality, and to fight other examples of racism and bigotry in our communities. And we can support those who are out there working to make a difference and get involved in efforts in our local, national and professional communities to dismantle racism and bias.

This includes supporting organizations pushing for social equity like Black Lives Matter, and groups offering relief for those jailed for exercising their rights to peaceful protest. 

As well as, for those in AI,  supporting the work of organizations looking to ensure that Artificial Intelligence is used fairly and responsibly, and ensuring that a broad range of people will have the opportunity to participate in its development.

The TWIML community, and the broader AI community, are intelligent, curious, and generous, and we have the opportunity to affect real change in this moment. While the mountain is steep, it’s the one we’re on, and there’s nothing to do but keep climbing. I’m glad to be climbing with you.

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