George Floyd, Social Justice, and States of Refuge

The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America issued a statement today condemning the recent killing by police of George Floyd and the racism that underlies the frequently brutal treatment of African Americans by law enforcement in the United States. I discovered the OCA’s statement on a conservative Orthodox Facebook group that I follow (the sort that occasionally calls for the reinstatement of a tsar in Russia), where the OCA bishops were accused of caving to the forces of “social justice.” Members accused Democrats in Minnesota of desiring the murder of an innocent black man by police; they would supposedly use such a murder as a pretext to spread their “godless” agenda. An administrator of the group, which regularly inveighs against laws pertaining to abortion and homosexual marriage, dismissed racism in the United States as a “secular political” issue, a snare. The church, he argued, should not make statements on such matters. Other members speculated that the video portraying George Floyd’s death was professionally produced, part of a “false flag” operation.

Such are the heated discussions among certain Orthodox Christians. As for me, the question was not how to respond to George Floyd’s murder—with a blanket condemnation, without caveat—but whether I should attend the nearest mass protest commemorating Floyd’s life and mourning his death. The lack of leadership in my nation and in my state with regard to the COVID-19 epidemic has rendered such decisions incredibly difficult. My governor, Kristi Noem, has extended the state of emergency in South Dakota until the end of the year, presumably so the state can continue using emergency funds until that time, and she has continued to advise South Dakotans to take all necessary precautions to halt the spread of the disease that, in all likelihood, has not yet peaked here. But she has simultaneously encouraged cities and business to reopen and, consequently, most of my fellow South Dakotans have leapt back into life-as-usual. Coffee shops, auto repair stores, bars, and retail outlets are open and bustling. One can walk downtown and not see a mask for miles. The signal being sent from Washington and Pierre is clear: the pandemic is over. In South Dakota, residents are acting accordingly.

So do I potentially expose myself and my family to the virus at an event that will be attended (according to some estimations) by hundreds of people? I have decided not to. I stand in solidarity with everyone everywhere who is peacefully protesting police brutality, George Floyd’s murder, and the recent killing of other, unarmed black men and women by police and vigilantes. But today, I make my stand from a regrettable distance.

Instead of protesting, I’m going to share something I wrote seven years ago, in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. I had recently moved to South Dakota from Massachusetts and was adjusting to living in a solidly conservative state for the first time in my life (my home state, Iowa, is relatively liberal compared to its neighbor, South Dakota). Frustrated with the laws and conditions in my new state, and outraged over the acquittal of Zimmerman, I wrote the following reflection on racist violence, domestic violence, and the book of Leviticus. I called it “States of Refuge.”

This piece doesn’t address the current situation, the uprisings and riots in response to George Floyd’s murder, and isn’t totally appropriate to the current situation. As I reread it, I find that I’m a little soft, a little too self-involved, and a little too preoccupied with the differences (rather than the similarities) between places like Florida and places like Massachusetts. “States of Refuge” doesn’t reflect where my thinking is on these issues, currently. But it reflects my thinking in 2013 with regard to social justice, American law, and the perverse relationship between black and white in this country. If anything, the problems have become much clearer and simpler since then.

1. Governing is Hard to Do

We begin with two facts.

Fact the First: the government of Florida allows people to shoot other people, without giving the shooter so much as a nominal slap on the wrist.

Fact the Second: the government of Massachusetts seems to have discovered a system that significantly reduces instances of domestic abuse (an example of the sort of problem a state can tackle when it’s not bleeding funds through the open veins and broken bones of uninsured residents). 

What is the relationship between these two facts? There probably isn’t one. It’s probably irresponsible to imply that one exists. All things considered, Florida may not be the most dangerous place on the planet to live as a black man. All things considered, Massachusetts may not be the most dangerous place on the planet to be an abuser of women. 

Blacks and women are forever linked in the American imagination and American social history as oppressed groups whose voices began to rise (by which I mean, white men began to take notice of their already vocal protests) at roughly the same moment in U.S. history, and the (continuing) battle to ensure their rights followed historically parallel tracks. Two days ago, a Florida jury acquitted a man (is he Hispanic? caucasian? conservative talk radio has been howling over how liberal media has sidestepped that issue) who had fatally shot an unarmed black man. Massachusetts, meanwhile, is designing and streamlining a program that actually seems to reduce incidents of domestic violence. It is not for me to tell you which is the more positive development.

Governing is hard. I’ve never done it. Who am I to praise Massachusetts and spit at Florida? I don’t live in either. Me, I’m an economic refugee in South Dakota, a state with virtually no taxes, no spending, no government; a state that operates a department of social services primarily to take Indian children away from Indian families. These Western states figured out right away that governing is easy when you don’t do anything. Places like California, Pennsylvania, Florida, the Northeast, the South: they do the noble thing and actually make decisions. Their bad decisions invariably produce major disasters; their good decisions invariably produce major disasters. Governing is hard.

Case in point: Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts borrowed a wildly successful prison furlough program from Governor Ronald Reagan of California, and overall the program ran smoothly except for a couple of the furloughed prisoners who got into trouble, and also this one dude raped a woman. More to the point: a black man raped a white woman. That incident irreparably damaged Gov. Dukakis’s presidential campaign (already weak from a strong economy that was attributed to good decisions, which in four years’ time would become bad decisions, made by President Ronald Reagan). Consequently, Vice President George Bush defeated Gov. Dukakis and became the 41st president of the United States. Twelve years later, Governor George W. Bush of Texas was nominated for and elected president with the help of the political connections and name recognition of his father. Almost immediately, Bush’s foreign policy team began planning an invasion of the nation of Iraq, which occurred in 2003 unprovoked and on the basis of wildly fabricated intelligence (exploding budget deficit and diverting resources away from badly needed for American troops in Afghanistan). President Bush also used the power of the presidency to legalize government surveillance of every American citizen, a practice that could (perhaps should) derail the second term of President Barack Obama. 

And all Gov. Reagan had wanted to do was let some prisoners see their families! 

The causality in the above narrative is comically weak, I admit. But there’s a little truth to it, just a bit. This story is only one strand of one thread in the tapestry of the history of American politics, which is woven from good and bad policies, competent and inept governance, conspiracies, accidents, unintended consequences. If you’ve ever closely examined a medieval historical tapestry, you see how history always moves in one direction. If you examine a small portion of the whole, you see how the weaving itself, each notch of the warp and the weft, determines the pattern that follows. There are few places where a radical change can occur. Stare at it long enough, and what is evil in the world and evil in ourselves begins to seem irreversible. I don’t want to think this is true. A world where a man kills an unarmed man with a gun and isn’t so much as slapped on the wrist is not the best of all possible worlds. But either way, Trayvon Martin is now weaved into the tapestry: permanent, black, hooded, a martyr to the irreversibility of unintended consequences. 

2. Some States are Better Than Others

So anyway, Massachusetts is doing this domestic violence thing, because Massachusetts does a lot of good things. Massachusetts can afford to experiment with projects that will maybe perhaps possibly reduce incidents of domestic violence. Massachusetts can afford to do this in part because Massachusetts hasn’t spent the past decade allowing sick-but-uninsured residents inflate the cost of health care (Gov. Romney insisted that his plan be more cost-efficient than the status quo, and that’s the plan he got). And Massachusetts combines a high standard of living with a world-class education system, a system where the performance gap between kids from wealthy families and kids from poor families is the lowest in the nation. (Full disclosure: the growing performance gap between Latino students and their peers in the state is a problem.) Massachusetts’s students rank fifth in the world in reading, and ninth in math (hint: your state probably isn’t in the top ten). And the Massachusetts education system combines conservative ideas, like charter programs, with liberal policies. Because when Massachusetts’s government is functioning well, they’ll take ideas from anyone, anywhere, and see if it works.  

As a recent Slate article pointed out, Massachusetts has “the second-lowest teen birth rate, the fourth-lowest suicide rate, and the lowest traffic fatality rate. The birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts has the sixth-lowest obesity rate. And depending on the source, the first state to legalize gay marriage has either the lowest or one of the very lowest divorce rates in the country. … Massachusetts is as green as it is high-tech, and recently displaced California as the nation’s most energy-efficient state.”  

True, Massachusetts’s public transit system isn’t perfect, and it’s struggling financially, but it remains a provision that the poor, carless, and homeless in most Americans cities don’t have. And Massachusetts is one of the few states with housing laws that give the slightest bit of leverage to a renter (it’s one of the few places in the country where a middle-class couple in their upper 20s who don’t own a home – who maybe feel cautious after that whole housing bubble thing – aren’t viewed as economic pariahs). And Massachusetts (under Gov. Dukakis) was one of a small number of (mostly northeastern) states that drove the whole 1980s massive economic expansion that we all remember. They called it “the Massachusetts Miracle.” Folks in Kansas or Oklahoma or Montana or wherever who link Reagan with a booming decade sure don’t seem to remember the 1980s farm crisis.

I can say this from personal experience living in multiple states: Massachusetts is a place where citizen-involvement is actively encouraged through well-advertised townhall meetings and civic organizations. It’s not a state where citizen-involvement equals vigilantism and gun-ownership. Nor is it a state, like nearly all states (including the “anti-big government, communities know what’s best for themselves” state I live in now), where citizen-involvement isn’t encouraged at all. In most parts of God’s own country, a citizen wouldn’t know how to get involved even if he wanted to.

Yes, Massachusetts has myriad problems: with traffic, with criminal violence, with the fact that most people who were born in or around Boston are absolutely insufferable. The roads and highways have been a mess forever, and it will always be so. THE RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH! So is the price of real estate and the tax burden on property owners (state income depends too much on property taxes, which hurt the rich but also hurt working-class families and renters). I hate hate hate the attitudes and ideas most New Englanders have about higher education and their hilarious snobbery toward state schools (although Gov. Patrick is working on an interesting program to reform the state’s community college system). Yes, Boston is synonymous with church-sponsored pedophilia, and Cardinal Law is one of the most evil public figures in recent memory (though we can put that at Rome’s doorstep, can’t we? Massachusetts was a victim, not a perpetrator). 

And yes, Massachusetts government is infamous for its corruption. Old-school, clan-based, Democratic machine politics is still part of Massachusetts, rendering the state (like Illinois and Louisiana) analogous to a Communist-run oblast somewhere at the edge of modern Russia. But there have been a lot of successful prosecutions against state officials in recent years, evidence that the old crust is finally falling off. Meanwhile, new problems arise. Gentrification has created tensions and problems for years. Boston remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the nation. Half of my Facebook feed is left-of-left-of-left-of-left-of-center types who oppose and combat the social, racial, and economic injustices one finds all over the Bay State. 

And you know what: it’s 100% completely possible that a Massachusetts jury would have acquitted George Zimmerman. 

But Massachusetts is doing this domestic violence thing, and much like the revolt against King George III and opposition to the War of 1812 and Maine and the American novel and abolitionism and women’s colleges and the first American subway and basketball and physically attractive presidents and voting against Nixon after he lied about Vietnam and state-support for biotech and marriage equality and universal healthcare and anti-bullying campaigns and the Boston Bruins and Dunkin’ Donuts and “Cheers,” this domestic violence program seems like just another good idea out of Massachusetts, a state of good ideas.

3. Some States are Worse than Others

When I think about the obstacles that face policy activists who fight anti-black racism and violence against women (the two not always separate), I try to imagine two planets: one where a young black man can live without daily fear, one where men who harm women are either reformed or erased. Failed science fiction. I can imagine the planets in orbit, but not the conditions that support the safety of blacks and women…unless white men are removed. I think of Joanna Russ’s great speculative story, “When It Changed.” Even professional sci-fi writers struggle to eliminate white-based oppression from imagined social systems.

So thinking about race, gender, and public policy in America, I’ll borrow material from another source: Leviticus, a book of law and governance. The Hebrew legislators described cities of refuge, where killers from other cities could avoid retaliation from the families of their victims. The governors of ancient Israel applied capital punishment to murderers. But you could avoid execution and simply move to a city of refuge if you had unwittingly and unnecessarily killed your victim and if the instrument of death was legal and legally used (it was a rough but not exact analogue to our modern notion of “manslaughter”). If you found yourself in this situation, you would move directly from your trial to the city of refuge, where you must remain until the death of the current High Priest. Obviously, this made sentence lengths kind of arbitrary: better to commit manslaughter during the tenure of an old High Priest. If you left the city before the High Priest’s death and were caught, your victim’s family could legally kill you. So out-of-town excursions were not an option. But hey, at least you’re in a city!

George Zimmerman had the good fortune to live in a 53,927 sq. mile city of refuge called Florida. He killed a young man using a legally obtained weapon in circumstances that, according to Florida’s laws, were perfectly legal. That is, of course, if you believe Mr. Zimmerman’s account. And just for fun, let’s believe his account: he fatally shot an unarmed man who was threatening him with words and gestures (an encounter, by the way, that even his defense admits Zimmerman initiated). Zimmerman, feeling threatened and operating under the protection of Florida’s stand-your-ground law, responded by killing the unarmed man. 

Perhaps the state of Florida cannot put George Zimmerman in jail because it lacks the evidence of the more nefarious truth. Or perhaps Zimmerman’s account of the events is accurate. But even if his account is accurate, George Zimmerman deserves punishment from the state. If you do not believe this, I do not trust your thoughts and instincts as a human being. Zimmerman must receive some kind of punishment, if only to set an example to other jittery vigilantes and to remind society that killing another human is no small thing (aside: socio-political delineations being what they are, people who defend capital punishment for murder are generally the same people cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal). If only we could send him to a city of refuge. We could beneficently limit Zimmerman’s exile to the end of Governor Rick Scott’s tenure (as early as 2015 or as late as 2019). We could send him to Portland, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin. 

In reality, we don’t need to find a city of refuge for George Zimmerman, not because the whole idea is absurd, but because it is redundant. Zimmerman left the courthouse and returned to Florida, his own city of refuge. And such cities of refuge exist all across God’s own country. Conservatives who bemoan “sanctuary cities,” which do not report or deport undocumented immigrants but actually welcome them and treat them as human beings, ought to reflect on their own sanctuaries, states where laws give free reign to actions any morally sensible person would find abhorrent: Florida. Arizona. North Dakota. Alabama. Et al. I’m not talking about gay marriage or antiquated sodomy laws or even abortion er. I’m talking about truly evil shit: stand-your-ground. A gulag-sized prison network, rightly called “the New Jim Crow.” Legal segregation returning to the South, this time barring Hispanics from public life (re: Alabama). The reckless dismantling of Civil Rights law by the Supreme Court, rulings that may rest on sound jurisprudence but the spirit of which our House of Representatives (whose ruling party won fewer votes than the minority party in our most recent election) will completely disregard.  

The Zimmerman acquittal, along with the imminent one-year anniversary of my personal exile in South Dakota (and all the horrific laws and policies I’ve observed here), remind me what a vast and generous refuge these United States are to the white and male and reckless. Every white man in America is living in a city of refuge. Accidents of birth give some white dudes advantages over others, it’s true. “CLASS MATTERS!!!” should be the battle cry of every leftist. But I’m thinking about the policies, not social structures, and policy and social structure are (for us humanities types) always a chicken-and-egg kinda conundrum. And American policies can be very forgiving of the distinctions between classes if the members of those classes happen to be white men. I’m thinking about STATES, how some states are better than others (and how the “states’ rights” rhetoric could be coopted by the left). I’m thinking about law, how it organizes and disorganizes society. Florida released George Zimmerman back to Florida. Levitical law would have sent him to Florida, too, half-innocent and safe from reprisal.

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