In the wake of George Floyd’s death, I debated whether to address it specifically in this space. So much had been said by so many people, much of it more harmful than helpful… maybe it would be best to say nothing, and instead try to provide a brief, humorous diversion from our collective troubles, as I’d originally planned?
But it nagged at me, and I knew I would regret ignoring the incident in this forum. Sometimes it’s about the number of voices, not the specifics of what’s being said. The semi-prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. captured this idea perfectly: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Still, the question remained, how? What did I have to say that might cast events in a different light, or cause them to be seen from a different angle?
Inspiration came from an unlikely source: Star Trek. I’ve been rewatching the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with my kids, in fits and starts, for a couple of years. A few days after George Floyd’s death, we sat down to watch the next episode, expecting the usual escapist fantasy. We got much more.
In 1998’s “Far Beyond the Stars,” (Season 6, Episode 13), a vivid vision/hallucination transports the Black 24th century Starfleet Captain Benjamin Sisko—played by Avery Brooks, who also directed the episode—to a version of 1950s Earth, where he’s Benny Russell, a struggling writer at a science fiction magazine. Benny writes a story about a space station and its commander, a Black man named Benjamin Sisko. (That’s right, Star Trek goes meta.) Despite praise from his peers for its quality, Benny’s story is turned down because it features a Black protagonist. Benny is fired, and as he struggles to determine which timeframe is reality and which is fiction, another Black character is caught breaking into a car offscreen, and is shot by two white policemen, despite being unarmed.
Sometimes fiction is too close to the truth.
Each person’s view of life is filtered through his or her experiences, and I think watching this episode years ago, as a young man, was the first time I really connected to the impact of prejudice. My father had shared stories of discrimination against Italian-Americans, and his own formative experiences inspired him to work against it throughout his life. But as I was growing up, the idea of someone treating me differently because of my last name always seemed foreign, distant, a remnant of another time. And though I knew racism existed, I couldn’t relate to being unfairly harassed by law enforcement because of skin color, since it had never happened to me.
Writing was much closer to home. When I first saw the episode, I connected with its depiction of the early days of science fiction, and the highs and lows of writing. Even as an adult, this episode stands out for me—I’m a little embarrassed to admit—not so much because of the Black man who’s unnecessarily shot by police, which still seems too insane to be possible in the real world despite hours of video evidence to the contrary. Rather, it stood out because writing was familiar enough that I could at least better understand the despair and outrage that such unfair treatment breeds.
Watching the episode again, amid the daily turmoil that followed George Floyd’s death, reminded me of the basic injustice at the heart of it all.
These are complicated times, made more so by social media, 24-hour news cycles, and constant battles over terminology, meaning, and who can or should say what. One person’s statement of unity, “All Lives Matter,” is another’s callous dismissal of Black lives. I’ve been fortunate that my experiences with racism have been second-hand—much of it through books, television, and movies—but the term “White Privilege,” meant to reflect that difference in real-life experience, seems too often to distract from the message. And I can’t think of a worse slogan to introduce the complex but potentially beneficial idea of rebudgeting money to address the underlying causes of crime—instead of simply prosecuting it—than “Defund the Police.”
But again, sometimes it’s about the number of voices, not the specifics of what’s being said. The vast majority of Americans believe what happened to George Floyd was wrong. We run into trouble at conjunction junction—What happened was wrong, AND. What happened was wrong, BUT. What happened was wrong, SO.
Changes have to be made, and they will be, thanks to those voices. Aware of the ugly past and the historic, messy, transformative present, I, like Benny Russell, choose to imagine a future where these problems don’t exist. I just hope we don’t have to wait until the 24th century to get there.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.