The luxury of inaction

For a few days this past week, I attended a big conference held at a downtown convention center. Yesterday–Saturday afternoon–a friend and I were entering the building. We heard a woman’s voice, loud and upset.

“What are you doing? Why are you arresting him, what did he do wrong?”

What I saw: Four people in uniform surrounding an African-American man, the woman standing nearby.

“He didn’t do anything! Why are you arresting him?”

In that instant, the news stories of the past several years flashed into my head. Without saying anything to each other, my friend and I moved toward the woman—not aggressively, and not getting in the way of the uniformed people. I just wanted her to know that we were nearby, and watching.

One of the uniformed officers broke away from the others and asked us to stand back. He also told the woman to come inside the building to get her things.

“I’m not leaving him,” she said. “That’s my husband, I’m not leaving him.”

By now we had been joined by at least two or three other people. They were talking to the woman, and to the man in uniform. From what I could gather, the man—now being handcuffed—was a musician, and had been invited to perform at the conference. As he was leaving after his performance, he was detained for not having some kind of permit.

“He was INVITED here!” the woman kept saying. Then she said, “Will someone please film this? I don’t have my phone, my bag is over there—”

And I froze.

I was afraid.

My friend, braver than me, got out her phone and began filming. While she filmed, I helped the woman gather her things, and her husband’s things. He plays the trombone; together, she and I had to figure out how to take it apart to put it in the case.

“I never touch this thing, it’s his,” she said. She was calmer now, and even managed a small, worried smile as we tried to figure out the trombone.

The man was taken away in what looked like a police car. Later I learned that the people in uniform were security for the convention center, not city police officers. The man had been taken to a ‘booking office’ on the grounds.

I also learned that the man had had his trombone case open in front of him while he was playing, and that people were putting money in it. Considered ‘solicitation’, it is apparently forbidden without a permit. I found myself wondering why this was an offense that called for handcuffs. And wondering how things would have been different if the musician had been white. The uniformed officers: one white man, one black woman, two black men.

A few hours later, I ran into one of the other witnesses. She told me that everything had been straightened out, and all charges had been dropped.

Of course I was relieved. But I also confessed to her: “I was afraid. The wife, she asked us to record what was happening, and I froze.”

She tried to comfort me. “I did just the same,” she said. “It wouldn’t have done them any good for us to get arrested, too.”

Maybe. But as a black woman, she was potentially at greater risk than I as an Asian-American would have been. And maybe it had ended up being the most sensible choice for my friend, a blonde Caucasian, to be the one filming.

I was, and am, ashamed that I was afraid. No, that’s not quite right. I’m not ashamed that I was afraid: I’m ashamed that my fear stopped me from reaching for my phone. Why had that happened?

I am grateful to have had the chance to learn this about myself in this way: My fear and my inaction were in the end inconsequential. I was sobered and shaken to realize the extent of my cowardice. I’ve learned, and pondered, and am determined not to let fear stop me again from doing what I think is right. Because my fear at that moment cannot begin to compare with what the musician and his wife must have been feeling.

When the freedoms, safety, and even lives of people are unjustly endangered, inaction due to fear is a luxury that I cannot afford.

As I left the building to catch my flight home, I passed crowds of people entering, to attend the evening’s event–the highlight of the conference.

A presentation by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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