A friend on Facebook recently posted to ask, “What’s different this time?”, a sincere invitation to ponder what caused the video of an incident of police brutality in Minneapolis resulting in the murder of George Floyd to catch fire. Today, I watched the video Trevor Noah posted about a week ago to the Daily Show‘s YouTube channel. I haven’t fallen in love with Noah’s comedy on The Daily Show, but I find him very intelligent and wanted to hear his outsider’s insight into the forces at play in this American moment. He did not disappoint, and I think his 20-minute statement provides an excellent answer to my friend’s question. What’s different in Noah’s statement is that he is willing to meet people where they are in the discussion of race relations in America in order to draw meaning from the moment.
Noah does an excellent job of analyzing the spark lit by Amy Cooper, who threatened to use the NYPD as a weapon against a black man who shamed her for being a scofflaw. All she was doing was letting her dog off its leash, and when Chris Cooper (no relation) called her out for it all she had to do was leash her dog or walk away. Instead, she threatened to ruin & endanger his life, wielding a weapon that is available only to white people. The precision with which she brandished this weapon—shifting the inflection in her voice to conjure the spectre of grave danger when she at first wasn’t getting her way with the police dispatcher—is chilling. Why was this grown woman behaving so childishly? Why have we provided her the means to do so? Noah points out that the explosive reaction to the video a few days later of Floyd being asphyxiated was in part the result of so many white folks’ watching the Cooper video and knowing exactly how unfair the system is, and knowing that we have allowed it to be so for so long. It caused revulsion and may have started many people thinking about the power imbalance between races, the broken social contract that does not protect all people equally. Then, we see video of that social contract being shredded in apparent calm—as Noah aptly describes it, brutal calm—as the MPD officer kneels on a subdued man’s neck for nearly 9 minutes.
Noah discusses the social contract: we accept limitations on our liberty to invest authority in a government that in turn protects us as a group. He introduces the concept of this contract being broken when law enforcement officers who are sworn to uphold that protective shield fail to do so. He also indicates why so many people of color feel such oppression, vulnerability, and injustice, even if they have not experienced this degree of loss & suffering at the hands of the police, because the sharing of these videos and stories victimizes folks by undermining their trust not only in law enforcement, but in the whole enterprise of American government and society. He then draws a clear analogy to the upset felt when folks watch videos of the rioting and looting that has gripped cities in the intervening week.
This is the story I came for. As a South African man, Noah can look at the different scenarios with some degree of detachment. While it might be offensive to many for someone to compare the crime of stealing items from Target to the crime of slowly strangling a man to death in the middle of a crowded street in broad daylight, Noah can step back and dispassionately “meet people where they are” on this topic. If you accept that looting is a crime and you feel shock and horror at the breach of social norms that embodies, you can use that emotion as a wedge to illuminate the horror and rage you would feel if you had to watch the crime of one of your fellow citizens being murdered by the men who were sworn to protect him and the breach that would entail. His sensitive drawing of this analogy does not try to create an equivalence, but calmly lays out a pathway for understanding.
In Noah’s analysis, “what’s different this time” is that the foundation was made ready by the Cooper video so that the George Floyd murder could build something on top of that sense of shock, rage, and shame. It created a space not only for the rage of people of color who have been raising this concern in various forms for years, but it also lured white Americans into seeing what could not be denied.