Robbins: The most basic civil right |

Robbins: The most basic civil right

George Floyd is sadly just the latest.

In a long unbroken chain yoking back from Floyd through Eric Gardner to Tamir Rice to Freddie Gray, police killings of unarmed black men reaches back with a skeletal hand to Jim Crow and the national shame and collective humiliation of slavery.

The first promises of the Declaration of Independence — what is really the first flag of the American people planted in the soil of our freedoms — are these: that “…all men are created equal… [that] they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… [and] among these [rights] are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Let’s consider that a moment. 

The words of Jefferson, adopted by the Continental Congress, hold as “self-evident” that all men are created equal. Despite the tortured divide between North and South in the first troubled century of our nationhood, the Founders adopted the ideal — if sadly not the practice — that every human being was, in the eyes of his or her Creator, “equal.” 

Such a simple word.

The right to life

What then does “equal” mean? In shorthand, it means “the same.”  In the longhand of morality and human decency, it means that I am no better than you and you are no better than I. And on the scales of lawful conduct it means that Lady Justice must be color blind. An “inalienable” right is one bestowed by God, not man. An inalienable right cannot be taken or conferred. It simply “is.” It is the birthright of our human existence as fundamental to each one of us as our bone and sinew and our DNA.

The first right in the first instrument of American democracy — our declaration made to all the world — in the first substantive paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is the right to life. Like all rights, however, the right to life can be forfeited. But only for just cause and only after due process, guaranteed to each of us under the Constitution, has been fairly and fully exhausted. It cannot be absconded by a lynch mob, whether they be men in pointed hoods or men in blue with badges on their chests. Wrong is simply wrong; neither God nor justice cares how you are dressed or the color of your skin.

With our lights shined on the Constitution, we must guarantee the officers in Minneapolis a presumption of innocence. While as of this writing, only Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder in Floyd’s Death, while the three others have not been charged with any crime, if and when they are, we must bite our tongues and quell our collective outrage if not our anger, and trust our institutions to do right. But there is no denying that we have also seen what we have seen. And what we have seen is as ugly as young Emmett Till lying in his open casket or Medgar Evers with a bullet in his back.

Which brings me in an admittedly roundabout way to what has become our current national hysteria over face masks. Breathing has suddenly become an act of solidarity, defiance, or some convoluted and inarticulable thrown-down gauntlet of misplaced patriotism. How in God’s good name did we arrive at this strange and alien land? When did a simple swath of cotton over our lips become our Lexington and Concord? Don’t we have better things to do?

Since at least the great influenza pandemic of 1918, face masks have been de rigueur to control the spread of communicable disease as has social distancing, personal responsibility, and proper hygiene. 

The philosopher, George Santayana famously observed that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In the Spanish Flu — which had not the slightest whit to do with Spain — in a world with about a third of our present population, 20 to 50 million lives were lost. Worldwide today, 376,000 have lost their battles with COVID-19.  It is worth noting too that in the 1918 pandemic the second wave was much worse and much more lethal than the first. Stated as plainly as I can; this stuff is real.

If you have to belly-up to the bar — and, damn, I understand the pent-up ache to free ourselves from our individual and collective isolation — is a mask or other covering too much to ask? I protect you. You protect me.  We all have the right to live.

Looking out for each other

What does this have to do with George Floyd?

Very little and a lot.

First, we must look out for one another.

Second, we all have an inalienable right to life. And the right to freely breathe.

Third, each and every action creates a butterfly effect.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.  In other words, very small changes create significantly different outcomes. We all affect us all. Every small act has a payoff, good or bad.

Until we are all treated equally — and treat each other equally — and all of us are afforded human decency and respect, none of us is truly free. 

None of us can breathe. 

You and I and all of us are our brothers’ keepers.

Regarding George Floyd, enough. Simply enough. Let injustice die on the spot where George Floyd gasped his final breath. Is blind, impartial justice too much to ask?

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