Social Issues

at dawn, look to the east

One of my favorite scenes from almost any film is at the end of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, from The Two Towers. They’ve retreated from the walls, and you can feel the hope fading. You feel the same shocked horror as Eowyn when she realizes the end is coming, and coming quickly. When everything seems to be at its most dark and desperate, King Théoden looks at Aragorn, frozen, shocked, despairing.

We’re approaching the end of a horrific week, and at times I feel like we’re facing an unending, teeming horde of Uruk-Hai– but instead of facing a concrete enemy with clattering armor and raised swords, the evil we’re fighting is systemic. Police brutality, like the Uruk-Hai, is just one manifestation of the evil the One Ring represents: the temptation in all men to possess power.

On days like today, I’m reminded of why I originally named my blog Defeating the Dragons. I was referencing a Neil Gaiman paraphrase of a G. K. Chesterton quote:

Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

I was reminded of it yesterday as I witnessed white people all over social media ask Théoden’s question: what can men do against such reckless hate? There was despair and hopelessness- helplessness. The police have killed 566 people this year– that we know of– and 2016 is barely half over. When a problem is this big, what can we do? When it’s seemingly in every state, in every justice department, in every police force, in every prison?

But, Théoden’s crushing despair isn’t the answer in this scene. The answer is delivered through Aragorn, who isn’t removed, isn’t separate, from Théoden’s fate. He meets Théoden’s eyes unflinchingly and says “Ride out with me.” Théoden assumes that Aragorn is envisioning a last ride of blazing glory, but Aragorn contradicts him: “For Rohan. For your people.

Of course, the audience knows what Théoden doesn’t– that Gandalf told Aragorn “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.” Aragorn is trusting Gandalf to pull some miracle out of his robes, but Theodan isn’t aware of that.

Today, we need to be Théoden listening to Aragorn. To ignore our feelings of helplessness that could push us into desensitization and apathy. We could try to retreat through the passage into the mountains– or we can ride out for our people. Apathy and helplessness are beckoning, I won’t deny it– especially since, as white people, it’s not just possible but easier for us to pretend like the Uruk-Hai and the malice of Sauron isn’t a real threat to anyone. If we’re not Théoden, in the trenches at Helm’s Deep, we could be any one of the blissfully ignorant nations who believes that Saruman the White is just some puttering old wizard who mostly just hangs out in his tower. Him, trying to destroy Rohan? That’s laughable!

Turns out, though, that’s exactly what him and Wormtongue want us to believe. Empire and its oppressive power wants us to remain apathetic, is trying to convince us it’s not really our problem. Alton Stirling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland— aren’t they just minor aberrations and not worth getting ourselves worked up about? They probably did something to deserve it anyway. As long as the only people the police are routinely gunning down don’t look like me, then our police force acting like something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare is fine. Our lives are comfortable, unruffled by the constant fear of the police. They’re our thin line of blue, after all– the ones sworn to protect and serve. They couldn’t possibly be burning down an entire forest to forge weapons and turning Orthanc into a war machine.

It’s our responsibility to banish Wormtongue– his lies and his apathy– from our holds. To listen to Aragorn even when it seems hopeless. I won’t make false promises– maybe it is hopeless. But I choose to believe that nothing is truly hopeless unless we let it be, that evil can only win if good men do nothing.

***

In this extended metaphor of a post, as white people in a country with a militarized police force and a racist legal system, we’re not actually Théoden and his men. I know it seems like we’re the ones facing a monstrous force working to crush us, but we’re not. We’re not the ones fighting for our lives against the Uruk-Hai, struggling to hold out for just one more day, one more dawn.

We’re the Rohirrim. We’re the ones with the power to do something. It’s against everything good and just that we have this power in our hands, but we have it. But we have to show up– we have to be there at dawn on the fifth day, willing to face the Uruk-Hai when we could have been running away and pretending that the fate of Helm’s Deep has nothing to do with us. Without us, Théoden falls. Without us standing up for the people of color who are our sisters and brothers and siblings, our fellow children of God, then Helm’s Deep is lost.

They can’t fight this battle on their own. They need us.

***

So, practically, what does this look like, since of course it’s not going to be one glorious moment of us rushing downhill in a single magnificent charge. Maybe we’ll have those victories, but it’s not just the Uruk-Hai. It’s not just Saruman. Those are only puppets, really, symptoms. But, we have to start somewhere.

First, start with educating yourself. Acknowledge that as a white person you do benefit from a racist system. Keep educating yourself. Stay aware, and pay attention. Listen to people of color about their experiences. Cultivate a mind and heart that responds with compassion and grief.

Then, look into what needs to be done to reform our police forces. Get involved, and listen to brown and black people about where you should direct your energies and focus. When it comes to the police, local government is crucial. Delve into the histories of the people who serve as your judges, your sheriff, your mayor. Research the histories of those running for those positions and hold them accountable. Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote. Communicate with your city councils, your district attorneys. Call your state senators and representatives and make it clear that police reform is a priority for you, their constituent.

If you can, see if you can get involved in politics– and that doesn’t necessarily mean running for public office. You can work to make sure police reform is a part of your party’s platform on the state level. You can meet up with the local Democratic or Republican committee and convince them to make police reform an important issue in your county politics. You can be the persistent widow.

Ride out with us– not for death and glory, but for our people.

For the least of these, the widow, the prisoner, the orphan.

Photo by New Line Cinema
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  • Beroli

    That’s brilliant and beautiful, Sam.

  • Lindsaydoodles

    Seconding Beroli below. Brilliant and beautiful. I love Lord of the Rings and the metaphor is perfect (even if my inner nerd feels compelled to point out that Theoden is spelled with two Es and no A). Definitely going to be musing on this and taking hope–I’ve really felt the despair this week I’ll admit. Thank you for the encouragement today.

    • I was spelling it Theoden, but when I went to check the quote the site I found said Theodan… thought it was weird but assumed I must have been wrong. lol

  • Harmony

    Sometimes I have to acknowledge that I am a violent person. Times like this make me wish I *could* just take up my sword and begin laying waste to the oppressors, to the bullies of the underdogs. But it makes me feel helpless because I know it doesn’t work that way.

  • I love this post so much.

  • Kevin

    I think I’m going to read this to a family friend and to my mom(both African-Americans). To share my thoughts on being mixed race would make this reply too long(so I’ll probably do a blog post). I will just say that the lighter your skin the less racism you face(our family friend faces a lot more racism[having dark skin] than I do). The term I’ve heard used is passing privilege; but, at least from white supremacist systems, you’re still an outsider. The book The Bastard of Istanbul(TW for rape and genocide) by Elif Şafak mentions the Janissary’s paradox: the Janissaries were taken from Christian homes as children during the Ottoman Empire(mostly Muslim). The could end up in top administrative positions in the military and the empire but to do so they had to renounce from whence they’d come. It’s not as bad as it was in my great-grandparents’ generation, though, as I feel I don’t have to choose black or white(or global citizen).
    I do recommend Encyclopedia Africana, and if you have questions it’s fine if you ask me.

    • The term one heard POC use for the light/dark skin issue is “colorism”.

  • That is lovely, Samantha. Thank you.

    • Obama Bin Laden

      Don’t post anything anymore, you sick in the head, degenerate. Make sure the rest of your family sterilizes themselves too. Whacko.

  • Lucy

    One thing’s for certain. Police reform would definitely go a long way towards preventing some of the worst effects of racism. Also, it would be helpful to autistics who have explosive meltdowns on occasion; even white autistics may fear that, at the very least, they will be put in a mental institution and never get out because their autism means they will always act pathologically to the institution judges. Furthermore, though this is far less frequent than with black people, white people with various disabilities (including Down’s syndrome) and mental illnesses get killed and experience police brutality too – sometimes their behavior is suspicious enough that not even their race will protect them. Keep in mind that I am referring SPECIFICALLY to those white people who grew up fearing that one wrong move could “put them in the loony bin” – I use this bit of language here, not to stigmatize mentally ill people, but as an illustration of the fear and self-hatred people who are forcibly committed because people got them on a bad day for something that does not actually interfere with their sanity but looks alarming may feel. Also, I use it because people who have been in institutions before, and been manipulated there, may be traumatized by it and don’t always want to refer to it so nicely – for these people, calling it the “loony bin” is a kind of reclamation; if you are not at risk of being institutionalized and never have been, don’t use that word. Now, obviously, those who had a good experience with the mental health system will not want to use that word or those similar to it, but those whose experiences with those systems are bad may want to, in part because the fact that the institutions also forbid these types of words for being ableist and still treat them in an ableist manner and so restricting ableist slurs may not mean much to people in that situation – often the ones who forbid ableist words are the mental health professionals who treat them in ableist and degrading ways, repeatedly. Speaking of which, if you are tired and suffering from conditions like that, it can be hard to feel like the “Rohirrim”; that can sound like a tall order when you can barely take care of yourself or are just one bout of stress from not being able to do so.
    Of course, that does not mean white people with these illnesses don’t still have privilege – black people, particularly ones with various disabilities or mental illnesses, are far more likely to be killed or imprisoned than any white person – but out of all white people and other “privileged” people, those with mental illnesses and disabilities are the ones most likely to grow up fearing the ax coming down. I know I did; and not being arrested or killed but merely asked if I was okay did not lessen that fear; it only left me worrying when the other shoe would drop and I would finally be brought down for acting weird. Anxiety as a result of mental health stigma and fearing being put away has no idea that black people are more at risk than white people, and to me it feels arrogant to dismiss the risk to neurodivergent white people – it feels kind of like saying, “I’m white, so nothing will happen to me”, which is tantamount to saying it is not my problem, particularly when it could be if my condition deteriorates too much (especially as a result of old age) when my youthful good looks fade, thus removing my “pretty privilege” as well.
    It seems to me like the real work of ending racism, ableism, and other institutional prejudices will likely take generations, though concrete steps taken now can help lessen the effects. Teaching kids how to recognize privilege and not be too prejudiced (while still seeing what makes the person different; trying to not see the difference does not really help) and how to differentiate their own dislikes of and lack of attraction to a particular person from being biased would help, as would teaching them that, while they should call the police if someone actually draws a gun on people or otherwise is immediately violent towards a person, or if they hear screaming combined with angry and destructive behavior from someone else (like yelling “Shut up” or the sound of a plate smashing against a wall) they should take a few seconds to think twice about it if it is anything less than that, even if the person is carrying a gun or they hear screaming independent of other sounds (that could be a meltdown, not abuse; meltdowns eventually resolve themselves on their own if left alone). It is true that you can’t single-handedly fix wage disparities – say, if you tried to give a black person some of your wages to even things out, they might think you were buying them off, and with good reason, but electing leaders willing to fight racism is a big help
    I think this article by Karla McLaren (a former New Age person turned pro-science person) is a good place to look when learning about privilege – you could not ask for a more gentle and careful explanation of that, influenced by the fact that Karla McLaren’s privilege enables her to talk about it without getting or sounding angry; she does not experience a whole lot of personal discrimination and thus has room not to, and she is also privileged to have a smiley personality that enables her to talk about privilege that way. There is also a comment, by me, on that article likening privilege to superpowers (not that they are; I am talking about the actual moral status of privilege, not an imagined supernatural thing). And yes, she does use the word “traitor”, but she means it in a good way, as in betraying a prejudiced system and being a hero to the cause of people with less privilege.
    http://karlamclaren.com/how-to-be-a-privilege-traitor/

  • martha

    You moved to make one more web search for a protest I could actually get to. Found it. Went. Just got back. Thanks.