Upstanders, Bystanders, and Grandstanders
There’s so much to unravel from last week. And a lot to thread back together. In the much maligned 2020, I think there’s more news, coming from more sources, than any of us can efficiently process.
To make matters harder, my theory is we have at least two different nations happening at the same time. And now that America is bifurcated, you really have to keep track of both of them. Believe it or not, all these events happened in the same contiguous nation in the same contiguous week:
While the coronavirus continued to ravage and 30 cities were burning, the President and Elon Musk were off in a different world, or at least wanted to be. The two masters of the universe took a buddy comedy spring break to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of Musk’s SpaceX Dragon rocket. The only flames they saw were on the launch pad, other than the glowing embers of the love they apparently have for each other.
Meanwhile on the other side of the nation, here in California, we had Mark Zuckerberg refusing to flag incendiary speech on Facebook, which ignited internal rancor, some resignations, and a virtual walkout of many employees at his own company who shared via Twitter that they were “ashamed and upset by their employers’ decision to leave the President’s post untouched.” [Sheryl Sandberg may have “leaned in” to help her minority, the Women of Tech, but apparently that’s where her minority empathy ends.]
The posting Mr. Zuckerberg refused to flag came from the President: “Any difficulty and we will assume control, but when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” While Twitter flagged the tweet with a warning that it violates the company’s rules about “glorifying violence,” Facebook took no action, though Zuck said he “agonized” over the decision. Zuckerberg, who is known to have ended his weekly Friday All Hands Meeting with the rallying cry “Domination!” was likely simpatico with America’s CEO, who said on June 1, “We will dominate the streets.”
But of all the images I tried to make sense of last week, and it seemed like there were thousands, the one that stuck with me the most was the image of the bus driver in New York who stepped off his bus in defiance of a police order to drive angry though peaceful protestors to jail.
As I watched that driver literally STAND UP for what he believes is right and step off his bus to cheers from the crowd, I thought of the courage it took to do that in a time when jobs are scarce. And I further wondered what gave this ordinary man the extraordinary fortitude to walk off his bus with a heavily armed police presence on board… along with an even more heavily armed police force waiting for him outside.
John McCain in his book On Courage defined his titular topic as taking action that is dangerous or worthy without regard to one’s personal safety or reputation. But I think courage is more than not having regard for one’s own safety. It’s having regard for yourself but having a greater regard for the “greater good” – putting above oneself the public benefit or a future benefit; a good that goes beyond oneself.
I have a theory that the big moments in life don’t announce themselves. You find yourself in them, often inadvertently, and how you behave in that split second, whether you run from the bullet or run towards that bullet, is a core sample of your values and beliefs imprinted on your moral DNA leading up to that moment. Your behavior in that instant also has to do with prevailing conditions: Do you think your action will work? And even if it doesn’t work, will it make a difference? Could it perhaps lead to a tipping point?
For the bus driver in Brooklyn, the prevailing condition was he already knew he had the backing of his union. Because earlier in the week there had been precedent from another bus driver – this one in Minnesota.
On Wednesday, May 27, not even 48 hours after the death of Mr. Floyd and before the NY bus driver walkout, Minneapolis Metro Transit bus driver Adam Burch also didn’t drive his bus of protesters to jail. And he took it a step further: he organized his own union’s stance (ATU Local 1005) on the topic and disseminated his message through a Facebook post, tapped out on his phone, while on a break at work.
Burch’s post subsequently went viral, organizing transit workers across our entire nation. Which is why bus drivers refused to transport cops or protesters in Boston, Philly, San Francisco, New York, and even in Washington, D.C.
Bus driver Adam Burch. One man. Huge impact. It is because of him that transit workers across the nation knew they didn’t have to just fall in line behind what they believed to be a literally unwarranted police order. Imagine for a moment if the bus driver from the Rosa Parks incident did what Adam Burch did and stood with Parks instead of with Jim Crow? How much further along would civil rights be today?
Interestingly, the way the law worked back in Rosa Parks’s Montgomery, the city code gave bus drivers police powers when it came to the racial assignment of seats. The white bus driver, James Blake, was in fact the complainant in the Rosa Parks case and was even the signatory on the warrant for her arrest. Contrast this with Adam Burch.
Which brings me back to my central question: what makes Adam Burch stand up while Mark Zuckerberg stands by, sitting on his hands as if they’re tied? The answer lies, I think, somewhere in the different moral compositions of Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Burch. I could possibly come up with an elaborate theory but instead I decided to just reach out to Mr. Burch who took my call between shifts.
Turns out Adam drives the exact north/south route on Chicago Avenue which runs by where Mr. Floyd was killed, so Adam sees the George Floyds of the world as his people. This is despite the fact that Adam Burch himself… is white. Adam sees the Breonna Taylors of the world as just like him by virtue of what they do. When I asked Adam why he swung into action so quickly and so aggressively, he cited the old labor motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Apparently, Adam sees people by their collar rather than their color.
Interestingly, by the time the George Floyd incident happened, Adam was already a seasoned protestor from the 2016 Philando Castile incident (another person of color murdered by Minneapolis PD in 2016). Four years ago, ironically or perhaps presciently, in a peaceful protest that blocked the I-94 Freeway, Adam was arrested and taken to jail on a police-commandeered city bus. Which is the reason Adam knew that suppression of dissent requires a whole assembly line of people mechanically doing their jobs… or just scared to lose them.
Four years later, when George Floyd was killed, because Adam was already politically aware and engaged, he knew that in order to break the chain of incendiary violence, he had to find a link he could remove from that chain. And that link in the chain… was himself. He decided he would not drive cops to the protest or protestors to jail, and he would enlist every bus driver he could to do the same.
Meanwhile, as the world burned, a couple of other notables were also trying to help douse the fire: Jack Dorsey, the CEO and co-founder of Twitter, flagged the “looting starts/shooting starts” tweet as “glorifying violence.” While Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel also said he would not “amplify voices that promote racial violence.”
One person notably not trying to help, despite protestations he “agonized” over the decision, was Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg did nothing with the combustible post brought to his attention, saying it still falls under the umbrella of “free speech.” And he doesn’t want to curtail free speech by curating it.
But in reality, Zuckerberg has been totally curating Facebook since its inception. His algorithms determine what you see and what you don’t, witness the infamous case of “Diamond and Silk,” conservative black sisters whose opinions Facebook deemed “unsafe to the community.” Facebook also took down a post by my brother-in-law (who is white) when he used the term “white trash” which Facebook deemed – guess what? Hate speech.
Zuck could totally do what Twitter and Snap did or he could do what Germany does – forward (or at least log) the URL of hate speechers and violence inciters to the proper agencies within law enforcement. Germany, a place well aware the dangers of unfettered, unfiltered speech, has an entire section of law called Volksverhetzung that concerns itself only with incitements to hatred against segments of the population as well as calls to violence against them.
Compare Mark Zuckerberg to Adam Burch. Adam needs his job but was willing to risk it. Meanwhile, with Facebook shares at an all-time high, Mark has somewhere around $80 billion in the bank but isn’t willing to risk any of it. Perhaps Zuckerberg looks at Jeff Bezos with his $160 billion and sees his own glass as only half full.
Adam Burch stands up because he says, “They’re killing our class.” Zuck is willing to endure a virtual walkout and rebuke by his own workers rather than call out incendiary speech for what it is and possibly lose some extreme radical users of his platform.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, back in Cape Canaveral, two space force enthusiasts, one of them our commander-in-chief, ponder bringing Humanity to the far reaches of the universe, because Earth, obviously, has “big problems.” They ponder this as they look out over the water just as the Pilgrims must’ve done 400 years ago before setting sail in the other direction.
I’m not sure what Mr. Musk and Mr. Trump were thinking at the time but they’d do well to contemplate this: If we’re going to settle a brave new world instead of fixing and investing in this one, the success or failure of the Musk-Trump futureworld will depend on the baggage they do or don’t bring along.
The Pilgrims also set sail to start something new. But brought with them, from the very beginning, slavery. Therefore, from the very beginning, the seeds of the experiment in democracy we call America were mixed in with the seeds of that democracy’s destruction, seeds imported from Africa.
I’ve just started my COVID “victory garden” so amongst my many horticultural learnings is something called “plant allelopathy.” Plant allelopathy comes from the Greek words “allelon” which means “each other” and pathos which means “to suffer.” Plant or crop allelopathy is the “chemical warfare” imposed by one plant on another to suppress the latter and take advantage through that suppression. It’s the kind of thing botanists look at when they develop biodomes to see what seeds we should bring to the next world. Allelopathic crops, unless sorted, will eventually extinguish each other. It’s like trying to grow cotton and, I don’t know, liberty in the same field.
Some unsolicited advice for Mr. Musk: No matter where you go, there you are.