Does the moral arc bend towards justice?
I was twenty when my friends and I piled into my Geo Metro and drove north through the night, six of us in that damn little car. We were a funny, rag tag crew, sticking out like sore thumbs in the Bronx — small town kids in a big city — and I found a piece of cardboard and wrote “41 SHOTS” on it in marker and carried it above my head as we joined the protest.
It all seemed so shocking to me then. I was even more shocked when all four officers were acquitted a year later. There would be no consequences for the murder of Amadou Diallo.
Sean Bell. Abner Louima. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Atatiana Jefferson. Terence Crutcher. Breanna Taylor. Marcus Smith. Does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice? We do not, actually, know.
We only know that it is long. Twenty two years after that drive to the Bronx and making that cardboard sign and I am sitting with my neighbor on the porch watching the Derek Chauvin verdict come in on his phone and we both let out a breath that we did not even realize we were holding in. A sigh of relief for a guilty verdict for a crime documented from beginning to end? This feels like a very tepid bend.
We can only guess the curvature of an arc from the position where we stand. As I marched earlier this week in Elizabeth City, just another person in just another crowd, walking among the same chants — no justice, no peace — of twenty years ago, it was not lost on me that I was repeating the same steps, moving in the same motions that millions of us have now for decades. It is impossible not to wonder to what end? It is impossible not to be self-centered and wonder if I can do anything that matters here. I watched two young white kids bustle alongside the march with medical kits and walkie talkies, trying to look and feel useful. I do not begrudge them: We all want purpose here. We all want to feel that we are making a difference, to prove our utility, to prove our goodness as the universe bends.
But proving our individual goodness or trying to absolve ourselves from the horrors of systems does not bend this arc either. This journey towards justice is not preordained, it is not something we naturally progress towards.
In Elizabeth City, I watched the grieving mother of Fred Cox walk alongside the grieving Brown family and am reminded of Amadou’s mother, Kadijatou, who moved to the United States after her son’s murder to become an activist and of all the times I have seen her or Philonise Floyd or Mary Smith or Sybrina Fulton march in the streets. This long movement is a collection of those still living, gathered together by circumstance and through injustice. Those unfortunate ranks of survivors — community members scared by trauma, families in mourning — continue to grow.
Next to me, an elderly Black woman moves slowly with her cane: Release the tapes! she chants. The real tapes! In front of me a mother holds the weeks old grandson of Andrew Brown Jr.
Perhaps it is less our actions and more the aggregate that eventually tips the scale, jars the horizon line so that we can see the end. I imagine us all here as an assembly, an agglomeration, an anthology hanging on to that moral arc, our collective weight pulling it down towards us.