I watched the following video from Trevor Noah speaking about the protests and I was greatly moved. While I’ve long known that are deep structural problems in our society, Trevor brings a succinct perspective on the events unfolding around America today. I was moved to write out the transcript for posterity and as an effort to better my understanding of the issues at hand. This moment of time will be recorded however it plays out, and Trevor Noah’s words should be part of it.
Note: I’ve written the transcript as best I could, but being that he was speaking off-the-cuff for much or all of it, I have removed some “ums” and “likes” and other stammers but have tried to communicate the sentiment and meaning of his words accurately.
Hey, what’s going on everybody? You know what’s really interesting about what’s happening in America right now, is that a lot of people don’t seem to realize how dominos connect. How one piece knocks another piece, that knocks another piece and at the end creates a giant wave. Each story seems completely unrelated and yet at the same time, I feel like everything that happens in the world connects to something else in someway shape or form. And I think this news cycle that we witnessed in the last week is a perfect example of that: Amy Cooper, George Floyd, and the people of Minneapolis.
Amy Cooper was for many people, I think, the catalyst — and by the way, I should mention that all of this is against the backdrop of coronavirus, you know. People stuck in there houses for one of the longest periods we can remember, people losing more jobs than anyone can ever remember, people struggling to make due more than they can ever remember, and I think all of that compounded by the fact there seems to be no genuine plan from leadership. Know one knows what’s going to happen, know one knows how long there supposed to ‘be good,’ how long they’re supposed to stay inside, how long they’re supposed to flatten the curve. Know one knows any of these things.
So what happens is you have is a group of people who are stuck inside. All of us, our society, we’re stuck inside. And then we start to consume, we see what’s happening in the world, and I think Amy Cooper was one of the first moments, one of dominos that we saw get knocked down post corona, for many people. And that was a world where you quickly realize that while everyone is facing the battle against coronavirus, black people in America are still facing the battle against racism and coronavirus.
The reason I say it’s a domino is because, think about how many black Americans have just read and seen the news about how black people are disproportionately effected by coronavirus. Not because of something inherently inside of black people, but rather because of the lives black people have lived for so long. Coronavirus exposed all of it, and now here you have this woman who — we’ve all seen the video now — blatantly knew how to use the power of her whiteness to threaten the life of another man and his blackness. What we saw with her was a really, really powerful, explicit example of an understanding of racism in a structural way. When she looked at that man, when she looked at [Christian] Cooper and she said to him, “I’m going to call 911 and tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She knew how powerful that was. And that in itself is telling. It tells you how she perceives the police. It tells you how she perceives her perception or her relationship with the police as a white woman. It shows you how she perceives a black man’s relationship with police and the police’s relationship with him. It was really powerful, cause so many people act like they don’t know what black Americans were talking about, and yet Amy Cooper had a distinct understating — she was like, oh I know, I know that you’re afraid of interacting with the police because there is a presumption of your guilt because of your blackness. I know that as a white woman, I can weaponize this tool against you, and I know that by the time we’ve sifted through who was right and wrong, there’s a good chance that you will have lost in someway, shape or form.
And so for me that was the first domino. And so now you’re living in a world where so many people are watching this video, so many people are being triggered because in many ways it was like a gotcha. It was like the curtain had been pulled back, like “ah ha, so you do this.” Because it’s always been spoken about, but this was powerful to see it being used. I think a lot of people were triggered by that, a lot of people were like, “Damn, we knew it was real, but this was like real, real.”
I think a lot of people were also angry that some of the outrage that came to her was because of her dog. And I mean I get it. A lot of people felt like it would have great if the dog shelters had the same power, or if police departments were run by the same people who run dog shelters, because they seem to act like this [snap]. They didn’t waste time, they were like, “Nope, we’d like our dog back lady.” Which I’m going to be honest, I think was a hell of a punishment. Her job is one thing, taking a white lady’s dog — that was a nice dog.
So that was first domino. That was first domino where I felt like you could feel something stirring. And of this again is in the backdrop: coronavirus has happened, the numbers have come out, the story of Ahmad Arbery in Georgia, that story has come out. All of these things are happening, and then the video of George Floyd comes out and I don’t know what made more painful for people to watch, the fact that that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes, the fact that we’re watching someone being murdered by someone who’s job it is to protect and serve. Or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it.
Often times we’re told that police feared for they’re life, there was a threat, and you always feel like an asshole when you’re like, “You didn’t fear for your life. Why did you fear for your life? How did you fear?” But now, more and more, we’re starting to see there doesn’t seem like there is a fear, it just seems like you could do it, so you did it. There was a black man on the ground in handcuffs and you could take his life, so you did; almost knowing that there would be no ramifications.
And then, again, everyone on the internet has to watch this, everyone sees it, it flies by our timelines. And I think one ray of sunshine for me in that moment was seeing how many people instantly condemned what they saw. Maybe it’s because I’m an optimistic person but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that, especially not in America. I haven’t seen a police video come out and just see across the board, I mean even Fox News commentators, and police chiefs from around the country immediately condemning what they saw. No questions, not “what was he doing?” just going “No, what happened here was wrong. It was wrong, this person got murdered on camera.”
Then the police were fired, great. But I think what people take for granted is how much for so many people that feels like nothing. How many of us as human beings can take the life of another human being and then have firing be the worst thing that happens to us. And yes, we don’t know where the case will go, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like there is no moment of justice. There is no — you know, if you’re watching a movie you want to see the perpetrators in handcuffs, you want to see the perpetrators facing some sort of justice. Yes they might come out on bail etcetera, I think there’s a lot of catharsis that comes with seeing that justice being doled out.
When the riots happened, that for me was an interesting culmination of everything. I saw so many people online saying, “These riots are disgusting, this is not how a society should be run. You do not loot and you do not burn and you do not… This is not how our society is built.” And that actually triggered something in me where I was like, “Man ok, but what is society?” And fundamentally when you boil it down, society is a contract. It’s a contract that we sign as human beings amongst each other. We sign a contract with each other as people, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, we say, “Amongst this group of us, we agree in common rules, common ideals, and common practices that are going to define us as a group.”
That’s what I think society is, it’s a contract. And as with most contracts, the contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it. But if you think of being a black person in America who is living in Minneapolis or Minnesota or any place where you’re not having a good time, ask yourself this question when you watch those people: what vested interest do they have in maintaining the contract? Like, why don’t we all loot? Why doesn’t everybody take? Because we’ve agreed on things. There are so many people who are starving out there, there are so many people who don’t have. There are people who are destitute, there are people who when the virus hit, and they don’t have a second paycheck, are already broke, which is insane but that’s the reality. But still think about how many people who don’t have, the have-nots, who say, “You know what, I’m still going to play by the rules even though I have nothing, because I still wish for this society to work and exist.” And then, some members of that society, namely black American people, watch time and time again how the contract they have signed with society is not being honored by the society that has forced them to sign it with them.
When you watch Ahmaud Arbery being shot and you hear that those men have been released, and were it not for the video and the outrage those people would be living their lives, what part of the contract is that in society?
When you see George Floyd on the ground, and you see a man losing his life, in a way that no person should ever have to lose their life, at the hands of someone who’s supposed to enforce the law, what part of the contract is that?
And a lot of people say, “Well, what good does this do?” Yeah, but what good doesn’t it do? That’s the question that people don’t ask the other way around. “What good does it do to loot Target? How does it help you to loot Target?” Yeah, but how does it help you to not loot Target? Answer that question. Because the only reason you didn’t loot Target before is because you were upholding society’s contract. There is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end of it. And that’s the thing that I don’t think people understand sometimes. Is that we need people at the top to be the most accountable because they are the ones who are basically setting the tone and the tenner for everything that we do in society. It’s the same way that we tell parents to set an example for their kids. The same way we tell captains or coaches to set an example for their players. The same way we tell teachers to set an example for their students. The reason we do that is because we understand in society that if you lead by example there is a good chance that people follow that example that you have set. And so if the example law enforcement is setting, is that they do not adhere to the laws, then why should the citizens of that society adhere to to the laws when in fact the law enforcers themselves, don’t?
There’s a really fantastic chapter Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” where he talks about the principals of legitimacy and he says, “In order for us to argue that any society or any legal body or an power is legitimate, we have to agree on core principles. And those three principals if I remember correctly is: number one, we have to agree on what the principals are; number two, we have to believe that the people who are enforcing the principals are going to enforce them fairly; and number three, we have to agree that everyone in that society is going to be treated fairly according to those principals.
It is safe to say, in this one week alone and maybe even from the beginning of coronavirus really blowing out in America, black Americans have seen their principals completely delegitimized. Because if you’re a black person in America right now and you’re watching this, if you’re a black American person specifically, and you’re watching this, what principals are you seeing?
I think sometimes the thing that we need to remember — and it’s something I haven’t remembered my whole life, you start to learn these things, when you travel the world, when you read, when you learn about society, I think is that like — when you are a have and when you are a have-not you see the world in very different ways. And a lot of the time people say to the have-nots, “This is not the right way to handle things.” When Collin Kaepernick kneels they say, “This is not the right way to protest.” When Martin Luther King [Jr.] had children as part of his protests in Birmingham, Alabama people said, “Having children at your protest is not the right way to do things.” When he marched on Selma people said, “This is not the right way to do things.” When people marched through the streets in South Africa during Apartheid they said, “This is not the right way to do things.” When people burn things they say… It’s never the right way, because there is never a right way to protest. And I’ve said this before, there is no right way to protest because that’s what protest is. It cannot be right because you are protesting against the thing that is stopping you.
And so I think what a lot of people don’t realize, is the same way that you might have experienced even more anger and more just visceral disdain watching those people loot that Target, think to yourselves, or maybe it would help you if you think about that unease that you felt watching that Target being looted. Try to imagine how it must feel for black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Because that’s fundamentally what’s happening in America.
Police in America are looting black bodies. And I know someone might think that that’s an extreme phrase, but it’s not because here’s the thing I think that a lot of people don’t realize: George Floyd died, that is part of the reason the story became so big, is because he died. But how many George Floyds are there there that don’t die? How many men are having knees put on their necks? How many Sandra Blands are out there being tossed around? It doesn’t make the news because it’s not grim enough, it doesn’t even get us enough anymore. It’s only the deaths, the gruesome deaths that stick out. But image to yourself, if you grew up in a community where everyday someone had their knee on your neck, where everyday somebody was out there oppressing you, every single day, you tell me what that does to you as a society, as a community, as a group of people. And when you know that this is happening because of the color of your skin. Not because the people are saying it is happening because of the color of your skin, but rather because it is only happening to you and you are the only people that have that skin color.
And I know there’s people who will say, “Yeah but like, how come black people don’t care when black people kill?” But that’s one of the dumbest arguments ever, of coarse they care. If you’ve ever been to a hood anywhere, not just in America but anywhere in the world, you’d know how much black people care about that. If you know anything about under policing and over policing you would understand how that comes to be. The police show black people how valuable their lives are considered by the society. And so then those people who live in those communities know how to or not deal with those lives. Because best believe, if you kill a white person, especially in America, there is a whole lot more justice that is coming your way than if you killed some black body in black neighborhood somewhere.
So to anyone who watched that video, don’t ask yourself if it’s right or wrong to loot. Don’t ask yourself why does looting help? No, no, no. Ask yourself that question. Ask yourself why it got you that much more, watching these people loot because they were destroying the contract that you thought they had signed with your society. And now think to yourself, imagine if you were them, watching that contract being ripped up every single day. Ask yourself how you’d feel.