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In Case of Emergency


A while ago, I had a chance to learn about how I react in emergencies.

The event unfolded on the street in front of my house. The emergency probably only lasted twenty minutes or so, but in my mind it has become symbolic of the general state of emergency we are living in all the time. It had all the same players — a virtually powerless victim, overly powerful guys in uniforms with guns, passers-by who notice the horror but consider it status quo and so continue on their way, others who notice the horror and jump in and start flailing at it.

In the event I am going to tell you about, I played the latter role, by the way, that of the flailer. There were still others who played a role in the emergency who neither passed the horror by nor flailed at it, but who used their heads and did something effective. You’ll hear about them too.

If you are reading this commentary, you don’t need a recitation of the daily emergencies. You know them only too well. You probably work on a regular basis to abate the horrors of the emergencies, and so maybe you’ve had the chance to evaluate how you react at such times. Or maybe the horrors of the ongoing emergencies are so overwhelming and consuming that you don’t have the time or the emotional energy to consider the efficacy of your reactions.

The trouble is, we must always take the time to reflect on what we are doing. Otherwise, we’ll end up doing the equivalent of what I did one night when multiple police cars chased a kid driving a stolen bus through the residential urban neighborhood where I live. The kid eventually crashed the bus into a tree, and the police jumped out of their cars and sprayed the bus with gunfire. An ambulance came and loaded up the injured kid. It was at this juncture that my partner, Paul Kiefer, and I descended from our third floor apartment to see what was going on. The first thing we noticed was emergency medical technicians performing CPR on a young African American male in the back of an ambulance.

There was a lot wrong with this picture. Why had so many police cars engaged in a dangerous high-speed chase through a residential neighborhood? Why had they taken the relatively low-risk crime of car theft (or in this case, bus-theft) and escalated it into a very high-risk situation? Why had dozens of police opened fire on an unarmed youth?

And more to the point for the very immediate short-term, why wasn’t the ambulance rushing to a nearby hospital? A life hung in the balance, but the ambulance did not budge. The answer soon became clear. It was hemmed in on all sides by police cars. There was no way forward or backward.

My adrenaline, which was already ratcheted up, now skyrocketed. This kid’s heart was not beating. Every second mattered. The police were blocking his path to the hospital. I immediately approached a small group of police officers. And we had a conversation that consisted of me haranguing them for their idiocy (couldn’t they see that a kid was dying in there?) and them responding with various forms of, “Look, lady…”

Pretty soon, I had a knot of about 10 cops around me. The more I badgered and argued, the more stubborn they became.

I’m sure I was absolutely correct in everything I was saying to them. I’m sure my arguments were sound and my moral reasoning impeccable. No matter what had transpired on the street that night, they should move their cars. They should make it possible for the ambulance to get to the hospital. No legal or procedural standard, nor clearly any standard of simple human decency, could suggest otherwise. But I was flailing at authority. Shaking my fist at them for being inhumane and indecent, and (surprise, surprise) not using their power to make the situation right. What did I think? That the same guys who had just shot an unarmed and outnumbered kid would now take instructions in how to behave properly from a random, extremely agitated member of the public? Did I think it mattered that I was right?

I wasn’t just flailing. I was abysmally failing to have an effect on the situation.

I probably would have been handcuffed and tossed into one of those squad cars if it weren’t for Paul coming up behind me and pulling me out of the crowd. “Whatever you’re doing,” he pointed out, “is not helping. You’re just going to get yourself arrested.”

Being white and middle-class was probably working to my personal advantage on one level. It was possibly keeping me from getting arrested. But it was also at the root of some clearly deranged thinking. Only middle-class white people have the privilege of imagining that when you want something from the police, you should simply approach them and ask them for it. If you find you’re not successfully communicating, try raising your voice and/or heaping on more logic in an effort to get them to *change their minds.*

“But we have to do something,” I nearly wailed. “This can’t go on like this.” In the horror of the moment, I was trying to show the police the error of their ways. I thought it was relevant that I was right and they were wrong. It was like shouting at a wall, “Get out of my way.” As if walls crumble on demand.

Paul had a better idea. “We can pick up these parked cars over here and move them up onto the sidewalk. Then the ambulance can pass,” he suggested.

Pick up a car? I had no idea that it was possible to pick up a car.

“Sure it is,” he said. “If you have enough people.”

Within minutes, we had gathered some people together, picked up a small-ish car and gently lowered it down on the sidewalk. As soon as the path was cleared, the ambulance took off.

We picked up the same car and put it back. The crowd dispersed. The young man died later in the hospital. Paul and I had depositions taken as part of a wrongful death suit filed by the victim’s mother, I think, but it never went anywhere as far as I know.

But the story stays with me. A young person died needlessly that night, as they do every night. And day. On an order of magnitude that is too chilling to contemplate. What is my role in preventing these emergencies? How do I understand them? How do I react to them? How am I effective at abating emergencies, and how does my own limited vision and experience make me less effective? How could I remedy that by exposing myself to the ideas and experiences of others? How much have I created around me the space for dialogue and reflection and the exchange of ideas, which could do far more to remedy the emergencies than any other single thing I might do?

In Boston, there have been sporadic attempts on the part of diverse progressive activists to get together to consider how we can make our various movements more effective. Many of us feel we are too often isolated in our separate corners, fighting hard to deal with whatever the emergency of the moment might be. We want to get together so that we can transform our individual efforts. We want to pick up the proverbial car and get it out of the way.

So we keep meeting and talking and trying to find ways that, by sharing our vision and experience, we might come up with better strategies — we might be more than the sum of our parts. We might better address the long, drawn-out emergencies that result from the simple, daily grindings of the institutions of everyday life. We worry about how much time it takes — to get to know each other, communicate, and build the trust that you need to be able to do the long-term heavy lifting together. We worry that maybe it’s not worth it. We should get back on the streets and try shouting a little louder or adjusting the argument this way or that. There’s a life hanging in the balance, after all. Maybe one more effort will make the difference. We keep coming back, however, to the need for long-term strategy.

The great (white) abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, once likened his work to the sounding of an alarm:

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language, but is there not cause for severity? I will be harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not with to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to sound a moderate alarm…but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present…

“I am in earnest–I will not equivocate–I will not excuse–I will not retreat a single inch–AND I WILL BE HEARD.” (http://www.nps.gov/boaf/williamlloydgarrison.htm)

Interestingly, Frederick Douglass and other black abolitionists had another approach. Slavery was indeed an emergency, but as Howard Zinn notes in A People’s History, “moral pressure would not do it alone, the blacks knew; it would take all sorts of tactics, from elections to rebellion.”

Whatever fires you are trying to put out, whatever ambulances you are trying to move through the gridlock, it’s worth asking yourself what your long-term plan is. It’s exhausting ping-ponging back and forth between emergencies. Shouting, “Fire” at the top of your lungs might be an appropriate step in certain situations, but it, by itself, will not much affect the fire.

These days, “In case of emergency” is practically an oxymoron since the emergencies that we live with on a daily basis are chronic, constant, and overlapping. If only they did come in discrete cases! But you don’t need a specific tragedy to notice how you react. The emergency is the war in Iraq, the war on the poor, the war on immigrants and people of color, the war on women, or any number of other horrors that I’m sure you know only too well. In addition to responding to these emergencies, are you creating a way for yourself and others to think critically about what you are doing? Are you finding ways to collectivize wisdom and imagination? Do you have a strategy? Do you have a plan for what you want to do in case of emergency?

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