In the News

America’s neck is broken. We can survive, but we have to act.

The Washington Post

I have been thinking about the neck — what a fragile thing it is.

For more than a year now, my mother has been bearing the burden of cancer that began in her lungs and spread to many bones, most critically the cervical vertebrae in her neck. Today, the underlying cancer is being kept at bay by medication. But the equipment holding her corroded vertebrae together has slipped a bit, leaving her neck stiff, not quite straight and easily fatigued. Though her will is great, her body is drained continuously by the effort to hold up her head.

I have been thinking about the neck — what a fragile thing it is.

Moments before he lost consciousness, as he bore the full weight of a police officer on his neck, George Floyd called for his mother.

For more than a year now, I have been worrying about the way the frailty of my mother’s neck makes the whole of her frail. But you don’t have to be a year into worrying about your mother’s semi-broken neck to be stunned, enraged and convulsed with grief by the violent contempt Derek Chauvin showed for George Floyd’s neck. You need only to be a regular person. You need only to have an awakened conscience.

The neck is what enables you to move in the world as you. The neck connects head and heart. The neck transmits the electricity from the innermost intentions of your mind to the grasp of your hand, the thrust of your arm, the bend of your knee.

America’s neck was already corroded by cancer. Then one white man broke it.

As a nation, we have felt the dull aches and the sharp jabs of pain. As a nation, we tried to ignore them. But a terrible confluence of circumstances made denial impossible: a pandemic, a sociopathic president, a generation of war and two generations of wealth concentration, all combined to set the body politic aflame with tumor and fracture and decay.

But one thing I’ve learned during my mother’s year of medical ordeals is that just because your neck is broken doesn’t mean you can’t still live. It depends on how broken it is, where it’s broken, what parts of it can be healed and which can be stabilized.

To watch peaceful protests sweep across the land even amidst a plague, to watch citizens go out the next day with brooms to clean up what the agitators and criminals hiding among the protesters wrought: To see these things is to see not a body politic in pre-death collapse but an immune system responding to disease.

There are still nerve signals being sent and received. What the heart wants the mind can still plan for. What the mind wants the muscles can still effect: slowly, haltingly, with more pain, to be sure. But we are not paralyzed. Not yet.

There is a silent majority in the United States today, but it’s not the kind President Trump means when he echoes President Richard M. Nixon. It is a majority rooted in conscience. We should remember now that silence isn’t always complicity; sometimes it’s just the quiet uncertainty before someone chooses to reject complicity.

But change happens only when individual conscience becomes collective, when what’s unsaid is vocalized. Protest can animate collective conscience. So can simple invitation. Every person in a role of leadership now, from Scout troop leader to CEO to parent, can be inviting those connected to them to express what their consciences tell them.

Small conversations can enable Americans who are neither posting on social media nor marching in the streets to recognize that what stirs within them stirs among many other hearts: a feeling that this death was unjust; that this death was part of an unjust system that devalues black life; that we all must take more responsibility for ensuring that justice is done and done consistently.

Today, many Americans are unsure how to convert pain or the pangs of conscience into action. Fortunately, there are tools for the skillful activation of collective power. On the issue of ending police violence, few platforms are as useful as Campaign Zero, started by activists and academics as a specific, concrete menu of legislative, policy and cultural reforms that anyone can access. On the deeper issue of excising anti-black bias from our institutions, we are reminded today that elections matter — from school board to the presidency. Journalism matters. Organizing matters.

No matter how racked with ailment the body is, movement is possible. Watching the crane of my mother’s neck, leading her on short walks that leave her short of breath, I am reminded that while flesh and bone are frail, spirit and example are not. America’s neck is broken. We can still move. We must.

View full story: The Washington Post



Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

Danielle Allen, Stephen B. Heintz, and Eric P. Liu