By Jan Sensenich, Chapter 13 Standing Trustee for the District of Vermont
I think it was in junior high school when I first started wearing glasses. I remember not liking the idea of having to wear glasses. I thought I could see just fine. As far as I knew, I was seeing what I needed to see. But I also remember what happened when I first put those glasses on. Suddenly I could see what I had not been seeing – what I didn’t even know had been there at all. I could look at trees in the distance and see the individual leaves, not just the green blur that had represented a tree before that. I still did not like the idea of glasses, because wearing them meant I did not have perfect vision – that I was imperfect. But there was no denying the difference when I put the glasses on. I could see what I had been missing.
Before the murder of George Floyd, I thought I understood institutional racism. I did not deny that it existed, and I knew it was a terrible thing. I believed that by supporting politicians who called for social reforms aimed at correcting institutional racism, I was doing my part. When evidence of police brutality, in the form of the killing of any number of unarmed black men and women, emerged in the news, I understood that these were terrible events. I understood even that these events formed a pattern. Still, it seemed possible – and preferable – to believe that the problem was with only some police departments in some cities, and therefore they were local problems in need of local solutions. These events did not seem to touch my life as a white person directly. I had never experienced what it was like to live in fear of just going out to the store or going for a run in my neighborhood. I had never had to have “the talk” with my son about how to safely survive police encounters. The times I have been pulled over with blue lights in my rearview mirror, my only concern was about having to pay a ticket or getting points on my license, not an imminent – and sadly realistic – fear of beating or even death.
If I had done a better job of listening to my fellow Americans who do endure these fears and traumas on a regular basis, I hope I would have seen the problems of institutional racism and police brutality in a different light. I hope I would have seen that there is nothing local about these problems. I have now, finally, seen that these problems transcend locality, are pervasive and destructive in our society, and on a daily basis plague people who are just like me, but for the sheer difference in our skin colors.
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, these things started to change for me. I have spent the past weeks trying to process why this event, after so many other similar events, has made a difference. First, the details of Mr. Floyd’s murder are particularly disturbing, even in comparison to so many other very disturbing killings. The length of time that elapsed while Mr. Floyd was on the ground, handcuffed with no fewer than four officers in control of him, is certainly part of it. There was so much time for something different to happen. His pleas to be spared, uttered while one officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck and three other officers were present, beg the question of why those other officers did not act. What becomes clear in this scene is that the other three officers had a duty to stop the murder. Mr. Floyd died not only because of the horrifying behavior of a single officer, but also because of the inexcusable inaction of three other officers. The other officers were complicit in the violence by their inaction. For me, pondering the notion of being complicit by inaction is what started to change my views of how I am connected to institutional racism in general, and police brutality in particular.
In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, protests erupted literally all over the world. The extent and persistence of these demonstrations made it clear that the problems of police brutality and institutional racism are not limited to specific local areas. During those weeks, I learned from friends and acquaintances as well as through media coverage what I should have known all along: the problem is not in “some” places or for “some” people. The problems are all around us. Anyone who misses that fact is probably white, and definitely not paying attention.
Have I learned anything new from the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder that I could not have known before? Not really. Yet somehow for me, and I suspect for many others, what should have been clear before is clear now. It’s like putting glasses on. I thought I could see the tree before, but now I really CAN see it, using my newfound 20/20 vision. What is clearer than ever is what I share with the three officers who could have saved George Floyd. His murder happened because they did not stop it. Police brutality and institutional racism exist because white majorities tolerate it. As I look at my record, I ask: what have I done to use my voice to say “stop”? Did I write letters? Did I speak up? Did I voice my outrage the way I would have, if any of these things had happened to me or to my family? To my shame, the answer is no. But that has changed. I have started to make my voice heard and will continue to do so.
One of the encouraging things we have seen in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder is the diversity of the protesters. They are all races and all ages. The awareness of these problems seems to be expanding in a way that it has not before. Has our country finally reaching a tipping point where we all start seeing racism, and understand our shared duty to end it? I hope and pray that is so.
Among the consequences of seeing the problem clearly, and recognizing one’s own complicity in it, is a sense of guilt at not having acted sooner, and a sense of responsibility for the suffering one’s inaction has caused. Rather than being debilitated by such guilt, however, a better attitude, I believe, is to seek forgiveness for our inaction and put our energy into working to fight racism, having embraced our shared responsibility to do so. By choosing this path, we can find new meaning in the words of the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
I am only one person. I don’t have any delusions that my voice alone will make a measurable difference, but that is not the point. We all have to start somewhere, and for me, it is by ending my silent complicity. I shall speak and write and encourage others to do likewise – to be heard and not stay silent. If we all speak up, we will be heard, and things will change. Indeed, it is the only way things will change.
Jan M. Sensenich graduated from Windham College in Putney, Vermont in 1978 and Vermont Law School in 1983. He served as Core Faculty Member and Director of the Woodbury College Legal Clinic from 1983 to 1987and from 1990 to 1992. Jan was an Associate with Jerome I. Meyers, P.C. from 1987 to 1990 when he opened his own practice concentrating on bankruptcy matters in both Vermont and New Hampshire. Jan has been serving as Vermont’s Chapter 12 and Chapter 13 Standing Trustee since 1991 and has been a member of the adjunct faculty of Vermont Law School between since 1994 where he teaches Bankruptcy. Jan has been a member of the Vermont Bar Association Bankruptcy Section and the National Association of Chapter 13 Trustees since 1992 and currently serves on the NACTT Due Process Committee.