Do The Right Thing
NGL writes on the last two weeks, the national conversation writ large, and Spike Lee’s classic film
Every week features new newsletters from Nathan Graber-Lipperman examining culture and life, as well as telling stories from his personal entrepreneurial journey. To get NGL’s newsletter delivered directly to your inbox, you can subscribe here.
A week ago, critically-acclaimed director Spike Lee released a short film called “3 Brothers” on his Instagram.
The film starts with a black screen and a simple message in red: “Will History Stop Repeating Itself?” We then see three different videos play out. The first, Eric Garner’s tragic death in 2014. The second, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th. The third, the killing of Radio Raheem at the end of Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing.
The three videos are eerily similar. Each man is large, black, and was considered a “peacemaker” or “gentle giant” in their respective neighborhoods. And yet, the three brothers all died on the sidewalk, unable to breathe, at the hands of the police.
Lee’s Do The Right Thing never really seems to go away. The director told the Associated Press, “This [the ensuing events following George Floyd’s murder] is not new…I was born in ’57 so I was 11 years old when I saw the riots with Dr. King’s assassination, later on with Rodney King and the Simi Valley verdict, Trayvon Martin and Ferguson.” Lee followed up in saying that when people are tired, “they take to the streets.”
Even if things feel like they’re at an all-time low, though, there may be a small shred of light at the end of the tunnel. Lee has noticed this light, too. “I’m encouraged that my white sisters and brothers are out there,” he said. “That is the hope of this country, this diverse, younger generation of Americans who don’t want to perpetuate the same shit that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents got caught up in. That’s my hope.”
I’ve been thinking about this sentiment a lot. Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve watched intently as organizers of all backgrounds have sparked an incredible moment, rejuvenating the Black Lives Matter movement and raising the bar in demanding real change. Minnesotans forced the state’s hand to bring in Attorney General Keith Ellison to weigh on charges against now-ex-cop Derek Chauvin, with Ellison swiftly bumping the actions up to second-degree murder. Public figures and brands are actually putting their money where their mouths are; for example, the oft-criticized Michael Jordan teamed with Jordan Brand to donate $100 million (!!!) to various non-profits. Finally, people have shown up to protests in droves; it’s not just big cities that are turning out crowds, either, with small, mostly-conservative towns across the country joining the movement.
People who have covered the protests following the death of black individuals at the hands of the police — individuals such as Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin — over the last several years have commented on a palpable difference with these protests. It certainly feels like there’s a heightened sense of urgency and energy within the movement.
Maybe it’s because of the visceral, evil, pain-eliciting nature of the near-nine-minute video itself, where we see Chauvin press his knee on Floyd’s neck, even as the victim says, “I can’t breathe” and cries out for his mama.
Maybe it’s because of the hyperactive nature of social media and the omnipresence it plays in our day-to-day lives, watching a movement take off and wanting to join in — FOMO, even.
Maybe it’s because of the, ya know, global pandemic we’re living in, and people were deprived of activities to participate in and things to talk about.
Maybe it’s all of these things, or a combination of some of these things. Maybe it’s none of these things at all. But the question I feel is necessary to ask is that when it comes to the horrible deed itself — the murder of George Floyed — what really changed in this country, a country that has mistreated its black and brown peoples since the day of its inception?
What was truly different about this moment that made people say, I can no longer be on the sidelines of the fight against racism?
What was the breaking point?
I think this is a critical question to ask to ensure that we’re talking about the problem of police brutality and systemic racism six months from now, and not six days from now. When talking about riots spanning from Chicago 100 years ago to across the country today, John Oliver’s segment last night put it well: “We’re in the same shit now as we were back then. And if you’re not directly impacted by it, it is tempting to look for reasons to feel better about the world.”
From my perspective, there’s a clear opportunity cost in attending a protest or organizing donations or pursuing a longform story that sheds light on the raw pain people are going through. In doing so, I then have less time to put into paying work, which — for most of us — trumps everything in our day-to-day lives.
I noticed this when talking to a client last Friday over email. After I addressed everything going on, she followed up in talking about the task we’re working on together before ending with this quick sidebar: “And yes, it’s been a crazy and sad week.”
This is not an attack on this person’s character by any means; additionally, I don’t really know a whole lot about her background. Nevertheless, I find that there’s this invisible pressure to move on when you’re not directly impacted by these problems because we’ve learned to do so. We tell ourselves that this is another thing to drop in the time capsule, that we’ve had plenty of crazy and sad weeks in the past.
Hell, 2020 has felt like one constant crazy and sad week.
I think we as humans crave a feeling of normalcy and some shred of routine. Channeling all of our focus into 400-year-old dilemmas is not easy, and it certainly disrupts that routine. Plus, at the end of the day, everyone’s gotta eat, too.
Simultaneously, though, not everyone can afford to live anywhere else but in the moment. A couple of quick texts about something unrelated to the conversation at hand led to this message from a friend of mine who is black. When mentioning some of my observations of the public’s reaction to the last two weeks of events, I brought up this aspect of trying to crack the code, of figuring out what was unique this time around and ensuring that the dialogues we’re having as a nation don’t die out like they inevitably always do.
His response was pretty pessimistic. “We’re at the highest unemployment rate since the depression + people are at home and want to talk about something. I don’t know how to think about sustained interest because it’s just not a reality I live in.”
So maybe the answer to all of this is that in our current attention economy, there is no planning for six months from now. Maybe seizing the moment — continuing to protest until demands are met, trading black boxes on Instagram for links to longform readings, and asking our wealthy friends and relatives to open their wallets — is a necessary step towards solving things.
To be honest, I’m not really sure. I don’t have the answers. While I’ve purposefully sought out a variety of sources and perspectives in the pursuit of knowledge during my lifetime, there’s always more to discover, and plenty of blind spots to acknowledge.
But even so, I’ve spent a majority of the last two weeks wondering how I can be a decent person in all of this and do the right thing…which made me think of Lee’s 1989 film of the same name.
In the movie, an Italian family in a predominantly-black neighborhood in Brooklyn runs a pizzeria propped up by the community. When some residents take issue with the fact that the owner’s “Wall of Fame” only includes white celebrities, tensions rise to a boiling point. By the end of the film, Sal’s Pizzeria is burned to the ground, while Radio Raheem lays limp on the ground.
Lee’s message through Do the Right Thing is that life is complicated. Race and identity are complicated. That we as humans are the sum of our lived experiences and the cultures that define us; that we’ll never fully know everything about the world around us; that’s it a vast, ever-changing blob chock-full of uniquely imperfect people, and it’s on us to commit to a constant state of learning.
Oftentimes, there is no “right thing.” We all make mistakes. What we can do is lead with empathy and act in good faith. And while we should call out the bad actors, we shouldn’t belittle those struggling to figure things out.
I have some different projects and plans that I plan on rolling out over the coming weeks, months, even years, to address these problems in some way, shape, or form. However, I’ll end this by sharing one thing that’s stuck with me since my friend first sent it over. He mentioned that someone sent him a message essentially asking, I want to help. What can I do?
For many black people, tokenism can be a real problem. I encourage you to not reach out to your black friends or co-workers for guidance because they’re probably being inundated with messages right now. Plus, it’s not really their responsibility to educate you; with an treasure trove of information available at our fingertips nowadays, too, you’d be perfectly fine in googling topics like “Black Wall Street” and going from there.
To conclude, though, my friend said this about the girl that reached out to him: “…I told her that the best thing she could do for me is ask herself where she was during other times when black people were killed.”
So I implore you to ask yourself that question, because I certainly have been contemplating it myself. Where were you when Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor were killed at the hands of the police?
And what will you do to make sure you’re a part of the solution in enacting change?
NGL is the creator of Unplugg’d, a lifestyle brand that creates mission-driven products through longform storytelling. To discuss the contents of this letter — as well as the events in the wake of George Floyd’s murder — consider joining in with our Unplugg’d community through our Discord channel here.