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Books Current Events

Death Foretold.

I haven’t written in a while (not for enjoyment, at least) and it feels cliché and grim to start back with something on coronavirus, but Chronicle of a Death Foretold has me thinking about how we respond to slow-moving, predictable crises like COVID. 

Santiago Nasar’s death is foretold. His murderers discuss their plans openly, even boastfully. They sharpen their knives at the local meat market. By all accounts, everyone in town knew — or at least had ample warning and reason to believe — that Santiago’s death was imminent. 

But almost no one takes action. 

In retrospect, some chalk it up to thinking his murderers weren’t serious, that they were merely angrily (and/or drunkenly) ranting. Others thought maybe Santiago deserved whatever he had coming. He was not a good man. Many thought it was not their business — something for others to deal with, others with more proximity to the events that precipitated the murder. Some just got distracted! They had meant to do something, of course, but the Bishop was visiting town that day and, in all the preparatory commotion, they just didn’t get around to it in time. 

Everyone had their reasons. So Santiago winds up dead, as foretold. 

“‘The truth is I didn’t know what to do,’ he told me. ‘My first thought was that it wasn’t any business of mine but something for the civil authorities, but then I made up my mind to say something…’ Yet when he crossed the square, he’d forgotten completely. ‘You have to understand,’ he told me, ‘that the bishop was coming that day.’” 

– Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Being Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle also deals heavily in omens and questions of fate: whether Santiago’s death was unavoidable, always in the cards. 

But Gabo makes a strong case that intervention could have averted the tragedy. 

The COVID crisis feels similar in that we saw it coming and yet mostly failed to act. Like the death foretold, it was a slow-moving crisis, simmering before boiling over, with plenty of warning. Doesn’t it feel like those kinds of crises are often harder to respond to? 

There’s something about a sudden shock that jolts us into action. Surprises can harden our resolve and set the frame for the proportionality of the response.

9/11 is the obvious example. The shock of that tragedy so deeply impacted the national psyche that, coming up on two decades later, we still haven’t returned to our pre-crisis “normal.” 

We will likely spend the rest of our lives walking bare-footed through airport security. 

Anything that catches us by surprise has potential to have the same catalytic effect, albeit typically at a smaller scale. Didn’t it feel like we moved pretty swiftly after hearing about a handful of vaping-related injuries and a couple of deaths? Compared to our relative inaction and complacency on smoking and obesity, which cause tens of thousands of deaths per month? 

Maybe most urgently, think how little we do on climate change: a slow-moving but existential threat to the entire planet. If a foreign invader threatened to sink New York and Miami, we would respond with shock and awe. But steady upticks in temperature and inch-by-inch sea level rise lull us into inaction, even as we approach points of no return. The threat is big and amorphous and we’ve been hearing about it for so long that it feels like just another news day, until it’s not. 

Which is sort of like COVID. 

We heard about the virus and its inevitable trek toward the U.S. for weeks, even months. 

What did we do? Like Santiago’s neighbor’s, we sort of did nothing. Someone else would take the lead, surely. If the threat was real, we would see action — everyone knew. It was foretold, the worst-kept secret in the world. We didn’t want to, or couldn’t bring ourselves to, grapple with it until it was already here. Too late. 

COVID and Chronicle have me reflecting on that kind of crisis: the slow-moving, everyone-knows-it’s-coming kind of threat. And how those situations can paralyze us, or lull us into complacency, even though they’re often most dangerous. 

The chronic vs. the acute. The deaths that are foretold — the ones we expect and maybe even accept — vs. the ones that come as a shock and nudge us into action.

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Books Movies Nonfiction

Just Mercy – “Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town.”

“Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town… Do you want to come over and listen?”

My favorite scene from Just Mercy (the book) didn’t make it into Just Mercy (the movie). This may have been for the best, as I don’t like crying in theaters. But anyway:

The woman who invited Bryan to “listen” to a conversation with Ms. Parks was Johnnie Rebecca Daniels Carr, an under-the-radar hero of the civil rights movement.

Carr and Parks were childhood friends. While Rosa became the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Johnnie is credited with much of the behind-the-scenes organizing work that made the protest feasible.

Something I hadn’t fully processed until reading Twitter and Tear Gas was that people still had to get to work.

“The boycotters were not wealthy and needed transportation to and from their jobs.”

Black folks made up 75% of bus ridership in Montgomery. The boycott was initially conceived as a one-day protest, but community members decided they wanted to keep going. Some folks walked — some long distances — but thousands of people needed alternative rides.

Activists organized a massive carpool.

Zeynep Tufekci says that over 300 private citizens used their cars to give rides to passengers from 40 pickup and dropoff stations, from 5:00 AM until 10:00 PM, every work day.

The boycott — and the carpool — went on to last over a year.

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson points out that it was Ms. Johnnie Carr who did much of the organizing work (“heavy lifting”) that kept this unfathomable feat of logistics up and running.

Eventually, she took over as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, succeeding Dr. King after his assassination. And she stayed active until her death in 2008.

Johnnie Carr in 1966

When she first met Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, she said: “I’m going to call you from time to time and I’m going to ask you to do this or that… You’re going to say ‘Yes, ma’am,’ okay?”

And so Bryan ends up on a porch in Alabama with Carr, Rosa Parks, and Virginia Durr, another friend and activist from the civil rights movement. He is invited to listen as the ladies talk.

Some hours into their conversation, Parks finally turns to Bryan and asks him to explain his work. He rambles a bit about EJI and fighting racial bias in the courts and trying to end the death penalty.

“Ooooh, honey,” says Rosa Parks. “All that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.”

Then Johnnie Carr leans in and raises a finger — Bryan says it was like how his grandmother used to talk to him — and says: “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

😭😭😭

Rosa Parks is (rightfully) a household name and Bryan Stevenson is now a bestselling author portrayed on the big screen by Michael B. Jordan (😍). But it’s Johnnie Carr who makes me emotional: the organizer, the underdog, the unsung hero.

“Look back, but march forward,” she told a crowd on the 50th anniversary of the boycott.

“Look back, but march forward.”


Two thumbs up for Just Mercy (the movie), five stars for Just Mercy (the book), and — if you’re into social movements and strategy — also check out Twitter and Tear Gas.