Once you have seen injustice, you can’t unsee it — and the knowledge places upon you the burden to respond, if only in prayer.
In an article for the September issue of the magazine of the National Black Catholic Congress, Father Claude Williams of the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, makes a powerful case for refusing to remain in ignorance when evidence exists of wrongdoing (similar to the idea in a piece I did for my Pax Culturati blog at Patheos).
Here’s the full text of the piece, reprinted by permission from the author (click here for a profile of Father Williams from the January 2015 issue of Our Sunday Visitor).
To Whom Do Black Lives Matter?
Videos don’t lie
By Rev. Claude Williams, O.Praem.
August 3, 2015
In her July 29th article for The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes:
“In the age of dashboard video cameras and cell-phone-captured arrests, there is so much that we see and can’t ever unsee. Police in Staten Island putting Eric Garner in a choke hold, while he gasps, over and over, that he can’t breathe.* The Texas state trooper threatening to use his Taser on Sandra Bland (a driver he’d pulled over for the infraction of failing to signal when she changed lanes), shouting “I’m going to light you up!” Without the Garner video, there would have been eyewitnesses but no seemingly incontrovertible testimony. Without the camera on Officer Brian Encinia’s dashboard, most of us might never have heard what happened to Sandra Bland. The existence of such evidence helps in investigations and prosecutions; it’s supposed to be a deterrent to both bad behavior on the part of the cops and false allegations of police abuse. But it does not guarantee either better behavior or justice… [yet]it puts us [the viewers]in a strange, morally exigent position: we can’t say we didn’t see, we never knew; we have no plausible deniability. The videos keep coming out…The full dashboard video of Sandra Bland’s arrest is nearly fifty minutes long, and can be viewed on YouTube. It has the quality of nightmare.”
Talbot has made a very important observation regarding human actions in a world of moving pictures. What we see and hear on video, similar to what we see and hear in real life, calls for a response on our part. We sometimes witness generic and morally-neutral acts of human beings that deserve neither admiration nor outrage.
If, for instance, I ride a crowded subway on a humid day in the summer and notice everyone around me sweating, I judge this to be a normal and natural reality given where I am. Sweating in a warm, crowded place is a normal, involuntary act of many people living on the planet. If, on the other hand, I look down the car and see a man in the act of stealing from an elderly woman asleep on the train, I judge this to be an abnormal, evil and voluntary act. This assessment of external human behavior is an exercise in good judgement.
Following upon good judgment, an upright person who witnesses such an event will respond accordingly. Should the behavior be deemed good, the response should be happiness and affirmation of the act. One the other hand, if the behavior be judged bad, the bystander is obliged to intervene (within reason) and stop the evil in progress. In the case of the witness who sees and hears another’s or others’ actions in a video after the fact, there is still a moral mandate to judge that which is plain to the eyes and ears. Judging rightly involves admiration of that which is good and condemnation of that which is evil.
Video evidence does not guarantee justice
Video recordings cannot take in every measurable reality of any particular episode – the virtual witness is at a judicial disadvantage. Regarding what is measurable and recorded, however, the virtual witness is empowered to make a better judgment than those who were actually present. The film can be replayed over and over, so as to take in things that might otherwise be missed in real life. As Talbot notes, “In the age of dashboard video cameras and cell-phone-captured arrests, there is so much that we see and can’t ever unsee.”
This brings us to a second observation made in the article from The New Yorker: “The existence of such evidence helps in investigations and prosecutions[,]…[b]ut it does not guarantee justice…it puts us in a strange, morally exigent position: we can’t say we didn’t see, we never knew; we have no plausible deniability.”
Why is “plausible deniability” relevant as we examine our obligations to stand up for personal and social justice? God does not punish or hold accountable the person who judges badly or fails to judge rightly some act when he is unaware of the act. Likewise, God does not punish or hold accountable the person who fails to respond adequately due to invincible ignorance regarding due response to a particular situation. In the realm of morality, we are concerned not simply that one lacks knowledge, but rather that one lacks knowledge that he could and should have. There is no moral guilt, then, imputed to ignorance due to the ordinary limits of natural communication and modern telecommunication. There is no concrete punishment for invincible ignorance; however, no special reward exists either.
If the deaths of Walter “Lamar” Scott and Eric Harris had not been recorded on video and circulated, or, if the events leading up to the deaths of Eric Garner or Sandra Bland had not been recorded on video and circulated, many more of us on earth could reasonably withhold judgment on what would have amounted to lots of unverifiable details. In fact, without photographs at the very least, the vast majority of us would not know that these people had even existed, let alone that they were subject to violent deaths. As it stands, however, these four cases do involve visible and audible records of violence to people carried out, more or less, just before their deaths. Each has, as Talbot ascribes to the video of Sandra Bland, the “quality of a nightmare.” To the extent that facts in these cases are ascertainable, we share a collective responsibility to find out what happened in view of justice and closure.
Video evidence of violent criminal activity demands a rigorous investigation
In spite of the nightmarish quality, we have an obligation to view this evidence because we have an obligation to investigate the instances of injustice committed against individuals or groups who are within our local and larger communities. Precisely because it is so troubling, video evidence of violent criminal activity demands rigorous investigation. This imperative is highlighted by Samia Shoaib of The Independent when she writes:
For many Americans, the past three weeks have felt like the final straw in a year that has seen unprecedented recognition of police brutality against people of colour. From the moment Bland’s untimely death hit the news, social media activists on Twitter expressed heated outrage, creating and flooding hashtag after hashtag – #JusticeforSandraBland, #SandySpeaks and of course, one that’s gotten a depressing amount of mileage in recent months, #BlackLivesMatter … momentum gathers. And then, all of a sudden, the poaching of Cecil the lion hit the headlines and within three days the focus on justice for Sandra Bland came to an abrupt halt.
Shoaib goes on to explain that we share a collective responsibility to be informed about systematic and institutional injustice to keep it in check. That requires the exercise of due diligence. In concrete terms: we need to study the dash cams.
Culpable ignorance is a different matter than simply not knowing a particular thing. Sometimes we are obliged to learn about something and have no justifiable excuse to remain ignorant. If we do willfully remain in the dark about a matter we are obliged to know about, then we become culpably ignorant.
Sandra Bland’s death, and the events preceding it, call for a serious investigation. How would we react toward Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith if he simply declared his utmost confidence in Trooper Brian Encinia without even considering any evidence that might implicate the trooper in the death of Sandra Bland? How would we respond to anyone who simply asserted that Encinia was too trusted, too much a real gentleman to have demonstrated brutality towards Bland? Outrage and anger would be our just response. We would be outraged if any other Texas state trooper followed up the sheriff’s defense of Trooper Encinia with: “I, by the way, have intentionally not watched the video and I know I don’t need to watch the video, I don’t need to watch it…I know Brian’s heart and skill.” Considering the broad accessibility to the videos that reveal criminal violence towards Bland, any investigating authority that flatly refused to consider existing evidence of what happened would be guilty of damnable negligence. They would have, in Talbot’s words, “no plausible deniability.”
To his credit, Smith himself said: “[t]he death of any person in the custody of any governmental entity should experience great scrutiny and be thoroughly investigated by an outside source.” However the investigation plays out in the Bland case, this stated plan of action is what an upright person would expect: that an unbiased third party should scrutinize the alleged crime. So, at the very least, the “official and public” plan in the Bland case does factor in the need for outside investigators.
Video Evidence of Social Injustice Against Pregnant Women
July 2015 has not only been a time of raising awareness about police violence, video technology is also making it possible to expose the horrific acts perpetrated by abortionists at Planned Parenthood against pregnant women and their unborn babies. On July 14th, The Center for Medical Progress based in California released the first in a series of videos produced by their own investigative journalists. Here is a summary of the videos found on the CMP website:
The Human Capital project is a 30-month-long investigative journalism study by the Center for Medical Progress, documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies. Citizen journalists at CMP spent two-and-a-half years logging thousands of research hours to painstakingly gather hundreds of hours of undercover footage, dozens of eye-witness testimonies, and nearly two hundred pages of primary source documents. This information will continue to be made available to the public at this site.
The video footage gathered in this project is presented in two formats: 1) as summary videos of specific undercover encounters, and 2) as a multi-part documentary series, ‘Human Capital,’ which integrates expert interviews, eyewitness accounts, and real-life undercover interactions to tell the story of Planned Parenthood’s commercial exploitation of aborted fetal tissue.
In these series of videos released by the CMP, we hear admissions of guilt from several physicians regarding the brutal violations of babies during and after abortions. Caught with their guards down, Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Deborah Nucotola, Dr. Mary Gatter, Dr. Katherine Sheehan, and Dr. Savita Ginde admit to atrocities carried out in the name of “care.”
Instead of calling out the perpetrators of this exploitation, many colleagues from Planned Parenthood are publicly defending these unethical and horrific practices described and recorded on camera.
“I don’t need to watch the video”
“I, by the way, have intentionally not watched the video … I know I don’t need to watch the video … I don’t need to watch it …” This quote was not uttered by Sheriff Smith, and the video referred to is not the chronicle of Bland’s traffic stop. This is a statement of the former Planned Parenthood Medical Director, Dr. Willie Parker, published online on July 18th by Cosmopolitan.
For the last several years, Parker has been the only abortionist in Mississippi. Earlier this year, he was interviewed by Renee Bracey Sherman in Ebony Magazine. Sherman, who authored Saying Abortion Aloud: Research and Recommendations for Public Abortion Storytellers and Organizations, is adamantly “pro-abortion.” She is sympathetic to Dr. Nucotola. Parker, describing the video of Dr. Nucotola (that he insists that he had not seen), called it ‘heart-sickening’ – not because of the criminality of it, but because of what it did to Nucotola’s reputation. He said, “I know her very well: I know her heart. I know her skill.” Parker made this comparison, “I am thinking about a strong parallel between what’s happening to my colleague and the trial week of Jesus before he was crucified. As he was marched from place to place, asked to answer allegations,” so people are trying to trap Deborah Nucotola.
Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, blames the scandal on the “anti-choice” people who videotaped conversations no one was supposed to see or hear, not on what her employees say and do on camera. This argument is similar to blaming Ramsey Orta for the national fallout after the death of Eric Gardner because it was Orta who had the presence of mind to record the arrest of Gardner on Staten Island in July of last year. Cameramen are not our problem: they have become part of the solution.
In any case, Parker and Richards are not alone in their public denials and willful ignorance. On July 28th, The Hill reported that Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Matthews Burwell said of herself that she had “not seen the Planned Parenthood videos that had stoked the controversy,” but she had read about them. President Barack Obama’s own chief spokesman, Josh Earnest, also said he was not sure if Obama had seen the videos, but added that he is following the story in the news. He had no specific comment on the footage, other than to suggest the footage was selectively edited. Earnest went on to say the “fraudulent way” the videos were released means there is “not a lot of evidence” Planned Parenthood violated their own standards and rules. “And any review of the policy that PP [Planned Parenthood] says they implement indicates the views expressed in the videos, or at least the way they’re pictured on the videos, is entirely inaccurate.” Asked how he knows about videos that he denied seeing, Earnest said he was “relying on public statements made by Planned Parenthood.”
Relying only on the public statement from Planned Parenthood president, Cecile Richards, President Obama’s chief spokesman can assure the citizens of the United States that “Planned Parenthood has broken no laws.” Would Geneva Read-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, rely solely on public statements by the Waller County Sheriff’s department in order to ascertain what actually happened to her daughter in the Waller County jail on July 13th? Is it imaginable that Obama’s spokesman would condescendingly assert that neither he nor the president had found the time to look at the videos surrounding the death of Sandra Bland? It is unimaginable. Period. Why? Because BLACK LIVES MATTER!
On the other hand, is it at all imaginable that Obama’s spokesman would also assert that neither he nor the president had found the time to look at the videos surrounding the illegal harvesting of hearts, livers, lungs, and lower extremities of aborted babies by Planned Parenthood? Sadly, we don’t have to imagine this scenario because we are living the nightmare. Again, Margaret Talbot wrote regarding the images of police brutality towards blacks, “The videos keep coming out … the full … video of Sandra Bland’s arrest is nearly fifty minutes long and can be viewed on YouTube. It has the quality of a nightmare.” There are hours and hours of video that CMP is challenging us to look at so that we will be equipped to challenge the individuals who perpetuate this savage behavior and the government officials who enable it.
It should be noted by local communities throughout the United States that, while video after damning video demonstrating the systematic and institutionalized crimes perpetrated by Planned Parenthood was being released and viewed by millions of people around the world, the President of the United States dismissed the evidence of wrongdoing and saw fit to praise and thank Planned Parenthood for their service to the citizens of this country. On July 24th, just a few days after the release of a video wherein Dr. Mary Gatter explains how a Planned Parenthood abortionist could use a “less crunchy technique” to get more intact body parts during an abortion, President Obama released a video addressing those who helped to implement the Affordable Care Act. Among other groups, he named Planned Parenthood, saying, “Thank you. You have changed, and even saved, peoples’ lives. You have changed our communities in this country for the better and set us on a smarter, stronger course.” Can he really say he did not know? The road to hell is paved with this sort of cultivated and affected ignorance.
Some of us are really “in a strange, morally exigent position,” as Talbot puts it. Dr. Deborah Nucotola, Dr. Mary Gatter, Dr. Katherine Sheehan and Dr. Savita Ginde have shown by their words and actions that Planned Parenthood is responsible for atrocities carried out in the name of ‘care.’
We are able to watch a 2.5 hour unedited video of Nucotola, Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, during which she explains how ultrasound technology and precise crushing of certain parts of babies will keep key organs intact and suitable for sale.
We are able to watch over an hour of footage of Gatter, president of the Planned Parenthood Medical Directors’ Council, during which she negotiates “bumping up” the price of fetal specimens and then crassly jokes that she wants a Lamborghini.
We are able to watch a short clip of Sheehan, Medical Director Emerita of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, as she admits to renegotiating a contract to harvest body parts from babies to make a profit for Planned Parenthood.
We can see hours of video that includes Ginde, Vice President and Medical Director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, suggesting a method of illegal remuneration to increase profit for Planned Parenthood affiliates and explaining how to make sure she won’t get caught.
We have the videos … why isn’t this glut of audiovisual evidence enough to get justice in our court system? Let’s compare the CMP videos of specimen trafficking to some cases of videotaped police violence in general.
Eric Sanders is a former officer with the NYPD. He is now a civil rights attorney specializing in police brutality cases. Terrell Jermaine Starr of AlterNet quotes Sanders as he discusses the issue of video recordings of violent or brutal actions towards civilians. He says, “Police work is not for everybody,’ so there will be problems when “[t]here are no consequences for bad behavior. That’s the problem.” Sanders also says, “the real issue is that too many police departments cover up abusive behavior and, until the culture that protects the bad cops is dismantled, body cameras won’t be enough to weed them out.”
The tendency to cover up illegal or immoral activity that Sanders describes regarding his former police department is the same sort of problem that easily gets a foothold in other organizations. This is evident throughout Planned Parenthood based on what we see in the videos and the national response to them. There is considerable outrage on the ground, and the grassroots level. And there is a fair amount of outrage across the board. Unfortunately, among the leaders of Planned Parenthood and their high level friends in the government, the anger is directed not towards their own evil and illegal practices, but rather towards those who are exposing their illegal and immoral practices. This is just a sad situation of emotionally and volitionally codependent individuals whose destructive interactions are destroying not only themselves, but many others as well.
None of us should run to see these videos in order to feel better about ourselves. This is not about feeling like a Pharisee. This is not about shaming the perpetrators. Whether we are looking at cops who are out of line or body specimen traffickers, criminals are wounded, sinful human beings in desperate need of healing and reconciliation with God and the support of the Church.
Systematic, institutionalized, government-funded, government-protected crime
The reason we should see these videos, at least the shorter, edited versions) is so that we can help effect an end to this evil. This is a matter of exposing systematic, institutionalized, government-funded, government-protected crime. Furthermore, as Ben Watson of the New Orleans Saints points out, “[a]s horrific as it is, the issue isn’t really the sale of human parts. It’s the legal practice that allows this to even be a possibility. Killing children … is not … acceptable.” It is an offense against God when we take innocent human life. Besides engaging in a real discussion on the illegal practices of buying human body parts, we should ask why something as evidently wrong as abortion is legal at all.
Our lives matter most of all to God. They matter to Him because He loves us. We have a supreme motive to love our lives in the revelation that God loves our lives: All of our lives; each and every life. When we love life, we follow the example of God. If we, who are all about “Black Lives Matter” are to be true to the God to whom our lives matter the most, we should find out just how badly those many women and their babies have been treated by Planned Parenthood. We have the noble, strict, and moral obligation to watch the videos released by the CMP. We cannot claim to be social activists if we cultivate ignorance about matters as grave as are the inhumane and sinful practices exposed in these videos. These videos demonstrate that Planned Parenthood doctors have endangered the health and lives of mothers by modifying abortion procedures to obtain more intact organs from the aborted babies. These videos demonstrate that Planned Parenthood is, in fact, making a considerable profit harvesting organs from aborted babies.
Here is the link to the Center for Medical Progress: http://www.centerformedicalprogress.org/blog/
Our Lives Matter to God
To reiterate, in themselves, videos documenting criminal brutality really do not guarantee justice. The fact that so many people can watch and take action means little if so many people will not. Some people see and don’t see. Some people hear and don’t hear. Why? King David says that sin speaks to the sinner in the depth of his heart. What is needed, then, is a stronger voice than the voice of the evil one.
May it please Almighty God in His justice and mercy, to end the nightmares of brutality, ignorance and sin. Banners, posters and t-shirts can say “Black Lives Matter” to no end. We can hashtag it and shout it while we continue to see ourselves perish in the streets and in our mothers’ wombs every day. The callous disregard for black lives from within and without our community is the result of a habitual, cultivated ignorance, and this ignorance is at odds with the sweet knowledge of Christ Crucified in the flesh. It is no small detail that our new lives in Christ, lives that matter so very much to God, have been hidden with Christ in God. He has given us a hiding place in Himself so that we might be safe in the day of trouble, that we might see and hear the hidden thoughts of His Divine Heart. Notice the following message from God; come to us through St. Peter Chrysologus:
Why then, man, are you so worthless in your own eyes and yet so precious to God? Why render yourself such dishonor when you are honored by him? Why do you ask how you were created and do not seek to know why you were made? Was not this entire visible universe made for your dwelling? It was for you that the light dispelled the overshadowing gloom; for your sake was the night regulated and the day measured, and for you were the heavens embellished with the varying brilliance of the sun, the moon, and the stars. The earth was adorned with flowers, groves and fruit; and the constant marvelous variety of lovely living things was created in the air, the fields and the seas for you, lest sad solitude destroy the joy of God’s new creation. And the Creator still works to devise things that can add to your glory. He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth; He has made you His legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lord’s representative. Then in His mercy, God assumed what He made in you; He wanted now to be truly manifest in man, just as He had wished to be revealed in man as in an image. Now He would be in reality what He had submitted to be in symbol.
So, even after so much brutality and in the midst of so much ignorance played out and played over, God heals us and instructs us just as He healed and instructed our forefathers in the True Faith. When the nightmares of this world threaten to snuff out our lives on earth, and even our eternal life with God on High, pray to God that He will dispel the nightmare, with His dreams for you, the one for whom He made flower and field, the one for whom He was born of a Virgin. God has not forgotten you. Not while He is still devising the things that will add to your glory. Why? Because you matter so very much to Him. Yes, you!
Father Claude Williams is a priest of the Norbertine Order. A native of New Orleans, Father Claude entered the Norbertines in the summer of 2000 and subsequently studied at St. Michael’s Abbey Seminary in Orange County, California. From 2004-2007 Father Williams studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Sacred Theology with a concentration in Dogmatics. Father Williams is currently serving in his fourth year as Parochial Vicar at St. John the Baptist Church in Costa Mesa, California.
Image: Wikimedia Commons