With each passing year, technology becomes faster, more intuitive, and more social. With ever-evolving technology, we like to think that large-scale atrocities simply cannot happen – we would be too quick to film and post and share, galvanizing the forces of justice. Petitions and hashtags spread like wildfire, movements go viral within hours, and the grassroots power of those protecting our basic human rights would flood the cities. Haven’t we seen the power of social media for revolution and change over the past few years worldwide? It becomes more and more difficult to censor individuals when we so connected, and there’s no going back now.
The immediacy of information and response has not yet saved us from ourselves. There are horrific injustices occurring every day around the world that are not being documented and shared. We don’t always use the speed and ease of technology to do something about it. Millions die from hunger, millions are systematically killed, and millions are denied basic human rights because of their race, sexuality, religious or political beliefs, gender, and economic class. We might not have all the information, but we can no longer claim that we don’t know what is happening. Even if we narrow the scope from the entire world to just one city, I must admit that I witness social injustice every day and often do nothing about it.
Recently, I attended a workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC with other State of Formation Contributing Scholars. This visit brought up many lingering questions from a spring break trip I took with my undergraduate students in March focusing on hunger and homelessness in Philadelphia, PA. I was particularly struck by the stories of people in Europe and the United States turning a blind eye to what was happening around them during WWII. Hearing the stories of how the Nazi regime started, picking off small parts of the population, relocating Jews and others into ghettos, criminalizing their businesses and livelihood, I couldn’t help but think of the sheer numbers of social injustices that we witness every day on the streets of our own cities here in the United States.
Walking through the USHMM, I was struck by the sheer amount of documentation that has been collected by archivists and historians, much of it donated from personal and family collections. Everything from photographs, letters, maps, accounts, personal items, children’s drawings, and even shoes have been collected and cataloged to help us better understand the lives of those who survived the Shoah and those who did not. I was shocked to learn that many of the photographs taken of individuals as they entered the camps were taken by soldiers and guards, often immediately before sending those same individuals to their immediate death. Documentation was important to the Nazi regime. It was used for propaganda and for records, meticulously detailing the experiences and the individuals affected by their reign of terror.
Because that period is so well documented, we know that most citizens knew what was happening around them, and although some did a great deal to help those being targeted and decimated, most ordinary citizens looked the other way until they no longer could. One story collected by museum historian Dr. Victoria Barnett told of a trolley car that cut right through a Jewish ghetto in Germany. As the trolley entered the ghetto, a conductor would walk through the car and close the blinds, which would be reopened when the ghetto was behind them. This story perfectly encapsulates the willful blindness which allowed thousands if not millions of people to look the other way. Perhaps it was in response to a hopelessness, or a sense of “what can I possibly do to change it?”, or perhaps it was an act of self-preservation. Today, some people hear these stories and want to place blame on these bystanders, want to condemn those who stood by and did nothing.
The story of the trolley reminded me of an early morning spent in the subway of Philadelphia with students at the Hub of Hope, a service location for people experiencing homelessness. Each morning, folks are invited into the Hub for a hot drink and medical or social services. The Hub is located in the subway terminal because during the winter months, people living on the street flock to the protection of the subway, safe from winter’s cold and icy winds. Two students walked through the subways with a Hub worker to invite individuals to come in for coffee or assistance. Although it was only 6am, the police had already cleared away most of the people who had slept there, sending them back outside into the cold, March morning with nothing to eat and nowhere to go. “We have to clear them out first thing,” one policeman said. “Commuters come down here to go to work, and they don’t want the eyesore. We know it’s rough, but it’s out of our hands.”
I think the slogan “Never Again” can be applied more broadly to social justice issues around the world. What if it meant never again turning a blind eye to what you see happening on your own street? Never again allowing people to fall through the cracks created by systems of inequality? Never again silencing the voices of victims? Never again waiting for an injustice to reach the level of genocide before we rise up and act? Being called to justice sometimes means being called to make a scene. We can’t wait until things get bad enough – there is no “bad enough” when it comes to people’s lives. Whether it is the closing of HIV clinics in Uganda, the criminalization of dissenting voices in Saudi Arabia, systematic violence against women, the exploitation of workers, the abuse of children, the denial of human rights, or someone being forced to beg for food, we can no longer pretend we don’t see it. We know about it. We are connected. We don’t have an excuse anymore.
Photo taken from Flickr Commons, available through the Library of Congress.