Conscience Calls

In Issue 62 by Michael McQuillan

Conscience Calls
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us all to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love, the Mahatma Gandhi said. Solidarity with the poor set both men's moral conduct beyond mortal norms, but we placed them on pedestals rust-crusted with age.

We've become a soft people bleating that we can't stand wearing masks while we — unlike Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine and elsewhere – are immune from local wars. Our morals manifest as money flows to aid the refugees from Ukraine, generosity a pittance to the fifty-one U.S. Congress members and their spouses who together have $2.3 to $5.8 million in stock ownership with the top thirty defense contractors whom militarism enriches.

Crises here persist as a Federal Monitor finds the Rikers Island prison complex still “unstable and unsafe,” and New York’s Mayor orders its police department to destroy the encampments of human beings who have of necessity called sleeping bags, tents and cardboards “homes.” Nor may they sleep on subways. Where are they to go? Where is the love that would propel a proper problem-solving?1

The face of anguish moves me: Rafio's tattooed form lies in tattered blankets on sidewalk concrete through a frigid winter day; blade-thin Darla hugs me on the avenue for my caring talk and twenty; the corner man confronts me near the park to assert that people are trying to kill him so perhaps he should kill me (“Let’s slow this down for safety’s sake so we can work together, you’re my brother,” I reply); and Rodney standing firm in steadfast rain as commuters scramble past his placard sign that says “I am HUNGRY.”

That points out latent fears that a fragile line divides us, so people condescend or look away. Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee, a 1940 Ernest Hemingway novel warned. 2

The tell-tale green sheets on clipboards show that ballot petitioning has begun as I stroll down Park Slope, Brooklyn’s 7th Avenue. I click my pen to scribble a signature until I see that the candidate is Thomas Suozzi. “I’m sorry because I know that you’re just out here working, but I can't sign for a man who has a racist base on Long Island that feeds the backlash against bail reform.”3

“Please talk to me and tell me more. I don’t know anything about him, and I need to get educated,” the petitioner pleads. “Who are you for, Jumaane?”

“Yes, but I doubt he can win,” I replied, referring to the city's current Public Advocate, a Democrat challenging incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul.

A second, softer voice reaches my ears before I see its source: “Will you talk to me, too?” My backward glance beholds a man whose swollen fingers, tearing eyes, and disordered clothes make trauma crystal clear. “I just got out of Rikers and want to have just two slices and a soda,” he confides.

“God bless you if you've been there and thank God, you've made it through. Please tell me more,” I say as I empty my wallet.

“They hit me,” Jimmy whispers. He describes the Rikers house of horrors. I offer to walk him to Methodist Hospital, merely blocks away or call for help and stay (my dueling thought balloons weigh how to help with the reality that I may neither erase his recent past nor save him from the future).

“If I had a thousand dollars and you said you’d just got out of Rikers, I would give you half of it,” Jimmy claimed.

I didn’t have a thousand and affirmed what I could do as his plea grew more intense, then I began to step away.

“Oh God, thy sea so great, my boat so small,” the Breton fishermen's prayer bespeaks the magnitude of misery. Televised ads last evening displayed the ruthlessly taken ivory tusks of elephants, the haggard forms of dogs penned in at puppy mills, the cancer children for whom the actor Danny Thomas launched St. Jude's Hospital, and the actress Cate Blanchett's urgent appeal for Ukraine funds.

In retirement at sixty-nine in what were once called “golden years,” I volunteer at a soup kitchen and write what I hope are persuasive postcards to unregistered primary voters in states that will determine the nation’s direction. I have no formal platform having finished my careers in government and teaching, but my heart and mind are as active as songbirds in a storm against overwhelming odds. I came of age convinced that life’s meaning lies in work but impacts dull and résumés reach ashcans and the effects of labors fade. It’s the love we sow that lasts.4

Yet the world itself is wounded, its institutions are remote, and I am just a man.5

With institutional racism now called “structural,” unifying issues “intersectional,” and racial dialogue “courageous conversation,” we reinvent the wheel as we all go down the drain.6

“We need a real people’s movement,” said my dad when I was young. But our federal government killed Fred Hampton, and police oppression plus the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO surveillance dissolved the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and their promising Rainbow Coalition. Romantic images of Jesus Christ and the Mahatma belie their violent ends.

How would we react were they and Dr. King to come through an open door?

Let’s be aware of having choice as we observe this sacred season: Will we shut our private doors once the holidays conclude for our reliable routines, or devote the better angels of our nature to their unfinished missions?7

Footnotes ↓

1A proper problem-solving by the legislative analysts, activists and think-tank researchers who shape policies.

2“That” refers to the denial manifest in the commuters’ downcast dash past Rodney.

3The complacent conservative portion of suburban Long Island’s white population that, a Newsday investigation proved, systematically through red-lining, racial steering and deed stipulations (called covenants) to sustain residential segregation. This group has historically backed hardline anticrime appeals—fear stroking, I’d say—by candidates for office. Thomas Suozzi, a Democratic U.S Congress member, opposes New York state’s recently adopted bail reform laws, which a research survey cited by the New York Post showed, have not caused the recent statistical rise in crime.

4I came of age convinced that life’s meaning lies in work. What craft calls forth one’s aptitude, fulfills one’s potential, improves others’ lives? My thirty-one-year pursuit of social justice through politics and teaching had some success but revealed the generational amnesia that keep us in statist. We commemorate civil rights milestones but rely more on rhetoric than the historical knowledge of method in addressing present-day white supremacy. We lapse into lamentations that there is little we can do, a less-taxing stance than striving uphill against the obstacles to change. It’s the love we sow that lasts. The spirit of community that is our salvation is rooted in love.

5 As a college sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, I wrote letters to Senators urging them to cut Vietnam War funding and would get a response. But my recent contact efforts with my district Representative, Jerry Nadler, got nothing: neither his online contact box nor my snail mail and phone calls to his Washington and Manhattan offices made contact — until I ultimately reached his New York scheduler, who spurned my request for a five-minute meeting at his convenience, whether abruptly or far in advance. Meanwhile, the ethos of the French worker-priest seems sadly absent among religious leaders who have little taste for engaging with controversial issues unless from the ideological divide's right side.

6New terms dress old issues, as in my example. My first step is to make that point. Next, I would disrupt the "career-and-college-ready" mantra of public education by teaching from stories of how historical actors faced moral dilemmas (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass on Emancipation; Daniel Ellsberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers; Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the grape boycott that grew nationwide; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s decision under great duress to publicly oppose the Vietnam War; Congress Member Shirley Chisholm's pioneering presidential nomination campaign). My own teaching methods moved to that place through the last years of my classroom career, students applying their insights to projects that led to the Transit Authority's renovation of a dirty, dangerous and heavily used subway station; a meeting with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to present their draft Bill of Rights for Police and Communities; and a discussion with Reverend Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network and host of MSNBC's "Politics Nation" on "what makes social protest effective?" We should honor, embrace and apply youthful energies to achieving our often-stated social ideals.

7Sacred season meant that of Kwanzaa, Chanukah and Christmas as I composed this; I was thinking of the communal values to which we give voice at such times and trying to link the article's conclusion to its opening Christ and Gandhi reference. Easter, Passover, and the traditional optimism of summer's arrival could also apply, although summer is not spiritually sacred.

About the Author

Michael McQuillan

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Michael McQuillan, former US Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, taught history and chaired the NYPD Training Advisory Council's Race Subcommittee in the aftermath of Eric Garner's death. Mike writes often for the History News Network, Harlem World Magazine and his blog. The Write Launch has published his Creative Nonfiction.