A Silent Witness Is Not Enough

February in 1992 I was waiting to cross the road to my UN peacekeeping job in a very small Bosnian-Croat village when 3 men in uniforms pulled a lone man out of his old Yugo, pummeled him with their fists then tossed him into a snowdrift before driving away in his car. I watched the whole thing in silence.

I crossed the street as the bloodied man pulled himself out of the snow and walked on. Fighting sobs, I flashed my ID at the distraught Danish UN soldier who was manning the gate and by UN rules was only allowed to use his gun for self-defense. I recognized his tears of shame – we’d watched and done nothing. We followed the rules. Of course this event was benign compared to the atrocities perpetuated under our watch during the Balkan wars.

It happened so quickly. That’s one thing I can tell myself but it doesn’t make me feel better. I was silent. I did not yell or curse at the bastards. Shock? Fear? I can’t recall. But here’s what I do remember: the shame of my silence, of being a small part of that terrible chapter of Peacekeeping history.

I feel it again, that sick feeling, as if I’m standing on a corner watching while history repeats itself faster and faster. Now it’s not even days but hours between white men in uniforms killing innocent black men while we watch. Now, it is being part of my race that causes me shame.

I try to distance myself, prove that I am not racist, that I’m different because I come from generations of leftists including my grandmother who voted for Jesse Jackson back when he ran for President. I can tell you how I proudly live in an economically and racially diverse community, how I struggle financially and raised my daughter on my own after losing her father to addiction and suicide. I will tell you that to distance myself from the oppression, to let you know that mine has not been just a life of privilege since I am a woman. I will tell you these things as if to prove I am an okay-white person. But how ridiculous – I will do this to make myself feel better. It doesn’t let me off the hook from the collective truth.

I am waiting to cross while the street is exploding.

And I just don’t know what to do.