Reactive Abuse and Burning Cities
By Lindsey Abston Painter | 12 June 2020 |
When I got divorced I discovered a new community of people: divorced women. In the beginning, I relied heavily on this community for support, for clarity, and for emotional comfort. Now, years later, I still find them to be a deep well of wisdom and friendship.
One thing I have gained from this support group is a new understanding of abuse. So many men seem to follow the same abusive playbook. (Side note: I know women can be abusive too, but my experience tells me that men abuse women far more often, and because of the group I was in, I learned more about abusive men than abusive women.) It’s as if there’s a secret manual out there somewhere that gives instructions on how to abuse.
One of the tactics abusers frequently use is called reactive abuse. The abusive man belittles, tears down, and in many other ways abuses the woman. At some point the woman has enough, and retaliates. She might yell, she might throw things, she might threaten, she might even try to hit him. The abusive man then accuses the victim of being abusive herself, based on her reaction to his abuse.
She might feel guilty for her reaction: after all, she is doing something that is unkind. She might even believe that she is abusive. She almost certainly will believe that in some way she is complicit in being abused, and that she is at least partially responsible for her own victimhood.
But her abuser pushed her to it. Her reaction to his abuse is not nice, nor even healthy—but it is understandable. It might even be seen as a good first step in getting her to stand up for herself and ultimately end the relationship!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the death of George Floyd. And I couldn’t help but think of reactive abuse. For decades police have abused their power by killing Black people.
This isn’t even an opinion. There are decades of documented proof of police disproportionately killing Black people. (Really it’s been hundreds of years. This article is dealing with the years since Jim Crow but police violence against Black people stretches far beyond that to the founding of this country.)
As a white person, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started really paying attention to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police and other white people. A Black pastor who was upset about the death of Trayvon Martin took the time and patience to explain it to me—an act of emotional labor and empathy that I will forever be grateful for. Since then, news of black deaths and brutality toward Black people at the hands of police has only become more prominent as technology allows more people the ability to film and publish these horrific crimes.
At first I watched with disbelief and horror as crime after crime produced no punishment. In many cases, the police officer wasn’t even charged—sometimes he was just put on temporary paid leave. Seeing this happen again and again and again (again, only since I began paying attention—it was happening for decades before I was even aware of it) left me with a sense of hopelessness and a simmering anger.
As a Seventh-day Adventist, I try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus was deeply grieved by injustice. He preferred to show mercy and compassion to the oppressed, but he did not hesitate to say some pretty harsh things to the oppressors. In his time that included the Roman government and the religious leaders.
What do you think he would say now? And to whom?
The only recorded time that Jesus became physical in his anger was when he saw people being exploited by a powerful institution—favoring the economy over the needs and well-being of people. That sounds awfully familiar.
Our society has been abusing Black people for hundreds of years. Slavery may have been abolished generations ago but the abuse we have inflicted on Black people has never ended. We are talking about the overt kind of abuse like literally murdering Black men in broad daylight in the middle of the streets with no consequences, but also a nationwide campaign of gaslighting by saying that anything a Black person does in response is an overreaction.
Colin Kapernick kneeling reverently during the national anthem? Disrespectful! Peaceful Black Lives Matter protests? All lives matter! Stop blocking traffic! Black celebrities mentioning Black deaths in their Oscar speeches? This isn’t the time for that! Black athletes wearing a shirt that says “I can’t breathe?” Too political!
I’m talking to you white people. Imagine you’re a Black person. You have grown up your entire life with the knowledge that any encounter with police might end with your death or the death of your son or daughter. You are very likely to personally know someone who has been brutalized by police. You may even have your own story of unfair treatment by police.
You want to do something. You would like to do something peaceful—an appeal perhaps. Something like, “Stop killing us!” How can you do it? No matter what avenue you decide to take, it’s considered too political, or too confrontational, or disrespectful, or unacceptable.
But Black bodies continue to show up in the news. One after another. White people only reluctantly handing out lukewarm consequences, and then only because of public outrage, not because of justice.
How long? How much abuse will you take before your anger, and the collective anger of your people spills out into the streets? Before windows get broken? Before a Target burns to the ground?
This is reactive abuse. And just like any garden variety abuser, we White people are more upset by the reaction to our abuse than by the abuse we ourselves have inflicted.
Do we want cities to burn to the ground? Of course not! But rather than trying to suppress a perfectly understandable reaction to decades of literal murder, let’s maybe try to stop murdering. Rather than be mad about broken windows, let’s be mad about broken bodies. Let’s do the work we need to do. Take responsibility for the abuse we have inflicted. Access some humility and some remorse.
Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” You were right, Reverend Dr. King. You were right.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and strawberry pie.