Recently, and of course very belatedly, I had the chance to watch the Netflix original documentary series Making a Murderer (2015). As many friends had assured me I would be, I was struck by a number of elements of the series, from the egregious, repeated failures of the justice system to many moments of quiet but profound humanity captured by the filmmakers. A second season will air later this year, and I’m sure all those elements and more will be present as the stories of Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, Teresa Halbach, and many more figures continue to play out.
I was particularly struck, however, by a quote from late in the first season’s tenth and final episode. Robert Henak, one of Steven Avery’s post-conviction attorneys and a consistent advocate for his innocence and release, remarks, “Until it happens to you or to your son or daughter or someone else that you love, it’s easy to ignore all of the problems in the system. But I can guarantee you that once it happens to somebody you love or to yourself, it’ll be very clear.”
Henak’s thoughts reminded me immediately of a troubling and potent section from “Crossing the Water,” the last story in Louise Erdrich’s short story cycle Love Medicine (1993). Speaking of his father, a Native American activist who has become a convicted criminal and wanted fugitive, narrator Lipsha Morrissey notes, “You will think a man don’t get two consecutive life sentences for nothing beneath the U.S. judicial system. You’ll keep thinking that, too, unless you happen to rub against that system on your own. Then things will astonish you. I promise they will.”
Henak and Morrissey are both commenting specifically on our collective blindness to the problems with the justice system, of course. But both are also making a second, more overarching, and even more frustrating point still: that it is only when we experience such problems ourselves that we can appreciate or even comprehend them. That it is difficult if not impossible, that is, for those of us fortunate enough not to have personal or familial such experiences to empathize sufficiently with those who have, empathy without which we likely will neither understand nor care about the system’s failings.
It’s easy to see confirmation for Henak and Morrissey’s points in two current issues that remain significantly and frustratingly under-covered in our collective conversations. Like Steven Avery, well more than 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated, a system of mass incarceration that dwarfs any other in the world. Like both Lipsha’s father Gerry Nanapush and historical AIM leaders such as Leonard Peltier, many of the Native American activists and protesters at Standing Rock have been attacked and arrested by law enforcement authorities for defending their homes and communities. And despite award-winning books and social media movements, both issues remain largely absent from our national conversations, as evidenced by their near-total invisibility during the 2016 presidential debates and campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Despite the rising numbers of incarcerations, most Americans are not personally affected by the issue, just as most have no personal connection to the Dakota Access Pipeline’s presence and effects. In the absence of such links, we seem palpably unable to muster sufficient empathy to engage with these issues in any meaningful collective way. The same could be said of far too many other horrific national crises: the fact that Flint, Michigan has not had clean drinking water for years; that nearly 1000 Americans were killed in police shootings in 2016; that more than 20% of American children live in families below the poverty line; that the Obama administration had deported more than 2.5 million undocumented Americans by 2015, a number that will likely rise far higher under the Trump administration. I would argue that each of these stories should be a source of continued collective outrage—but for the vast majority of Americans unaffected by any and all of them, sufficient empathy seems hard to come by.
Yet Trump’s new, even more aggressive deportation policy has indeed met with outrage and resistance from a wide spectrum of Americans, and I believe that can help us see a different point to Making a Murderer and Love Medicine. While both of those cultural texts were created for many purposes, it’s fair to say that both work hard to tell stories that their audiences might not otherwise have learned, and certainly not have learned with the complexity and accuracy and humanity they deserve. When those stories are told, and told well, they can produce precisely the sort of engagement and empathy that can and do inspire further awareness and action—just as the stories of Trump’s deportations and the American lives and families affected by them have already begun to inspire activism and resistance en masse.
Indeed, many if not most of the mass protests and actions we’ve seen in this first month of the Trump presidency seem to have arisen directly out of such empathetic responses. Perhaps the most overt and inspiring examples are the airport protests that followed immediately upon the administration’s executive order issuing travel bans on immigration and refugees. Driven by empathy for the individuals, families, and communities affected by this order, Americans all over the country descended on airports to support those communities, in philosophical but also potently practical and legal ways (such as lawyers working pro bono on airport floors on their behalf). And these empathetic protests, in turn, led to further news stories and coverage, expanded our collective awareness and conversations, and produced new levels of both empathy and action.
The problems that confront Americans—from those being created by Trump every day to those that go back far further into our history—are numerous, widespread, complex, and challenging. They will require collective responses that go far beyond awareness and protests. But we can’t respond at all if we don’t know or don’t care. At their most cynical, Henak and Morrissey’s comments suggest that most of all will never be sufficiently affected to find our way to such empathy. But at their most hopeful, their texts tell a different story, one that can help elicit precisely such empathetic responses and actions. As we’re seeing unfold around us, that empathy can and must be a potent mode of resistance in Trump’s America.