What is Justice?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

This opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities describes the climate in Paris during the period of the French Revolution… but it could easily describe the mood of our nation today. Dickens described the oppression of the “common people” by a tyrannical French aristocracy through unjust laws, unfair taxation and complete disregard for the poor, feeding outrage that ultimately erupted into revolution.

Historically, there has never been a “nice” way to overturn oppression. Unions and community organizations spend loads of resources on encouraging members and neighbors to vote, supporting electoral campaigns based on promises made, lobbying these same legislators once elected, and mobilizing people to apply pressure via public demonstrations, mass meetings and hearings, petitions, letters, social and mass media.

So here is a question, built on a real issue in the state of New York: ensuring that the ultra-rich pay their fair share of taxes, as opposed to squeezing wage earners (such as nurses, our spouses, family members and neighbors). Surveys and polls indicate broad public support (>90%) for tax reform that would do just that — not a new idea, by the way, as the tax tables in previous decades were far more egalitarian, and there was no deficit such as we are seeing today. Numerous state elected representatives also support the idea and have drafted legislation to this effect.

Fair taxation would negate the draconian cuts that have closed hospitals, laid off employees, crowded our Emergency Rooms, forced us to work harder with fewer resources — but also harmed peoples’ access to quality education, affordable housing, better roads, parks, nutrition and all the social determinants of health. As we have seen in the pandemic, the absence of a central organized public health infrastructure and a system built on patients, not profits, is also a necessity for meeting the health needs of our communities and the basic needs of caregivers, such as our own members.

But the legislature shut down and none of these bills — that would absolutely save lives, as well as enhancing the quality of all of our lives — went forward. Where is the justice in this?

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin arrested George Floyd, a suspect in a report that an individual used a $20 counterfeit bill. To the horror of onlookers, Chauvin kneeled on Floyd, who posed no threat, with his knee on his neck, ignoring pleas that he couldn’t breathe, even continuing to do so for up to 3 minutes after he became unresponsive. His pulseless body was then tossed into an ambulance.

Video recording and viral sharing has enabled the public to view such horrific scenes, understanding that incidents like this, not recorded, may very well be more numerous, even endemic. The Floyd murder set off a series of national protests that continue to escalate as I write this. The outrage and anger this incident precipitated was smoldering, not only due to an increase in attacks and deaths on behalf of white supremacist vigilantes and individual racist cops in the recent period, but due to the much broader historic and current institutionalized racism that poisons America and continues to kill and maim Black people in our country.

COVID-19 has dramatically hit communities of color, both in New York and across the nation. Every single social determinant of health impacts these same communities in total disproportion to their percentage of population. There isn’t a single statistic available that counters the argument that institutionalized racism is a critical precursor to the suffering, politically, economically, socially, in life and in death, of non-white people in America.

Is anyone surprised that the death of George Floyd recalls memories of lynchings of Black people in the previous century? That the hysterical “threat” a white female dog walker in Central Park called in to 911 of “an African-American male” (a mild-mannered bird-watcher at that!) recalled memories of Carolyn Bryant Donham’s report of being harassed by 14 year-old Emmet Till in 1955? 60 years after the tortured, beaten body of young Till was pulled from the river, murdered by Ms. Donham’s husband and friends (cleared by a jury of their peers), she recanted her testimony.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” We learn all about empathy in Nursing School. It’s how we best care for our patients. Can we apply this to our society?

Speaking about race and racism in our country is “uncomfortable” for some people. Many Americans would like to think that we live in a “post-racial” society. We don’t.

Democracy is defined as government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all adult citizens, directly, or through their freely elected representatives. But that doesn’t seem to always work for us either, as exemplified by the earlier example of fair taxation.

Critical Thinking is another concept sprinkled throughout all nursing curricula and our employers love to say they support it — but their actions prove otherwise. Being a nurse feels more and more like being an assembly line worker in an industrial plant. Innovation, unless it saves money, is frowned upon.

These contradictions pervade our society — but we don’t have to be victimized by them. We can choose to engage, communicate and empathize with one another. We can explore the ways in which we can use the democratic process so that it works for us. We can use our critical thinking skills to question the rhetoric and manipulation that those in power are so adept at utilizing.

Literary critics describe the moral themes of A Tale of Two Cities as the possibility of redemption and the importance of compassion. Dickens proposes that the way to break the cycle of exploitation and abuse of power is to apply the principles of justice and mercy. Can we do that?

Or, at least, can we try?

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