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Complicity and Modern Slavery

VIEW FROM HERE-As I sympathize with those who want to knock down and deface statues representing former slave owners, I realize that modern corporations are involved in the slave trade today.

For example, children in some Bangladeshi factories are not allowed to leave their post without suffering severe repercussions, including physical beatings and worse. There are garment factories in India where they chain workers to their sewing machines and mines in central Africa where “workers” are shot on the spot if they try to flee. Do we think about how we are actively involved in the slave trade every time we turn on our computers (think silicon and quartz), tie our running shoes, or purchase a new pair of blue jeans at Target? 

It is easy to look at someone from the past such as the slave-trading Nathaniel Rochester and contextualize him for his period. Rochester’s statue was recently tarnished in a downtown park. It is also easy to point fingers at him and call him an evil capitalist and racist. But to take a long hard look at our own lives and see how many of us are all too willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to slavery today, that is more difficult. 

The reality is that slavery is no less entrenched, pervasive, and vile today than it was 400 years ago. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were customers all over the world who had no idea what type of brutality existed on an American plantation. They just preferred the feel of their American made vest. Likewise, slavery in Pakistan or the Congo does not feel real to most Americans, for many of us do not want to know how the products arriving on our doorstep were produced. This goes for clothing, electronics, jewelry, food, and more than we could imagine. 

As I said, slavery is entrenched and pervasive. It dawns on me that every year I watch the Super Bowl, this event brings thousands of forced sex slaves to the host city. The women and men and children come from places such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Morocco, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and all over the world, to have sex with paying customers. If they do not perform this task, they are beaten, maimed, drugged, raped, sold to a more vicious owner, or point-blank killed. As I eat my chicken wings and care to pretend about a man holding an inflated ball across an imaginary line, I am partaking in the modern industry of slavery. 

Dr. King once said: We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

That spiritual fact cannot be erased with a slogan or a good job or a protest or a powerful desire to make others just shut up about their rights or even legislative reform. This is a truth that pierces our hearts. It is an arrow that cares nothing about pigmentation or privilege and possesses the poison tip of universal truth. It also has little to do with letting anyone “of the hook” or looking the other way when injustices occur. On the contrary, it is about taking full responsibility for our own life and being courageous enough to take responsibility for each other as well. 

King understood that we are all guilty of doing terrible things to one another or finding a way to have someone else do it for us without needing to know the gory details. If I am honest, I am no less complicit than Nathaniel Rochester or any other slave owner or trader. That is my truth. It is an ugly truth that makes me accountable in ways that I do not always want to be held. In light of this truth, perhaps paint should be thrown on my hands, just as they did to Nathaniel Rochester’s statue on the corner of South and Alexander. My hands are thick and bright red with the blood of my brothers and sisters in Angola, Mogadishu, Singapore, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc. If not recently, then certainly at some point in my life as a 39-year-old American consumer. And what have I done lately to combat slavery in those places? Perhaps those protestors should write on my forehead. Deface me. Call me a monster because I am no less a monster than Rochester. 

But they should also call me a human being who is not ready to give up the journey of self-awareness, not yet. Was Rochester any less entitled to that right? Are the protestors who vandalize his statue any less entitled to that right? Are police officers? Are innocent unarmed black citizens?

I am here to learn and to grow. I am here to be challenged by others and to be free and to be loved and to be my best self. I am here to breathe, just like every other human being. And I need others to figure out who I am destined to become. Without them, I am lost. I am living a lie. King said a lie is impossible to survive. I will go one step further and say that we are dead already if we do not want to know the truth about who we are and what we are capable of doing. For better and worse, we are human. We are as deserving of forgiveness as we are freedom, and we owe each other our lives.

 

(George Cassidy Payne is an adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY Finger Lakes and a freelance writer. He is a CityWatch contributor and lives in Rochester, NY) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.