As a disability rights activist I’m troubled by the video of a policeman assisting a woman with a cane in the middle of last Wednesday’s mob attack on the US Capitol. Like so many iconic news images it produces multiple dizzying meanings. I can’t get the video out of my mind.
Two years ago Capitol Police were dreadfully efficient removing disabled protestors from the premises, zip tying them in their wheelchairs and trundling them out because they were peacefully protesting cuts to health care. Contrast a cop helping an elderly woman flee a seditious riot and you’ve got good old fashioned cognitive dissonance. But you don’t have to be a scholar of dignity studies to understand the very function of a mob is to sow absolute dissonance.
In the middle of an attack on American democracy there was a Boy Scout assisting an old lady as if nothing else was happening.
I’m not an investigative reporter. I don’t know the story behind this. I’ve no idea who the officer and the woman are. Perhaps the woman reminded the cop of his own mother; maybe she begged him for help saying “I have no idea how I got here.” (You know, playing the white privilege dementia card?)
Perhaps she said she needed a port a-potty? Maybe the cop just turned her around and started walking her down the stairs without asking her anything. I’ve been grabbed by strangers while walking blind. Was it as simple as that? The video suggests otherwise. They appear to be communicating. He seems to be reassuring her as he gently guides her.
So many signifiers, so little time! Perhaps he thought “she’s an old lady, therefore, she has to be innocent of hatred.” Maybe he thought “this is going to explode our of control in a few minutes, so like the Titanic, I’ll save the women and children first?” Maybe he was escorting her to safety and then he was going to flee the scene. Maybe he was just a good man in a bad moment, his goodness inspired by white sentimentality which overcame his sense of duty to defend the “people’s house.”
That cop was performing targeted goodness in the middle of a shit show. His empathy for an infirm protestor affects to affirm human dignity while all around him fascists and racists are attacking the institutions of liberty designed to guarantee dignity for all.
The thing I know for sure is that dignity for all was not on the menu.
Human meaning is in part created by the quality of our relationships. Democracy is designed to make it possible for everyone to have equal opportunity. Behind Trump’s mob is the assertion that only some should have human meaning. And so the video of tenderness is as ironic as Charles Foster Kane’s hall of mirrors.