STARKMAN: Where is the Outrage to ‘Simply Following Orders?’

Stacey Starkman


Of all the disturbing images and incidents we have witnessed since the brutal murder of George Floyd was broadcast to the world, of all the unbearable acts of cruelty caught on camera and the revolting and racist statements made in the days following, there is one official comment that seems to have gone undetected and unremarked by the global Jewish community.

It is one that we should have noticed, and responded to with profound outrage.

The comment was made in the aftermath of the incident in which an elderly Black Lives Matter protester in Buffalo, N.Y. was shoved to the ground by two police officers and left by the offenders and their colleagues, prone and bleeding on the ground.

It was an appalling act which led to the suspension of the two police officers involved. Upset by this suspension, 57 members of the city’s Emergency Response Team resigned in protest.

As explanation for their violent response to a peaceful protester, a police representative, quoted in USA Today, clarified, “Our position is these officers were simply following orders…they were simply doing their job.”

This is the comment that should raise a shiver of alarm throughout the collective Jewish consciousness. This is the phrase that all Jews understand in our blood and bones to be the epitome of horror: “They were simply following orders.” It is a phrase which, more than any other, so infamously encapsulates the absolute evil of the Holocaust.

And now, as the world remains on a COVID-induced pause and people have the time to really see and understand the too-often fatal injustices endured by Black communities in the U.S. and around the world, this phrase is being used to defend an indefensible act of cold-hearted violence by police.

Perhaps it was due to the offhand nature of this comment – included in a broader statement on an act of shameless abuse – that this particular remark was overlooked. I feel certain, however, that if the context were different, these words would have been treated as blasphemy, and set the Jewish world on fire.

I understand our community’s reluctance to criticize the police. After all, our good relationship with law enforcement is a relatively recent achievement. We know, or at least our forebears knew, what is felt like to be hunted.

But the world has changed. Today, we count on the police to keep our community safe. They guard our schools, community centres and synagogues. In a world where armed gunmen have not hesitated to kill Jews in our communal spaces, our ties to the police are precious, and we want to cultivate and safeguard them.

At the same time, we must recognize that the very same people who make us feel safe and protected instill growing fear in Black communities. Their experiences with the police too often lead to violence and, as in the case of George Floyd, death. Black children are schooled in how to respond to police by parents anxious to keep them safe from the deadly weapons of law enforcement.

It’s a difficult circle to square. But we cannot as a community feel truly safe until every community is truly safe. And when a phrase used to excuse the most horrifying mass genocide in human history is employed in the service of police brutality, it’s time we take notice. We know where this line of thinking leads.

It is not too late to cry out against this atrocity. It is never too late to rage against injustice. And, in this difficult time, at this critical moment, we know in our hearts where our community must stand.

And it must never be with those who justify violence because they were “simply following orders.”

Stacey Starkman
Stacey Starkman

Stacey Starkman is a communications professional in the Jewish community. A Tim Horton’s steeped tea enthusiast, she writes about tikkun olam in between sips.