when silence is betrayal

From my series, Relearning the Art of Living; Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners

The time comes when silence is betrayal, so…

Speak up

Some years back, I hurried out of my house with no time for breakfast. After my first appointment, I knew I needed a snack before I continued my day so I stopped in at a convenience store. While I walked toward the counter to pay, a homeless man with a large backpack walked in.

One of the workers behind the counter said, “You need to take that backpack off before you walk around in here!” Didn’t say sir, didn’t say please.

The man said, “Don’t worry about it!”

The situation escalated until the man was yelling “Fuck you!” and was denied his two packs of Marlboros and told to leave.

I stood at the counter feeling unsettled by the interaction. The young attendant helping me said,“Sorry about that.”

I said, “Well, it’s good to be nice to people.”

This time he apologized for “their policies.” (I was wondering if the policies included being rude to potential customers, but I didn’t quibble.)

I said, “It’s good to remember that people might have hardships, and that man might have a mental illness or maybe he’s having a really hard day. I know it’s not fun to be cursed at, though.” The cashier seemed to be ok with what I was saying, and he told me to have a good day.

Putting it in perspective

Although this might appear like a simple interaction, about 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have been comfortable being so direct. But some things have changed. I’m more secure about my views and I have gotten better at considerately speaking up when I see a problem or something that could be changed.

Part of what changed my outlook was having to consistently stand up for myself when facing bureaucratic hurdles in foreign cultures (yes, I have had to bang my fist on a few desks), being plagued by street harassment in my own culture and others, and figuring out that I have cogent views and a strong voice despite being an introvert and also being a very good listener.

In the last few years, I’ve been learning how much privilege I have. Most people face difficult hurdles, but people of color face more, and the injustices they face are systemic. I want to be there for my friends of color and speak up when I see injustice.


A drawing made in prison by artist Radil, who I documented for my project Relearning the Art of Living; Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners.

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy

Today, I am thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King’s work and legacy. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, saying “the time comes when silence is betrayal.” It makes me proud that some Americans are acting on that principle. We are marching for freedom and speaking up about the violence and inequality in our country, some fifty years after Dr. King led his marches. The death of unarmed black teen Mike Brown in 2014, who was killed by police, that underscored how people of color are disproportionately subjected to police brutality.  


Street-level citizen journalism

The advent of Twitter and social media has allowed us to see more of what is happening on the street level. We saw a video of a police officer threatening protestors with his gun raised. We saw a video of Eric Garner, another unarmed black man, being illegally choked to death by the police. Those of us who could bring ourselves to watch, saw Philando Castile shot and in pain, slowly dying, as his girlfriend attempted to de-escalate police officers, and his small daughter sat in the back seat of their car.  Recently, a video of Daniel Shaver was released, a white Arizona man pleading for his life. Then we saw him being shot to death by a police officer. Through video and photographs, everyday people can immediately share what is happening on a street level. The images are important in telling stories of inequality and violence.

A lack of empathy for people who are visually ‘different’ than us

The real heart of it to me is the lack of empathy for “the other.” Just like the young men working at the convenience store, these police officers are unable to see the humanity in the people they are “policing.” I don’t think all this violence would take place without this sense of protecting oneself from the “other.” It’s disturbing that people’s worldviews are so small that they see threats around every corner, and especially in skin a few shades darker than their own.

I’m aware that racism is ingrained, but education could change this for future generations. And yes, there is inherent danger in being a police officer in the US, but our system needs reform. I firmly believe we could avoid unnecessary violence with better training around deescalation and cultural bias, less reliance on weapons, and more community dialog in which the community itself decides what’s important for them.

prison cell and rice fields

From my series, Relearning the Art of Living; Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners

It is overwhelming to think about all these incidents of violence but we have to support the change we want to see in the world, whether the violence directly affects us or not. Taking small positive actions, making incremental changes to your behavior, understanding that you have implicit racial biases, and working to approach all people with fairness are all useful responses. I want basic human rights for all people. I want prison reform. The time comes when silence is betrayal. I don’t want to betray my friends by staying silent. I choose to see the humanity in all people and to do my best to honor it.

with silence is betrayal

From my series, Relearning the Art of Living; Photos of Indonesian Ex-Prisoners


Other articles:

“About living up to our nation’s ideals,” National Reentry Week

What does it mean to be a vulnerable photographer?