The summer began with a viral video: a police officer in Minneapolis slowly killing George Floyd while others looked on helplessly. The video launched protests and invigorated movements, in some places leading to change, or at least talk of change. In many places, though, life marches on, seemingly unchanged.
The summer ended with another viral video, this time from Rochester, NY, of police killing Daniel Prude. This video, however, was suppressed for over five months in a likely attempt to avoid what eventually came to pass: multiple suspensions and a police chief firing, with perhaps even greater repercussions for those involved still to come.
But what happens when there is no video?
The Supreme Court famously refuses to allow video cameras in its courtroom, meaning all but a select few were able to see the recently departed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 2013, deliver a dissent from the bench regarding the opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, an opinion that invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act and has led to various new forms of voter suppression since. While her words were reported on generally and an audio recording was released months later, there is no video record of that moment.
In her remarks that June day, Justice Ginsburg invoked the familiar MLK quote “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, Justice Ginsburg continued to include her own important addendum: “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
A viral video is great at sparking an immediate reaction, often feelings of anger, rage, disdain, incredulity. These feelings usually lead to short-term actions, such as sharing the video, taking to the streets in protest, even reaching out to a corporate leader or an elected official.
But Justice Ginsburg knew that change would not come only through the short-term, responsive action common to viral videos. Rather, it is continued, determined effort that is needed to achieve one’s goal.
In promising to seek a vote on a nominee to replace Justice Ginsburg, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is simply continuing his “steadfast commitment” to reshaping the federal judiciary, a cause that has been ongoing for at least the past five years. The task began in the slowing of then President Obama’s court nominees when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015. It became intensely visible with the choice to hold a vacancy on the Supreme Court for more than a year to allow President Trump, rather than President Obama, to replace Justice Scalia after his death in 2016, and it has now led to the unprecedented number of more than 200 confirmations of Trump judicial nominees in less than 4 years.
There is no one moment of time to be captured on video, no easily digestible image, ready to be shared and consumed by millions, to quickly explain this significant change to the judicial landscape. Instead, it requires us to pay attention on a sustained basis, to not lose sight of the continual change taking place around us that will, if we’re not careful, lead us to wake up and realize that, while we were busy with other things, the world has become drastically different.
An Op-Ed piece can be like a viral video: short, often pithy, intended to grip its audience’s attention, often to move them to action around a certain issue or cause. Our country’s key issues, however—systemic oppression, climate catastrophe, the dismantling of our governmental institutions, to name only three—are not easily contained in 5-10 minute videos or a 640-word essay.
As we remember Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the coming days, months, and years, may her death be the impetus for millions across the country to make a steadfast commitment to bend the nation toward justice in a way not possible by even the most viral of videos.