Who watches the watchmen?

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/5/20

Somewhere around the year 100 A.D., a Roman poet named Decimus Junius Juvenalis first posed the question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

To non-Latin speakers, like me, the phrase may sound …

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Who watches the watchmen?

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Somewhere around the year 100 A.D., a Roman poet named Decimus Junius Juvenalis first posed the question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

To non-Latin speakers, like me, the phrase may sound as ancient and as foreign as the time and place in which it was composed. But translated into English, the philosophical query — “Who watches the watchers?” or “Who watches the watchmen?” — from centuries ago resonates today and begs for a contemporary answer.

One answer is the press, and our Constitution’s First Amendment fortunately ensures a free one. This past March saw the 15th observance of Sunshine Week, a national initiative which celebrates and promotes the importance of open government and the press’ role in keeping it that way.

Sunshine Week was born from the more localized Sunshine Sunday, launched in 2002 by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors as a rebuff to efforts by some legislators in the Sunshine State to create new exemptions to Florida’s public records law; in other words, Florida’s press — or media — was watching the watchers.

But “the press” isn’t a faceless entity up on high operating with a divine decree — it’s a profession populated by people.

Pondering Decimus Junius Juvenalis’ ancient and timeless question, another phrase from another long-ago source occurred to me. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the Bible story, told in the Book of Genesis, after he kills his brother Abel, absolving himself of responsibility for the violence he’s committed against his kin.

In watching the watchers, I believe we are our brothers’ keepers. The same notion is expressed in the idea, from an African proverb, that “it takes a village” — a community as a whole — to raise a child.

In other words, eschewing Latin philosophizing and African proverbs and putting it in plain English: we look out for each other.

That’s what a group of witnesses last week to the murder of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis at the hands — or knee, in actuality — of police officer Derek Chauvin were trying to do as they pleaded with the police officer to relinquish his deadly choke hold on the man suspected only of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

One of those witnesses captured, in cell phone footage, the eight minutes that it took for Chauvin to choke the life out of George Floyd.

About halfway through the video, as the 46-year-old black man remains pinned and helpless on the ground under Chauvin’s knee, one of those concerned by-standers off-camera asks a variant of the old Latin question: She says, “Can you call the police on another police?”

Who is watching the watchers?

Last Tuesday afternoon as I viewed the video on Instagram, as I saw the disturbing footage of a man being suffocated for the presumption of a crime (imagine if that fake $20 had found its way into George Floyd’s wallet, in change from another transaction, and he unsuspectingly passed it along; it could have easily happened that way), it was the question I was asking, too.

Though I already knew how the video — and the deadly encounter it captured — ended, and I could watch it a dozen times and the ending would always be the same, I desperately hoped for a different outcome. That the situation — incredible and wrong and troubling as it was — would somehow end without the pointless loss of life, that Chauvin would loosen his death grip, that George Floyd would stand to his feet, that someone — whoever watches the watchers — would intervene.

“True peace,” wrote Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, “is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

We can’t live in a just society if we aren’t watching the watchers and holding our brothers’ interests as our own, being an active participant — all of us — in the far-flung village we as humans inhabit.

None of the watchers were able to save George Floyd’s life last week. But Chauvin and other officers involved in George Floyd’s death were soon fired from their police posts, and Chauvin would later be charged with George Floyd’s murder. Protests understandably were mounted across the nation, the expansive village we call the United States. You could say the watchers — we, the people — were watching, and outraged.

Have we finally seen enough?

Must there be another George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Eric Garner?

The future of our shaken and divided village depends on how we answer.


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