By Ilya Galak
In the past few weeks there has been a lot of controversy and strong feelings surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and sadly, others. I would like to share a conversation I had with my good friend Bill Taitt, a very influential voice in Staten Island’s African American community, back when the Zimmerman trials had ended.
At first I shared my side. As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, I knew what it was to not have due process of law. It was a system where if the party leadership wanted you to be guilty you were guilty, the end. There was no defense, no deliberation and no evidence. If they wanted you in prison or a labor camp you were going.
I was glad that Zimmerman did not go to jail, but not because he was a nice guy; but because a multiethnic jury that had spent months reviewing evidence and laws found him innocent.
After that when the president and Eric Holder tried to get him into prison somehow, they couldn’t. This is what I was glad to see, that powerful men and political powers couldn’t put someone behind bars just because they wanted to. Fair trials and due process are just two of the many things immigrants from communist countries are grateful to America for.
The outrage of the African American community didn’t make sense to me, until Bill asked me a simple question: “Have you ever been to Germany?” That was when it hit me. Yes, I had been to Germany, and I remember it too well. Years back I had decided to travel there, and ended up leaving there in half the time I’d intended to stay with no plans of ever going back. My background as a Jew from Eastern Europe gave me a feeling like I was in enemy territory.
My father was shot at and wounded 3 times, my uncle lost his leg in the war, and other relatives I never knew got killed. It was hard for me to look at even the friendliest of Germans, knowing that their parents and grandparents were the ones who were shooting at mine.
I could not stand to be in the country that the 3rd Reich which murdered 6 million of my people started and flourished. But I knew that the common Germans I saw were good people and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. If anything they were ashamed and disgusted by what happened back then.
But there was a sort of genetic memory in me that wouldn’t let me be at peace in Germany. I told this to Bill and asked him: “Is this how many African Americans feel living in America, the country that once enslaved and oppressed their ancestors?” to which he answered “EXACTLY”.
I hope what people get from this is that things are never as simple and black or white, guilty or not guilty.
All sides have strong feelings that come out of real experiences be they past or present.