There are the oppressors, there are the oppressed, and in between is everyone else. Society is not binary; rarely in life are confrontations truly a circumstance of “us” vs. “them”. The people have an obligation to protest injustice, especially when the injustice is as egregious as murder. My fear is that there is disconnect between systemic problems and individual responsibility. System problems call for systemic solutions, and individual problems call for individual solutions. One of the banes of bureaucracy is a lack of accountability by those who are enforced to uphold it. When frustrations mount with the system, people tend to take it out on the people who work for it. Screaming “Fuck you house nigger!” (overheard in Union Square) to a black police officer is only incendiary, and it’s far from “peaceful” protest. This isn’t a revolution — yet. There are few leaders and even fewer directly in touch with the anger and frustration felt on the streets across the country. Until someone arises to channel the chaos into a movement, chaos will continue. The country is not only in mourning over the death of George Floyd, but in lament over its own inadequacies. Grief is necessary, without grief there is no acceptance, and no progress. So the United States will feel its grief in self-immolation.
For ten weeks we’ve been sequestered to our homes while we watch over 100,000 people die from COVID-19. The next ten weeks will be fraught with tension surrounding George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent riots. Looting broke out across the country, and with it the usual debate over its morality and place in protest. Regardless, it casts a light on the priorities of those who participate. In Minneapolis, protestors burned down a police precinct. The police took someone from the community, so the community took something from the police. In Los Angeles, looters systematically raided the trendy shops of Melrose Ave. In New York, protesters looted the stores of Gucci, Rolex, Versace, and other high-end luxury brands. When people’s priorities are warped, so are their responses. The commodification of culture has prioritized sex over substance. If the goals before this were monetary and material gain, the opportunism born from the chaos will reflect that. Sadly, these acts are as reflective of “business as usual” as the crime which enabled them in first place.
Of course the notion that this very small number of looters in comparison to the tens of thousands of peaceful protestors represents the majority is absurd. The vast majority of people who have arrived on the streets have done so peacefully and respectfully to publicly mourn yet another victim of racial violence at the hands of the police. The United States is having to reckon with its shortcomings in public and in real time. That being said, peaceful protest of violent acts fails to address their fundamental causes. Stokely Carmichael addressed this better than I can articulate, so I quote him here:
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” (1)
Violence is a tool, one which the United States has used with chilling precision throughout its history. Even non-violent protest is more effective when met with violence. (2) Violence, however, must be organized, and must be directed. Chaos and looting are necessary releases from the unbearable tension pent up in a nation, but they are no building block for what is to come next. The police are highly organized. Riots are not. Chaos can upset order temporarily, but without an organized plan to capitalize on the vacuum it’s created it only furthers the existing paradigm, because the police and the government are always organized.
In ten weeks, we’ll see a new uprising when PUA ends and millions of Americans out of work will see their only form of income dry up. 40 million Americans and counting — over 10% of the population — are now unemployed, with almost 8 million on PUA as of May 9. Many of these people are relying on this government assistance, with little in the way of savings or other means to provide for themselves with the nation locked down. Either the Republicans are incredibly smart or incredibly foolish in their refusal to deal with the mounting economic crisis. Inaction by the leadership will only push people further over the edge, and once they have nothing left to lose, they will come for them. Chaos today is a release, but chaos ten weeks from now will be a revolt. Either the Republicans know this and plan on enacting swift martial law across the country at the first sign of a true social uprising; or they do not, and will respond with a predictable and short-sighted knee-jerk reaction.
Ten weeks after that will be the general election, and I have no doubt that Trump and his cronies will do whatever they can manage to interfere with it, inciting another round of riots. The American people barely wanted Trump in power in 2016, and since have become even more disillusioned with the status quo. The inefficiency of the bureaucracy has been glaring in the face of the global pandemic. While some other governments enact swift measures to suppress infection and stabilize their economies, the United States has floundered, both in the citizenry and the leadership. One thing is for certain, no one in this country really wants Donald Trump, and no one really wants Joe Biden. At a certain point the “lesser of two evils” is still evil. The black community is enraged and in mourning after George Floyd’s murder, and then will turn around and be asked to vote for someone who helped enact laws that disenfranchised them in the first place, or for someone who has publicly called for their execution. (3)
This time, the country has no work and nowhere else to go. All Americans, regardless of race, are going to be confronted with the reality of their problems and their causes. Systemic problems call for systemic solutions, and Americans’ participation in the system needs to drastically change.
I said at the beginning of this that society is not binary. The fact is that no matter what structure we as a society take, be it revolution or the status quo, there will be police. The people will be forced to maintain a relationship with them, and the make up of who polices who is entirely in the hands of the people. If we maintain that it is “us” vs. “them”, they will stay the same, they will keep killing, and they will win; because they have the arms, the funding, and power of the United States military behind them. Scenarios of just that dynamic played out in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and Chile. If we as a society do not want racist cops, then we have to value the police enough to incentivize people who represent the community to become police officers. The same will be said of politicians and business leaders. When we break our struggles down to identity politics, everyone we may disagree with becomes an enemy, and anyone who agrees with us in an ally. It does not matter the substance of their claims. In the war of attrition that is “us” vs. “them”, the victor will be the one with more power and more means.
The issues facing the American people do not arise and get solved every four years. Politicians know this, yet they stand on their soapbox and tell the people otherwise to ensure their votes. At a certain point, the blame lies squarely on the people who believe them, because without their vote, politicians are powerless. The problems that Americans face on a daily basis are rooted in decisions and ideas from forty, fifty, one hundred, and four hundred years ago. They cannot be undone or rectified overnight, anyone who says they can is a liar. Unfortunately, today liars are in high supply with little accountability. Change cannot come without both people in the streets and people in the system. The most effective revolutionary is the one who puts on the suit and goes to work ready to dismantle it from the inside out.
- Rogell, A & Olsson, G. 2011. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Sweden
- How Violent Protests Change Politics (2020, May 29). Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-violent-protests-change-politics
- Bring back the Death Penalty. Bring back our Police! (1989, May 1). Retrieved from http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1838466.1403324800!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_970/trump21n-1-web.jpg?enlarged