Friday, June 5, 2020
fragmentary notes from a bad time getting worse (3)
Back on the 25th of May, four police officers in Minneapolis murdered a black man named George Floyd on camera.
In 2018, on a list of guesses to check after 5 and 10 years, I wrote:
No meaningful reforms of policing in America will have gained any traction. When I go to look at this list again, I will be able to recall one or more killings of an unarmed black civilian by law enforcement within the previous 2-3 months.
It’s only been two years, but the pattern has held and in a basic way I expect that it will continue to hold for years and decades to come: Because American law enforcement is a violently racist system. A system that both reflects the racism of the society it operates within and actively works to entrench that racism.
George Floyd isn’t the first black person I’m aware of being murdered by on-duty cops or cop-affiliated parties this year. He wasn’t even the first one that I learned about in May.1
I’m a work-from-home white desk-job professional living in one of the whiter places on the planet, surrounded by entrenched wealth. In my small-town neighborhood, the cops speed-trap tourists on their way to a national park and are otherwise largely ignorable. How many cop murders would I have known about this year if I lived in that enormous swath of America where the police function day-to-day as a hostile occupying force?
What if the pattern didn’t hold?
This time feels different than the last n iterations of this grim cycle. There’s been, as best I can tell, an explosion of police violence in response to a wave of protest that seems vast and not yet remotely contained. As I write this, people in my family are are marching. Cities like Lincoln, NE have seen actual unrest.
It’s long seemed to me that, for the most part, America knows how to neutralize street protest as a political force. The machinery contains, suppresses, deflects, and misinforms. Structures within government, law enforcement, news media, and activism itself all function to render it a kind of theater that mostly plays out for its own participants.
Whenever it feels like that machinery is breaking down, something is up.
Maybe it feels that way in part because the vicious, bullying, riot-inciting brutality of the cops is on such unguarded display right now. A display that might satisfy the longing to inflict pain and fear that fuels so much of our politics, but also throws the hypocrisy and complicity of authority into sharp relief and must put an incredible strain on the quiet consensus that usually keeps these things so manageable.
Don’t mistake this for hope. I’m not hopeful. All the same, it’s possible to imagine this as the moment it becomes thinkable to cut police department budgets, restrict police unions, end qualified immunity, scrap a bunch of surplus military gear, fund alternative forms of emergency response, and fire a lot of overt white supremacists.
And then meanwhile: The pandemic.
It’s been well over a month now since I first felt like social distancing efforts had pretty well ended where I live. There’s been almost a kind of weird sense of stasis since then. Things are more open than they were. The bar across the street is having bands in again. The road’s full of cars. But I think I underestimated the degree to which people were still laying low in late April, and even now it’s clear that things are far from normal.
- WHO: 6,535,354 confirmed cases and 387,155 deaths globally
- Late April: 2,804,796 and 193,710 deaths
- NY Times: 1,883,033 cases and 108,194 deaths in the US
- Late April: 938,590 cases and 48,310 deaths
- colorado.gov: 27,615 cases and either 1,524 or 1,274 deaths
It doesn’t seem, here, like there’s been the wild spike in cases I feared as things loosened in April. Nor does it seem like it’s anywhere near over. Talking to friends scattered around the country about this recently, a rough consensus: America ran out of attention span, now we wait and see how much of a tragedy that is. Of course that’s flippant and doesn’t really acknowledge the crushing economic and social pressures to reopen, but it’s not exactly wrong.
How does the state of the pandemic interact with mass street protest? I guess we’re going to find out.
How does the pandemic’s function as an ideological pivot point interact with mass protest? We’re going to find out, but I already know I don’t like the answer.