There has never been a weekend in the U.S. quite like the one we just experienced.
Many comparisons of this moment have been made to the fury that boiled over in 1968 after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., and to the “Days of Rage,” the anti-war civil unrest that gripped Chicago in October of 1969. Some have pointed to the “Red Summer” of 1919 as an apt comparison, when a wave of racist violence washed over the nation as it grappled with the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic.
Nothing in our history, however, squares entirely with the events now before us. Another lethal pandemic, this one still in its beginnings, has chewed through the illusions of strength this nation has used for decades to paper over its glaring inadequacies. Those very insufficiencies helped give rise to a pretender tyrant of a president, a one-man failed state who rages against the dying of his own feeble light even as he hides in the White House bunker from the consequences of his own gross derelictions.
Thanks to the advent of the social media age, nearly all of this has been recorded and spread far and wide. The violence of the white supremacist police state, a truth centuries in the making, has been exposed once again. This time, there was no retreat back into how it has always been, no slow fade from the news cycle. This time, it is in the streets with fists and voices raised, and no end in sight.
George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer with a notorious record of violence. A 17-year-old woman captured this murder on film, and within days, the whole world was watching. As actor Will Smith told Late Show host Stephen Colbert in 2016, “Racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting filmed.”
In Minneapolis, Louisville, Washington, D.C., New York City, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Birmingham, Sioux Falls, Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Murfreesboro, Long Beach, Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia, Seattle, Dallas, Milwaukee and more, the people have risen. More than 40 cities in at least 24 states have borne witness to peaceful protests and fiery uprisings in equal measure.
The smashed windows and the fires, of course, get most of the press attention, and have drawn the grateful ire of those who would distract us from the reasons this has all erupted in the first place. There is growing evidence that some on the extreme right are attempting to co-opt some of the chaos toward their own ends, as they seek to harm communities of color and spark a racial civil war.
Far too much media attention is being lavished upon “looting”: Images of citizens from all racial backgrounds taking food, toiletries and other goods from stores amid the chaos have dominated the news cycles, threatening to bury the story at the heart of the matter.
But the coverage of this development fails to acknowledge the actual context: millions of people enduring massive economic disruption amid COVID-19 who are out of work and out of money. I speak of the millions of people who have suffered a lifetime of menace from the police and whose immediate desperation makes no purchase on the conscience of men like Mitch McConnell, who has balked at providing further relief to them because he does not see doing so as ideologically sound.
What relief that has been provided came in the guise of a now long-gone $1,200 payment that many who needed it most never saw, while the trillions of dollars earmarked for relief more than two months ago was plundered by wealthy corporations and friends of Donald Trump.
Who, then, are the true looters here?
There is always another microwave or television to put on the shelf of a store. There will never, ever, be another George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.
The dead were looted from us all by a racist police state that now has reacted with unrestrained violence against the people they are sworn to protect.
In Minneapolis, a woman standing peacefully on her own porch is fired upon by battle-armored police.
In New York City, a police officer pulls down the COVID mask of a young Black man who has his arms raised to pepper spray him in the face.
In Grand Rapids, a lone and unarmed protester is maced and shot in the face with a tear gas cannister by police.
In Atlanta, police smash the windows of a car containing a Black couple, haul them bodily from the vehicle, and taze them.
Also in Minneapolis, Vice News reporter Michael Adams is pepper sprayed by police as he lays on the ground in full compliance with orders. The violence against this reporter was echoed all across the country as journalists were viciously targeted by police.
Either these out-of-control violent cops don’t know that phones come with cameras now, or they simply don’t care. That latter possibility — nay, probability — is the deeply disquieting rub.
A great many people are leaning hard into the nexus of change that has exploded before us due to a most lethal confluence of reasons: More than 100,000 dead and more than 40 million unemployed in an out-of-control pandemic presided over by a monster president even as Black men are slaughtered by cops in the name of the white power state, and oh by the way, the ocean is still coming.
The police, in many places, are leaning back with an arsenal of violent intent. The extreme ferocity of the police reaction is prima facie evidence of a state willing to commit virtually any atrocity in the defense of the racist status quo.
In response, we need to keep leaning. If you can, get out in the street with the protesters, or start your own small one where you live. If the streets are not possible for you, do what you can to stand in support, because everything counts. There are many ways to stand and fight in this moment of truth.
This is a fulcrum moment for the nation, one that could tilt either way. Either we secure a measure of justice through sustained effort, or the authoritarian pushback that has already begun will hurl us down into a darkness as yet uncomprehended should we weaken or stagger.
We must not. “Someday” is now. We can only write a better future if we are true to each other, to ourselves, and to the legion of victims who cry for justice from beyond this vale of fathomless sorrow.