With the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, America once again finds itself embroiled in racially-charged turmoil. We’ve been here before, of course, but this time, dismayingly, the response has come faster, spread farther, and is marked by greater extremes of violence, than I recall seeing before.
This time, there was a lot more dry tinder upon which that initial spark could act, and the conflagration has been appalling. On top of the deep wounds of racial injustice that run throughout all of US history, we layer a nation wound up tight by a radically divided political environment, communities dangerously pressurized by the effects of a pandemic, and ubiquitous social media tools capable of amplifying, repeating, and distorting information and evidence in unprecedented ways. And to this dystopian world — where our communication tools promiscuously share easily-misunderstood snippets without context — add in uncontrolled hordes of bots doing what would have seemed the stuff of absurd conspiracy theory only a few short years ago, but now seems to be a staple technique of authoritarian, anti-democratic entities — both domestic and foreign — that seek to increase their grip on power by destabilizing society and its institutions; in short, get people all riled up, pit them against one another, get them seething with anger, despair, self-righteousness, and disgust. The more chaos, the better.
Watching all this it is hard to come up with a coherent response. One feels rage and indignation at the ongoing brutality of the police and armed forces. While I am sure there are many well-meaning officers out there who aim to discharge their duty faithfully and responsibly — and these probably account for the majority — those tend not to be the ones whose conduct is recorded on a smart phone and then shared virally across the planet. Rather, it’s the veritably psychopathic ones who are repeatedly shown to wield unreasonable and dangerous force against any object that happens to cross their path. I use the word "object" here decidedly, because the agents who we see in these videos — throwing citizens to the ground like rag dolls, indiscriminately firing pepper spray at bystanders, screaming with unbridled fury at anybody perceived to be resistant — are clearly in the throes of a kind of blinding bloodlust, and have utterly dehumanized anyone they find in their way, to the point that they cease to be human beings and become mere recipients for their fury. All of which is to say, geez, there are a lot of fucking psycho cops out there, aren’t there? And it’s dismaying to see their works on display.
Then there’s despair that none on this is going to make any difference. Many people will get hurt, others will die, and many more will be traumatized, angered, or scarred by all of this. But fast forward five or ten years, and it is difficult to imagine that any of this will have transformed society in any kind of beneficial way. Systemic racism will be unshaken, society will remain fundamentally unjust, black people will still be angry, and whites will either feel guilty for continuing to enjoy their unearned privilege, or convinced that the other side is a bunch of thugs. But nothing will really change, and I don’t actually know what would make it change.
Looking at this world we live in, I get the feeling that "peaceful protest" may be a thing of the past. It’s difficult to imagine a way in which black Americans actually can gather peacefully to speak out against police brutality. Because as soon as they do, all it takes is a handful of people who stand to benefit from chaos and destruction, and the peaceful protest becomes a powder keg ready to explode. In the current instance, for example, I’ve seen footage of people who seem suspiciously keen to turn a peaceful demonstration into a violent riot: whether it be masked white men carrying hammers, or piles of bricks that somehow materialize in public thoroughfares; it sure gives the impression that somebody out there wants to see the world burn, and all you need to do is seed an angry mob with the necessary tools and an example of them in use, and before you know it, you have a riot. I don’t know whether these are foreign agents, or just bad eggs, but the effect is the same: they damage the fabric of American society and they erode it globally as a symbol of democracy and freedom (and yes, I know that in many parts of the world, America symbolizes other things, but I’m talking here about its ostensible ideals). Of course, once you have the seeds of violence planted and growing, you bring in your police forces — laced with its contingent of psychopaths quietly waiting for the opportunity to give free reign to their basest impulses — and you throw in a few thousand ubiquitous, always-connected portable internet devices, and you have the situation that we have now.