I’ve heard people the past few days saying these protests feel different to them. Like, maybe this time we’ll get results? Like George Floyd’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Like this is the tipping point and justice will no longer be denied?
I’m long past betting that protesters can stay in for the long haul. America is a soft culture, pampered and affluent, with no history whatsoever of sacrifice. (Talking about the white folks here – Black America gets it, but real change is going to require allies willing to go the distance with them.) Bread? Circuses? We’re good. Traditionally we’ll raise hell a few days then give up. We treat civil disobedience like we might a music festival. Coachella. Bonnaroo. Cops-Murdered-a-Black-Guy-Palooza.
Nor is there any hope at all the establishment will change its mind in the absence of dire coercion.
But the protests outlasted the weekend and it’s absolutely not business as usual. So yes: maybe this time is different. Probably not, but maybe. If it is, here’s the why.
Cops killing black people for no reason isn’t new. Protests against such killing isn’t new. The rage keeps growing, but why would this case be the one? The video of Derek Chauvin calmly murdering George Floyd is certainly harrowing, and no doubt that’s a part of it (just like the Ray Rice video put the NFL in a spot where it could no longer hem and haw its way around its domestic violence problem). We saw what we saw.
I think the bigger reason is Coronavirus.
- For starters, America has a serious case of cabin fever. Quarantining – can’t see friends, can’t go out, and it isn’t just about being spoiled. The isolation has ramped up mental health problems in tangible ways, we’re learning. Isolation is perfect for roiling up frustration.
- Yes, the anger has been building for some time, but now add to the fire the effect of seeing white privilege not only on parade as Karen and Chad demand haircuts, but also the surreal scenes of armed militias storming a state house. And getting away with it. And seeing these “very fine people” whipped into a lather by the President. It’s all been memed and documented and the juxtapositions are mortifying. This is all happening when we’re trapped inside and have fewer things to take our minds off it.
- Past protests – even #Occupy – have all petered out. It takes energy to sustain the rage. Also, lots of protesters have to go to work. But thanks to COVID-19, lots of us are out of work. Dwindling cash. No prospects for it getting better anytime soon, if ever. So anxiety is high, and all of a sudden millions of people with severe, existential grievances don’t necessarily have any particular place they need to be tomorrow morning. In other words, the bread supply is in jeopardy.
- With all the sports shut down there are fewer circuses, too. This is probably a much smaller issue, but functioning societies have release valves for the pressure that inherently builds up over the routine stresses of day-to-day life. And right now the powers that be could do with some playoffs.
- The COVID crisis is occurring in a context where normal is dead, the rules are changing (and we don’t know what they are), and there’s more fear than hope about the coming “new normal,” which is certainly going to be a lot more new than normal. In other words, there’s less to lose in the now and absolutely no promise for the future.
- There’s always been a general linkage between progressive issues, and as the heat rises the connections coalesce. It’s about George Floyd, it’s about the police, it’s about income inequality and neo-Feudal economics and poverty, it’s about climate, it’s about healthcare, it’s now about all of it.
This is what I think is happening on the people’s side. Some of the same kinds of dynamics may well be at work with the police – it’s a stressful time for everyone, one way or another. If so, what we have in the streets is a keg of dynamite with a gasoline-soaked fuse.
If, on top of it all, we start seeing record high temperatures (and a nasty COVID second wave)… Well, may the gods help us all.