I know people who were there in ’68, and not just there as in lived through it, but THERE there. A friend who spoke at my wedding was in the National Guard during Kent State, left soon after. Colleagues were in the streets, getting beaten and gassed.
I know people who fought in Europe in World War II. I knew, many years ago, a man who went to Spain to fight the fascists there after writing about it for years.
Their eyes go somewhere else when they talk about it. When they gather, and someone takes a photograph, it’s not of the wrinkles and bones and bent backs. It’s of the children they were, the years falling away from their faces.
People who fought through something together are, in some sense, always together, and always the age they were when they were fighting.
What if the night just keeps coming down? How do you stay who you are when the fight never ends?
There is a great deal of necessary writing about what has happened to George Floyd and why, but two stories pulled me out of the whirlwind this week. The first was from a friend, who lived next door to us for years. She’s beautiful, accomplished, by any measure of America wildly successful, and her son grew up before our eyes: kind, funny, unfailingly generous, brilliantly smart. She’s afraid for him. He gets stopped in the street and the alley and the neighborhood we used to live in, and I cannot fathom, most days, the restraint we ask black people to practice.
You learn, at some point, how to perform being non-threatening and you learn that often it matters less how well you perform and more whether the audience for said performance believes it. Or wants to believe it. Or is in the mood to believe it. Or woke up that morning and made a conscious decision not to believe it. And you think: “If it’s futile anyway, if I am powerless over the reception that I get, what does it matter how I approach the world?”
And there’s a freedom in that, for it allows you to prioritize your own voice over the scolding one that speaks nothing but fear. It affirms that the voice asking to see your papers, or calling those in Minneapolis “thugs,” or shouting out a warning “Move along now!” does not belong to you. It belongs to individuals who have been made minuscule and sharp by their addictions to white supremacy and systems of oppressions that are ambivalent about your goodness.
A memory from the video of the shooting of Philando Castile: His girlfriend, sitting next to his bullet-ridden body, called the white police officer who just shot him “sir.” He was screaming at her and her young daughter, she was covered in blood, and she called the officer “sir.” That’s how deep it had to go, the training to be polite. That’s how little it mattered.
The human body isn’t meant to live in fear forever. The response, the coiling of muscles, the pounding of the heart — that isn’t supposed to be a permanent state. Hypervigilance destroys your mind. There’s supposed to come a time when you’re not afraid anymore.
You already know all the things to be said about what Trump has said and is saying, that he knows what he’s doing, and it’s obvious and awful, and I have no more patience for the shock of anyone who’d call themselves a journalist, who still thinks there’s any way out of this but through.
I just … What do you think they say? How do you think this ends? B. Barry Bamz and Dubya come out here and say, “lads, that’s enough now” and all the protesters go home, their heads hung down and chastened? Do you think that’s what it’s about? Like people are marching in the streets because they just haven’t heard the right words from the right men? Men who, let’s be honest, were president when a lot of what’s being protested was happening day in and day out?
Since the pandemic started, and Trump’s administration did what it’s done with every crisis, which is to say some stuff and then fall on its keys, we keep hearing that if only someone would SAY or DO something, this would all just … stop. Joe Biden, who’s another statesmanlike man with a past on these issues, has been out here every day acting like the president we don’t have, saying the things we say we wish someone would SAY.
That’s not what this is remotely about anymore.
This ends when the people in the street say it ends. They’re in charge. That’s what makes all these MAGA jackasses so crazy, that’s what’s got the cops all roided up in every town in the land, and it’s what the president knows and can’t let go of. There has never been a bully on this earth who was able to take it when the punch comes flying back.
You cannot subjugate people forever, and you cannot plan for what happens when they decide they’ve had enough.
Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s progressive attorney general, told me that lately, when he goes out walking or running in Minneapolis, he feels a “coiled sort of anxiousness ready to spring.” Many people, he said, “have been cooped up for two months, and so now they’re in a different space and a different place. They’re restless. Some of them have been unemployed, some of them don’t have rent money, and they’re angry, they’re frustrated.”
That frustration is likely to build, because the economic ruin from the pandemic is just beginning. In some states, moratoriums on evictions have ended or will soon. The expanded unemployment benefits passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act run out at the end of July. State budgets have been ravaged, and Republicans in Washington have so far refused to come to states’ aid, meaning we’ll likely soon see painful cutbacks in public jobs and services.
People keep saying, oh, you’re mad now, well hold onto that anger and vote in November. Hold onto that anger, as if there’s anywhere to put it down. I do not want to ask anyone to hold this anger for another second. It’s been a sickness inside us for longer than we can name.
The pandemic and the protests, the stay-at-home orders and the state-sanctioned murders, they’re the result of our actions. This isn’t the weather. All week long I’ve been reading stories that back into this, our weakened and passive journalism describing a man’s deliberate killing as a death having occurred following an officer’s knee being placed on his neck, and other such nonsense. I’ve been reading about protesters “clashing” with police, as if they are two equal and opposing forces meeting on neutral ground. A “wave of protests swept over American cities” and “a firestorm was ignited.”
I scream about it on Twitter every time I see it, every time I see “a man is dead after an alleged officer-involved shooting” because: No. A cop fired a gun and killed someone. You’re making value judgments by the words you use and you are placing responsibility, every single day … nowhere.
We did this. That’s the shame of it and always, always, it’s the hope. We look at the hell around us — the sickness, the shutdowns, the deaths in a custody that never needed to be exercised — and don’t see that it presumes the existence of a heaven. That if we made this, we can unmake it.
That’s what people in the streets right now are saying, with as many different voices as they can. We don’t have to live like this, any of us, so let us make the world we want to see.
My old-hand protester friends, the people I knew who were antifa before Hitler came to power, they all had stories about coming home or leaving, about the moment when the struggle seemed to stop or fade away. They got to lay their burdens down when the war was over, and some of them come back to it when they’re needed, and some of them never have.
Not everyone could do that. Everyone’s war doesn’t end. And I don’t think white America has ever thought of what it does to you, to make every cell in your body the record of brutality, a daily reckoning that goes on out of sight. Where does this end, we ask, and the selfishness of it, to ask that.
This is just beginning.