America’s biggest week of rebellion and social unrest may have been sparked by the agonizing-to-watch police-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but if you’re one of the many folks looking to understand why so many corners of our nation are covered with charred ashes and broken glass on this beautiful May Sunday morning, it also helps to roll the tape back about 12 hours.
It was the morning of Memorial Day — as the United States was struggling to honor the humanity of its war dead amid the numbness of 100,000 more dead from the coronavirus — when Team Trump sent the president’s top economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, onto national TV to reassure people not to worry about the 40 million jobless scrounging for their next meal.
America will be fine, a goofy-smiling Hassett said into the camera, because “our human capital stock is ready to get back to work." That was at 9:06 a.m. A half-day later, halfway across the country, Minneapolis police called out on the alleged minor crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill pulled the 46-year-old Floyd from his vehicle, handcuffed him, then watched him die over nine torturous minutes with three officers kneeling on him, one full-weight across his neck as Floyd called for his mother and uttered the all-too-familiar-now words, “I can’t breathe.”
On the same day that the White House declared the value of working-class Americans as little more than numbers on the balance sheet of capitalism, four cops in Minnesota were caught on video showing that, to them, the value of this particular black American’s life was less than zero. And so it turned out that the so-called “human capital stock” wasn’t ready to go back to work. It was ready to bust through the fence and stampede, no time for the killing floor, determined to show the whole watching world that our worth is real and that you can’t put a price on humanity.
America woke up this morning to the stench of thick smoke and revolution, as cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia are sweeping up the jagged debris from days of rage and flame-lit nights of sheer chaos. As it was in 1919 for the poet William Butler Yeats — in pain from the millions of World War I dead and a global pandemic that has nearly killed his pregnant wife — and as it was for Joan Didion at the end of the long hot summer of 1967, so it is in May of 2020. Once again, things are falling apart. The center is not holding.
And many of us are still too shocked by the bombardment of images flashing across our TV — the flipped, burning police cruisers, the iconic brands of modern capitalism smashed and ransacked — to take that step back and ask ourselves, why now? Why the fire this time?
The answer is there, if you pull the cameras away from the burning car long enough to listen to the humanity of the people on the march — from the 30-year-old Dallas man who said, “I write to my senators. I write to my representatives. I just don’t know what to do anymore,” to a Philadelphia self-described “angry black woman,” a 50-year-old schoolteacher Jamial Hankinson, who said "that trauma [of racism and fear] is in us, and we just pass it on from generation to generation. I’m angry and tired of it.”
Folks have reached the point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, and no one said it better than a Minneapolis peaceful marcher who was interviewed late Saturday night on CNN. He was mad about all the looting and vandalism, because it took away from the reason he was now crossing a Mississippi River bridge, under the threat of arrest.
“What we’re trying to do is stand up for the basic rights of humanity ... and we’re trying to do it in a peaceful way," he said. "I don’t want to go through this anymore, OK?! I want to be able to go into white neighborhoods and feel safe. I want to be able, when a cop is driving behind me, that I don’t have to clench and be tense, OK?! I want to be able just to be free and not have to think about every step I take. Because at the end of the day ... being born black is a crime to them, and I don’t understand because we’re all humans.”
That’s where the conversation needs to stay, and yet the usual suspects are desperately trying to change the subject. It’s a hallmark of America’s violent 21st century that the most detestable spasms of violence — the gunshots that wounded seven protesters in Louisville, the bullets that killed a demonstrator in Detroit and a federal guard in Oakland, the mysterious white men in black garb who systematically shatter windows from Minneapolis to Atlanta — are also wrapped in enigma.
Some blame the rebels, but many on the left and even some government officials are looking at the armed, wacko right-wing “Boogaloos” eager to start a civil war, while others look at the extreme-left Black Bloc. Let’s be honest: In a police-state country with more guns than citizens, no one has a clue where the shots are coming from. One more reason why the people are in a state of revolution.
But you don’t need a weatherman to see which way a lot of the weekend’s violence was coming from. After years of mostly white “Cops for Trump” and their police unions paying homage to Trump’s authoritarianism and guffawing when he tells them no to be “too nice” to suspects ... like George Floyd, America’s police are rioting again. Not everywhere. It’s telling that in some of our most historically racially torn cities — Camden and Newark in New Jersey, or Flint, Mich. — good, decent officers marched or prayed with citizens and shared their outrage over Floyd’s killing.
But such acts of kindness were quickly subsumed by gestures of police brutality from sea to shining sea — most egregiously, the New York City cop who deliberately accelerated into a gaggle of protesters and needs to be charged with attempted murder, but also his NYC colleagues who pepper-sprayed a man with his hands up, or pushed women to the hard pavement, or the officers in Minneapolis who fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a peaceful crowd. There were so many cases of gratuitous, authoritarian violence that someone composed a greatest hits reel.
That’s all on top of the unprecedented and unconstitutional police violence toward journalists, including the arrest of a number of working reporters — most famously CNN’s Omar Jimenez and his cameraman, which happened on live TV — and assaults on others like photojournalist Linda Tirado, permanently blinded in her left eye, or MSNBC’s Ali Velshi or Louisville TV reporter Kaitlin Rust, shot with rubber or pepper bullets by cops, in some cases seemingly deliberately.
“I’ve also covered the U.S. military in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. I have never been fired at by police until tonight," the Los Angeles Times’ Molly Hennessy-Fiske said from Minneapolis on Saturday night. It can’t be a coincidence that so many police seem to share a cultural bond with an American president with such little respect for the 1st Amendment that — just like Joseph Stalin — he calls journalists “the enemies of the people.”
This fish stinks from the head. It also can’t be a coincidence that more American cities are in flames than any time since the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after the election of a president who ran a blatantly racist, xenophobic and misogynistic campaign to rip the country in two. Trump today is frozen between his dim understanding that the killing of George Floyd was wrong and his go-to divisive maneuvers, like threatening that looters will be shot or calling on his “MAGA” supporters to confront White House demonstrators — as reflexive as Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove unable to suppress a fascist salute.
That’s not lost on the people now in the streets, and yet Trump didn’t start the fire. It took years of white indifference to dozens of George Floyd-like videos and hundreds of law-abiding marches screaming at deaf ears that Black Lives Matter, and then the perfect storm of a pandemic that killed black and brown people at a separate and unequal rate, partly because the “human capital stock” that was never essential enough to pay a living wage was suddenly deemed essential enough to report for work and keep the meat grinder of capitalism churning, even if it kills them.
Today, America’s precious “human capital stock” is stampeding because they can see that the governments who went on a drunken spending binge buying tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear to keep them in line suddenly pleaded poverty when it came to ventilators, face masks, and the protective equipment that doctors and nurses needed to keep them alive.
The fire this time is because people understand what it means when a nation that rewarded the corporate looters who nearly bankrupted America with their mortgage schemes and their insider trading with one more massive tax break now declares that anyone who dare loot a pair of sneakers that they’ll be shot and executed on sight.