Tragedy, then Farce, then What?

Sirens and helicopters all night. We live in a crazy fucking country.

Here in New York City, we sit on occupied territory twice over: Unceded Lenape land – because we know the founding myth of the purchase of Manhattan is a Big Lie, and that the dispossession of the indigenous population of this place was accomplished through force, deceit, disease, destruction of lifeways (including through ecological violence), and fostered/forced dependence (narrowly, on alcohol, and more broadly, on Euro/settler trade goods) – and the conflicted space of the contemporary metropolis in which settlers, migrants (turned settlers), and the descendants of enslaved people alike find themselves subject to the rule of capital as enforced by militarized police.

I’m going to engage with some constructive feedback on my piece from yesterday – “Rage Is Not a Strategy” – and get into the rapid evolution of my own thinking in view of changing circumstances, but first, a brief, somewhat random overview: In Minneapolis, authorities announced they were “contact tracing” people who had been arrested during the uprising and at first claimed that “outside forces” (which is to say, outside agitators, for those familiar with the ugly historical usage) were responsible for most of the violence in the Twin Cities – hinting that white supremacist groups or organized crime might have been involved – before significantly stepping back these assertions. Evidently from DC, video circulated of protesters tackling and turning over to police an agent provocateur who’d been smashing the sidewalk with a hammer. In Atlanta, police in body armor smashed the car window of two black college students and dragged the young people from their vehicle, tasing and beating them, with no provocation. From Dallas, a doctored video was circulated that had been “edited to remove footage of a white man who was beaten [first] charging at black protesters with a machete before they pummeled him” – pointing, as Robert Mackey of The Intercept opined, to “the danger of relying on fragmentary video clips posted on social media by politically motivated witnesses to news events.” In LA, at least one journalist was shot in the throat with a rubber bullet. In NYC, one such “fragmentary video clip” seemed to show an NYPD officer making a white supremacist hand gesture in Union Square, and organizers urged against looting, but, in spite of their exhortations and a massive police presence, SoHo luxury stores were looted for a second straight night anyway and another police vehicle was torched, leading Mattilde Bernstein Sycamore to quip, “Meaningful art has returned to Soho, at last,” while on CNN, former National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, explained to Wolf Blitzer, regarding the protests, “This is right out of the Russian playbook as well.”

Fuck. As my partner put it, “It’s impossible for any one person to make sense of all this,” but to lighten the mood, here’s a funny Tweet from the “President and CEO of Antifa.” Enjoy.

The police, meanwhile, continued to brutalize people all across New York City as the Mayor – who’s daughter was apparently arrested protesting on Saturday night – live-Tweeted a bizarre stream of blithely journalistic reports of his whereabouts and what he was seeing – “Just checked on situation around the Barclays Center. Lots of protesters moving around and plenty of police presence. On my way now to check on Lower Manhattan” – and was met with a wall of pure ridicule and calls to resign.

Jeremy Scahill Tweeted:

DeBlasio had an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Instead he chose to align himself with the brutality and injustice. He chooses to further empower the militias with badges and guns who ram SUVs into crowds of civilians. Through his actions, he stands with Trump.

Travis R. Eby Tweeted:

We need very specific questions for @NYCMayor tomorrow about why the NYPD m.o. is to repeatedly charge people with their hands up and then beat the shit out of them, and we need to know why he’s ok with that. This is a pattern, and it is fucked up.

In linking to video footage of a brutal arrest, evidently “sparked by a tossed water bottle,” Josh Fox Tweeted: “This is my fucking neighborhood right now,” although not long before this very brutal arrest and outbreak of renewed police riot in the vicinity of the Barclays’s Center, police kneeled in unison with protesters and did some hand holding kumbaya.

Corporate media continue to be friendlier than usual towards the protests, while still hedging in the direction of both-sides-ism. Headlines in the New York Times this morning include: “Overnight Mayhem Follows Peaceful Rallies”; “N.Y.C. Protests Turn Violent: Large crowds of demonstrators clashed with the police throughout the city”; but also “Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force“; while Crain’s headlined: “Day of peaceful city marches gives way to chaos after dark.” On the NY Times op-ed page, Philip and Thenjiwe McHarris call for “No More Money for the Police: Redirect it to emergency response programs that don’t kill black people,” while in the LA Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar calls for “not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice” in his op-ed entitled “Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge.”

Andrew Yang wants a “George Floyd Police Misconduct division of the DOJ with a budget of $6 billion a year,” while John Legend wants to “[t]ake away police funding and reroute it towards community needs.” Kanyi Maqubela has a helpful “mini-thread on police unions.” (Spoiler: They’re regressive and pose a problem for Left supporters of organized labor.) Scahill further points out:

Police forces have regularly attacked and arrested journalists at protests in this country [but] unfamous journalists [link is my insertion] from non-corporate outlets, so no one paid attention to it. Now, the police are deliberately & consistently attacking corporate journalists too.

Lots of imagining what it would be like if US corporate media covered these domestic uprisings as they do uprisings elsewhere in the world (e.g, by calling them, “The American Spring… [or] The Minneapolis Intifada…”), and Ari Weil has a great post up on the evolution of “vehicle ramming attacks” as a tactic embraced by “1) the American far-right, 2) mainstream conservatism, and 3) US law enforcement over the last 5 years.”

Okay, that was a lot, but coming back around to feedback I received yesterday, it was mostly positive and all constructive, for which I’m thankful. One brief point of clarification: In spite of my own deep misgivings about the likely epidemiological consequences of the uprisings, I did participate in protests on both Saturday and Sunday, but only to the extent that they passed through the area to which I’ve confined myself since March (a roughly 5-block radius around my residence, as I’ve written elsewhere). It’s been super moving to see these large, peaceful, as-socially-distant-as-possible marches in the streets of New York, and I wish circumstances were such that I didn’t feel duty-bound – in view of the mass death and illness in NYC in March and April – to remain peripheral to all this.

On the feedback, one childhood friend offered – on Twitter, and with a great GIF from Sidney Lumet’s Network: “Counterpoint: First, you have to get mad,” to which I replied, “With you. And been mad. But what if you keep getting mad every few years for half a century in the same fashion and w/the same (lack) of results?”

Another elementary school classmate of mine wrote, on Instagram: “[W]e as white people don’t own this rage and that makes it not our place to denounce,” before qualifying that that’s “not necessarily what you’re doing in this piece but I don’t know if I would have gotten that had I not read the full article.” She also makes some acute points about Killer Mike’s class positionality, and about the meaning of the fact that he’s a son of a police officer.

Other friends wrote about how the “wry Zizek and Lacan quotes align with my misgivings about all of this”; about concerns regarding the “the useful idiot contingent of “anarchists” allowing these protests to function as a release valve of the organic pressure building on the state,” “the level of “revolutionary” posturing on Instagram,” and that “the police laid a trap to escalate the violence a la the strategy of tension and it worked”; and about “hearing way too much boyish laughter in these videos (oftentimes where dangerous shit ends up going down).”

Impossible to sum up all my responses, but in one instance, I wrote back, “I find the spirit of all this very thrilling, the timing impossible, and the implications inscrutable and fraught,” and more broadly, I hope it is now clear that I do not “denounce” the rage, the protests, or the looting – the last of which I see as understandable, predictable, and counterproductive, but about which I don’t moralize – and that I’m committed as ever to racial justice in this country, but also sick of losing in these struggles.

For more than 50 years – since the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. – sporadic urban uprisings of this sort (that seem to follow a logic different from, but in some ways analogous to, the fluctuations of our financial markets) have “rocked” the United States. In those 50+ years, we’ve seen voting rights gradually undermined; the widening of the racial wealth gap; the rise of a system of race-and-class-based mass incarceration; and, of course, plenty of progress when it comes to racial justice, although relatively little of it at the legislative or policy level. We’ve also witnessed the terrifying rise of increasingly militarized police apparatuses across the country, and the expansion of the internal surveillance capacities of local, state, and national governments – capacities which were already fearsome in the mid-twentieth century as the example of COINTELPRO makes clear. (I believe there’s a through thread from the militance of the Black Panthers – which was crushed through murder, infiltration, and politicized imprisonment – to the quixotic and ineffectual terrorism of the Black Liberation Army and the secessionism of the Republic of New Afrika, to the Reaganite counterrevolution (most clearly symbolized by the bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia in 1985, that I think definitely ended the long ’70s of fringe liberationism), the so-called War on Drugs and its accompanying gang wars, and the resultant void of leadership which Black Lives Matter came to fill, though this is necessarily a highly reductive sentence.)

I think the strategy of urban uprising, the unfolding of which we’re now watching and/or participating in today, is a failed one. I believe it is too-easily coopted by provocateurs who are next to impossible to control in a mass context (in view of their cooperation with police who are all too eager to violently suppress peaceful demonstrations); it generally lacks coherence in its political demands and organization; it too easily devolves into looting which – moralizing aside – undermines credibility and moral standing even while it may frighten certain subsets of the ruling classes; it tends to fizzle out of its own accord (“the release valve,” to which my friend Dan referred above); and it makes especially easy the violent police repression and judicial persecution that will confront even the most well-organized social movements for racial justice. Plus, the perception/mischaracterization of the uprisings as violent can serve, dialectically, to reinforce the social and political position of the police.

Rick Perlstein has a good piece in Mother Jones – entitled, “Will Urban Uprisings Help [the President]? Actually, They Could Be His Undoing.” – in which he argues that “it is simply incorrect to argue that mass political violence inevitably spurs a backlash that benefits conservatives” and suggests that anti-incumbency on top of the President’s open racism may lead to his electoral defeat in November. I hope he’s right. Yesterday, I pointed to some examples where it seemed such “backlash [had] benefit[ed] conservatives” while qualifying that it “is well beyond the scope of this piece to examine if correlation implies causation”; Perlstein points to some counterexamples (Stonewall, chief among them), but also opines that “[the] politics of riots are complex, ambiguous—and especially, in our present circumstances, unpredictable.” Time will tell.

In NYC, I was pleased to see an “[o]rganizer explaining the movement’s goals: legislative change, making demands of [our] representatives”; I hope momentum builds around a coherent set of demands.

Now, some closing thoughts before I end this long post: New York State and City budgets are already under immense pandemic-related strain. The uprisings will likely delay NYC’s reopening and lead to a temporary deterioration of our progress in confronting COVID-19. Police officers also get paid overtime when the entire force is called out to violently suppress peaceful demonstrations for racial justice, which is a sad irony.

Always perceptive, my partner points out what seems to be obvious, in the process, uncovering its underlying significance: “Things always seem to escalate at night.”

We all know that night brings out different energies, but there may be forces more quotidian at work in the escalations. Birthworkers, like my partner, are familiar with the “Friday Evening C-Section” phenomenon, in which an obstetrician – eager not to miss a dinner reservation, or to make it out to a house in the Hamptons on time – pushes a birthing person into an unnecessary Caesarian. The mandate of the police is to protect capital – and in particular, private property and the public infrastructures (like roads and bridges) which make its accumulation possible – from damage, disruption, or expropriation. As a byproduct, the police can’t go home until the demonstrators do. One can imagine that, at the end of a long day, having been yelled at a lot, operating within a culture of violence and impunity, and with no meaningful mechanisms of accountability in place, police might simply decide they’re ready to go home and that attacking protesters is the best way to bring standoffs – rooted in dynamics that extend far beyond street confrontation – to a temporary conclusion that will allow the officers to go home and go to bed.

I don’t know. It’s interesting/horrible that so much effort and public money was expended by and on the police over the weekend, and so much senseless violence perpetrated by them, and yet, SoHo was still looted. Twice. Doesn’t make much sense, but perhaps it’s that there’s a limit to what even 40,000 officers can do in a City of 8 million residents (that’s a 1/200 ratio)  when a sizable percentage of those residents are mad and take to the streets. This relates to what the organizers, whom I admire, of Decolonize This Place (DTP), call “becoming ungovernable.” I fear, again, that this strategy is unlikely to lead to long-term gains (witness the 50+ year collapse of the US Left during a time when urban uprising has served as the primary “release valve” for social discontent), but smart and principled people will disagree, and some of that will no doubt be based in relative degrees of privilege. The DTP organizers believe in actual revolution, the overthrow or collapse of the United States, and in literal (rather than vague, metaphorical) decolonization; under our current circumstances, and occupying the position I do, I’m in favor of radical incrementalism, if such can be said. I love New York in spite of its brutal contradictions. I believe things can get a lot worse if we allow the decay/destruction of our core infrastructures (witness our current public health crisis); fail to meaningfully address/prepare for climate crisis; or lose what remains of our democracy, and I don’t see a path to a non-catastrophic transition to a post-US configuration.

What do I think will happen? Ross Barkan, who takes my perspective a step further to argue that “nonviolent protesting is both morally correct and tactically correct” while opining that “setting fire to businesses isn’t forwarding the movement against police brutality,” has elsewhere Tweeted that calling for de Blasio’s resignation without calling for Cuomo’s is nonsensical. I don’t disagree with him, but while the President hides in his bunker and the Mayor live-Tweets the end of his own political career, New York’s all-powerful and until-recently-omnipresent Governor has suddenly disappeared from the scene, while his (black, female) Attorney General, Letitia James, is suddenly front and center in the State’s response to the “unrest” in New York City. Say what you will about Andrew Cuomo, he’s a masterful politician – his deftness, inversely proportional to de Blasio’s daftness, even as the two men share in common their immense moral cowardice.

Should events continue to unfold as they have in NYC, I’d say it’s likely that the Governor uses his emergency powers, still in effect, to more stringently reassert the stay-at-home order (still in effect, also), though not before a sufficient period of career-ending humiliation has passed for de Blasio and sufficient epidemiological evidence has accrued of the harm to public health being done by the massive demonstrations (which are very much in contravention of the prevailing guidance about best practices).

Is this unfortunate? Terribly. Do I want it to happen? Obviously, not. Should it come to pass though, by the time it does, SoHo will be devoid of watches and shoes, and the demonstrations will have cost our City – already tilting, once again, towards receivership – a great deal of money, but it’s unclear to me that we’ll have made substantive progress towards ending police brutality or beginning to root out the inordinate power of the police in our City or our society (and in the meantime, we may have reinitiated significant community spread of COVID-19). The police are uniquely positioned to wreak havoc on a politician’s career, which is no doubt why de Blasio – having, early in his years as Mayor, clashed with the NYPD – is now so bizarrely standing by his police force in defiance of all the facts, and unless these days or weeks of rage fuel a sustained, policy-informed mass movement, I expect we’ll get fooled again. Maybe the Mayor will actually resign, and his resignation will be hailed as a victory, which it won’t really be. Maybe a few gestures towards police accountability and budget cuts will be made, even as our public schools and healthcare systems are subjected to massive austerity. It’s easier to get upset and take to the streets than it is to build a popular culture of understanding what’s actually happening in City Hall, Albany, and DC, but if we don’t accomplish the latter, we’ll keep getting screwed.

What will it take to actual root out this reactionary, often explicitly white supremacist institution – the police – from the strategic position it now holds? That’s probably for another post, and we can hope the seismic shift we’re witnessing now in public opinion is a real and lasting one, but we should have space to strategize beyond anger and slogans, unless the plan is really to carry this to revolution, or to fully shutdown New York until our demands are met, in which case, I’ll see you out there. In the end, I supported the uprisings in Hong Kong, and Chile, and Puerto Rico, and Lebanon, and Algeria, and Sudan, and this uprising here in New York, I support it, too. I’d just like to see us win for a change.

Post-script: Regarding the pandemic, case counts are rising in a number of states (as this Imperial College study previously estimated); “One Of The First California Counties To Reopen Is Closing Again“; and even this conservative effective reproduction number tracker now shows ten states with values at or above one, including both Texas and California. Things are not going well.

3 thoughts on “Tragedy, then Farce, then What?

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