How to Terrorize a City

What disturbed me most during my short stints living in Oakland and Los Angeles in the noughts was the seeming ever-presence of helicopters overhead and sirens in the night. I hadn’t understood what military occupation felt like until then. Such is the soundscape of Manhattan today. A soundscape of occupation. A soundscape of stress, fear, anxiety, and anger. There is a sense that, at any moment, the City could explode.

On March 12th, I started reading Boccaccio’s Decameron as a way of marking time during the pandemic. At first, I read 10 pages a day; then, upon noting that Wuhan had been shut for 76 days before reopening, and the book was only 562 pages long, I slowed down. Eventually, I decided to read a story a day or so, such that I’d finish on May 31st, which is what I did. I’d planned a post in reflection to commemorate, but history intervened, and so I’ll just briefly note that, most disturbing of all about the raucous, violent collection of tales, I found the book’s conclusion: After 10 days away from Bubonic Plague-stricken Florence, the ten rich young people conclude their sojourn and storytelling in the countryside, and promptly return to their “most beautiful [but still very much plageu-stricken!] of Italian cities”

A pin could’ve dropped in my mind.

Of course, 15th century Florentines didn’t have the advantage of germ theory, whereas we do, and yet we are following a very similar course. Already, with the hasty reopenings, I was deeply worried and sounding the alarm. Now with the mass uprising nationally, and the “national police riot” (to borrow Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s phrasing) which has met it, I’m quite terrified of where we’re headed. My three recent pieces have summed up my perspective on the uprising, its attendant risks and pitfalls, and the seminal struggle in which we now find ourselves.

Yesterday, I wrote twice, and today, I planned not to write at all, but this daily practice has become habit and one I now find myself disinclined to break. I almost concluded yesterday by pointing to the Poor People’s Campaign as a model for how we begin to converge around demands and program. I encourage you to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the Campaign if you’re not familiar with it already.

Starting to see a lot of lists of actions and demands, including the following from: the New York Immigration Coalition; Alliance for Quality Education; and a private individual. Lots of focus (finally) on repealing the 50-a law (which shields police records from public scrutiny) at the New York State level – which repeal is apparently likely to happen soon. Kesi Foster of Make the Road NY has a good, scathing piece on Mayor de Blasio’s failure to take any meaningful action on police accountability, and always incisive Ross Barkan has a similar piece up criticizing Governor Cuomo’s long failure to act on 50-a in particular.

Much has been said about the attempt to impose a curfew on uncurfewable New York City (I had some choice words on the matter myself last night) but this, from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: “While I understand impetus for a curfew, increasing police presence and adding another reason for police to make arrests only increases the criminalization of our population” was refreshing from a public official, and this – from aya tasaki on Twitter – was even more apt: “#Curfew is rapid “temporary” creation of a new crime category. […] another excuse for increased police interaction –> harassment –> violence.”

The Sparrow Project reports that the “Acting Director of National Intelligence [is] in a private DM chat group with an Infowars correspondent”; a “White nationalist group” was evidently “posing as antifa […] on Twitter” and calling for violence; the LAPD is being critiqued for focusing on peaceful protesters rather than looters; while Decolonize This Place has issued a “Communique” – criticizing the distinction being made between “Peaceful” and “Destructive Protest” – which makes the connection between “18th century Slave Patrols” and contemporary police forces in the US, and centers the role of police as “the frontline enforcers of this system” of private property. I still think that property destruction is a losing tactic and that urban insurrection alone is a failed strategy, but I respect their thinking and their work nonetheless.

On the flip-side, Chad Loder has a good, awful round-up on Twitter of videos of police violence from all across the country. David Dayen sums up well the fiscal obscenity encoded in all this brutality:

The thing I kept thinking about was that nobody in this group had to worry about having enough personal protective equipment. Police budgets are obscenely large. There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about defunding, and you get an appreciation for the need for it when you’re confronted up close with the—I think the best would is richness—of the police presence. I heard helicopters and sirens all night: those came from our tax dollars. The batons flying indiscriminately came from our tax dollars. The tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets and pepper pellets and the rest, our tax dollars. We generously fund the terrorizing of certain people and certain communities.

Finally, DC’s mayor is “concerned about virus rebound” and so am I. Already, pre-uprising, many states and cities were seeing “[r]ising ICU bed use,” and we can expect this to get much worse soon. We should be planning for how to sustain this nationwide uprising in case public health interventions necessitate a pullback from the streets; one can already foresee how fraught those dynamics will be. I mentioned yesterday that pandemic-related measures had served to quell popular uprisings in both Hong Kong and Chile, but my partner pointed out what should have been obvious, that, in India, the explosion of anti-Muslim violence in the aftermath of the Delhi elections, followed by India’s extreme, useless nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown had also halted months of nationwide anti-CAA demonstrations. Hard to believe – given the telescoping of time since early March  – that my partner and I were in India in the early days of that movement less than six months ago.

As it is, it feels like many people in this country have half-forgotten the pandemic. The world historical maelstrom that envelops us engenders amnesiac tendencies. We can hope that SARS-CoV-2 may actually have mutated and “be losing its potency”; in the meantime, the NYC DoHMH is inviting protesters to get COVID-19 tested.

After Cyclone Amphan pummeled parts of India’s West Coast, New York’s sister city – Bombay – is now bracing for the impact of Cyclone Nisarga. As New York was the epicenter of COVID-19 spread in the US, so too, Bombay is the epicenter of spread in India. As New Yorkers are today, so too, at the time the pandemic hit India, Bombayites were up in arms protesting social injustice (against Muslims) and the authoritarianism of their national government. We might learn from the Indian example the risk to our organizing of facing further pandemic-related shutdowns/lockdowns in the midst of mass uprising; and we might further witness the extreme violence – even by our admittedly dismal standards – being carried out by US police (for example, against journalists) and wonder what other largely-respected domestic norms will soon be breached. What comes next?

We should be prepared for local internet and wireless data shutdowns, and might look to the example of Hong Kong (where protesters have previously used mesh nets to circumvent draconian restrictions on telecommunication) as we plan accordingly.

What else? I fear the vigilantism will get much worse. Already seeing lots of posts – including about a roving all-white-male mob carrying rods and baseball bats through the streets of Philly – about armed Right-wing groups and their threats of violence.

Meanwhile, incessantly as I’ve been writing, a helicopter has thrummed with dull menace overhead. Stay healthy, stay safe, stay engaged, stay sane, and stay in the streets, or on the phone, or on Twitter, as case may find you.

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