The War on America

I went for a short walk this morning and had multiple telling conversations.

On West 4th Street, a Palestinian-Jordanian “essential worker,” with whom I’m friendly, opined of the demonstrations, “People will exhaust themselves soon. Yesterday was quieter. By Monday, this will all be over.”

On the Hudson River Park esplanade, a Doe Fund worker with an accent from the islands explained to me that the commotion – signaled by the presence, on the West Side Highway and the esplanade itself, of multiple vehicles of the FDNY, NYPD, and Parks Department and the gathering by the River of perhaps fifteen officers and employees of the same – centered on the attempt, by all these representatives of municipal power, to clear the belongings (which I could see scattered indiscriminately) of two (white, male) homeless men who’ve been residing in the Park. The men, both of whom I recognized (in fact, I saw them feeding geese from their makeshift bed – a comforter spread on the grass and stacked high with scavenged pillows – just yesterday morning) were understandably incensed – shouting, stalking about, and wildly gesticulating – as the dispassionate city employees encircling them looked on.

After some humane, perfunctory conversation between us about the City’s failure to provide for needs of the unhoused even during the best of times (“It’s very easy to become homeless in America.”), the immense human suffering brought on by the pandemic, and what alternative forms of housing might look like, the Doe Fund worker volunteered, “You know what I think about the virus, though?” and then went on to confide in me that he believed that SARS-CoV-2 (like HIV, Ebola, and Chikungunya before it) had been created in a lab to “test” and “thin” the population. He was about my age, the worker, and a very sweet guy.

A white lady jogger – turned back from her intended route by two Parks employees waving hands and redirecting her to the bike path – injected herself emphatically, mask-less, into our conversation to assert that it was terrible, because obviously the men needed a place to sleep, but on the other hand, “We don’t want homeless people just living in the park.” I had a pressing obligation to my partner and hadn’t budgeted time to disabuse people of conspiracy theoretical conceptions or utter lack of politics, so, reluctantly, I excused myself and left.

On Twitter, last night, I saw multiple posts about a police killing in Brooklyn. I almost thought this was more online misinformation, so surprised was I to not find the incident trending this morning, but it evidently happened. I will withhold further comment for now, as I have no meaningful information about the incident, but it seems clear, at least, that a man was killed in a hail of police bullets in Crown Heights. One could see this driving an explosive escalation in the protests here.

This is the information and political environment in which we’re operating. As Steve Randy Waldman Tweeted this morning, “[I]t’s hard to keep your bearings in a world where everything you see is because somebody wants you to see it.”

Mayor de Blasio, whose political career is over, Tweeted last night, “At Barclays Center now. Very calm situation. So far, the curfew is certainly helping, based on everything I’ve seen in Brooklyn and Manhattan over the last three hours.” Comedian Kate Willett replied, “The police murdered someone in Crown Heights tonight and more than a 1000 people were illegally detained.” For real comedy though, I suggest you read the replies to de Blasio’s patronizing Tweet, from 8:34 PM yesterday evening, that began, “It’s time to go home now, New Yorkers.”

Anyway, enough of Twitter. My State Senator, Brad Hoylman, listed a number of bills which he introduced, sponsored, or is carrying. Don’t consider this an endorsement (I’ve found Brad very nice in our limited interactions), but his links may be helpful, as he calls:

 [To] repeal 50-a […] that helps to shield police officers’ disciplinary records from public scrutiny[;] […] [pass] the Police STAT Act, which for the first time would require police departments across New York State to record and report information on who is arrested and ticketed, what race they are, where it happened, and how many people are dying in police custody[;] […] repeal the “walking while trans” ban[;] […] [pass] legislation to offer an automatic parole hearing to elder incarcerated New Yorkers; [pass] legislation to ban the NYPD’s rogue DNA database, which endangers New Yorkers’ civil liberties; and [pass] the Protect Our Courts Act, which would restrict ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants in and around New York State courthouses. [He] also co-sponsor[s] the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which would make it a class B felony for police officers to cause serious physical injury or death to a person using a prohibited chokehold maneuver.

I invite any reader interested in doing so to create (and share with me, please!) a list of action items, legislative and other, as having a clear public repository would be helpful. If no one takes me up on this, I’ll try to do it myself this week.

The Bronx Defenders, along with other racial justice orgs, have issued a statement “On NYPD Brutality” while the Police Benevolent Organization – “the city’s most powerful police union” – is “Poised to Tap [Its] War Chest to Shield Cop Discipline Records” through lobbying and campaign donations. Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo is getting public pushback from the NYPD for stating that the police “did not do their jobs” (in a statement that was also highly critical of Mayor de Blasio). I’d expect the Mayor to be the one left holding the bag when all is said and done.

Albert Wenger has a short, first-principles post up in solidarity with the uprising that readers at the intersection of engineering and social justice may find particularly valuable. I’ll be curious if this structural approach leads him to any conclusions regarding tactics and strategy beyond what he’s already outlined.

Useful reporting from The Intercept today on the history of “US Law Enforcement Infiltrating Protests” and the NYPD’s culture of impunity, and I’m looking forward, if that’s the way to put it, to finishing listening to the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, on how “The Rebellion in Defense of Black Lives Is Rooted in the U.S. History.”

Finally, lest we forget, the COVID-19 pandemic is still a thing, as is the struggle (primarily between the US and China) over the narrative regarding the pandemic’s emergence, and a new AP report – entitled “China delayed releasing coronavirus info, frustrating WHO” – is adding further fuel to that fire. The climate crisis is also still a thing, and, unfortunately, “A billion-dollar program to protect cities from climate change is at risk of failing because of the pandemic,” according to the New York Times. None of this has stopped the President and his cronies from continuing to rob the rest of us blind.

And if you missed yesterday’s Democracy Now!, I strongly recommend you at least watch this segment with “Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law [and] William Arkin […] a longtime reporter on military and nuclear policy.” Most chilling to me were Arkin’s explanation that:

The federal government has done many things, including the monitoring of social media, the intercepting of phone calls, the intercepting of cellphones, the use of cellphones to locate people, the use of drones, surveillance aircraft, flown by the FBI, by Customs and Border Protection and by the military, including helicopters that have been flying over U.S. cities conducting surveillance missions. This has all been done in the last 24 to 48 hours. And it is a questionable use of the military force.

And Clarke’s statement that:

[The President] single-handedly seeks to deploy the military to states all across our country over the objections of state officials and with the sole and singular purpose of silencing Americans. In many ways, this is the death of democracy, because people who are out right now have one singular goal: to ensure that at this moment we not turn our backs on the long-overdue work that’s necessary to rid our nation of the scourge of police violence that has resulted in numerous deaths of unarmed African Americans.

I fear that the nationwide uprising may serve as just the pretext the President sought to pursue his goals and fantasies for domestic military mobilization (not that he wouldn’t have continued to pursue his anti-democratic and fascist agenda in the absence of mass movement). It’s not quite a coup, or martial law just yet, but we might remember Masha Gessen’s warning from 2016 in her much-read piece, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” that, “Institutions will not save you.” We’re doing a good job with, “Be[ing] outraged,” but I fear we’re a little late, and when thousands of protesters get trapped by militarized police on a bridge which, only days before, some of those same protesters had been triumphantly Tweeting about “occupying” and “taking,” it tells us that we and our adversaries are playing two very different games here. We didn’t even bring a knife to what we saw – and rightly, if perhaps tragically see – as a non-violent confrontation; our adversaries, meanwhile, are bringing tanks to what they have unilaterally defined as a gunfight.

Institutions won’t save us, and neither will fast-disappearing norms. I have no easy answer here, so am simply maintaining Gramscian optimism of will beside growing pessimism of intellect (and looking to find a copy of Machiavelli’s Prince to borrow). Since the news broke last week that Minneapolis’s 3rd Police Precinct had been overrun and lit on fire, the NYPD precinct in our neighborhood has had approach streets barricaded from all directions, officers posted on at least all-day guard duty, and a far larger than usual number of police vehicles in evidence. We may believe we’re undertaking a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, but our adversaries – as has been the domestic norm at least since Standing Rock – have defined us “extremists”; see themselves as an occupying force in hostile territory; and believe themselves to be engaged in a righteous counter-revolution. The potential ramifications of all this are terrifying, and, again, I have no real answers to offer here, only love, support, strength, and encouragement to carry on.

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