As I sat down to write this in Sacramento late on Sunday evening, helicopters buzzed low overhead, and large protests were once more underway, just half a mile from my home.
Several hundred protesters had been gathered near the state capitol since early afternoon, listening to speeches and nurturing a makeshift monument to George Floyd. By night, police carrying rifles were teargassing the protesters, as well as hitting them with sound grenades and round after round of rubber bullets. I could hear the shots and grenades from my house: Each time the protesters were hit, they temporarily dispersed, then reconvened, dropping to their knees and shouting George Floyd’s name or saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Others, farther from the capitol grounds, were starting to break windows and loot stores once more. Similar scenes of rage—some overtly political and peaceful, others far more inchoate—were playing out simultaneously in scores of cities around the country.
The clear Signal this week is that America’s wheels have come off in an utterly devastating fashion as the world watches in horror. The country that claims to be the Grand Exception has revealed itself to be something of a Greek tragedy instead: a marvelously wealthy, successful, and dynamic country brought low by hubris and greed—by the inability of those with power and resources to empathize with or try to understand those without.
And the Noise, per usual, is a president entirely obsessed with fanning the flames in order to distract from his mishandling of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
People of all races, ages, and ethnicities, in all parts of America, have hit their moral limit. Pandemic notwithstanding, they are finding their consciences won’t let them sit on the sidelines after the Minneapolis police killing of Floyd, the racially motivated killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the shooting death by police of Breonna Taylor as she slept in her Louisville, Ky., home. Masked, scared, and determined, many have taken their politics and their indignation to the streets. Protesters across the country are blocking freeways, surrounding government offices, and blockading police buildings, courthouses, and jails, demanding systemic change and an end to the killing, with impunity, of black Americans.
The great majority are peaceful, demonstrating with a marvelous dignity and calm. There are, however, some who are not: Every day since Friday, as darkness has fallen in Sacramento, small groups have gone on to break windows, loot stores, and smash up cars. Each time the police hit the protesters at the capitol, some have veered off into the nearby streets and shattered additional restaurant and storefront windows. The same situation is unfolding in other cities, including Santa Monica, Atlanta, New York, Louisville, and of course, Minneapolis.
In such a moment, the country cries out for presidential words of healing and humility. We need a philosophical and historical appraisal of how an event like Floyd’s killing could become run-of-the-mill. Instead, Donald Trump—that vuvuzela of vitriol—continues to dole out self-serving, bombastic tweets.
What kind of a man thinks it a good idea, at a tinderbox moment like this, to quote the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” 1967 catchphrase from an archsegregationist Florida police chief? What kind of a man boasts of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” awaiting protesters who breached the White House security perimeter or lusts after the chance to unleash military personnel and weaponry against Americans? Just weeks after declaring that the armed militia members in Michigan who have threatened to lynch their governor were “very good people,” Trump tweeted that the loosely defined group known as antifa should now be defined as terrorists.
On Monday he berated governors during a conference call, telling them that they needed to “dominate” protesters. Later that day, Trump threatened to unleash the US military domestically; NBC News reported that he plans to do this by invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act. As he made this announcement—as well as a claim to be “your law-and-order president”—he posed for a photo op in front of a historic church opposite the White House while police brutally dispersed nonviolent protesters and journalists from around the world.
None of this is helpful. None of it meets the enormous needs of this historic moment. This is a crisis crying out for the soaring rhetoric that Barack Obama displayed in his Philadelphia speech on race, delivered while he was a presidential candidate in 2008, or when he sang “Amazing Grace” in Charleston, S.C., in the aftermath of the racially motivated church shooting in 2015. Instead, we have a president whose rhetorical abilities are so dumbed down that the most he can say is that “MAGA loves the black people,” thus managing to be both condescending and dishonest at the same time.
On Saturday night, just a few hundred meters from my house, some people smashed storefront windows and ransacked shops. A phalanx of police officers tossed stun grenades and fired rubber bullets at the furious crowds. Police cars raced down our streets, sirens blaring. Young white men materialized on our street, seemingly with a vigilante bent. When I stepped out onto the sidewalk, one said to me that the “ghetto bunnies” were only two blocks away.
I’d be lying if I said the whole scene wasn’t terrifying. The breakdown of order. The collapse into warring tribes and gangs. The militarized police response. The assumption by some that the wanton destruction of other people’s property and livelihoods is somehow a progressive political statement. This moment is laden not just with pent-up fury at Trump but also a history of racial and economic injustice, fear of a deadly pandemic, grief over the more than 100,000 Americans who have so far died of Covid-19, and instability as tens of millions of livelihoods go down the toilet.
Now, with the United States facing its gravest crisis of nationwide civic unrest since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the only response to emanate from the White House is more distractions and noise. We see no soaring rhetoric, no attempt to listen and to learn, and no words of moral urgency.
I was 17 years old in 1989, when the USSR and its satellite states collapsed first into chaos, then into historical oblivion. A few years earlier, it would have been entirely inconceivable to contemplate a world without the country that was called the Soviet Union—without its vast geopolitical power, its ability to bend history to its whim. And then the inconceivable happened.
Is 2020 the United States’ 1989? It’s hard to imagine such a scenario. But it’s also becoming more impossible by the day to imagine that we will find a peaceful exit strategy from the consequences of Trump’s corrupt, venal, and desperately unempathetic presidency.
This moment is filled with sickness, economic devastation, and growing violence and confrontation. There is a nihilism blossoming on the streets of America’s cities. We cannot sit on the sidelines and just hope against hope that everything doesn’t go up in flames.