Published at 19:22 on 2 June 2020
[The following was originally posted on 30 May by longtime Seattle activist Geov Parrish to his Facebook page. What follows are his words, not mine. I am reproducing them here so that those who do not have a Facebook account can find them via Internet search and read them.]
Thoughts on what just happened, and what lies ahead
Tonight, there were police brutality protests in scores of cities. In at least two dozen, there were fires or property destruction. Freeways were blocked. Stores looted and burned. Many of the protests were organic and apparently leaderless, expressions of inchoate rage, doubtless exacerbated by 12 weeks or more of hiding from a pandemic. (More on that later.)
This weekend is going to be critical. We are reaching, I suspect, a political and cultural inflection point.
As with the pandemic, there is no recent parallel in US history. This is bigger and much more spontaneous than the Occupy movement – a largely young, white, middle class affair which really took off only after social media spread images of police abuse at the original Occupy Wall Street protest, plus an officer cavalierly pepper-spraying seated protesters at UC-Davis. The anti-WTO protests (1999) and LA riots (1992) were huge but localized. You have to go back to the April 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to find something comparable to this week. The summers of that era – the long, hot summers of 1964-68, of Watts and Detroit and DC and Newark, but also scores of other cities – are perhaps more instructive to what’s unfolding now, in real time.
There were important differences between those riots and these. For one, in the ’60s they weren’t all simultaneous. Every week, another major riot or six would break out (Omaha? REALLY?) – 159 in the summer of 1967 alone – the National Guard would be called in, and after two to five nights of curfews ignored, massive destruction, fires, and looting, usually in the “inner city,” things would be brought under control. These were localized riots, in and of black neighborhoods, and the spark was almost always a local example of racist police abuse.
The wave of urban riots in the 1960s has pretty much been lost in all of the other huge cultural events of that decade, but it was an important impetus for other changes. It spurred “white flight” and suburban sprawl. Cities like Detroit never recovered from the damage.
And, in 1968, the violence, real and hyped, got Richard Nixon elected president. A former vice president and presidential loser in 1960, Nixon gained power with an explicit, dog-whistle “law and order” campaign that deployed the now-infamous “Southern Strategy,” peeling off the electoral votes of then-solidly Democratic states in the South by appealing to racist white Southerners who wanted to see those uppity blacks, especially the rioters, put in their place. He ran against Hubert Humphrey, an uninspiring establishment Democrat of his era who made his name as a liberal civil rights advocate before becoming Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. Nixon gleefully played up the contrast. Note that Trump’s “looting” and “shooting” tweet Thursday night wasn’t originally his – he plagiarized it from a notoriously racist Miami police chief in 1967. He’s already milking that cultural history.
The similarities between then and now point to obvious dangers. But the differences from a half-century ago are what make this moment so extraordinarily dangerous.
Today’s protests are being fueled in an era of social media. In the dozens of live feeds I watched tonight, the crowds were far more multi-racial than they were in the 1960s. They are, instead, defined more by generation, by a sense of alienation rooted, I suspect, in various oppressions, in economic desperation, and in fundamental alienation from a country in which the powerful rig all the rules in their favor and hope is fleeting; in which the country’s most powerful man, embodying all of those traits, routinely oozes corruption and expresses contempt for anyone not white, male, rich, straight, and (nominally) Christian, like himself.
If nothing else, these protests are, like those in the ’60s, a form of primal scream therapy: “I EXIST,” shouted by people made invisible and too often considered superfluous in this country.
The protests so far have been relatively small – a few hundred to a few thousand people in each city. But they have the potential to get much, much bigger. Minnesota’s governor spoke tonight of the Twin Cities’ combined police and National Guard forces being totally outnumbered and overwhelmed by many thousands of protesters across Minneapolis and St. Paul, many of them blocking freeways, setting fires, and otherwise upending normal life. There are millions of people living in American cities who feel similarly alienated, or endangered, and who haven’t participated in the Floyd protests. Yet. Hold that thought.
These protests are growing exponentially – one might say, virally. A curfew and today’s arrest of the cop who murdered George Floyd did nothing to dissuade Minneapolis crowds tonight that were far larger than Thursday night, and spread across more of the city, including middle class neighborhoods. Many of the protests have targeted wealthy downtown districts (Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, etc.) They virtually beg for a backlash, and we have a president who will actively encourage it.
This fall’s election is one thing – Trump is trailing in the polls and desperate to distract from his abysmal pandemic leadership. This crisis is tailor-made for him to replicate Nixon’s 1968 platform, only far more viciously. He has never cared about any of the people now protesting, and he has everything (in his mind) to lose.
I haven’t mentioned one of the other critical differences so far between this week’s events and the urban riots of the 1960s. Tonight, one person was shot and killed in Detroit. A shooting Thursday night in Louisville has left two people in critical condition.
So far, those have been this week’s most serious known casualties. By contrast, in 1967, the riots in Detroit left 43 people dead. In Newark, 26 people. And so on. But Trump is not only gleefully sociopathic himself, only too willing to order the US military to shoot at civilians or to declare martial law. Trump alone is capable of ordering a massacre of American citizens who never really counted as Americans in his eyes anyway. He also has an army of well-armed, sociopathic cultists who have been fantasizing for years about “civil war” against anyone defined, however vaguely, as not of their tribe.
This moment is very fraught. Trump tonight “offered” to send the military to Minneapolis. By morning, amidst the incendiary tweets, I expect he’ll extend the offer to Atlanta and New York as well. And perhaps Las Vegas, Denver, Columbus, and anyone else who’s interested.
Minneapolis’ crowds grew tonight despite a curfew, despite the arrest today of the cop who murdered George Floyd. In an age of social media, one radical action – the burning Thursday night of a police station in South Minneapolis – begat dozens more radical actions across the country today. If Trump tries to impose martial law he will quickly have an even more out of control crisis. THIS. WEEKEND. Because, if his follower(s), in one or another city, try to exact vigilante justice – and they egg each other on through social media as well – that will just inflame matters. There are millions of people who aren’t part of Trump’s America who will resist being targets of random violence. That’s how violent civil conflicts begin.
And all of this is in the midst of a pandemic that Trump is letting rage unabated. The crowds of marchers are going to cause even more of a public health crisis this summer. The resulting economic dislocation, in turn, will fuel even more desperation. Congress will be disinclined to help rioting cities.
But it’s the next few days that might determine whether Trump is exposed for the cowardly bully that he is, or whether he can permanently cement the autocracy of his dreams: To control social media, like the executive order he signed Thursday purports to do, shut down networks and newspapers that aren’t loyal, the “enemies of the people,” and ultimately ban all public expression of dissent. And above all, make the notion of free and fair elections a cruel joke.
The way dictators like Putin and Erdogan seized power in their once-democratic countries follows a pretty clear path. Trump is working from the same playbook, and this crisis, combined with a pandemic, might be his last, best chance to enact it.
Things are moving very, very quickly. Pay attention. Be smart. Know when to pull back, and when to push ahead. Stay safe. It’s time to be counted.
As the song went over a half century ago: Which Side Are You On?