Wednesday, June 3, 2020

In a Time of Virus: The Dams Break

It started with protests in several cities in the wake of the George Floyd murder.  George Floyd was a Black man apprehended by police under suspicion he'd floated a bogus $20 bill.  For this, he was pinned to the ground by his throat beneath the knee of a man with a gun, who was supported by three of his fellow officers, as the suspect begged for air.  This went on for almost 9 minutes.

The murder, and it was murder, occurred in broad daylight and on camera, carried out by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  A lot of people will try to call what occurred as a police officer pinned a man's neck to the ground with his knee for 9 minutes something else.  Maybe they'll say it was unintentional (the video suggests otherwise), or just breaking some eggs to make an omelet.  But in the era of cameras everywhere, the past fifteen years taught us how to pay attention to how people are policed and how police do their work.  And how police officers do not police each other.

Floyd's murder came on the heels of two rednecks murdering a jogger for literally no reason, even as they called it in to the cops as they were underway - so certain were they of their rightness.  And, of course, one of the two (the one who didn't have a glossy, confused, "tell me about the rabbits, George" look in his eye) was former law enforcement.  Around this same time a woman was shot to death in her own bed because the cops raided the wrong house.  And, of course, the woman in New York City who called the cops (as she was being recorded) to tell them a guy out birding was trying to harm her, knowing that man could die.

In Hempstead, Texas we had the death of Sandra Bland, the woman who - a job in front of her, a future just starting - supposedly hung herself in her jail cell.  The details, or lack of them, are haunting.

And there are dozens of more well-publicized cases, of boys playing with toy guns shot on site.  Someone holding a toy in a store.  Men arrested for minor crimes who somehow wind up dead.  Young men stalked by neighbors who murder them and walk away free.  And there are untold number of un-publicized cases.

I remember the LA riots during the Rodney King debacle, and I also remember *why* so many people didn't believe the LAPD during the OJ trial.

Growing up in the long shadow of the Freedom Walkers, it was never a secret that peaceful demonstration could also mean beatings, firehoses and dogs.  It could also mean lynchings and church bombings.

I live in segregated city, and even in peaceful ol' Austin, Texas... it's pretty obvious how the cops come down.  And how ready they are to do it.  This weekend and into this week, all across the country, on camera, cops did it again.  This time shooting at the cameras and those wearing the red cross, including here in Austin.

There's such a peculiar separation in the mind of us all - of the past existing as textbook lectures and grainy film, and how we exist in the now - or, at least, what has happened while we've been around to circle the sun.  History gets turned into a morality play in our head, a thing that was part of our ignorant past. It is not "us".   It's a people in a book or some far-off land.  But it's funny how it never goes away, and the evils of the world will resurface, just as certainly as they will have a light thrown on them, Truth coming out of her well.

Plagues and pestilence were not for us in our modern times - we had found ways to keep ourselves safe.  The days of people marching for justice and being met with batons and blood were supposed to have ended as Gen-X was being born.  But it's been here, and the million things we assumed we had systems in place to catch and to stop have failed, the trigger points long since past and only clear in retrospect.  The things we were told we worried about too much, were hyperbole, that historians and scholars raised their hands and said were all not just possible, but starting - those things have happened, and are happening.

For a while now, I've been quietly wondering when and how the president would snap as we headed toward the election.  In less than four years, Trump's incompetence, mendacity and callowness unraveled decades of progress and destroyed the reputation of the United States across the globe (the very thing Trump insisted Obama was doing every day as he was handed Nobel prizes, etc...).   The very foundations of the nation and who we are have hit a crossroads not seen since the late 1960's nor even in the wake of Nixon.   His egregious handling of every facet of his administration was covered somewhat by the inertia of 200-odd years of a generally functioning democracy (give or take a Civil War) in which people of difference of opinion but of a general desire to preserve the union and see it prosper built upon the success of their predecessors, no matter the person or party.  The economy gifted to Trump by his predecessor had continued to roar as he made only minor tweaks.  He had succeeded in making a million gaffes and confusing the press, stacking courts and finding allies in the Senate who fell in line even as the administration was clearly tearing down the rule of law, that a functioning democracy relies upon, all around them.  And no one does anything but shrugs.

The arrival of COVID-19 had all but assured Trump's defeat.  Maybe we *should* have had other reasons already in mind: kids in cages, militarization of ICE, ruining the US's participation in NATO, gutting advances in science, our ability to track and fight climate change and... disease.  His firing of anyone trying to do their job of investigating him.  His purge of offices dedicated to support of the rule of law in the land.

Instead, and just as rightfully, he was likely to get hit for his much publicized defunding of the CDC, his failure to prepare for and respond to the COVID crisis, his public refusal to do anything about the crisis, throwing a trillion dollars away in a few bad days on the market (btw a trillion dollars would absolutely cover the health costs of the US), and refusing to wear a mask.  Not to mention the insane news conferences he gave every day for two months before hiring the dumbest person since Sean Spicer to take a podium.

But now he's watching literal rioters outside the gates of the White House.  After what was supposed to be his big signature item for this year, the launch of the Dragon manned capsule to the ISS, he came back to DC and wound up spending a day in a bunker, something I'm not sure I've heard of a president ever actually doing before.

In a display that laid clear everything bent and twisted in the President, he ordered the streets across from the White House cleared - and they were.  With flash-bangs and tear gas by cops in street armor, who drove back not just protesters, but the very clergy and congregation of St. John's Church who were providing a resting spot, water and snacks for the throngs outside.  The smoke cleared and the pesky pastors gone, Trump held up a bible (inverted and backward) like he'd just taken a beach - and all for a photo-op that should have sent a message like lightning through every person of faith in the country: Trump doesn't know or care about the word of God.  He has sown chaos, asked for blood, and cares nothing for his fellow people whom he swore upon a bible to protect.

Trump didn't kill George Floyd and I'm not sure he can find Minnesota on a map.  But he has spent his time campaigning on and speaking to a vision of America that aligns neatly with the vision of strong arm morons with batons given free reign to break the bones of anyone they please, and the un-democratic, un-American notion that anyone not on "our side" is an enemy of the state.  All of it has been nightmarishly predictable, and every step toward sanity and what made America work for so many decades, the vision it could sell somewhat earnestly to the worlds - is gone.

Look, it's not a secret that police departments have their share of militants.  Pair that with the average perspective that officers need to arm themselves as if Mayberry is under siege, and there winds up not being a lot of difference between your White Nationalist cop and any cop who is constantly under duress.  I understand the work is hard and it grates on you.  And that's going to happen when you make a career choice to spend your shift every day assuming someone wants to pull the trigger as much as you do.  Until we finish retraining cops to actually protect and serve *everyone*, we need to take away all the toys and their own nerf armor.

They are not combatants entering enemy territory, they're officers of the peace sworn to protect their neighbors.  Not shoot them in the head with a "less than lethal" weapon (we're still waiting to see if one young man shot in Austin is going to wake up).

The protests continue to grow - their massive in scope and scale.  The stronger the police presence, it seems the larger the turnout the next day.  I'm deeply impressed with the youth out there with fists raised, willing to go the distance.  I believe the past fifteen years - as the Greatest Generation has faded away - have shown a return to what we were and are as we let NFL team owners dictate political conversations and any moves made to ask for cops to please stop murdering people are met with cries of treason.

Rioting goes sideways, and the bad actors out there are going to give plenty of people reason to tut-tut.*  Of course you want to believe in the ways of leaders like Ghandi and MLK.  But somewhere along the line, peaceful marches all became just another well-organized march for the press to ignore.

I haven't forgotten it's still all happening during COVID.  Frankly, that simple fact has impacted much of my thinking on what is occurring and my place within it.  And I do wonder how much the months of isolation, the real economic uncertainty of our current moment paired with a rising tide of visibility in reprehensible crimes perpetrated by those paid with our own taxes and who are supposed to protect us...  COVID has taken a back seat.

Until it doesn't in a few weeks.  As all of this has been occurring, so, too have the states opened up and forcing us all back into normalcy has been the plan.

But I see tens of thousands walking side by side - many wearing masks, many not - I'm both cheered and afraid of what will happen in the weeks to come.  The disease doesn't know about injustice or peaceful protest, or rioting.  It doesn't burn up as it passes the lips of someone shouting in rage about injustice and the need for change.

Already we know how Black and Brown populations have suffered unduly in this crisis (Austin's case rate is a full 75% Latino), and I have no idea what this becomes in a month.

*I've taken part in a few marches and during one saw myself standing next to a sign that I thought was absolutely loony tunes and quickly got away before I wound up in the newspaper with a sign promoting an insane conspiracy theory.  So you never know who you're lining up with out there.  That was eye-opening.  "Ah, I see how we arrived at the same destination, but my journey did not include a trip through Crazyland".