I Really Don’t Know

Fires are raging in downtowns across the country, and I don’t know what to write.  I really don’t.  You shouldn’t expect reasonable conclusions and easy answers from me, not tonight.

Ever since I was old enough to understand the concept, I’ve been opposed to violence.  I try to never raise my voice in an argument because the moment tempers get out of control, people stop listening.  Human beings don’t accept new concepts very well even at the best of times, and the middle of an argument is a far cry from that.

What’s so very striking here is the mindless destruction, though that can be distracting.

During the 2015 Baltimore riots, every grocery store in a two mile radius was vandalized or looted, and it was months and even years for thousands of people before they could get supplies again.  An internet friend that I’ve yet to meet went bicycling through his neighborhood today and concluded that it’s going to be awfully hard to fill prescriptions from here on out; every Walgreens and Target is either boarded up or burned down.

There are an awful lot of people out here who are confused by this, who wonder why people would tear down their own neighborhoods — the places they work, the salon their neighbor runs, the grocery they shop at.  There’s more than one story here, more than one factor at work — but to stop and answer that question risks ignoring larger ones.  To pose it in the first place is to ignore the pressures that have been at work for so very long already:  poverty, a growing sense of police injustice both in general and in the city, the paradoxical joy in wanton destruction, and divisions by both race and class.  (Apparently, the local Somali community isn’t well-liked by the… I don’t have a term for “the other black community”.)  And then of course there’s thirty million people out of a job because of the Coronavirus.  But we don’t hear about any of that.

We’re focused on the fires and the looting because — well, let’s face it:  They make for good TV.  We risk missing out on the human cost if we concentrate on the images of theft from the local Target, though.  There’s been more than one fatality confirmed just in Minneapolis as a result of the disorder; dozens are in hospitals.  The Guard has been deployed, and they were issued live ammo.  I’ve just gotten word that seven were shot in Louisville.  Countless people have lost their livelihoods.  And none of that, to my mind, is even close to being the biggest factor:

What could have been a productive demonstration of community solidarity lost its platform the moment the first chunk of broken pavement was thrown.  When one masked man broke the first plate-glass window in a storefront, comfortable middle-class America turned their backs in unison.

There is a reason that King’s movement purged themselves of violent actors before marching in Birmingham.  He knew that the first time a protestor went violent, it would go a long way toward justifying the excesses of the police in people’s minds.  Many of us grew up with the idea that the police were there to help in time of trouble, and it’s hard to consider that this might not be true — but it’s proving impossible to reconcile the kindly image of Andy and Barney with what has been happening.

And it’s not a new thing, by the way.  Will Smith, I think, put it pithily the other day:  “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”  We live in an age when more information than ever is available live, for free, online.  I have to think that, over time, our problems will get ever less as we grow more connected.

But that’s long-term.  Tonight, the locally-owned businesses along Lake Street are all just… gone.  Half the city has no grocery store, nowhere to fill prescriptions, nothing.  The 3rd Precinct building was breached and set afire.

Some people are legitimately angry about the death of George Floyd, and that the officer that knelt on his back hasn’t been arrested (yet).  But that message has been lost in the narrative.

In Kentucky, I’m reading reports that predominately white locals spontaneously gathered to form human chains in order to protect chanting protestors from arrest.  The protestors were demonstrating over another death, that of 26-year-old E.M.T. Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times and killed by police who were serving a no-knock warrant (at the wrong address) back in March.  Again, no police officers have been arrested; the boyfriend, thinking they were robbers or worse, fired first.

At the Louisville protest tonight, shots were fired; seven people were wounded, one seriously.  This time it wasn’t police that did the shooting.

I’ll bet we hear no more about human chains and no-knock warrants.  It’s all about the fires and whether it’s OK to loot your local Target.

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