I sat up into the wee hours this morning, watching Minneapolis burn.
It made me feel a lot of things. It made me feel old.
I’ve seen this so many times, now, from my comfortable perch up here in Canada. I’ve seen it for decades, since I was a little kid. I’m old enough to have grown up in the immediate reverberation of the urban “race riots” of the late 1960s, LA’s Watts in 1965, Chicago and San Francisco in 1966, Newark and Detroit in 1967, the year of the “long hot summer” that saw violence erupt in something like a hundred different communities to varying degrees, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Tampa, Cincinnati, Miami, all over the place, and almost always sparked by police violence against unarmed black people. The National Guard was seemingly everywhere in the streets, “white flight” to the suburbs was in full swing, and a bipartisan task force composed mainly of white males, established by Lyndon Johnson to tender a report on the underlying causes of all the strife – the Kerner Commission – surprised everyone by stating:
This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities.
What then changed as a result? Well, Richard Nixon, under the tutelage of figures that would haunt the American polity for decades to come, operators like Roger Aisles, saw an opportunity to capitalize on white fear by running on a “law and order” platform, and a general dog-whistle campaign designed to wrest Southern white voters away from the Democrats, referred to internally as the “Southern Strategy”. This is how GOP strategist Lee Atwater (Satan himself, and the moral and intellectual godfather to the likes of Karl Rove) described what he saw as the subtlety of the approach, speaking to author Alexander Lamis (and apologies for the n-word, but in this context it’s necessary not to do Atwater’s legacy the favour of softening the quote):
Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
In case you thought there was something unprecedented in the vile, cynical racism of the Trump administration, or that there was once a time before Donald when supporting the Republican Party was a decent, moral thing to do. Atwater was no fringe player. For years he resided at the very center of GOP strategy and power.
So it went, and so it goes. LA burned again in 1992, when the thugs of the LAPD got away with being caught on tape beating the living crap out of Rodney King, who’d forgotten the unwritten but immutable law once explained by Chris Rock: if you make them chase you, they’re bringing a 45 gallon drum of jack-booted whup-ass with them for when they catch you. There was Ferguson, in 2014, which erupted after a kid named Michael Brown was shot dead by the cops, just one more bit of ugly scenery on the endless, rolling backdrop to American life, as black people of all ages and both genders are beaten, choked, or just plain shot dead with metronomic regularity under varying circumstances involving everything from panicky, trigger-happy officers, to egregiously excessive force, to outright murder. It’s so commonplace that it’s hard to keep it straight in your memory. A thoroughly non-exhaustive list compiled from just the prior few years:
Eric Garner, 2014, NY city: strangled to death on camera, pleading with the cops that he couldn’t breathe, under arrest for selling loose cigarettes;
Walter Scott, 2015, North Charleston: shot multiple times in the back as he fled a traffic stop on foot, unarmed, again caught on camera;
Philando Castile, Falcon Heights Minnesota, 2016: shot dead sitting in his car during a traffic stop, the aftermath live-streamed by girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, whose four-year-old daughter was cowering in the back seat;
Laquan McDonald, Chicago, 2014: shot 16 times from across the street as he wandered away from the officers, his death caught on police dashcam;
Freddie Gray, Baltimore, 2015: died in police custody shortly after being tossed in the back of the van, his neck snapped;
Devon Bailey, Colorodo Sprimgs, 2019: unarmed, shot in the back, fleeing;
Antwon Rose, just 17, Pittsburgh, 2018: again, unarmed, shot in the back while fleeing;
Breonna Tayor, Louisville, 2020: shot eight times in her own apartment, in bed, as cops served a narcotics warrant;
Atatianta Jefferson, Fort Worth, 2019: shot inside her own home through the window, by cops investigating a neighbour’s call to a non-emergency number to report that her front door was swinging open;
now comes George Floyd, the death again caught on camera, as the pinned, cuffed, and helpless detainee pleaded, just as Eric Garner did six years earlier, that he couldn’t breathe.
Just a few examples. It goes on and on. The situations aren’t always unambiguous, but far too often they surely are; sometimes the cops face justice, but far too often they don’t; either way, year upon year, they never stop killing people of colour in circumstances under which white people never seem to get shot, or get their necks snapped, or wind up strangled to death, mid-arrest.
Which notorious, open, and undeniable brutality is just one particularly awful thread in a whole tapestry of racist abuse that afflicts every aspect of black peoples’ lives, whatever their station, whether they’re pulled over for driving while black, being tailed around the Walmart by security staff, or having the police called on them for looking sideways at the wrong Karen, or sometimes just for minding their own business in the vicinity of some white moron with a cell phone.
None of which, of course, has anything to do with my own life, or is anything I know even the first thing about, beyond what I see on the cable news. I spend so much time in this space railing against white people that the casual reader could be forgiven for imagining I’m not myself a pasty-faced lily-white Anglo-Saxon from way back, so to be clear, not only that, but I went to U of T law school to become a Bay Street corporate lawyer, so I’m not just white, I’m so white. I wasn’t born into wealth or anything, and I maintain that I just missed, by that much, the real heyday of my sub-species, when being a caucasian male able to fog up a mirror was a sure ticket to a seven figure salary in my former line of work, provided you kept your sticky fingers out of the trust funds (and maybe even if you didn’t). Still, there haven’t been a whole heap of unfair obstacles dumped between me and a comfortable, happy life. I’m probably about as full of prejudices and unconscious bias as the next idiot, and I haven’t done much to make sure that my neck of the woods is a colour-blind paradise of racial harmony, which, from what little I understand, it is not. Toronto isn’t Biloxi, and Ontario isn’t Mississippi, but we have our issues. Sure. In fact, if I was more sensible, I’d probably refrain from letting on I even had an opinion, I mean it’s not even my country, but you know, I’ve never really been that variety of sensible (witness my weighing in on abortion and female reproductive rights), and I gotta say, when folks like me up here watch what’s happening in America, well, it’s hard not to think that casting the first stone may always be the dick move of the hypocrite, but Jesus.
All of which boils down to this: as I sat there transfixed in front of the goggle box at two in the morning, the predominant thought was well, what did you f’ing expect? As the usual chorus of white establishment voices called for peace and restraint, including a sincere plea from Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, who seemed a decent sort with his heart in the right place, my first reaction was you’re right, of course, but are you f’ing kidding me? When the usual suspects decried the looting, which was by no means the focus of most of the energy released by those crowding the streets last night, it just seemed absurd; what did you f’ing expect? It was too late for that. This wasn’t just a riot – it was insurrection. It was blind rage, and yes, it wasn’t just wrong, it was often directed at the wrong targets – doubtless family-owned, minority-run businesses went up in flames along with the hated 3rd Precinct, and it’s not going to hurt the plutocrats if they burn down the local Target, just the struggling wage slaves who work there – but that’s what you get, is it not? No doubt we can all agree that the violence was immoral and counter-productive, even the instances that weren’t simply opportunistic theft, but was the anger unjustified? Was the spasmodic, unreasoning reaction to the constant, grinding, escalating pressure of their life circumstances supposed to be surprising? Was it supposed to be only their fault? Was I supposed to think that people pushed past their breaking point – which point had finally been reached miles down the road from where my own was clearly marked, and routinely respected, by those in power – was somehow beyond comprehension? Were they supposed to stop throwing things, and retire home to write political pamphlets, maybe channel Thomas Paine and pen an updated version of Common Sense?
Look, I don’t want to get Joe Scarborough mad at me, and tonight, regardless, order has to be restored with the help of the National Guard, if that’s what it takes, but it still doesn’t feel like it lies in my smug, oblivious mouth to damn last night’s crowd, or mob if that suits you, for going beyond peaceful protest. The righteous anger won’t come. I feel sad. I feel sad for America.
Never mind, though, Donald is on the case. Donald is max attentive to the developing situation. He took time away from ignoring the pandemic, ranting about mail-in ballots, and signing unlawful executive orders aimed at biting the hands that feed him over at Twitter, to use that same social media platform to announce he’d be all in favour of getting the army to start killing civilians. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” he said, plagiarizing something said over 50 years ago during the all-too-similar troubles in 1967, uttered by some racist prick of a police chief in Miami. Funny, isn’t it, what Trump still has committed to his faltering memory? He doesn’t know jack about the Constitution, and probably couldn’t tell you what happened on December 7, 1941 – shit, Donny probably couldn’t tell you what happened on September 11, 2001, which he once referred to as “ 7 -11” – but a sound byte of racist thuggery from over 50 years ago, that he remembers with crystal clarity.
Back to the old law and order schtick, then. It’s the bitter icing on the rancid cake that the blowback from last night’s violence might play to Trump’s political advantage.
God pity them. One hundred thousand dead, 40 million out of work, and no end in sight, and now this old set of fat ugly pigeons has to come home again to roost? There ought to be a limit to how much punishment a country suffers, no matter that it has nothing and nobody but itself to blame, but you know, sadly, this is what you get. Reaping of whirlwinds, and all that.