One measure of how things could turn further for the worse amid a pandemic came with the waves of civil unrest that consumed city after American city last weekend. Not only were thoughts of social distancing at public gatherings suddenly moot as big-box stores and police stations were destroyed, but we were treated to criticism of American hypocrisy from official sources in China and Iran, and were left to wonder if we were just supposed to stand for that.
Yes, sadly we are. Because much of the shock, grief and anger that boiled over in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Denver and other metropolises comes from seeing George Floyd apparently murdered with impunity, which is more intimate for many Americans than anything China does to the Uyghurs or Tehran does to Iranians. Once you see one of the Floyd videos, you have to ask yourself what any African American is supposed to do with that. Then you have to ask yourself what any American is supposed to do with that. Who has not had enough?
But nothing changes. We have been here before with our cities in flames over race, and the National Guard called out, and pleas for unity, for national dialogue, for police review boards, for measures to address institutional racism – and somehow, while things get done, it is never nearly enough.
One of the objects of rioters in St. Paul, Minnesota, was a six-story, 190-unit affordable housing project, which was burned to the ground last week. When a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter tweeted a photo of the complex in flames, saying “heat so intense you can feel (it) blocks away,” she got a reply from a Minneapolis user with the handle “Roger (The Red Menace),” who said these were just condos. “They have been springing up all over south Minneapolis for years. Gentrifying the neighborhood and driving out longtime residents. I say good.”
But Midtown Corner at Minnehaha Commons was not just condos. The $37 million project was almost entirely privately financed as part of a complex with a charter school and a retail center. It was meant to be a piece of the kind of broader policies to secure better and more affordable housing, along with better wages and access to health care, that liberal policymakers have long said was the only imaginable way out of the mess institutional racism has caused in America. Roger The Red Menace may think a blow was struck against the empire, but he is either badly mistaken or he is a nihilist, and we are busy enough with anarchists just now.
What do they want? Nothing more than chaos. What do the protesters want? First, to be heard and seen – and they will do what it takes to ensure it, as they have. It hardly helps in such a time that we have a president who has been telling mayors and governors that they must get tougher with the protesters, dominate and crush them. He must have an eye on November to be acting this way, like a child who cries “Fight, fight!” in the schoolyard and then charges admission.
One of the things the protesters want after so many deaths at the hands of police is not to be asked how the police are to be reformed or abolished. It is enough for them to say, take your knees off our necks.
It is not too much for them to expect there is still a greater nation that will take up this task and spare the victims the burden of reform. And that is what we sit with today, in sackcloth and ashes.