America's Bill Has Come Due

Politics Features George Floyd Protests
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America's Bill Has Come Due

On one side, you have enraged protesters, a small percentage of whom are angry enough to become destructive. On the other, you have a police force whose training has clearly been inadequate, who are being forced to work long hours under extreme duress, and who, even in the best of circumstances—and I’m speaking broadly here, but in this moment broadly is all that really matters and all that really resonates—aren’t willing or able to show restraint in the face of even mild opposition.

America is divided, because America in 2020 is always divided. (The mathematical miracle of our mad age is that somehow, time and time again, we seem to be divided in even numbers. God forbid a consensus should emerge.) Some polls show that a majority of Americans support the protest and disapprove of Trump’s response, while others show that a majority support a military intervention. In presidential polls, of course, everything is still too close to call. This is a time of doubling down, so why would the chaos on the streets change anybody’s mind about anything?

It might sound overly literal, but on one hand we can trace all of this back to the transatlantic slave trade. How can you subjugate a group of people for hundreds of years, put a ridiculous number of obstacles in their path when you finally “free” them (Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal, segregated schools/neighborhoods/facilities, and every other kind of institutional racism you can imagine), and then expect anything like equality? America, by the nature of its creation, birthed a racial underclass, and every police officer in this country, from the good to the bad, are unwitting agents tasked with enforcing the divide and perpetuating their hopelessness. In the bad times, when even the myth of social mobility vanishes, how can this erupt in anything but total rage?

But the slave trade is just another effect, not a cause. We can attribute that historical blemish, and everything that’s come after, to capitalism. Boots Riley’s recent Twitter thread, unrolled here, is required reading. It boils down to this:

You can’t have business w/o violence, and you can’t have unemployment w/o illegal business, and you can’t have capitalism without unemployment. Therefore, you can’t have capitalism without poverty, unemployment, so-called “crime”, and violence.

It all follows from that: The capitalists do everything they can to convince workers and working-class people that poverty is a moral failing rather than a systemic one, and they’ve had great success dividing poor white people from poor black people on those grounds. They need a divided population, and they need unemployment to keep wages low, which means they need poverty and they need crime. And they need the police to punish the people who are forced into that life of poverty, and who turn to the crime and/or violence that is an inevitable feature of the system. Thus, to function without self-loathing and cognitive dissonance, a cop has to believe in this system wholeheartedly whether that cop is white or black.

Of course, it’s not just black people protesting. It’s not even a majority of black people protesting. It’s white people who make up the bulk of these crowds, and while there’s real concern for their fellow activists, the Floyd protests are also an opportunity for white people to express frustrations and rages that are not directly tied to racial justice. But those grievances are tied to capitalism—every last one. The young white men and women of this country are coming age in America at the end of its modern gilded era. Economic opportunities are drying up, and the generations thrust into the workforce now will make less than their parents and grandparents. In the vacuum, strong beliefs emerge, and strong beliefs become radical thought and radical action. The protests are about George Floyd, and about the victims that came before him, but they’re about more than that: They’re about demanding a social contract from a rich nation that has turned its back on all but the very wealthy.

How do you reconcile those two sides? How do you square an increasingly unchecked anger with a police force that is, fundamentally, capitalism’s infantry? What response is there for a protestor but to keep pushing this situation to the brink, even if they don’t know what comes next? And how can a police officer respond to that brinkmanship except to quit in the face of his complicity or double down and fight the people he’s been taught to consider the enemy?

When you start seeing this country through the lens of capitalism, you can’t stop. Even racism is inextricable, and policing in poor communities certainly is. That includes white communities—as Boots Riley pointed out, crime stats between the races start to look incredibly similar once you compare by similar income levels. Someone like George Floyd is more likely to suffer death at the hands of police than someone like me, but even that surface racism was manufactured by hundreds of years of economic policy. Racism is all too real, but it’s also a historical construct built by money.

Which means there is no piecemeal solution here. There is no specific “police reform” that fixes the fundamental ingrained problem from which all of this hatred stems, because the root is more than just a cultural loathing of someone with different skin color; it’s an economic ideology that most of us couldn’t name but that we have nevertheless been brainwashed into believing. It would be justice to see Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers go to prison for a long time, but it would not be a comprehensive solution. And that’s why, even though Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, the protests go on. We know that institutional change is a myth, and the minute the protests stop, the accountability stops too.

America has been spinning down the path of unchecked capitalism for a very long time, and the bill has come due. Because of our president, our current economic conditions, and the pandemic, we’re in a perfect storm of fury giving way to enlightenment, and the enlightenment consists of people beginning to see the connections between a policeman murdering a black man in cold blood and the boundless greed baked into our economic system. The common theme, the one that clarifies and provokes, is powerlessness—the feeling that whether it’s dramatic and sudden or slow and creeping, you are being killed and you can’t do a thing about it.

What I’m about to say strikes me as obvious and inarguable: This conflict ends in two ways. It’s either the system that gets destroyed, or the people. The people are fighting hard right now, and the system is going to fight just as hard in return, with fewer numbers but greater resources. We have lost the luxury of believing in a middle path. That kind of fantasy only works when enough white people have enough money to collectively ignore the hardships of the few…which, ironically, only happens with a strong social safety net of the kind Republicans are hellbent on destroying. We still live in the land of plenty, but for more people now than any time since the Great Depression, the good life is out of reach.

It will still take years before the conflict is resolved, but the battle is underway and there’s no going back. We have amassed a serious psychic debt, and we’ve ignored it as long as history will allow. This ends in liberation or it ends in fascism. It’s time to choose your side.

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