America feels completely chaotic today. Protesters are marching in major cities, sometimes looting; police appear to be attacking them and the journalists covering the protests. Rather than calming the situation, the president has thrown gasoline on the fire, which escalated a fight with Twitter.
George Floyd is dead. So is Breonna Taylor. And so are more than 100,000 victims of a deadly pandemic. The news is overwhelming. It is designed to be overwhelming. This sort of chaos and confusion destabilizes society.
In that confusion, as tempers run hot, people who are desperate for certainty return to old patterns and divide along traditional lines. Many are willing to accept a strong leader who promises to restore order, or simply are so distracted and discouraged they stop caring what their leaders do. They simply hunker down and try to survive.
“The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.” – Donald J. Trump, May 1, 2020 [White People protesting to get their hair cut]
As cities across the country erupted in protest last night over the murder of George Floyd and everything that deadly demonstration of white male dominance over another human’s life symbolized, the president tweeted:
“…These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” – Donald J. Trump, May 29, 2020 [People of Color protesting police brutality]
Twitter slapped a warning on the tweet, noting that it “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.” In response, the official White House twitter account retweeted what Trump had written… and Twitter slapped a warning on that, too. This is the first time Twitter has attached such a notice to any public figure’s tweets.
And over all this looms COVID-19, which has killed more than 104,000 of us already. Infections are climbing again. The coronavirus pandemic has ripped the remaining tatters of cover off this country’s racial inequality as black Americans are dying in much higher numbers than white Americans.
Racial inequality is not new, but racial brutality has become more and more obvious in the past several years as cell phones have recorded the deaths of black Americans at the hands of authorities or white Americans who took it upon themselves to police their black neighbors.
“The convergence of these tragic events, a pandemic disproportionately killing black people, the failure of the state to protect black people, and the preying on black people by the police, has confirmed what most of them already know: If we and those who stand with us do not mobilize in our own defense, then no official entity ever will.”
– Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
The chaotic onslaught of news is designed to divide Americans and make us fall back into old animosities in order either to get us to accept a strong leader or to exhaust us until we quit caring what happens. In either case American democracy is over.
But there is another possibility. Chaos does not have to destroy us. The leaders creating it are doing so precisely because they know they are not in control, and the same uncertainty they are trying to leverage can just as easily be used by their opponents.
At this crazy, frightening, chaotic moment, it is possible to reach across old lines and create new alliances, to reemphasize that most Americans really do share the same values of economic fairness and equality before the law, and to rebuild a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Milwaukee protesters rallied at 27th and Center Streets on May 29 in the memory of George Floyd. These images feature highlights from the peaceful demonstration that brought together a solidarity of residents from across every ethnic group in the city.