On Chaos, Normality, and Violence

Right now the USA is gripped by a series of protests and riots following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. I want to share some thoughts that might be useful for my friends and loved ones in this difficult time. I’m not going to fill this post with links, because I want to write from the heart. If anyone needs receipts, I might be able to provide them, but right now I’m not in journalist mode.

One of the most difficult things about our current moment is how much is unknown. For example: There are reports from police, protesters, organizers, and journalists about white folks engaging in the most aggressive forms of destruction. This could be any combination of the following:

  1. Angry white activists acting in solidarity with black communities.
  2. “Revolutionary Vanguard” wannabes setting off property destruction in the hope of sparking some kind of revolutionary moment.
  3. Undercover police agents providing an excuse for excessive force.
  4. Right-wing anti-BLM groups trying to bring down the wrath of law enforcement on communities of color.

Of course there is probably property destruction and aggression toward police coming from black and Latinx folks too. But the preponderance of white folks starting trouble with the cops shows us that at least some of the non-pacifist protests are being instigated by people who will not have to endure the consequences. (I’m being careful with my words here; smashing a window is not violence toward humans, so I do not call it violence.)

Historical Context

That said, we’ve seen a long history of riots and rebellions in the United States, especially when black folks get sick of watching police kill people in their community with impunity. That’s why Watts burned in 1965, why LA burned in 1992, and why St. Petersburg Florida burned in 1996. I was frankly surprised that we didn’t see this sort of chaos in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed.

We are witnessing in this moment the unleashing of a fury incubated by decades of discrimination, harassment, hatred, violence, and suffering. When Colin Kaepernick tried to use a nonviolent protest strategy to warn white America about this violence, he was tormented and blackballed from the NFL. Now everybody and their mother is proclaiming their love for peaceful protest. So what changed?

In 1962, referring to nations in Latin America, John F. Kennedy said: “those who possess wealth and power in poor nations must accept their own responsibilities. They must lead the fight for those basic reforms which alone can preserve the fabric of their societies. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The same, obviously, applies to those who possess wealth and power in the US.

Black people have been demanding a revolution in law enforcement for decades. These riots are not happening only in Minneapolis and Louisville, because black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are not only killed in those places. These are not recent developments, and they are not isolated incidents. Meanwhile, behind them are waves of economic exploitation, residential segregation, inequality of access, and everyday harassment from law enforcement and the prison-industrial complex.

Our nation has refused to change its ways pursuant to these demands, and we are now reaping the results. Regardless of which kinds of matches have been used to ignite the flames, this bonfire has been in the making for years, and it should surprise no one.

The Path of the Truncheon

It should also surprise no one that law enforcement — and now the National Guard and even US Military — are using repressive force on a massive scale to quell the riots. This is exactly what happened in Watts and LA. It happened in Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests. It happened in East Timor and South Africa. Any time people “don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule”, The Man responds with violence. He gets working-class people to bash the heads of other working-class people so things can go back to “normal”.

This is what President Trump announced this evening. He’s taking bold action to return us to “normal”. I don’t want to write at length about his pronouncement or what it will look like tonight and in the days ahead. Instead, I want to focus on the question of “normal”.

Like many people, I’m scared about the abnormality of this situation. But I must also admit that I do not suffer from The Violence of Normal. And this is what I want you to understand: Most people reading these words want things to go back to normal, but what is normal for us is not okay for our black brothers and sisters. What’s normal for us is not okay for our Latinx family members in the barrio. What’s normal for us is not okay for our indigenous kinfolk on the reservation. Normality in America is a violent status quo, and we cannot be okay with that. If “love thy neighbor” is a maxim by which we actually live, then we must refuse to accept a certain amount of killing and violence as the cost of doing business.

The Violence of Normal requires serious work and upheaval to overcome, but it must be overcome. We cannot be okay with state violence in the name of normality, when that normality causes so much suffering and death. If we are witnessing an unprecedented moment in US history (to say nothing of the global pandemic that has astonishingly become a footnote), let us work to make it one that upends the status quo and demands a real change in what “normal” means.

Violence breeds violence; this premise is among the least disputable in human history. I do not believe looting and burning of police cars is a path to peace. But it may be a necessary step on the path to ending the violence of police brutality. Perhaps destruction of tea was necessary to halt British regal state terror. Perhaps a massive prison break was necessary to confront French state terror. Perhaps violence against slaveowners was necessary to free Haiti.

Please do not misunderstand me: I do not condone property destruction or aggression toward police. (If for no other reason, as noted above, it brings more violence on the heads of those most vulnerable to it already.)

What I want is peace. But we must understand that things were not peaceful before these riots began. Things were peaceful in my neighborhood, but things were not peaceful in Compton, East St. Louis, the west side of Chicago, or southeast DC. Those places — and hundreds of places like them, including parts of my own adopted hometown — have been suffering from slow-motion violence for generations. Too many comfortable white folks like myself have been content to ignore that violence in the name of our own normality.

If you are just now coming to understand this, please don’t run from it. Face instead another truism that we must keep in mind, at its most brutal core: No one is free unless we are all free. No one is safe unless we are all safe. No one is comfortable unless we are all comfortable.

Every day, you have the choice to accept and ignore The Violence of Normal, or fight against it. Those who ignore it are suffering from a wretched duplicity that will consume their delusions. Do not take the path of repression or ignorance; those are dead ends. There are a hundred ways to fight for a future that is truly peaceful, and you must follow your conscience to find the path that works best for you. For those of you already engaged in this fight, I thank you. For everybody hoping to look like an ally in minor, superficial ways, I urge you to look deeply into yourself and commit to more meaningful action.

And for those who are just now starting to grapple with the enormity of all of this: Welcome to the real world. Let’s get to work.