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July 2020

Kenosha Broke Me

It wasn’t the shooting of James Blake, mundanely horrifying as that was.  It’s become all too familiar and the roar of defenses of the cops’ actions along with the blame showered on Blake were completely predictable.  It changed nothing (except for Blake and his family, for whom it changed everything).

It wasn’t the pathetic stupidity of cop wannabe Kyle Rittenhouse.  That was predictable too. 

It was the cop tossing the water bottle to the vigilantes that made my spirit crack (“we appreciate you,” he shouts).  And then it was the kid trying to surrender and being ignored by the cops as they race off to protect and defend.  That broke my heart wide open.

Because a distraught unarmed Black man who might be trying to get a knife is clearly a deadly threat and a white kid with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle must be one of the good guys with a gun.

Has the contrast ever been presented in such stark terms?  But Coulter says she wants him as her president (she gave up on Trump years ago).  A congressional candidate in Arizona calls it “100% justified self-defense.”  An evangelical site raises money for his defense fund when GoFundMe and Facebook refuse.  He’s a “national treasure,” he did nothing wrong, he’s filling the void left by incompetent (or worse) Democratic politicians.  And how do you even choose which to get among the many celebratory Kyle t-shirts?

In Intimations, her brilliant little book of coronaquarantine essays, Zadie Smith says she used to believe that if enough evidence was presented to white people about what Black people actually deal with every day, enough of them would finally get it that we could begin to change things.  She says she doesn’t believe that anymore.  When I read that section three weeks ago, the note that I wrote next to it said that I hadn’t quite reached that point yet.  When I re-read it on Thursday I added a note that said I had.

I have been trying to be empathetic to the middle class and working class white people who cleave to Donald Trump because they feel their way of life is under threat and that he is the only one willing to stand up to the powerful elites and protect them.  I’ve been clinging to my imagined America where they finally begin to see that giving up just a bit of some of that privilege doesn’t mean losing everything.  That it means an even more vibrant and healthy life for them and their kids and grandkids.  That their way of life might need to change just a little bit, but it isn't under attack after all.  But their fear is too great.  Their unwillingness to give even an inch is too deep. 

The greatness of the United States that I grew up loving so passionately was in its aspirations.  Every other nation in history boasted of what it was, what it had been, what it would always be.  The greatness of the United States was in what it intended to be.  That it was founded, not on shared tribal histories, but on an idea.  That everyone is of equal worth and that the role of government – government being the mechanism by which we band together for the benefit of all – is to insure that everyone has an equal shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Such a crazily bold aspiration.  Greater than the men who formulated it -- that's how powerful those ideas are!  So many missteps along the way.  But by the middle of the 20th century, people here and all around the world believed in the promise enough to make the United States the exemplar of freedom and democracy, the place where every suffering person wanted to be, because this was the land of justice and opportunity.

I believed that we were building a country with room for everybody, where everyone, coming from all of their various religious and cultural traditions, could be welcomed and cherished and respected and made to feel safe.

Of course it wasn’t going to be easy, but I never stopped believing that we would get there.  There was a political component, there was an education component, there was a cultural component.  It would take endless effort on the part of millions of daily heroes.  But eventually, all but the most twisted fearful holdouts would come to understand that bending a little, opening up a little, being just a little more welcoming and tolerant, would blossom us into a nation whose gifts would more than compensate for what they’d have to give up.

The backlash from Obama’s election didn’t surprise me and it didn’t weaken that faith.  Trump’s election (through the fluke of the electoral college) shocked me, but the fervor of his supporters didn't frighten me.  I still believed that enough of them would turn.

After George Floyd was murdered, there was reason to hope.  This time the killing was so blatant, the expression on the cop’s face so brutally nonchalant, it seemed impossible that people would find ways to ignore or explain or turn away.  White people marched like never before.  Politicians promised real change. 

But the miserable summer wore on.  Among the marchers were those whose patience was gone.  Not many.  But enough that the sympathetic kumbaya white people on the sidelines who were willing to acknowledge that maybe Black people had been systematically poorly treated had to draw the line at the destruction of property.  Addressing structural racism and economic inequity is complicated.  Focusing outrage at a burning building is simple and clear.  It makes one feel pure and righteous.

You can tell a very scary story with just a few well-chosen videos.  Carnage in America.  Riots and looting and lawlessness.  Cities in flames.  But do you know what it means for the police in Portland to declare a riot?  They’re required to say they’ve observed six people behaving in such a way as to “intentionally or recklessly create a grave risk of causing public alarm.”  This is important because the law requires a riot declaration for the cops to use tear gas.  So now there’s a riot declaration in Portland almost every night.  Imagine that.

Which gives the President and his minions the visuals they need to inflame the fears of those middle class and working class white people who believe their way of life is under attack.  Which led young pathetic wannabe Kyle to drive to Kenosha to protect the city from the rioters, which led him to kill two people while the police looked aside, which led the right wing commentariat to lionize and defend him.  Which led to my heart being broken against my dream of America.