Three nights ago, I sat on the roof of my apartment building in downtown Oakland, watching a helicopter strafe above the blasts and shouts and smoke drifting up from the crevasses of the downtown skyline a few blocks away. A firework silently floated into view and exploded, sending pink and red tracers into the dangerously tight spaces between the glass high-rises. Sirens streamed past endlessly — the high-pitched wail of police cars, the low steam-whistle bellow of firetrucks, the choppy, frantic squeal of an ambulance. The helicopter dipped out of its pattern and charged toward me, stopping to hover barely a hundred feet above while it scoped me with its spotlight — I, a lone figure in a black hoodie. I wondered if I looked like a threat. The peeling echo of gunfire sounded from the end of the block, steady and continuous, more desperate and tense with each round. A few blocks down Grand Ave an apartment building erupted in flames — like so many in Minneapolis. I wondered what else would burn.
I’m both uncomfortably close and uncomfortably distant to this moment in history. Close, not just because I live in the middle of it all, but because this cause belongs to all of us — the fight to protect our fellow human beings, to hold our government accountable for its actions, and to say ‘no’ to a country in which some have to live in fear. But distant, because as a white person, this is not my pain. It’s not my frustration, my anger, and it doesn’t mean my life or death. Witnessing the hurt and grief and violent manifestations of desperation and rage happening all around me, I still only experience it second-hand. White people don’t know the horror of again and again seeing people just like them murdered in broad daylight by officers of the state, again and again waiting and wondering while justice is left undone. And because we don’t know, we can’t possibly understand what this moment is really like.
This distance, this empathy gap, is the problem. As we watch the chaos unfolding in over 150 cities and counting, it’s undeniable that we’ve arrived at a terrifying, ugly moment in our story as a nation — farther from understanding each other than we’ve ever been. But still, the typical spewing, diarrhetic voices have started their disingenuous hemming, their purposeful misunderstanding, their deflection and redirection — their outright lies. This is the pattern that keeps us apart, that excuses us from doing the emotional and intellectual work of understanding our fellow citizens. Deride. Dismiss. Minimize. Hide behind intentional obtuseness. Argue about the methods. Claim there’s a better way to make change.
The truth they won’t admit, and the rest of us ignore, is that America doesn’t change. It’s never changed. It didn’t change with Emmet Till. It didn’t change with the civil rights movement, when we traded explicit racial laws for implicit ones — slippery new tricks and pretenses to imprison 3 million of our own, almost exclusively black, citizens — more than China and Russia, countries in which we so often feel thankful not to live. It didn’t change with the LA riots, or the Mark Fuhrman tapes. Not with Occupy, not with Ferguson, not with Obama. It mocked change openly, to its face, with Colin Kaepernick. And in 2020, when police mistakenly raided Breonna Taylor’s home, murdered her, unlawfully arrested her boyfriend in his bed where he slept, and still pressed charges after the mistake was discovered, and were allowed to carry on this vile, cartoonish charade in the open and face no justice, America showed plainly the abyssal depths of its unwillingness to self-reflect and self-flagellate.
Because acknowledging America needs to change is a threat to the identity we’ve desperately clung to for the last 70 years. Since the end of the Second World War we’ve occupied a comfortable place, unchallenged at the top of the world hierarchy, and have refused to look inwards since. An entire country born on third base, bragging about American greatness and American exceptionalism while sacrificing nothing. It’s no coincidence things have gotten so bad recently, now that that Greatest Generation is gone and we’re left with their progeny — a generation of Trumps and Trump Jrs living off the achievements of their parents like rich children, growing wealthy from the spoils of a war they did not fight, claiming pride for leading a world they did not conquer. This entitlement, this national myth of our own unquestionable Greatness has borne a deadly refusal to see our own faults.
Mitch McConnell was 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Donald Trump was 19. Too young for WWII, too privileged for Vietnam. But old enough to know the segregated world, entitled enough to feel that it’s the way things should be, and callous enough to see no tragedy in poor black boys serving and dying in their place. How can the racism of segregation have died when the racists lived on? The average age of a US Senator is 61–5 years old when that act passed with riots, violence, murder, and governmental rebellion. Old enough to know the world that twisted way, and to have parents who railed and picketed and rioted and openly committed acts of violence in the name of protecting it. Parents whose values they grew up with and took to work in our political chambers, our schools, and our justice departments. Equality is not just an affront to their place in the world, it’s an affront to the meaning of their lives. That’s why they fight it with such brashness and zeal. It’s the fight they were born to fight. And the rest of America has gone along, getting rich in the biggest economic boom in world history and high on the belief in their unassailable greatness and infallible judgement. And all we’ve gotten in return for this supposed exceptionalism is an industrial-economic complex that can provide tanks for every law enforcement office but not masks for every doctor, corporate and cultural institutions that tolerate bigotry as long as it it’s quiet and rape as long as it’s profitable, an under-vetted, under-supervised, over-powered police force, a comfort class of Ebenezer Scrooges — their greatest sin not even their greed but their basic lack of interest in their fellow man, and more children just like them. A new generation unwilling to do the work of caring.
And caring takes work. But it’s been more than 60 years since that work was done at a large enough scale to affect change. Since 1964 we’ve avoided it with silent fervor — trading explicit segregation for housing discrimination and white flight, choosing not to live among our fellow citizens, blinding ourselves to their names, their faces, and their tragedies. Still today, we‘re avoiding it, and in avoiding it for so long, we‘ve created an unfathomable divide. Even in the mainstream news, where well-meaning anchors dutifully attempt to report sympathetic takes on ‘why these protesters would burn down their city,’ we’re presented with an obstacle to overcome. The Target that was destroyed just a few blocks from me was built six months ago, underneath shiny new $2,500-per-month studios. That’s not their city, it’s a symbol of their city being ripped away. It’s the cumulation of infinite little gaps like these that creates the chasm between us and understanding. This is what we must work to overcome. The Mitch McConnells of the world have cynically learned that it’s easy to talk people out of this work, that our distance from these issues abets our denial of their existence, that the waters muddy quickly. One bad faith comment or decontextualized soundbite and it becomes easy to dismiss righteous anger as terrorism, to believe grief happens in isolation, and see necessary change as a fringe belief. To decide not to do the work. That’s the system.
There are no outsiders. It’s entrenched not just in the cold, intellectual knowing of Amy Cooper, but in the millions like her who’ve never been caught on camera going too far with the wrong person or saying the wrong thing a little too loud. It’s not just in our national government, but in power structures of all levels. And it exists in the rest our lives by virtue of not being under it’s knee, and by our tacit approval every day we do nothing to change it. That’s the true hurdle of systemic racism. That so many of us are living charmed lives just the way things are, and changing those structures is hard, scary, and takes sacrifice. But that’s also the litmus test. Ask if you’re comfortable — I’ve lived a fantastically privileged and comfortable life. Ask if the notion of radical change makes you uncomfortable. If the answer is yes, it means you’re beneficiary of the system, and it’s on you to help dismantle it from the inside out.
It’s important to make this examination, because the question now is ‘what else will burn?’ Changing the system will take a complete reset. These riots, and this destruction aren’t because there are a few Derek Chauvins out there. They’re because even now in 2020, this is what it takes for them to be stopped. If Derek Chauvin had killed George Floyd without cameras present, he’d still be an officer of the law, sworn to protect and serve. That’s where the anger comes from, and it won’t be appeased with a few arrests and public sacrifices. Everyone knows that if the protests ended today, all this will happen again. We’ll be back here like we were 4 years before that and 3 years before that, demanding the rights we’re supposed to be guaranteed. Calling the names of Emmet Till, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and now David McAtee. Our institutions have made stark and undeniable the inequality in how we value life, and unless there is massive, systemic change, this will never stop, and the protests, the division, and the hatred will get worse.
We can already expect it to get worse. We now have a president willing and eager to unleash violence on his citizens, who will destroy everything to satisfy his ego. But even more disgustingly, we have politicians who will allow him to, who had a chance to stop all this before now. People who have spent years masquerading as respectable men and women with respectable values and beliefs, now to reveal beyond doubt they hold no beliefs but the belief in power. We are facing the catastrophic failure of our political system, and a the core of that system is complicit.
We can do something about this. Our cities don’t have fall to ruin. More people don’t have to die. But it will take all of us, not just listening for statements we feel good agreeing with, but examining the actions of our leaders, and taking action ourselves. Paying attention, violently stamping out the disgusting authoritarianism and white supremacy that’s crept into the annals of our legitimate government, doggedly removing anyone who tries to walk the line or hide in the corners. We must demand that our corporations who so love to ‘show support’ stand beside us with their real power and political capital. It’s time for our leaders in government to step from the shadows of their myopic career ambitions and serve the people again. It’s time for action from those who never act, time for politics from those that aren’t political, time for those of us living perfectly comfortable lives to become uncomfortable. It’s time for all of us to take an obsessive interest in the welfare of our fellow citizens. It’s time to demand change. Or lose our values, our freedoms, and our fellow human beings.
The first step is embracing the pain. Walking around Oakland the next morning, the collective pain and anger was clear. Like the majority of Americans, I’m only a tourist of it. We all have to look at this the through lens of agony we’ll never understand. We all have to watch and listen, and try as best we can to feel the emotional anguish of our most vulnerable communities. Emotion is the strongest driver of action. It’s the only thing that will compel us to act. But if we don’t try, we won’t feel it at all. Even here, in the midst of it all, it takes effort.
The sounds of of terror I heard on Saturday night were caused by the police. The blasts were flashbangs, the smoke was tear gas, and the gunfire was less-lethal (notably not non-lethal) rounds. Donald Trump has declared war on American citizens. Already there are countless videos of officers attacking peaceful protesters, dropping tear gas canisters before curfews, battering not just demonstrators, but anyone in their way. The Police States of America. But these protests cannot be stopped by bullying and violence. It’s antithetical to the American spirit. Donald Trump would turn us into Hong Kong in a heartbeat, and unless something changes, that’s the road we’re on.
So what else will burn? Our cities or the system? Our democracy or the perversion of it that we now accept? Will we take a torch to the structures of our governance, too rotten with bigotry, apathy, and greed to be saved? Or are we doomed to again and again witness the sort of structure fires we saw in LA in ’92, and see now in Minneapolis, DC, Oakland, Atlanta, and dozens more? Will we allow the usual actors ignite our worst tendencies or will we light a fire within ourselves? Will we create warmth we can gather around or watch our nation blaze? Because the burning isn’t going to stop.