Ethics & Public Policy Center

Fire, Again

Published in City Journal on June 1, 2020


People watching these things think of 1968, which is apt enough. Some venture that this is “a second Civil War.” But in 1968, we referred to what was going on at that time—the nightmare procession of assassinations and riots and surprises—as “a second Civil War.” Perhaps, for clarity, we should refer to the 2020 version as the third one.

On the other hand, the Civil War analogy seems too linear, too coherent, too automatic—a cliché, even. The current outbreak of protests and riots feels like something else—like a sudden, comprehensive event of physics or meteorology, a perfect storm of perfect storms, multilayered and interpenetrating and simultaneous.

The motives at work in the disturbances are mixed and contradictory. So are the moods—a wind-shear of psychologies and attitudes: hysteria, grief, anarchy, frolic, spectacle, revolution, a fest of selfies against a backdrop of flames. Anarchists out of Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent trade germs with angry blacks and young whites on skateboards or $1,900 bikes. The deadly serious and the deadly unserious appear side by side in the performance.

Unfortunately, a crowd on the march does anger better than it does grief. An angry crowd tends to become a mob, and a mob tends to smash windows, to loot and burn. If that happens, whatever blameless emotion may have prompted the protest in the first place is corrupted into mere power. A mob, turning abusive, will, ironically, imitate the abuse of power that the demonstration was called to protest in the first place. On the other hand, if your intention is to destroy American society, then what’s the problem?

Diverse, pent-up energies have broken loose simultaneously. Among the ingredients are decades and even centuries of racial grievance; anxiety and frustration after months of pandemic and lockdown; and the sudden implosion of the economy—in general and in heartbreaking, terrifying specifics. America woke up to dégringolade, a tumbling down of the familiar world. The George Floyd disturbances became part of the avalanche.

They were called forth by the deaths of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor and of Ahmaud Arbery—a cluster of atrocities. The disturbances may even be about the “Karen” and the Central Park birder who was black and asked the white woman to put her dog on a leash, lest he disturb the thrushes. They are about Donald Trump, of course—paying him back in his own idiom, as his enemies believe—and about the irreconcilable differences between his America and the one that is so passionate to make him and his deplorable kind go away and leave America to people who think like themselves.

A sage friend from Minneapolis emailed me over the weekend. “The protesters,” he wrote, “are idealistic and their commitment to justice admirable, but many of them seem to share a generational sense of entitlement. When it’s clear that one is right, immediate compliance must follow. Well, they’re right about the raw deal blacks have, and the need for that to change, and that the cop barrel has a lot of bad apples, but they have no sense of the fragility of social order. The cautionary cushions of tradition, faith, patience, and the need to persuade others are missing from their consciousness. Something will snap, and the combination of pandemic, disruption by protest, and imminent joblessness for millions of workers will lead to a place hard to see precisely, but very probably very bad.”

People in cities around the country marched peacefully in a good cause but, on the other hand, many were inclined to rationalize or minimize (or even to participate in) behavior much less salutary—looting and burning and tearing up cities and destroying businesses large and small, some that their owners had spent a lifetime in building. I remembered that after the paroxysms that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the burned neighborhoods remained boarded up and abandoned for years.

The bravest people I knew when I was young were the civil rights workers in the South. They were the generation of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, the trio murdered as they tried to register black citizens to vote in Neshoba County, Mississippi in the summer of 1964. They were the Freedom Riders clubbed bloody and senseless in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. They were the ones (John Lewis and Hosea Williams and the rest) who tried to cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, 1965.

I thought of them—of their physical courage and moral discipline, of the satyagraha (nonviolence) that they had learned from Gandhi and from King—as I watched the spectacle over the weekend. It’s an entirely different country, of course, but it’s in some respects the same.

The awful death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the sort of thing that happened a lot in that earlier America. But there were no cell phone cameras with which onlookers might record such deeds, and no Internet and social media that might, in a weird, metaphysical flash, project upon millions of the world’s screens the spectacle of a black man’s slow dying on the pavement under the knee of a white policeman.

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