Saturday, May 30, 2020

Quarantine, Week 11: The Worst Week

Sure, there were worse weeks in China, in Italy, in Spain, and elsewhere, but, for me, for Canada, and for the United States, this was probably the worst week.  I found out that a friend from grad school died.  The Canadian Armed Forces troops sent to elder care facilities in Ontario and Quebec paid a significant price--the number of them testing positive for COVID jumped, and we learned that the witnessed such abuse and neglect that PTSD is going to be a significant problem.  The US started the week by going over 100,000 deaths (most assuredly an undercount) and ended with week by giving yet more of its global leadership to China by pulling out of the WHO, which may be quickly forgotten since so many cities burned last night. 

The murder of Black Americans by the state is nothing new, of course.  The 1619 project made abundantly clear that arbitrary killing of African-Americans in the United States is older than the country.  I don't remember 1968 nor any of the civil rights movement as I war a toddler, but I do remember the Philadelphia police dropping a bomb on the city, burning an entire Black neighborhood.  The LA riots happened when I was in Southern California and was thinking a lot about ethnic politics--I was working on my dissertation. 

At that time, I thought about how a concept from international relations helped to explain what I was seeing--the Security Dilemma.  In International Relations, there is no government, so every actor has to be alert to the actions of the others, for any advantage they get can be used against that actor.  In domestic society, it is supposed to be different--that government protects people so they do not have to be constantly alert.  When that breaks down, well, things look like international relations--arms races, strange alliances, self-destructive violence. 

I thought about it in this way because the riots in LA broke out not after Rodney King was beaten by the LA cops but after the trial where the jury found the cops not guilty.  That is when it was clear the police were combatants and not impartial enforcers of the law.

Looking back, I realize that I was quite blind.  Because the cops have always been combatants.  The variation over time between peace and riots has not been due to when the cops and the prosecutors and the judges were seen as impartial or not, but rather how much anger, fear, and resentment had been built up and whether there was progress or regression going on.  1992 LA had a broader context that became clearer later--that corruption and abuse--the Rampart Division in particular--was rampant.  That the African-American community had felt under siege in large part because it was.

Over the past several years (decade?), we have had story after story of cops killing Black americans, that the cops are quick to fire on Black men they think are suspicious while treating White men differently.  So many spree killers, who are almost always white, seem to get captured alive, while some kid with a toy gun or a man with a cell phone get shot while surrounded by four or fourteen cops.  In the past few weeks, we have seen several examples with George Floyd's murder lighting the latest fuse. 

Trump, of course, pours gasoline on the fire, invoking segregationist rhetoric.  I guess the surprise is that the protests and riots are happening now, amid a pandemic, rather than a few years ago with the election of a nakedly white supremacist administration.  Remember that one of its first acts was to appoint as Attorney General a man who was seen in the mid-1980s to be too racist to be a federal judge by the Senate. 

Maybe the old ethnic security dilemma still applies, but just as war is not a constant in International Relations but its potential is always looming, in the United States (and in Canada and elsewhere), the state is always a threat, but whether it produces violence and whether it produces reactions by those that are threatened varies over time.  These dynamics can be more or less acute.  The very visibly and unambiguously egregious actions by the Minneapolis cop and the failure of the city to respond quickly set things off this time.  The structures of racism, of oppression, and fear were always there, with the death toll of African-Americans climbing both due to police misconduct and the very unevenly felt pandemic. But, yes, it took an event to spark the outrage. 

UPDATE: As I see more and more evidence that much of the looting and burning has been done by white people, who may be a mix of provocateurs and crappy allies, it reminds me that the ethnic security dilemmas of Yugoslavia were largely lit by criminals mobilized for the task by Serb nationalists.

None of this should be surprising because none of this is new.  I used to argue with my daughter about the state of progress--that it was happening but not fast enough for her taste.  And her arguments were more convincing than mine.  Really hard to be patient and work for change when people are dying every week.  Well, we no longer have those arguments for three reasons: a) she went to college and then to the other side of the continent; b) she won those arguments; and c) the election of Trump was pure regression, driven in large part by the resentment of whites who feared losing their position of supremacy. 

To be clear, there is still hope.  Things can improve, but it takes more than just the election of Democrats as Minneapolis is a Democratic city in a Democratic state.  It requires mayors and prosecutors and governors and attorney generals and, of course, publics to hold police accountable when they do wrong, to focus effort on kicking white supremacists out of police forces and the armed forces, and to do much more.  Being Democrat is not sufficient, they have to actually do their damned jobs for their constituents--that the job of the police is to protect and serve the public--all of the public--and not just to protect and serve themselves.  The training should not focus on having a hair trigger when faced with a threat, but to develop "courageous restraint" and be willing to fire second, not first.  The onus of risk in any encounter between citizen and cop should be on the cops--that their lives should be at risk, not the citizens.  The focus should be on bringing back alive the alleged perpetrators.  If the cops can bring in many spree killers alive, why can't they bring in alive Black men who "fit the description?"

And, yes, defeating Trump is a necessary but insufficient step for making progress.

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