And then, somewhere in the middle of all this, make time to feel the strangeness of the moment we are in – this sudden, forced interruption of business-as-usual – and the collective encounter that it calls us to.
– Dougald Hine (The Price of Life)
So let’s talk very honestly about fear. Let’s talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness and … and perhaps over the edge.
– Stephen King, Night Shift, Foreword
Just a half mile up the hill from home sits the Morning Sun trailhead, leading onto paths with views to Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. In March, purple irises, orange poppies, bright red Indian paintbrush and dozens of other wildflowers line the trail to a cliff-edge view of the Pacific Ocean.
It is a haven, first from the confinement of the lockdown, later from the turmoil unleashed by the killing of George Floyd. Sitting at the edge of the country, the continent, I realise there is no centre in the US today. It is all edges, and it is disconcerting.
It can be scary – troops called up against fellow citizens by a mad king.
At times beautiful – police officers taking a knee with protesters in Boston, where I grew up in the tumultuous and largely fruitless desegregation era.
At times maddening – a lack of unity in how to bring the virus under control, of how to gain social justice for all.
Too often wrenching – a video of a black man’s last breath forced out of him by the reckless exercise of authority, or of another killed by a shotgun blast for the crime of jogging while black in a white neighbourhood.
Soon after the first nights of protests, with the looting at its worst and the country seeming to be spinning out of control, my mind drifts to days of my youth, a particular day.
I remember a lazy summer morning in a dime store – W.T. Grant, long gone to bankruptcy – in the small, mostly white, Boston suburb where I grew up. A wooden staircase in the centre of the store at ground level led to the basement, where they kept the toys. I recall a scene that has haunted me for decades, and particularly of late. I was walking up those stairs with a friend at about eight or nine years old, which would have been 1967 or ‘68. We saw a young black boy about our age heading down.
I had not come face to face with many black kids in my life, maybe none. It was a time of strife, with America on edge facing escalation in Vietnam, rampant racism, violence in the streets, assassinations. As we climbed the stairs, we saw this young boy. My friend looked at me then him and spat out that most vile of racial epithets. Nothing else. I had heard adults use the word, but, like the ‘f-word’ had never said it myself. I was instantly ashamed, but I kept walking. No ‘sorry’. No trying to take it back, or asking my friend to take it back. I moved on with my day, my week, my life. As I imagine that young kid did. But while I went along cocooned in white, middle class privilege, I can hardly imagine what he faced.
As the streets erupted following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, I thought again of that encounter on the department store stairs. It is hard to tell stories about shameful moments, but I don’t want to forget it, for forgetting is denying. What role did that episode, multiplied in some way by others a thousand times, a million times, a billion times, play in how America is reeling today? Denial is how America has long dealt with racism. We are all equal, we tell our children. It’s the land of opportunity. Work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. We all breathe the same air.
But the gruesome video of police killing George Floyd may finally break through the denial. Equality is not real here; opportunity is not shared equally. You can work hard and end up in very different places. That place may be on the ground with a view of bootstraps as your final breath fades away.
I heard a black colleague recently describe how such incidents create hopelessness. He was talking, of course about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others, but in my mind it could easily have been that moment from my childhood. Had I contributed to someone’s hopelessness?
He expressed a cautious optimism that now might be different. Floyd’s death has reverberated worldwide, and still dominates the news weeks later. Perhaps this time there will be real change, he said, though his eyes seemed not so sure.
Black Lives Matter is playing out amidst a global pandemic on the edge of the Anthropocene. Like racism, denial is also how we have approached climate-change based extinction. But the pandemic will not be denied, try as people might. It ripples around the country in waves, devastating families, communities, politics, education, the very fabric of society. It has upended the economy, with more than 40 million people thrown out of work over several weeks. The pandemic reminds us we are subject to nature’s laws, though we may act otherwise.
But the pandemic will not be denied, try as people might. It ripples around the country in waves, devastating families, communities, politics, education, the very fabric of society.
Perhaps the pandemic has as much to do with the strength of the protests around George Floyd’s death as anything. The tragic reality is that there have been many violent beatings and killings of African Americans in the United States – from Breonna Taylor shortly before George Floyd to Rodney King in 1992, to white mob riots in Tulsa in 1921, to 400 years of slavery. There have been so many killings of black people that we have a monument to the victims of lynching, euphemistically named the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
So why more than three weeks of rage since George Floyd’s death? Why has the movement spread globally?
The pandemic set the field. The virus is deaf to people’s cries, immune to our fears, uncaring of our future. But the social distancing it prompted caused people to crave community, to get outside, to share experiences, debate pandemic responses, and mourn the dead.
George Floyd’s murder on 25th May presented the opportunity to not just mourn, but to howl in rage. The first nights of protest harkened back to the mid-60s, with images of looting and tear gas and police batons flailing away. The localised police response has been a mix of backing away from protestors to charging hard at them. The president’s response has been to set loose the military, and to use tear gas and helicopters to clear a path for a Bible-in-hand photo op. Fortunately, what passes for cooler heads these days has prevailed and the 82nd Airborne is back to base. For now.
It is hard to keep pace with the changes, the ebb and flow of protests and arrests. In the first few days, Minneapolis police abandoned a station to protesters, who sacked it. Two weeks later, in Seattle, the city turned over to protesters a few blocks of the city, including a police station. As I write, peaceful protesters still occupy the area. The president is threatening to send in the military.
Police across the country have both attacked and come under attack. Some police have been held to task, such as in Buffalo where officers were charged after knocking down a peaceful 75-year old protester, injuring him severely.
Attacks by police on members of the media have been shocking. Despite – perhaps because – they were wearing clearly recognisable credentials, news teams across the country have been intimidated, arrested, and shot at with rubber bullets. I spent a decade in newspapers, and feel a deep anger that this is happening here. It is fair to assume Donald Trump’s contempt for the press and his near-daily Twitter barrage against members of the media have emboldened such assaults and the violation of the First Amendment.
There are no direct links between the Covid-19 virus and climate change. But there is plenty of evidence that linkage does exist between Earth stewardship and pandemic more broadly. The land grab that threatens so many species with extinction favours some animals over others. ‘Among threatened wildlife species, those with population reductions owing to exploitation and loss of habitat shared more viruses with humans’.
So, some ask, is the Covid-19 pandemic a result of global heating?
Does it matter? It’s akin to asking if the protests in American cities resulted from George Floyd’s murder. Was it a spark? Definitively. But the reality goes much deeper. It goes back to Jim Crow laws, to slavery, and beyond. It goes back to eight-year-old white boys demeaning an innocent black boy on the steps of a tranquil suburban department store 50 plus years ago.
So we are seeing the convergence in the political environment of runaway climate change, pandemic, social justice.
Simply wearing a mask has become a political statement. In the protests, masked faces far outnumber unmasked ones. In rural, typically conservative areas of the country, a mask is often seen as a weakness, and a sure sign that you don’t support the president, who has made no bones about his disdain for masks. Though it’s telling that attendees at his upcoming social-distance-be-damned political rallies will need to pledge not to sue him or his party should they catch the virus there.
Soon after the protests started, a sign appeared in the window of a local Mexican restaurant, closed by the pandemic: ‘We will no longer tolerate systemic racism’. In my neighbourhood, just a few days ago, someone nailed a sign to a telephone pole: ‘Seen: white woman tearing down Black Lives Matter signs … (one small) Solution: More signs!’
Over the weeks, the nightly howling has morphed into a communal wail. It’s about more than the virus now, about more than George Floyd; it is an acknowledgement that how we are living is not sustainable. That the social, economic, and environmental fabric continues to tear. So tonight, I will howl. I wonder when it will stop.
IMAGE: Into the Storm by Bruce Hooke
He aspired to be one of the kings: a leader in business, a success in the eyes of his family and society, one of the white men in suits who run the show. But in life most of us are pawns, not kings: scared, lost, fleeing our fears, working hard to enrich someone else. So he runs, seeking an escape from even his own unquiet mind. There’s no escape; he’s running into the storm.
Bruce Hooke is a photographer, sculptor and performance artist based in western Massachusetts. His work addresses our evolving relationship with nature as well as issues of gender and nature, male power and vulnerability. bghooke.com