The Worst Year
2020 has been, for most of our lifetimes, the worst year our country has ever faced. We have the worst public health crisis in over a century, the inevitable economic crash that occurred when it hit, and the civic disorder on a scale we have not seen since the late 60s. While all of this is happening, we have a federal government, and most state governments, unwilling or intellectually incapable of reducing the impact of any of this. American stability, an illusion which has grown ever thinner every year since as long as I can remember, appears to have finally been tested, and shown as a lie. But how did we get here, where episodes of destructive civic disorder are so common, and many people are ambivalent, or even supportive, of its continuation, and how do we get out of it?
The first thing to understand about large-scale protests, and rioting, is that it does not occur in areas where the social status of all is healthy and prosperous. Civil disorder has to feed on a deep wellspring of anger and despair, or else it burns itself out rapidly. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of anger and despair to go around. For the two major groups involved, the working poor and African Americans, there are plenty of reasons to be angry and desperate. In addition, several recent changes have allowed them to become more organized as their desperation rises.
African American grievances throughout American history are far too many for me to put into this article, so I will focus primarily on the issue that started these protests: the lawlessness of America’s law enforcement in dealing with minorities. While I know very few people who enjoy a run in with police, the invention of the smartphone, and the ability to film and immediately disseminate video, has shown just how terrible the situation has always been for African Americans. Time and again, we see law enforcement officials needlessly, often even tortuously, killing African Americans that they have, or are attempting to have, in custody. But while these events are truly awful, they are not the primary driver the rage. The rage comes from the fact that the officers who so quickly, casually, and callously take a human life do not suffer any repercussions until a massive public outcry occurs. Even then, the officers often escape without significant, or even any, penalty.
We have plenty of examples. George Floyd was slowly strangled to death in front of a crowd while being apprehended on charges of counterfeiting. Philando Castile was shot five times during a traffic stop simply for alerting an officer that he had a legal firearm, which is the correct thing to do in that situation. Breonna Taylor was awoken and shot to death in the middle of the night after the police stormed her home with a no-knock warrant, looking for drugs that weren’t there. Eric Garner was strangled to death for selling loose cigarettes. Tamir Rice. Ahmaud Arbery. Botham Jean. The list goes on and on, and these only cover the murders. They do not cover the violence and corruption of the police who interact with minority communities on a day to day basis, nor the fact that minorities are typically given far more serious sentences after being convicted of a crime, not to mention being far more likely to be convicted of a crime.
All of this leads to an extremely dangerous message being sent. “The police are not the protectors of your rights, but the agents of a government that despises you. They have full authority to kill you at any time without repercussions, but if you step outside the bounds of the law, or if the police arbitrarily decide you should suffer, you will be destroyed.” I cannot see sufficient reason for African Americans to hold any loyalty to, or trust in, a system that treats them as an occupied and unwanted people.
As for the working class, things are exceptionally bad as well. The jobs of their grandparents, which offered stability and a chance at a middle-class life, are gone. Replacing them are degrading service jobs that combine high stress, low pay, and uncertainty. While the costs of living continue to rise, particularly in health care, wages have stagnated badly. The old defensive organizations of the working class, churches and labor unions, are on their last gasp, having been hollowed out by their entrance into politics, and the shift from manufacturing/resource extraction to service jobs, respectively. Therefore, there is nobody who they can turn to for assistance in dealing with the issues they face during a personal crisis, or when those who are in power over them, typically their employers, abuse them. Wage theft is rampant, a stable schedule is a luxury, and employers often keep the threat of termination hovering over the head of their employees in order to get them to work harder for the same sums of money.
To add insult to injury, these jobs are culturally seen as making a person involved in them lesser than those outside of the service industry, or at least as being worthy of derision and abuse from those who use those services. Everyone who has worked in the service industry has stories of customers and employers who treat them without the basic courtesies which should be given to anyone in a civilized society. The employer, ever willing to drop the Sword of Damocles on any employee who does not accept this abuse with a smile, puts the employee in a position of accepting non-stop abuse, or putting their livelihood at risk. It is a deeply dehumanizing process, which can wear even the strongest person down.
In addition to this, the routes out of poverty are shrinking rapidly. With the arrival of the gig economy, and the creation of ever more insecure, high stress jobs, the route touted as the best way out of the lower class is going to a university. And this is becoming an increasingly difficult bridge to cross. As the cost continues to skyrocket, scholarships and aid money become ever more important for students who cannot rely on support from family or other connections. Unfortunately, this means that many students are forced into a full or part-time job to support themselves in the university, making them less able to make the connections necessary to succeed in many fields, and forcing them to handle both schoolwork and their other work with less energy than if they could concentrate on only one. This puts the student in an extremely precarious situation, where the bridge becomes increasingly easy to fall off of, and if disaster strikes, or the student makes a mistake, then they will plunge off the bridge, often into comparably terrible, and non-dischargeable, debt. No degree, no improved prospects, thrown into an uncaring and unforgiving world with a little more knowledge and an enormous weight added. Even many of the students who do succeed in gaining their degrees end up in poor spots, as the connections that their better off classmates created while they were not working, or in expensive internships, allowed them to reach positions that the poorer were unable to, having been forced to spend vital time simply surviving long enough to get their degree.
The message this group gets is not as awful as that facing African Americans but is still extremely harmful. “You are servants of your betters. You are not to be protected but will be thrown into the street if you try to protect yourself. The work you do will be done, and we care nothing of the toll the work takes on you. And if you try to improve your station, just know that unless you are both talented and lucky, you will drop back down to where you belong, in a worse position than if you had simply accepted your fate.”
So, what you end up with is two groups, with significant overlap between them, have absolutely no reason to feel any love or loyalty to the status quo, and those who enforce it. While in good times they are willing to toil away, living small lives of quiet desperation, when pushed to the edge many will find that they have very little to lose by attempting to change things by working outside the system that has already proven how little it cares for their well-being. In addition, they now have access to a supply of talented people who understand their struggles, and have been educated, allowing for a capable leadership to be created within their movement, rather than being imported from other groups.
Which brings us to 2020. High profile murders of African Americans, combined with the economic disaster brought on by Trump’s COVID response, has caused tensions to spike to the point where these issues cannot be kept under wraps any longer. Tens of millions of Americans who were already having a difficult time staying above water are now drowning, and nothing seems to be getting done for them either economically or in regard to police criminality. They have absolutely no reason to trust that a reform movement that has proven so incapable over the last few decades is suddenly going to come to their rescue, and all methods of traditional politics have failed them. And so, they take to the streets.
This is not going to end easily. They will act out in ways that many people, safe behind the invisible walls erected to separate the protesters, and those they represent, from the rest of the country, will find inexcusable and abhorrent. But the United States kept order in these areas with a heavy police presence, alongside the lies that all are equal under the law, and nobody who is willing to work will go hungry. But anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear knows that the secret is out. Police routinely brutalize people within these protests, clubbing old men for slowly walking towards them, running protesters over with their cars, firing tear gas canisters at the heads of protesters from point blank range, tear gassing and bludgeoning crowds indiscriminately, all of which have the possibility of crippling or killing their targets, without any repercussions. Meanwhile, alongside the protesters wounded by police violence, two of the protesters, lawyers who had grown up inner-city poor, torched an abandoned police car in an act of vandalism, and now face spending their entire lives behind bars, a sentence far, far worse than anything the police officers involved in the murders which helped spark these events ever had a chance of facing. While these protests are happening, the Senate and President move to block any bills that attempt to support those that are out of work due to America’s disastrous COVID response. The message is once again clear: “You are not to speak up, or to act out. We do not care about what you want or need. You are not our equal. And if you end up in a situation where you starve, waste away, or are killed arbitrarily by our agents, you are to do so quietly.”
The sad truth is, at this point the approved methods of accomplishing change are not working. Even the most anodyne protests, such as kneeling at sporting events, or limited marches in public areas, are treated as an unconscionable assault on the country by many and ignored by many more. No progress seems to have been made over the last few decades, and over the last four years, the country appears to be backsliding on both economic and criminal justice. If these people are given no peaceful options to effect the changes that they need, they will not meekly go home. If they are told that they are to suffer and die from COVID for the comfort of others, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that they will do so.
The old order has been shown for the lie it was. Putting things back the way they were is effectively impossible, and a new path forward must be made. But if the leaders of our country are unwilling to change things in such a way that the majority of the protesters are willing to return home, including punishing those who have abused the protesters for so long, then every crackdown, every life destroyed in an effort to suppress the protesters, will only fuel their rage, and empower those who call for violence.
And if you think things are bad now, look back at similar situations throughout history, and realize that you haven’t seen anything yet.