The Man Who Saved America

George Floyd copy

A year or so ago I went into my local bodega to buy a pint of ice cream or something. At the register, I gave the guy a ten dollar bill. He looked at it a moment, then handed it back to me. I was puzzled. “It’s fake, man,” he explained.

I looked closely at the bill. Pretty goddam good fake, to my untrained eye. I’d never even seen a counterfeit bill before, to my knowledge, let alone tried to pass one. Someone obviously passed it to me and I didn’t know it.

The clerk pointed out a few telltale signs that only a person who worked with money all day would notice, including an imperfection in the type, and the feel of the paper. I did begin to see it then, but only because he pointed it out, even though I’d seen To Live and Die in LA like a gazillion times. (So people bother to make fake Hamiltons now, not just Benjamins? Have color printers changed the counterfeiting business that much? Discuss.)

While I stood there examining the bill, the clerk called the cops, four of whom promptly rolled up with blue lights flashing, put me in handcuffs, and frogmarched me over to their cruiser where they shoved me face down on the blacktop. I lay there for almost nine minutes while one of the cops knelt on my neck and I pleaded that I couldn’t breathe and onlookers yelled for the cops to stop and even a couple of the rookie cops apparently tried to get the one with his knee on my neck to stop because it was obvious I was being murdered but they were told to shut the fuck up and then I died.

No, wait—that didn’t happen. Because I’m a middle class white guy.

What happened was, I put the fake ten back in my wallet to keep as a souvenir, gave the clerk some proper legal tender, and took my ice cream and went on my merry way.

MINNEAPOLIS GODDAM

In a new piece for The New Yorker, David Remnick tells us that when George Floyd was a boy, he dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court Justice, and even wrote a school essay about it.

It is ironic that his historic intersection with the justice system turned out so tragically different. But it is doubly ironic that he is likely to have a far greater impact on that system, and the overall course of this country, and even the world, than most of the people who actually did sit on that bench.

Remnick offers that detail in a piece for The New Yorker called “An American Uprising.” Not coincidentally I’m sure, his piece published the day after Trump’s election in 2016 was titled “An American Tragedy.”

History’s starring roles aren’t always easy to predict. There are celebrities who live their entire lives in the fishbowl, and others whose fame is posthumous and entirely unknown to them.

Van Gogh died anonymous and penniless, and didn’t get one red cent from all the coffee mugs and museum gift shop prints and that fucking Don McLean song. Anne Frank went to her (mass) grave without any idea she’d become a household name, a bestselling author (with apologies to Shalom Auslander), or an inspiration to tens of millions. Leon Klinghofer met his violent, horrific end without ever knowing the impact he would have, one that would literally be operatic. Being an archduke and all, Frank Ferdinand presumably had a pretty good-sized ego, but I doubt even he knew the outsized role he would play in changing the course of history.

Grotesque as it was, we ought to be thankful that someone filmed Mr. Floyd’s murder. (Pix or it didn’t happen, as the kids say. Somebody exhume Marshall McLuhan.) Even with the video, the cops almost got away with it, which sadly is not unusual, and tells you something about the depths of systemic racism and the power of the visual image, and also of police unions.

How long before Apple runs an ad campaign with that video and the tagline, “Shot on iPhone 12”?

But now George Floyd threatens to upend not only the Trump presidency but also set off a far broader upheaval in American life. Those moving pictures have stirred our country to action in a way that the Muslim ban, Trump’s hidden taxes, Charlottesville, the kleptocracy, Russiagate, Ukrainegate, and even kidnapped and caged children did not…..in a way that even the unnecessary deaths of more than 110,000 Americans and counting through criminal negligence did not. Or maybe it was the accumulated weight of all those horrors, with George Floyd’s windpipe as the final straw.

In any case, we now find ourselves on the precipice of a pivotal moment in American history. And it’s all because of a 46-year-old man from Houston who moved to the north country.

SOMEBODY GOT MURDERED

The tone of this blog for the last several weeks has been very angry and vituperative. (OK, not just the last several weeks.) But this week I got my old Ovation roundback out and brushed up on the chords to “Kum-ba-ya.” (C-F-C, C-F-G, if you’re following along.)

For I have not come here today to indulge in my usual fulminating against Trump and his water carriers, richly though they deserve it. No. I’ve come to offer the hopeful idea that we’ve bottomed out at last, and may have finally reached a moment of national reckoning when we might begin to turn this thing around.

By that I don’t mean merely that the combined of weight of a pandemic, a depression, and a state-sponsored murder might—might—result in Donald Trump’s ejection from office. (Though you will be forgiven for assuming that of me, and there is no doubt that it would be a giant step toward that goal.)

No, I am asking whether this three-headed Cerberus of a national nightmare might in any way bring about some good by causing us to reflect, re-evaluate, and reform on a much broader scale.

For Trump, as many have noted, is merely a symptom, not the disease itself. A country that would put a monster like that in office, one where some 40% of the public consistently backs him no matter how people he shoots in cold blood in the middle of Fifth Avenue, is plainly not a healthy place. And the systemic problems that gave us this malevolent would-be despot and pathetic excuse for a human being will not vanish with him.

This piece was begun some weeks ago, originally titled “Can Covid Save America?” It is a question many of us have been asking that over the past three months, even before what happened literally on the streets of Minneapolis added a whole new and urgent dimension to a national emergency that we already thought had the danger meter pegged.

George Floyd intensified the gravity and the stakes of that question as a triple victim of all three of these major crises: of covid, which he had contracted but survived; of the economic depression, having lost his job; and of the violent legacy of 400 years of racist oppression.

Will this moment cause us at last to recognize the value of a decent public health care system, a workable social safety net, and a functioning federal government full stop? Will it make us no longer able to deny the inequities of a system that ponies up $2 trillion in bailout funds and somehow makes sure it goes to the richest among us and some of the wealthiest corporations even as they lay off workers? Will it force us to reckon not just with the atrocity of the repeated murder of black Americans by police, but with the deeper and more vile institutional oppression from which that violence springs, which is to say the legacy of slavery that is the original sin of this nation?

Good question.

With the massive, unprecedented, grassroots public protests of the last thirteen days, we may have begun that reckoning…..and what’s more, they have done so spontaneously, organically, and non-hierarchically.

Ever the innovator, only Prince thought the Revolution would start in Minneapolis.

If this does prove a turning point, and along the way proves to be the pivotal episode in what finally brings down Trump, it won’t be because of lawyers or judges or an impeachment inquiry or arcane points of campaign finance law or the institutions we’re so often told will protect us. (Although don’t get me wrong, all those people and efforts and institutions played a role and helped immensely; God bless ‘em). It will be because a groundswell of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Americans had at last had quite enough and got out in the streets and made that loud and clear.

Let that be a lesson to us all going forward.

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

The Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in The New Yorker:

Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said; they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm.

For once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public. People are pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten, or easily discarded. Offering the first tastes of real freedom, when the police are for once afraid of the crowd, the riot can be destructive, unruly, violent, and unpredictable. But within that contradictory tangle emerge demands and aspirations for a society different from the one we in which we live.

Clearly, this is not just—or even primarily—about police brutality. Addressing that alone without addressing the underlying sickness of racism, economic inequality, and the rest of the poisonous stew won’t solve the problem. In fact, without addressing the underlying sickness of racism, economic inequality, and the rest of the poisonous stew, addressing police brutality is not even possible.

The pandemic was the first thing to shake the foundations. In a piece for The Atlantic aptly titled “Underlying Conditions,” published way back in April, about 6000 years ago, George Packer observed:

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. Civilians took out their sewing machines to try to keep ill-equipped hospital workers healthy and their patients alive. Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.

Covid-19 laid bare the con job at the heart of American conservatism, the relentless lie that “government is bad,” that no good comes from taxing people (especially rich people) to pay for public services, that regulation is an evil that hinders free enterprise as opposed to a shield that protects the public from rapacious exploitation.

Packer wrote of the bankruptcy of the “anti-politics” in which both the old and new incarnations of the Grand Old Party specialized, and of the faux populism that Trump represented. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives.”

The economic pain that came on the heels of the pandemic only further kindled the fire. And then came Minneapolis and set the whole pyre ablaze.

In a subsequent, Atlantic piece, “The Protest Are a Sign of Despair,” Packer connected the dots:

(T)hree years of the bigoted and cruel presidency of Donald Trump; three months of the worst pandemic in a century, with more than 100,000 Americans dead and 40 million unemployed. Trump’s utter failure to protect Americans from COVID-19 and his indifference to suffering that fell most heavily on poor, black, and brown people, and to the economic ravages that followed—injustice on this scale burned like smothered coals in millions of homes and hearts during the months of quarantine. The easing of the lockdown and the video of a man’s life being crushed out of him came at the same moment, and the anger received a tremendous burst of oxygen.

Perhaps it had to get this bad before there could be substantive change—the old AA notion of hitting rock bottom, as I was reminded this week by a friend. If so, we elected the right guy.

I never had any truck with those on the far left who thought Trump was better than Hillary because he would be so incredibly bad that he would bring on the revolution. I understand wanting to remodel your kitchen, but do you really want to do it with a hand grenade? Hey guys, you got your wish!

For me, the damage he did in the process was simply too great, and I refuse to believe this was the only way to get to dramatic, positive change (which, PS, is not yet a done deal). Was the only way to save America really by destroying it, Bến Trelike?

But it’s moot now. We are in it.

RISE UP

Over the past two weeks, it has been cheering to see the durability of the passionate, multiracial, multi-generational, and overwhelmingly peaceful protests from sea to shining sea and then some. Where they are headed is unclear, but one possibility is that they evolve into a permanent presence, like the Occupy movement, writ much much larger. There is welcome evidence that this ain’t gonna stop, and promises to become a formidable Arab Spring-meets- Solidarność force. (On second thought, let’s stick with Solidarność and let the Arab Spring comparison go.)

Professor Taylor writes that the word “’crisis’ does not begin to describe the political maelstrom that has been unleashed.”

On that topic, it’s unwieldy to keep referring to “the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” or “the civil unrest.” May I humbly suggest then, taking off from the title of Mr. Remnick’s piece, that we start referring to this simply as The Uprising, with a capital ‘U’? It would be a fitting evolution from the capital ‘R’ Resistance that has been used to describe the opposition to Donald Trump that has arisen equally organically over the past three years.

Some of the images have been astonishing. To cite just one jawdropper, we saw the statue of Philadelphia’s notoriously racist police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo pulled down like a statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, except that this toppling was legitimate. If you’re not from Philadelphia it’s hard to explain just how astonishing that is, but by way of comparison, imagine all the statues of Confederate generals across the South all coming down at once.

The scene we’ve seen in the streets—not just of the US but the whole world—is one that a lot of people have been longing for all the way back to 2017. The Uprising is the right and proper response to all the devastation Trump has wrought, with racism at its core, just as it is at the core of Trumpism itself, going back to his announcement of his presidential campaign in 2015 with the “Mexicans are criminals and rapists” comment, the origin of his political career with birtherism, and his first rancid toe-dipping into political commentary with the Central Park Five.

But, per above, it goes way beyond Trump to the broader, deeper, and far older institutional sins of our nation. On the count of racial oppression, we can take it back all the way to 1619.

I know that for the African-American community there have been so many moments over so many decades that felt like this was the breaking point at last, only to have those hopes crushed. Change has been criminally incremental, and painfully slow, and not by accident, given the entrenched forces violently opposed to it. And what we are talking about toppling here is not merely (merely!) the scaffolding of racism, but the whole edifice of American ills, including class and economic matters to which racism is conjoined.

But this sure feels like a pivotal moment at the very least, especially in conjunction with the other epic social forces currently in play.

There is a huge irony, of course, in the notion that an uprising originating in the African-American community may be the thing that quote unquote saves America. Much like the question of turning out the African-American vote to elect Joe Biden, as Democratic consultant I call “Mr. X” told me in my interview with him last winter, it is a bitter joke that America is asking its black people to save it.

But they might anyway, completing a trifecta consisting of our first black president, a black man murdered on the streets of Minneapolis, black leadership from the likes of the Rev. William Barber II and others during this Uprising, and with any luck, a black woman as our next vice president.

EXCEPTIONS AND RULES

Apropos of the title of this piece, conservatives will of course scoff at George Floyd as a hero of any kind, let alone America’s savior, even as a literary trope. In their eyes, he will always be defined only as a criminal— just like the desperate migrants fleeing violence and oppression for a better life in the US whom they can see only as “lawbreakers.” Of course, when it comes to overlooking a few broken laws, they’re a lot easier on Flynn, Manafort, Stone, and the Trumps themselves.

The title of this piece might also have referred to Jim Mattis. Funny how just temporarily averting the possibility of an American Tiananmen counts as a win these days.

Since the former Secretary of Defense’s powerful statement of June 3, even more retired generals and admirals have spoken up, including McRaven, Myers, and Powell. There has even been some debate over how much the CJCS General Milley was complicit or, conversely pushed back. I’d love to learn it was the latter, notwithstanding his appearance at Trump’s side—along with current SecDef Mark Esper—during the St. John’s atrocity.

But Mattis & Co. acted as a firemen. What we’re talking about now requires architects, contractors, construction workers, and above all, customers willing to invest in the rebuild. Can we now really use this moment to arrest America’s decades-long moral decline and take the necessary, concrete steps to regain the nobility of purpose with which flatter ourselves?

It’s not like we don’t know what to do. In The Bulwark, of all places, Richard North Paterson writes:

The needs are clear. We need to combat poverty and food insecurity; attack the underlying causes of illness; rebuild our public health agencies; and provide universal healthcare, paid family and sick leave, and safe and affordable childcare. We need to establish universal pre-k; fortify K-12 education; grant student debt relief and free college tuition for those truly in need; and educate and retrain workers for the new economy.

We need to combat racial and economic segregation in housing. We need to amend zoning laws that restrict access to the best jobs and schooling. We need to leverage federal funding to build new housing units for low- and middle-income families; assist communities historically denied fair mortgages; provide financial support for those whose housing equity was destroyed by the 2008 financial crisis; and help those pummeled by the pandemic to keep their homes.

That sounds like a nice America. Harder question: how do we get there?

Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes that “for African-Americans, it’s a question as old as the nation itself,” one about which “(t)here is a palpable poverty of intellect, a lack of imagination, and a banality of ideas pervading mainstream politics today. Old and failed propositions are recycled, but proclaimed as new, reviving cynicism and dismay.” In the end, those ideas inevitably wind up defending the status quo.

Her point seems aimed directly at conservatives whose optimism about the possibilities of the current crisis approach cheerleading naiveté, like Kori Schake’s flag-waving, rah-rah essay, also in The Atlantic, “The Pandemic Will Make America Stronger.” Prof. Schake writes that our unique amazingness (read: free markets) will allow the US to “emerge from this terrible pandemic in an even stronger position internationally—not just because other states are making their own mistakes, but also because of how our country and our society are organized.” (Dead giveaway: she is director of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.)

But Kori must be a cockeyed optimist, having since published a similarly upbeat piece on the Uprising, again hinging on the notion that American exceptionalism is going to save us all.

Someone call Colin Kaepernick and let him know.

I know that sounds snotty, given that this essay reflects my own hopefulness that we are witnessing a sea change for the good. I would argue that the difference is that I’m basing my hopes on the system being radically reformed, rather than on that system suddenly rising to the occasion and rescuing us from its own flaws.

Pointedly, and in implicit rebuke of Prof. Schake, she calls for new voices in the debate, and empowering them:

If we are serious about ending racism and fundamentally changing the United States, we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it.

We….must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals. Police should not be armed with expensive artillery intended to maim and murder civilians while nurses tie garbage sacks around their bodies and reuse masks in a futile effort to keep the coronavirus at bay.

POLICE ON MY NECK

But, guys: Jared Kushner is bullish! In fact, he thinks that pesky racism problem is already fixed, and that he and his team fixed it. At a White House roundtable with law enforcement officials on June 9, he declared: “The law enforcement community heard the cries from the community, saw the injustices in the system that needed to be fixed, and they responded by coming together to fix it, and it’s been a great partnership to do that.”

As with his equally stellar response to the coronavirus, Kush has developed a foolproof strategy for handling any crisis: helicopter in armed with mindboggling hubris and world-class ignorance, do nothing except make it worse twelve ways to Sunday, then declare victory, award yourself a medal, and chopper off to bollocks up the Middle East or whatever the next emergency du jour is. (Optional: collect a fat payday thanks to your father-in-law’s position along the way.)

But Jared is hardly alone in his rose-colored view of race relations. I recently had an argument with a conservative friend whose son is a police officer, and who was clinging with white knuckles (ahem) to the usual few-bad-apples claim that there is no systemic racism in US law enforcement. (PS Systemic racism is a redundancy. Racism is systemic by definition.)

No amount of evidence or citation of the blatant pattern could convince him…..in part because he dismisses any reportage he dislikes as “fake news.” (If you offer him your own assessment he scoffs at it as mere opinion and demands sources. If you cite sources he dismisses them propaganda from the lamestream media and demands that you “think for yourself.” Rinse and repeat.)

But that was early in the Uprising. Now, a torrent of video showing appalling, unprovoked brutality by cops all over the country is making our case for us.

Of course, the stupidity of a violent police response to protests about police violence is self-evident. But luckily, it’s not like my buddy making the claim that there’s no systemic racism in law enforcement is the National Security Adviser or something.

Oh, wait—that’s the exact argument that the actual National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien made, in speaking to CNN.

NOCH EINE BRICK IM DIE MAUER

Meanwhile, in a blatantly symbolic gesture of weakness, Trump has had the White House bunkerized, to include the erection of a big ass fence around it—not a good look for a guy trying to project a Churchillian image of statesmanship.

Well, I guess he finally got his Wall.

But love and art trump Trump, as ordinary Americans quickly turned the newly installed chainlink fence around the White House into a living mural of anti-racist art and memoriam after less than a week. Authorities announced plans to remove the fence. (Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!)

No surprise, that has not stopped our president from continuing to serve as an aggregator and mouthpiece for whatever right wing craziness passes across his TV screen, making him not that different from a lot of white septuagenarian Republicans. (Is the word “white” unnecessary there?)

On Tuesday, via Twitter, he spread a story from One America News Network—a channel that makes Fox look like C-SPAN—to the effect that that the 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by Buffalo policemen and now hospitalized for head injuries was actually a covert antifa instigator. (For that matter, George Floyd was a grandfather himself. What does it say that among the most galvanizing acts in this Uprising have been violence against elders?)

Here’s Trump’s brain on drugs:

Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?

As Michelle Goldberg quipped, “Gearing up for the unity speech.”

That speech, we are told, is being written by his white nationalist QB1 Stephen Miller (as Dave Barry is wont so say, I swear I am not making this up), just the latest twist in this summer stock production of “Ubu Roi” we are living through.

Desperate for a lifeline as he stands on the bow of the garbage scow that is his presidency and felt it sinking fast, Trump also predictably seized on better than expected jobs numbers for May. Those numbers are themselves suspect. (Can we trust the Trump administration’s Labor Department not to cheat the stats? Forget I asked.) For one thing, although there may be some slight and welcome rebound as the economy slowly begins to reopen, people who have stopped looking for work altogether because things are so bad don’t get counted as “unemployed,” which is hardly a measure of a robust and recovering economy.

But just as predictably, Trump had to gild the lily (you’ve seen his apartment in Manhattan, right?), crowing about this allegedly “great success.” Only Donald Trump would claim that having 21 million people out of work—a U-6 unemployment rate of 21.20%—is a triumph.

But it gets even worse. Because at a Rose Garden event last Friday, Trump—of course!had to invoke George Floyd in bragging about the jobs report:

“Hopefully George is looking down and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country. (It’s) a great day for him. It’s a great day for everybody. This is a great, great day in terms of equality.”

Shamelessness, thy name is Donald.

So we’re still a long way from that rousing, nationwide, acoustic guitar rendition of “Kum-ba-ya” that I mentioned. In fact, I think I may have just broken a string.

SAY HIS NAME

In my guarded optimism that we are at a turning point, I don’t want to get out too far over the tips of my skis, as the white-people-problems metaphor goes. As we’ve seen, America is far from saved yet, by George Floyd or anyone else. As I wrote last week, it could most certainly go the other way.

Maybe the darkest view of all came from Chris Hedges, speaking to Salon’s Chauncey DeVega, who predicted that the US is about to descend into full-blown authoritarianism. Hedges evoked the scholar Fritz Stern, who fled the Nazis, in describing Germany before Hitler as a place yearning for fascism before the word “fascism” was even invented.

And Hedges felt that way before George Floyd.

Has the Uprising lessened our odds of going full “Man in the High Castle”/”Plot Against America,” or lengthened them?

Let’s come back to Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor:

We have the resources to remake the United States, but it will have to come at the expense of the plutocrats and the plunderers, and therein lies the three-hundred-year-old conundrum: America’s professed values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, continually undone by the reality of debt, despair, and the human degradation of racism and inequality.

Packer one last time:

We’re faced with a choice that the crisis makes inescapably clear. We can stay hunkered down in self-isolation, fearing and shunning one another, letting our common bond wear away to nothing. Or we can use this pause in our normal lives to pay attention to the hospital workers holding up cellphones so their patients can say goodbye to loved ones; the planeload of medical workers flying from Atlanta to help in New York; the aerospace workers in Massachusetts demanding that their factory be converted to ventilator production; the Floridians standing in long lines because they couldn’t get through by phone to the skeletal unemployment office; the residents of Milwaukee braving endless waits, hail, and contagion to vote in an election forced on them by partisan justices. We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death.

So which way will we as a nation turn at this critical decision point?

Are we going to go even deeper into the darkness, a darkness from which we may not be able to emerge?

Or will this be the moment we begin to save our own ass? Because if there’s one thing we ought to have learned by now, it’s that there ain’t no cavalry on the way. (Excuse the retrograde cowboys & Indians metaphor.) Mueller ain’t coming to the rescue, nor Adam Schiff, though he tried valiantly, nor Mattis for that matter.

We have to get out of this ourselves. What’s going on in the streets is a first step and an encouraging sign.

We may be one horseman short, but can the apocalyptic trio of a pandemic, a depression, and the Uprising collectively prove a cleansing fire that saves America?

If it does, it will be in part because of the what happened to a man named George Floyd.

**********

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Floyd family

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