A Year of BLM: Reflections on 2020

For black Americans, and countless other minorities, that night was the expression of subterranean rage that’d been boiling beneath the surface for decades. For the family of Michael Brown—yet another black boy subjected to extrajudicial killing by the police—it was a macabre outgrowth of an irreversible loss: their seventeen-year-old son was dead. But for my dad, his friend and I, sitting there in the living room among the beer cans and Taco Bell wrappers and guns, the protests were something of a joke.

“To think these people are getting anything done by burning down their own businesses.” 

Mike took a sip of his drink, easing into the couch. “Their own town. Look at this shit. What a clusterfuck.”

On screen, where we now saw as the CNN helicopter came on another slow rounding pass over the town and then angle the camera down over a street, a stream of people fled down a sidewalk littered with broken shards of windowpanes. The shards each refracted dull segments of of light, like milky flashes of moonlight off a blackened river. Behind them all, a pale white curtain of teargas inflated out across the pavement, a noxious contrail of chemicals dispersing off into the night. 

My dad was standing, his arms crossed in subtle self-assurance, a beer clutched in one of his hands. “No,” he said, making a light stomping gesture with his feet, mouth agape in a flabbergasted half-smile. “It’s just goofy. Look, you know, when you’re just breaking stuff and causing anarchy—do they think they’re actually getting anything done?”

“Look at them dancing on those cars,” Mike said. “Like a party.”

“I mean,” I said, trying to throw in my own two cents, “I sort of get where they’re coming from, right? But it’s really counterproductive the way they’re going about it. They’re not making anyone like them by breaking shit.”

“What a bunch of nuts,” Mike said. “I mean, look at how silly they look… Most of these kids are probably fifteen. You know? Probably still in high school.”

“Yeah,” I said, feigning a laugh. “You know, I know some of these types of kids at school.” 

By which I meant, to be clear, that I knew some black kids.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this in my life,” my dad said, refraining his voice to almost a hush, as if mystified with astonishment. 

“I feel bad for those cops,” Mike said, taking another drink. His face was red and somewhat sweaty now, eyes bloodshot, looking at the TV with a sense of blank, self-contented determination. The act of having meditated on the news for the past few minutes seemed to have drawn him into an ominous and contemplative haze, like an opium addict or a prophet possessed with a dark and unshakeable vision. 

“They get killed all the time. And now they have to put up with this bullshit… You know, I wouldn’t blame them if they opened fire. Really, I wouldn’t.”

The fascist invective beneath Mike’s words seemed unmoved by my lighthearted affectations of neutrality—a tone that I myself already felt queasy about. So I tried some humor instead.

“You know,” I said, feigning irreverence, trying to seem humorous and flippant without making it obvious, “have you ever though, politics aside, how fun it would be to be in a riot like that? Just run around, break shit. Throw molotovs. I mean, I’d totally do it. Just for the fun of it.”

They laughed. We would keep making riffs on that same joke for the next fifteen minutes or so, conjuring new hypothetical scenarios for how my ill-conceived forays into rioting would go: how I would throw a molotov, because that would of course be awesome; how I would break windows, because why not; how all those kids from the ghetto, if we’re being real, would beat the living shit out a cracker ass white kid like me. It wasn’t like they were on my side, after all. But already, I felt a dissonance between them and I—especially between Mike and I—that made me uncomfortable. For them, to joke about joining the rioters was a flippant exercise in humorous dismissiveness. They seemed unaware—I was too, looking back on it—that I did in fact want to be with the protesters. Though I couldn’t yet articulate the sensation with the same clarity of someone who’d thought long about the subject, I wanted to be with them not because I thought their actions were absurd but because I thought, deep down, that their rage was justified. The night went on as usual. More joking. More beers. The riot on CNN slowly unfolding.

Six years would pass before George Floyd was murdered.

***

IF ONLY THEY’D QUIT CRACK and decided to pull their pants up”; “if only they didn’t let their dreads grow so long”; “if only they stopped committing black-on-black crime”; “if only we stopped rewarding them with welfare”—the litany of maxims, insulting and smug, through which racism operated in a “post-racial” world. 

This world, the mostly white suburban universe in which I grew up in the early 2000s, was replete with narratives invoking the specter of the black criminal. These stories—in spite of all the mass media outlets, movies, and politicians reassuring us we lived beyond the pall of race—served as the ideological scaffolding for a racist system of inequality that was long since supposed to have transcended color.

Racism, I’d think to myself when I was seven or eight, had been defeated by Martin Luther King. Wasn’t that conversation outdated?

I came of age at the tail end of an era when human history, as followers of of Fukuyama were wont to pronounce, had ended. By the time politics became a more constant preoccupation in my life, around 2015, that presumption was already crumbling under the weight of its its own  bombastic, grandiloquent contradictions. Mountains of compounding evidence made clear that, if anything, history was accelerating: the financial meltdown in 2008, the Arab Spring, climate change and climate crisis and the growing global tide of refugees. The veil was being pulled back on the ugliness of a social order which, in 1995, we were told was the closest we would ever get to utopia. 

But beneath the glittering facade of the liberal democratic social order declared triumphant in the 1990s was a constellation of injustices, entire universes of suffering, to which affluent white Americans could remain ignorant with ease. 

The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, systemic police violence and economic deprivation formed the scaffolding of a racist capitalist system that anchored black communities in the same comparative disadvantage that’d been their burden for centuries. For decades, people challenged this order would be met with any number of variations on the same rejoinder—the Civil Rights era cleaned up the majority of the racist stains on our past. What was there to complain about now?

Forget that most of the leaders of those peaceful movements were systematically demonized, stalked, and hunted by the government, and that most of them ended up assassinated. Forget that the movements were nowhere near as peaceful as they’ve since been portrayed in hegemonic pop culture discourse. The now sunnily recalled Civil Rights movement was, if you look at the record, characterized by bombings, shootings, and riots, by police unleashing firehoses and German Shepherds on protesters. The option of peaceful change was always bolstered, and therefore pushed forward, by the specter of its alternative: armed rebellion, as represented by the Black Panthers. And forget that the problem identified by both the radical leaders who came to pacifism and the pacifists who came to radicalism—that of racialized capitalism, combined with its constant imperative for expansion—remained unresolved by the time they were killed. The biggest problems both MLK and Malcolm had recognized—de facto racism, which would further morph into the prison-industrial complex, police violence, and mass inequality—had yet to be resolved by the time they were killed. 

That a majority of whites were unaware of racialized injustices didn’t mean they didn’t exist. They were still there, latent, like vast thickets of parched vegetation waiting for a spark to set the forest aflame. Which did in fact happen, on February 26, 2012, when an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was executed by a suburban vigilante in a neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, less than twenty minutes from where I lived. 

Black Lives Matter, an organization founded by black feminists whose protests, seven years hence, would be ranked the largest social movement in US history, began in earnest soon after Trayvon’s murder. But my first brushes with BLM, which would later become such a formative part of my life, weren’t through the protests themselves. It was through crusty old Republican men and their vituperative dismissiveness towards the premise of the endeavor. 

One boiling afternoon, not long after Trayvon was killed and the battles began on Facebook—one meme would show a smiling black boy asking why skittles and a hoodie made him such a threat: the next would show a shirtless teenaged Trayvon and assure that, seeing his lean, athletic musculature, he was in fact a very menacing one—I was at a shooting range out in the country. The afternoon air screamed with a chorus of cicadas, their hum broken only by the crack of .12 gauges as orange clays sailed out over the dirt, vaporized every now and then by a spray of birdshot. Several friends and I had gathered around a mustachioed sixty-something, with salt-and-pepper hair, a flat-brimmed cap, and dark blotches of sweat, as he gave a seminar on handling a semi-auto shotgun for skeet. 

“…A creepy ass cracker,” he said, out of the blue, as he handled the gun—though I regret not remembering the exact conversation that prompted his remark. He enunciated the words with thick, slow indignation, as if his mouth was stuffed with food and he was straining to make himself clear. “That’s what he was calling George Zimmerman before he had to shoot him, you know. A creepy ass cracker.” He ripped back the action, a shell clacking into the chamber. “There’s a lot of shit the media will leave out, context like that, when they talk about all this black lives matter stuff. You gotta learn to think for yourself.” He leveled the gun to his shoulder, called out, and fired. 

I was in fact beginning to think for myself, and knew, on a subconscious level at least, where my sympathies lay. But the uncertainty of being a young teenager made it difficult to articulate these convictions with clarity or confidence. 

It was clear to me that minorities suffered far beyond the scope of my comprehension, and that the rage driving their protests and riots was legitimate. But when the time came to discuss these issues, I felt anchored by the compulsion to seem “even-handed” and “rational” in the eyes of counterparts who—thanks to their wealth, their age, and their race—never experienced those injustices themselves. I wanted to be seen as “serious.” I was mortified I’d be pigeonholed as overzealousness or naive in the way so many young people have been dismissed throughout history. AS far as many of them were concerned, people who got involved in activism did so less because of indignation at the world’s injustices than because inner emotional turmoil or the lack of worthwhile activities to take up their time. In countless serious interchanges I had with adults as a teenager, I’d find myself teetering on an awkward paradox. On the one hand, I wanted to express unapologetic support for movements such as Black Lives Matter—as awkward as that could make the discussion. On the other was the temptation to feign a discourse of high-minded neutrality for which I knew I’d be lavished with praise and referred to as “wise beyond my years.” For years I tried to strike a balance between the two. But the net result was always a shift towards the latter: a sense complacency before the injustices of the world.

There was a conversation I remember having with Mike several years before Trump was elected, in 2012 or 2013, that, looking back now, was revelatory. What he said provided a glimpse into a species of revanchism that hadn’t yet come out and spread its wings in the sunlight, peeling back the layers, if only for a moment, on a strain of racism that I’d thought was prehistoric.

Though he was a window into the psyche of the angry white man that became an object of hyper-examination for coastal liberals after of Trump’s election, the truth is that, politics aside, I liked Mike. 

He was a lone-wolf, a leathery-skinned private investigator my dad met around 2010. His house was on on Lake Beresford, a hyacinth-choked, cypress-lined tongue of water off the St. John’s River. We spent many lazy afternoons on his dock there, telling stories and soaking free-lined minnows for catfish, bass, and bream. He had the money to buy a lot of guns and more than enough time to get good hunting stories with them. But his personal life was in shambles. Volatile relationships haunted him like a specter. In the many times he took refuge from various women at my dad’s house—a few weeks, at roughly six-month intervals, for a span of four to five years—we talked about his life. Though he’d been a Marine in the mid-80s, it was his seeming misfortune to have enlisted after Vietnam and Grenada but before Desert Storm. But we were always ready, he’d assure us. Sometime afterwards, in the period of his life that became something of a blur that he talked far less about, he had a daughter we never seemed to hear much about. Now, he worked as a PI. 

There was limited risk to the job, and he was very clear in mentioning the fact that he always kept his concealed carry weapon with him while on the clock. But most of his time was spent following aging black women, or “white trash,” who’d applied for workers compensation and whose employers hired Mike to reconnoiter them for insurance fraud. He’d wait in his truck with a camera in the rows of a Walmart parking lot, seeing if he could get photos of people who’d filed for workers comp as they carried heavy bags of dog food or ungainly crates of supplies. The absurd portfolio of experiences he accrued through this work made for countless funny stories. But something about it, at the same time, struck me as both melancholy, and deeply sad.

That night when we had the conversation, we’d been staying in his RV, just the two of us, where he’d been living in a rural, palm-lined fish camp near Christmas, Florida, in the wide, marshy expanses of the St. John’s River’s southern headwaters. We’d gone out for bass in his new metal jonboat earlier that evening. Back at the RV later, we were watching Inglorious Bastards. Mike, as usual, would maintain a running conversation that involved periodic interruptions of the movie, like a discordant directors cut of quasi-philosophical ruminations. 

“You know,” he began, though I can’t remember what in the movie prompted the remark. “My dad was telling me at some point when I was younger. He sat me down and asked me: ‘Have you noticed how much better at sports blacks are? How much stronger they are? And you’ve probably noticed how much more often they get violent. Get involved in crime. People will tell you it isn’t biological. But open your eyes.’ I’m not saying anything but—remember to think. They come from Africa, closer to human roots. They’re different.”

Something in the movie distracted him after that, and we spoke nothing else of the matter. 

Several years later, following a tumultuous succession of arguments and reconciliations, Mike and my dad broke off communication for good. Mike, as it turns out, had been vociferous in taking a liking to Trump, who in his reckoning stood up for “men like him.” 

***

Reflecting back on it all, sifting through the memories half a decade after it began, the first years of Trump’s ascendancy unfurl with an nightmarish circularity, an unending film-reel of mounting vulgarities: Trump on the escalator where he’d announce his bid for the Presidency. The feverish roar of crowds, delirious seas of MAGA hats. Ban the Muslims. Build the wall. They’re bringing drugs and crime. They’re rapists. Cars plowing into crowds of protesters. Bloodied protesters on the pavement. Confused brown faces behind chain-linked fences. Teargas. Proud boys. AR-15s. 

The next part of the story is so well known that it almost doesn’t merit repetition. One day, we can only hope, we’ll be able to look back on the Trump era as a brief nightmare when the violent nightmares of racialized capitalist society—heretofore limited to the poor and minorities, already consigned to suffer in anonymity—became exaggerated to such an extent that it became impossible for many Americans to ignore. But regardless of the upcoming election outcomes, the Trump Presidency will in all likelihood be regarded as but an ominous prelude to a still unfolding drama, symptomatic of America’s founding inequities, a malaise of which Trump is only one clownish outgrowth. 

***

The majority of Americans had been getting restless under quarantine when, on a mint blue dusk on May 25, George Floyd was murdered by three Minneapolis police officers. The man had spent almost five decades on Earth—he’d been a father of five and a football player, a part-time rapper and religious mentor his family and friends called a “gentle giant”—and the denouement to that, the final crime for which he would be executed, was that he used a counterfeit bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. When the video of his killing began circulating on social media, most people were already gripped with anxiety. Their financial standings were precarious. They were left wondering what would become of the world, uncertain of when the COVID nightmare would end. The sight of his suffocation as it was circulated to hundreds of millions of people, played on endless repeat, was like throwing a match to a dry forest. Floyd pinned to the concrete, pleading for air, begging to breathe, a grown man so desperate he calls out to his dead mother—who wouldn’t be outraged? Who wouldn’t want to destroy things after that?

They burned down a police station. Videos of that night, the culmination of a long afternoon siege between protesters on the street lobbing rocks and bottles and police on the rooftops firing teargas and flash-bangs, electrified the nation. The figures silhouetted against the flaming hellscape of Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct being incinerated. The vast whorls of sparks swirling up into the night-sky. And the fireworks planted by the protesters at the precinct’s front door squealing, whining and bursting in neon explosions as the police station behind it, edifice of institutionalized racism, was consumed in the conflagration.  

Watching one of the hundreds of videos of police lashing out against protesters was a quick path to realizing that a deeper rupture defined this new era of discontent. 

There was the image of National Guardsmen patrolling Minneapolis suburbs in convoys, as if they were in in Helmand or Basra, one of them yelling at a woman to go inside, and then, when she refused, firing at her with a smoldering green teargas canister from point blank range. There was the cop spraying pepper spray into a little girls face. Police cruisers ramming into crowds of flailing protesters. Police cruisers spray painted with ACAB, their windows broken, raging with flames. The white hot explosion of flash-bangs in crowds. Trump dispatching security forces to unleash a hail of rubber bullets and flash bangs so he could walk across the street for a photo-op of a Bible, declaring himself the vanguard of “Law and Order.”

Protests over George Floyd were pulling back the veil on interplay between social movements and law enforcement, subterranean power dynamics heretofore whitewashed by “copaganda” or meek liberal appeals to avoid being too radical. Each side undergoing a sort of clarification through radicalization. If apocalypse means “a revelation of of that which was heretofore unable to be seen,” as many have been wont to point out, then the massive turnout of the protests and the brutality of the subsequent state response laid bare the contours of who exactly exercised power and what they’d do to continue exercising it. The post-modern indifference from the 1990s was gone. Battle lines, more crystallized goals, were being drawn in its place. 

If the last few months of protest were revelatory of the injustices past, the deployment en masse of military and reconnaissance technology provided a dark vision of the future now upon us.

There was the image of the Black Hawk hovering low over a mass of protesters at night in DC. The helicopter, lights blinkering, had descended all the way down to the level of brick and mortar buildings—a maneuver one could only presume to be dangerous—in an attempt to blow protesters away with the staggering, tree bending down-blast of air. The scene, for many, captured the quintessence of imperial backlash: technology that’d been deployed for ages at the periphery of empire, in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, our own iterations of Gaul and Iberia, was at last being used when the discontent returned to Rome. 

***

It was clear when we arrived that someone had been watching us. The drones, for one, were ample evidence of this: several of them had been floating over the protesters as they accumulated on the lawn of the Jacksonville Courthouse, utterly motionless, each hovering with a soft-hornet-like whine. But where were the police officers?

“Are you stupid?” a friend retorted. He motioned up. Along the roof of the courthouse—we would later notice this to be true for almost every building downtown—a collection of seven or eight helmeted figures with night vision goggles rose and fell as they peered down on us, distant figures silhouetted against the failing evening light. 

It was one of the first BLM protests in Jacksonville since George Floyd’s death. The first, which we’d missed, saw a cop stabbed in the neck and canisters of teargas fired into the crowds. The burning of the precinct was barely a week old, and the massive, militarized offensives being waged against majority peaceful protests were just getting started. Several hundred people, approaching a thousand in total, accumulated on the lawn as the misty gray evening enclosed itself over the city. Toward the heart of the crowd of protesters— signs saying Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, End Qualified Immunity riding above them like sails on an armada—several figures, hard to make out, began speaking through a megaphone. We chanted, still eyeing the looming figures contemplating us from the rooftop far above. And then we marched. 

The militarized overkill in the state response to the protests, even in small towns such as St. Augustine, where I live, was astonishing enough. But so too was the passion of people of all races to participate in this new era of struggle. They went to the streets to demand not only an end to police violence, but to the entire system of racialized injustices it represented. This fact alone was evidenced by well enough by the numerical enormity of the protests—turnouts so large that they made the events surrounding Ferguson in 2014, once the darkest nadir of contemporary racial violence, seem, in comparison, like quaint outburst of isolated discontent.

Several hundred people had gathered on the grass and the sidewalk before the St. Augustine Police Department, straight across from Carmelos’ gas station. Ron Rawls, a local black pastor known for social work and radical invective, had convened the beginning of a protest. Cars passing would honk in support or, invariably, a driver, usually in a pickup truck, would yell out that All Lives Matter or that White Lives Matter Too, their irate voice drifting off as they drove off and then fading into the noise of revving trucks and exhausts. 

We’ve been tired, the pastor began, on one of the thunderous speeches for which he’d become notorious. We’re tired of asking for permission. Tired of having you tell us for reform. Tired of being told to protest the “right way.”

It was the exact type of monologue for which Rawls would attain a villainous aura within the towns crustiest racist families, or the church congregations which morphed into de facto white supremacist sleeper cells after segregation. “The local terrorist,” they’d call him in vivacious Facebook pages, portraying him as the devil incarnate in dozens of memes. The ugly truth, they railed, was that was in fact the leader of the “Klan with a Tan.”

BLM still burned with intensity not dissimilar to the summer heat we were enduring. Everyone was posting about it on social media. Police were still shooting peoples eyeballs out with rubber bullets, suffocating them with teargas—protesters were smashing the windows of police cruisers, dousing them with kerosine, spray-painting them with ACAB and Fuck 12, watching with gratifications as they set fire to the vehicles and as the vehicles were then consumed by bright orange licks of flames. The narcotic rush of protests still pulsed through our collective veins as a society, dominating our conversations, haunting our thoughts. And it was in this context that, after the speech-giving finished, we marched.

It was the first of several times that summer that, in an exhilarating act of collective civil disobedience, we marched away from downtown, across the bridge over the marshy offshoot of the Inter-coastal Waterway, to block off US 1, a four-lane highway forming the backbone of St. Augustine. From there, we made our way south on the highway where it straddled the furthest edge of the West King neighborhood. The highway is more than just a thoroughfare for many people. It’s a geographical divide severing the affluent tourist areas for which the town is famous and the blacks displaced as a result of efforts to make it that way. The majority of the black population had been pushed after the last decade  of gentrification out-priced and then shoved (“evicted” would be a better word, in a literal and metaphorical sense) out of Lincolnville, the historic black neighborhood they’d inhabited since the Civil Wars terminus. Both predatory housing policies and an influx of affluent whites over the course of those years drove them to live in the isolated rural woods spread out on the neglected straits of town. 

As the caravan of protesters approached US 1, two truckloads of St. John’s County Sheriffs came skidding into the intersection, a squad of helmeted officers with vests, assault rifles, and tactical gear waiting in each of the truck-beds. Perhaps they saw us, as many historians have pointed out, through the same lens with which GI’s saw insurgents in the Middle East—as potential threats needing neutralization. As enemies in conflict. St. Johns County Sheriff has more notoriety for violence than St. Augustine police, charged as they are with patrolling the black and poor predominant West King neighborhoods than their city counterparts, whose jurisdiction is thronged by tourists.

Later, we’d see these Special Operations looking officers parked in hiding behind buildings off the highway. Counter-protester attempted to start fights on several occasions, and drivers from the opposite direction of the highway, opened to traffic after we turned back, unleashed an artillery barrage of profanities as they drove past us. At the intersection where we turned around, wordless officers watched us with stony gazes, their brows beaded with sweat, their cruisers flashing red and blue with ominous silence in the bronze afternoon sun. 

Despite all of this, the crowd marching down the highway seemed electrified by a jovial air. Despite the blistering, sweat-drenching heat that’d leave us squelched of energy by the time we walked back home that evening, most of us could be said to be happy. Here was a moment in which the structural violence, met for decades with a smug and insulting silence, was, at long last, being called out and challenged in a moment of mass rage. Like taking a breath of air after an eternity of drowning—and here we all were, partaking in it. 

Over the course of the summer of riots, violence, peaceful protests and rage, close friends of mine and I—the ones with whom I went to BLM protests—would discuss the virtues of disobedience.

Our generation had inherited the rather blithe notion that reversing injustices could be achieved through the ritualistic bearing of sign on the sidewalk—though only where and when the police deemed acceptable—and by voting once every four years. Nothing beyond these rituals was considered necessary to affect social change. Anything else was either violence or overzealousness, usually some mix of both.

But hadn’t the only real change—we asked ourselves—ever come after riots? Hadn’t the question of police reform only come after—facing yet another extrajudicial state killing by a cop,—residents burned down much of Ferguson, Missouri? And hadn’t the illusions of reform—promising as they may have seemed—only been shattered and replaced by visions of abolition after Minneapolis residents burned down a police precinct in the wake of another such killing? After the country was jolted by a shocking summer of protests, a campaign of violence between people and the press, on the one hand, and police and vigilantes on the other? 

On countless evenings driving home from protests, and then later, watching the almost inevitable footage of police violence that streamed in from around the country, we began fleshing out own loose philosophy on the matter. Was it not true that Dr. King, in the last months before his assassination that’s been clipped from public knowledge, had referred to a riot as “the cry of the unheard”?

You don’t have to hurt people—ideally, hopefully, you shouldn’t ever have to. But we came to the conclusion that change can’t be made by staying on the sidewalk. You don’t have to hurt people. But you have to, at the bare minimum, be willing to step out into the street and stop traffic. 

The afternoon in Jacksonville was steely white and rainy. The rain began not long after the BLM march around downtown rounded out back in front of the courthouse, a thin, fine mist that veiled the horizon all around in a narcotic diffuse of hazy white—withdrawing the universe into a white, watery plane. Some of the crowd, tired, began to disperse. But a large number of the protesters, the restless, young, ones, at least several hundred people still smoldering with anger, lingered on. As we walked back to the dirt parking lot nearest the courthouse, we noticed a squad of police cruisers, without any seeming rationale, returning to the site of the protests. It was then that we saw them, chanting their way down the street again. After a brief exchange of glances, the words almost unnecessary, we rushed back from the truck to join them. It soon became clear that this gathering was impromptu and spontaneous, in no way the result of official BLM planning. And it became clear that we weren’t going on a standard marching route. Instead, we were going straight to the police station. 

They were following us, of course. Marching past each intersection on the even gridding of downtown Jacksonville’s streets, soon going at breakneck pace, we would see a succession of cruisers shadowing us at our own speed, the effect being that we felt we were playing a game of Cat-and-Mouse with the city police. 

The shouts became throatier, people’s voices rasping and cracking with anger. 

“Say her Name! (Breona Taylor!)”

“Say his Name! (George Floyd!)”

One of the the more iconic exhortations: “Hands up! (Don’t Shoot!)” 

The misty rain had by now intensified to a downpour. By the time we reached the steps of the police station, across from the steely expanse of the St. John’s River where it passed through downtown, our clothes were heavy with water, hair pasted to water-beaded foreheads. But none of us seemed to care.

IT felt, in one sense, like a breath of fresh air. For the first time in recent memory we had a mass movement in which the explicit expression of solidarity with people whose experiences almost the exact opposite of our own had become mainstream. Movements for social justice had existed since the great upheavals of the 60s—Occupy Wall Street, the anti-Iraq War movement, the Global Justice Movement and the anti-Nuclear movement are a few noble examples. But save the Iraq example, the US iteration of most of them had at best consisted of a strong minority within the barren landscape of our indifferent political culture. Now it was different. Twenty million people had taken to the street to defy the violence of racialized policing and the savage inequalities of the economic system it upheld. New consciousnesses were being born. History seemed to be releasing the pressure of decades of suppressed rage in a long, furious howl. That howl sounded a lot like Breona Taylor’s name being shouted in unison in that steely Floria rainstorm along the St. John’s River waterfront.

We made it to the steps of the police station. All around, along each street, lay a succession of cruisers, their lights blazing in a chaos of blue and red—at least twenty of them surrounding us, when we counted. The whole militia had shown up, we said. We laid down on the street to the entrance of the multi-story police station, for nine minutes, the period of time it took for George Floyd to be suffocated to death under Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee. As people began rising from the soaking wet pavement again, whispers could be heard, urgent rumors that the police were closing in, at the cusp of firing teargas at us. 

Marching back along the riverfront later, we’d see older people gazing down from the balconies of luxury riverfront apartments. It wouldn’t have been hard to guess what sort of grim lamentations, for those with a conservative bent, were saying about us: that we were protesting the cops who were there to protect us, that we didn’t know what we were doing.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, in my way, I had been up on that balcony six years ago. But I had changed. Catching a brief glance of my friend to my left—a combat veteran with leftist sensibilities—I looked back to the street and joined the chant. I’d gone a lot in six years: I knew where I was meant to be.

At a counterprotest against white supremacists in St. Augustine this past August, we, the members of Black Lives Matter, found ourselves confronted and outnumbered by the Proud Boys. Several prominent conservative activists had organized a demonstration to stop the impending removal of the Confederate Monument, as per the recent vote of the city commission after three years of repeated protests. They lost on that front—the monument was moved several weeks later.  But where they did succeed was in rallying forth from the dusty backwoods  a gamut of proto-fascist militiamen—the Proud Boys, Bikers for 45, Three Percenters, racists galore. 

The girl running the protest—with whom I would become close, and who would be arrested after a confrontation with a fascist in rural Florida—was approached by a mustachioed member of Bikers for 45. 

“I don’t like your beliefs. But I’m not here to hurt you,” he said. He guested over to the Proud Boys. “But they are.”

Looking out over the the socio-political landscape nowadays can feel a bit like raising your head up from the trenches and contemplated a dark, shell-blasted no-man’s land. Joe Biden, the amnesiac serial groper with whom our hope of defeating 21st century fascism has been entrusted,  decided the best Vice Presidential candidate he could muster amid a new civil rights movement against police violence was California’s “Top Cop,” a law enforcement hardliner whose claim to fame was that she was proud to incarcerate single mothers. A week from when I first finished this draft, the cop who killed Breona Taylor was indicted on wanton endangerment charges—not for killing the innocent woman in her bed, but for the bullets that hit her neighbors apartment. The riots continue in the streets, and there looks to be little immediate end in sight. The struggle for justice will be long.

Author: jared8796

Jared Olson is a writer, freelance journalist, and former Pulitzer Center grantee with a current focus on the struggle for justice in Central America.

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