This year of our Lord, 2020, shall be remembered for so many things—if any of us lives to tell about it. The year that the stock market did shit you only see it do in Jimmy Stewart movies. The year a pandemic leapt out of the pages of a Max Brooks novel and took us all by the throat. The year the economy was like, “Oh, so you thought the 1930s were a grim period for the average American? Hold my beer.” The year we all—black, brown, indigenous, white, raspberry, and chartreuse—got up off our couches, screamed “Fuck the police!” as one, and took to the streets for justice because Jesus tapdancing Christ, enough already.
And the people haven’t stopped marching yet. I saw footage of a protest in Belgium. Do you understand how real things have to get in this country for people in Belgium to be like, “Well, that’s it. Put your shoes on, because we’re going to the streets this minute. And we’re not coming home until we fuck up that statue of King Leopold II, so pack your paintball guns and some chainsaws.”
George Floyd will be remembered as a pivotal blood sacrifice (in the series of them, because even now our police cannot stop murdering black people) for a cause that is bigger than any one man or any one country. It’s all tied together—the desperate fight for human rights, the screams of the melting planet, the implosion of an unsustainable capitalist world order, the ever mounting death tolls of selfish, nationalist approaches to disease and disenfranchisement.
It is as if Yahweh himself peered down from the heavens and mused, “You know, I don’t have patience for this bullshit. Go ahead and let’s unroll that whole scroll of Revelations in the next ninety days.”
The experience of being a wide-eyed citizen these days goes in waves. There are moments of profound hope and elation, and moments of deep, grueling existential dread and grief. Tears flow freely. Sleep is an elusive refuge. We’ve eclipsed fear and loathing, and have now reached the point of epistemological crisis.
Cornel West summed it up brilliantly in The Guardian this month:
The four catastrophes Martin Luther King Jr warned us about – militarism (in Asia, Africa and the Middle East), poverty (at record levels), materialism (with narcissistic addictions to money, fame and spectacle) and racism (against black and indigenous people, Muslims, Jews and non-white immigrants) – have laid bare the organised hatred, greed and corruption in the country. The killing machine of the US military here and abroad has lost its authority. The profit-driven capitalist economy has lost its glow. And the glitz of the market-driven culture (including media and education) are more and more hollow.
The fundamental question at this moment is: can this failed social experiment be reformed?Cornel West, A Boot is Crushing the Neck of American Democracy
To be an American, at least for me, is to live perpetually within these four catastrophes, because they are inherently woven together not just in this present moment, but in the original fabric of our society. The Constitution may be a beautiful idea of what this nation could and should be, but as Langston Hughes accurately proclaimed, its values have yet to be realized: this nation is first and foremost a lie built on stolen land, realized by slave labor and existent by environmental exploitation.
Giving his final eulogy for George Floyd, Al Sharpton remarked on the origins of his own surname (his great grandfather was a slave owned by a white man named Sharpton) and concluded, “That is how deep race is. Every time I write my name, I’m writing American history of what happened to my people.”
It is that deep. That’s why it’s not simply a matter of white people getting woke or Congress making chokeholds illegal. It’s not simply a matter of passing another stimulus package or voting in a different President. It’s not simply a matter of finding a vaccine or stocking enough PPE. It’s not simply a matter of reducing carbon emissions by a fixed percentage or rinsing the microplastics out of the sea. We have to do all of that—and then do more, and then keep doing it, all of us.
This moment is a reckoning about all that we have done, and failed to do, with the promise of our intellect—as a species.
This reckoning is to determine not only if we humans will survive this moment in history, but whether or not we deserve to.
Look no further than the packed restaurant patios, where brunching onlookers can Snapchat videos of passing protests, ignorantly believing they somehow have the choice to sit this one out. Whether you march or not, we are all on this same earth, and that earth has an expiration date that only our united efforts can deter.
Acknowledging the scope of this moment, and admitting the severity of the consequences if we fail to rise to the occasion, is a feat that our own amygdalae will work to undermine at every turn. The human brain does not like to stay suspended in fight or flight mode for as long as these convergent crises have continued to accelerate in the U.S. But we have to see this for what it is, we have to evolve beyond our conditioning, and we have to act accordingly, because there will be a point where nature will proceed, with or without us.
All those bottomless brunches are dust in the wind, my dudes. Those fallen statues of slaveholders are fated, either by our will or as a result of our extinction, to become indeterminate lumps of stone: purchase points for lichens, a place where a crow can come and peck its seeds apart, oblivious to why they were felled or who felled them.
America may well be a failed experiment past the point of salvation, but we are also the canary in the coal mine. No social contract authored in the blood of oppression can endure, here or elsewhere. That’s why people took to the streets in Belgium, and why people are still taking to the streets elsewhere across this vast and marvelous planet that is our shared and only home. We are all on the brink of extinction. Only when we open our eyes to see that, and see one another, will we have any chance to successfully realize the true value of racial justice, the true value of human rights, the true value of this tremendous planet we live on, and the true value of peace in our time.