Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Blood on the Water

It’s hard to look and listen now, to see what’s really happening. When much of the country is engulfed in protests and rioting, and Americans are dying every day from a pandemic, it’s tough acknowledge that we have a real problem, and it’s not enough for people to sit down, shut up and go back to normal.

Shit needs to get fixed. That starts with seeing that it’s broken. It’s no fun. I don’t like it either. I feel baffled and helpless. I’m not an elected official or a police officer or a prosecutor. A part of me feels like, as long as I refrain from calling the police on black birdwatchers, maybe I’ve done my part.

I don’t know what my part is, but reading Blood on the Water made a few things clear.

  1. The biggest mistake people make is to assume that protests happen for no good reason. During the Attica uprising,  the commissioner of New York State’s corrections system was a newly appointed liberal reformer, Russell Oswald. Curiously, though he accepted that many of the prisoners’ demands were reasonable, Oswald persisted in believing that the Attica uprising was somehow motivated by bad faith — by politicized outsiders from the West Coast, rather than by the daily experiences of the prison population. To me the moral is, when you see a protest, don’t immediately think it’s led by people who don’t know or care about the issue at hand, or who are somehow cynically “taking advantage” of the situation to advance an agenda. Assume that, yup, things are bad, and people’s distress is real.
  2. Know that this concerns you, even if it’s not happening in your neighborhood, or to anyone you know. We’re all Americans. Unless you leave the country, you can’t move somewhere where race and inequality don’t matter.
  3. People are worthy of compassion, no matter what their condition, beliefs or past actions. Conditions in American prisons are still awful. In the fiendish case of Attica, when the prison was re-taken, COs smashed the prisoners’ glasses and dentures, and they were never replaced. Think for a moment what that means: You can’t see or eat for years. It’s easy to dismiss prisoners’ grievances by saying they’re lawbreakers and they deserve what they get. But the next time you crack a joke about prison rape, or say casually that undocumented immigrants are breaking the law, remember that the Constitution promises freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and that we’re all children of God.
  4. Take it as a premise that people aren’t monstrous or evil. They want to love and be loved, and to have meaningful work and a chance to thrive and find happiness. When you start telling yourself fictions about how people are lazy and don’t want to work, or they’re wicked and conspiring to destroy the country, that’s another way to pretend like nothing is happening, and you don’t have to care.
  5. It’s incredibly frustrating to be told to wait and be patient, that now’s not your time, that there’s just a few more years of shit to swallow, and once things get back to normal and we’re all prosperous and happy again, then we can start to think about handing out civil rights. This tends to be a Democratic party trick. Hey, vote for this moderate guy. He’ll bring things back to normal, and then we can sit down and take a look at whether there’s really a police brutality problem, or if it’s just your imagination. Gays and women got a big round of this in early 2020. Hey, yeah, I know the whole Anita Hill thing was a bummer, but Joe Biden’s a nice guy, and he’s never actually raped anyone, so shut up and vote for him so things can get back to normal. You want that, right? Normal. The way things were back in the good old days.

When I write these points, I’m lecturing myself. Because I don’t want to see. I don’t know how I can help, and I don’t fully understand the problem.

And none of the points above provides a policy solution. They’re all just ways of forcing myself to see that there is a problem, and that it concerns me. The problem isn’t the protests. It’s the long, painful history of injustice: Guns and clubs and dogs turned on citizens, our brothers and sisters.

Blood on the water.

As of 5/30:

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 19,255

Current hospitalizations: 975

Deaths: 903

 

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