Monday, June 1, 2020

What is going to Happen?

First came Donald Trump. Then the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by economic collapse. Then George Floyd’s unspeakable murder, followed by mass demonstrations and civil unrest across the entire country (and even internationally).

The list of crises afflicting this country never stops. Are we cursed?

I have always felt that I am able to put major events in some sort of perspective, able to give them some meaning. But right now, I am unable to do this. My mind is buzzing with questions, but I have zero answers, zero predictions. The only thing which I do see is that America is facing mounting challenges.

Until George Floyd’s murder on May 25, this country was “only” facing the triple threat of the pandemic, economic collapse, and “Rightism.” This triad is discussed brilliantly by Abram de Swaan in the Dutch weekly De Groene (May 6, 2020). The author assesses the three major crises faced by the Western democracies at this time: The pandemic, the ensuing economic collapse, and the emergence of right-wing, authoritarian, populism in many countries. (See Abram de Swaan)

Then, a new crisis took over. The massive nationwide protest against police brutality and institutional racism - the “Black Lives Matter” movement - literally replaced the Covid-19 crisis. Since May 25, you can channel surf the news and look for the latest on the pandemic in vain, as MSNBC, CNN and the other media focus almost exclusively on the mass demonstrations. It is as if the pandemic were over. Very strange.

The mass protests are understandable and utterly justified. At the same time, I must raise some questions: For one thing, the phenomenon cannot be dissociated from the Covid-19 crisis. The cumulative effect of the pandemic, obligatory social distancing and home confinement, economic collapse, all this has put enormous stress on the population. Earlier cases of police mayhem did not lead to such widespread public outrage.

And then, we see displays of both admirable and objectionable behavior - both love and nihilism: A beefy white sheriff hugs a young black demonstrator; cops kneeling down with protesters, volunteers cleaning up the mess caused by looters the previous night...

Unfortunately,, many of the marches have degenerated into the ugly and counterproductive side of such events: Looting and burning down businesses, most often owned by people of color themselves, destroying the very neighborhoods where the most frequent victims of police brutality live, and where most of the dying occurs when violence erupts. The economy, which was already on its back, will suffer even more, as will unemployment and the plight of the poor.

Additionally, the mass gatherings will undoubtedly aggravate the pandemic. America already has the highest rate of infection of ANY country in the world, and this is likely to become more so.

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Sociologists have developed taxonomies for collective behavior such as riots, studying for example the urban conflicts of the turbulent 1960s. Ralph Conant distinguishes between four consecutive phases: (1): precipitating incident; (2): Confrontation; (3): Roman Holiday and: (4) Siege. (See Conant).

Such concepts seem applicable to outbursts like the Watts riot (1965, 34 deaths) and the Rodney King riot (1992, 63 deaths), and now maybe to the reaction to the George Floyd murder. This was, obviously, the event which precipitated the current civil unrest (phase #1). There followed confrontation (phase #2) between the protesters and the authorities. Then, especially at night, looting, burning, and a sense of euphoria took possession of at least some elements (#phase #3; Roman Holiday), and finally, the authorities can be expected to prevail as they besiege the demonstrators (phase #4).

In most cases, civil unrest ends up being repressed by the government, unless the violent revolution succeeds in overthrowing that government. The government is society’s ultimate power holder, and that power is carried out primarily by the military. A riot ends when the government brings the hammer down.

It is not clear to me whether history repeats itself or not. Nor do I wish to debate this here.

The protest and civil unrest of the past few days differ from such events as Watts and Rodney King in that they are nationwide. On the other hand, the anti-war and civil rights mass movement of the 1960s was nationwide as well. Because the current civil unrest is nationwide, one could expect the government’s response to also be nationwide, i.e. declare martial law, involve the armed forces, etc.

To be sure, the posse comitatus act forbids the use of federal military forces to enforce domestic policies, which is why this job is relegated to the national guards. However, laws can be suspended. A more “dictatorial” response is always a possibility, especially when the leadership is authoritarian. Such a response is a logical possibility, but an  improbable one.

For now, I want to exclude from serious consideration a right-wing Coup d’Etat, as well as a left-wing revolution. America has never experienced either of these.

* * * * * * *

So then, what?

One of the most striking aspects of the present situation is the utter absence of any organized response from the federal government. Not only has it failed to provide any effective response, it has actually been almost 100% SILENT. Is this the silence before the storm? Before the hammer of repression is brought down?

To be sure, there has been almost zero bloodshed so far among the protesters. Even so, I cannot remember one instance in history when the continued break-down of law and order is tolerated by a country’s central government. Sooner or later, the hammer comes down.

 And when it does, it does so with a vengeance. Especially when the country is run by a right-wing racist demagogue. Sooner or later, those who have power use it.

* * * * * * *

Now consider the demonstrators’ aims: Their objectives include police reform and the abolition of institutional racism - in other words wholesale societal reform. Police reform must of course be far more than merely “better police training.” The police attracts authoritarian personalities. It is a subculture with distinct (authoritarian and often racist) values. It sees itself at war with the community. Every citizen is viewed as a suspect, as a potential thief and a liar. I base these generalizations on many years of professional experience. I was a professor of criminal justice, I have ridden along with cops innumerable times, and I taught at the California State Prison in Vacaville.

Even more daunting is the protesters’ goal of “making America non-racist.” Is this even possible, in the foreseeable future?

Looking at world history, the far more likely outcome is a repressive counter-revolution of unprecedented magnitude - the sort of military coup d’etat alluded to earlier. That is what has usually happened in most other countries.

The current civil unrest fortifies Trump’s support. It increases tribal polarization. Remember that whites remain the largest tribe by far, still accounting for over two-thirds of the population. Even if millions of whites join the fight for social justice, a majority of them will either react in a reactionary fashion, or remain silent.

* * * * * * *

But maybe not. Maybe we shall not follow historical precedent. Maybe something else will happen.

I don’t know how the country can move forward in the right direction, but I do know one thing: In order for anything good to come out of the present situation, the first and most essential ingredient is NEW LEADERSHIP. There is, currently in America, no leadership.

Throughout history, crises have usually produced new vigorous and capable leaders. Many of them were great. The crisis of slavery brought forth Abraham Lincoln; The Great Depression brought forth Franklin Roosevelt; Winston Churchill emerged during Britain’s darkest hour; out of the endless civil wars in ancient Rome rose great leaders such as Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus; Sometimes, turmoil produced a great man who went astray, as the French Revolution produced Napoleon. Sometimes, crisis produced a monster, as Germany’s economic and political problems produced Hitler. In every instance, turmoil and crisis produced new leadership. Currently, America does not have anything worthy of that label. The question is: what kind of new leadership awaits us in the near future?

With every approaching election, pundits harangue us about the importance of voting, warning us that our lives depend on the election’s outcome, etc. ad nauseam. But you know what? This time, it’s absolutely true!

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

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