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Which Side Are You On?

It's the people versus the cops. You have to choose.

There is a tendency, when big things happen, to try and complicate them. Very smart people line up to remind us that the world is messy, that there are layers and angles and shades of gray we might not be thinking about, that to create basic moral dichotomies is pat and juvenile.

Well, something very big is happening right now. The past week will be in the history books. It will reverberate for who knows how long. And sure enough, we have been awash in attempts to second-guess and question and problematize things. You’ve seen all of the different conversations. The message of the protests is getting destroyed! People have legitimate grievances but this is not the way! There are outside agitators instigating things! 

What is happening is obviously complicated: The country has been cracked wide open and a lot is pouring out.  But the way we think about it should not be complicated at all. The situation is actually very simple — America is a very, very fucked up place.

People have had it. They are rising up. The police are terrorizing them in response. The people are right. The police are the enemy. That’s it.

It takes a staggering amount of state-sponsored violence—physical, mental, spiritual violence—to keep America humming along for white people and rich people. White supremacy is violence. Poverty is violence. Lack of healthcare is violence. Prisons are violence. Mass surveillance and climate change and ICE — violence, violence, violence. And along with it all, poisonous and very, very violent, the police.

Americans are used to this. Many people are able to ignore most of the ills that plague us from day to day. Many others are able to reap the benefits those ills provide. Society does not fall apart. But that doesn’t mean the violence is not there. Sometimes all of this becomes too much to contain, and something breaks. That’s where we are now.

We are still in the midst of a pandemic. 40 million people have lost their jobs since March. Politicians and bosses are tossing workers onto the fire to stoke the engine of capitalism. The pain being meted out to black people is off the charts. The pandemic has battered black people with hurricane force and left white people relatively unscathed—a reality exacerbated by government indifference and neglect. Black people are at the center of the economic carnage in America. Armed white protesters are having a great time, and black people are still getting killed by police on camera for the crime of existing in the universe.

When Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, something broke. Now we are witnessing an avalanche of rebellion. The breadth and depth of the resistance (not to be confused with the empty liberal kind) on display this week has been awe-inspiring and beautiful. People are coming back, day after day, night after night, in their thousands, refusing to be cowed. The White House turned its lights off! There are NYPD cars burning all over New York! Protesters took an entire police precinct down! It’s incredible, and, despite much of the nonsense being thrown around, all the available evidence shows that these are homegrown protests being waged by people who are simply tired of the shit they are supposed to take every day.

Are there some bad people using what is happening for their own sick ends? Are there people trying to hijack things? Will some of the destruction we’re seeing have negative consequences? Is everything not exactly as one would wish it to be? Without a doubt. This is an explosion, and a lot of things fly around in an explosion. But that does not, at its heart, complicate much of anything.

How anyone could witness what police are doing in this country right now and still come away with the notion that this is a fundamentally complicated moral situation is beyond understanding. Cops in cities across America are waging an unending campaign of terror against protesters. Pick any city at random and you will see cops who are completely out of control, systematically escalating things and then going on a rampage. Look at this Twitter thread, an endless compendium of nationwide police violence over the past few days.

Police are attacking elected officials. They’re attacking journalists on camera. New York police went after Bill de Blasio’s own daughter on Sunday night. The message is clear: Cops are telling us that there are no limits to their power, that they are accountable to nobody but themselves, and that they will wage war on the people they are supposedly tasked with protecting rather than give up even a millimeter of their authority.

The police have always been the enforcers and the beneficiaries of our most reactionary hierarchies. But this week has reinforced the essential point that they are a cancer that must be excised if there is ever to be anything like real peace and justice in the United States. There is no amount of kneeling officers that will turn the cops into something they are not. There is no “reform” that will work. Anyone who clings to the fantasy that you can have justice and police at the same time is deluding themselves. Anyone who looks at the systematic brutality police are meting out and does not fully side with the people standing up to them—yes, even if sometimes things take a turn you don’t like—is disgracing themselves.

What’s happening now is also an indictment of the notion that our political system has any legitimacy left whatsoever.

Donald Trump is, naturally, behaving like the vile fascist he is in response to the uprisings. But I want to focus on the Democrats. There are eminent people cautioning us to hold off on comparing the flames of 2020 to the flames of 1968. But one thing that seems strikingly similar is that both moments exposed the completely bankrupt nature of the Democratic Party—and, more importantly, the role the Democrats play in upholding the brutality of the system people are fighting in the streets.

The overriding message from the party in response to the past week has been “vote.” It’s as pathetic as it is insidious. Minneapolis. New York. Boston. Chicago. Los Angeles. DC. Portland. Philadelphia. These are not citadels of Trump country. They are Democratic bastions, all run by supposedly “progressive” mayors who said the right words — systemic racism, even that Black Lives Matter — and told people that the way for things to improve was to vote them into office.

And yet now that the time has come to make good on those promises, all of these places have been overtaken by a tidal wave of police cruelty with the full backing of these politicians. Cities that reeled at the task of providing hospitals with personal protective equipment have a seemingly endless supply of military-grade weaponry to use on their own citizens. The mayor of Los Angeles shut down COVID-19 testing centers as a way of punishing protesters. The mayor of Chicago shut down the city’s school meal distribution program.

In New York City, Bill de Blasio—a man who is only in power because he deployed his black son in commercials about police racism—has shrugged off videos of NYPD officers driving cars through crowds of protesters, or tearing a black protester’s mask off and pepper-spraying him with no provocation. He has compared the people fighting police to white supremacists. He has praised the cops for their “restraint.”

Though some Democrats in Congress are making modest noises about reform, there is no apparent urgency or desire from the national leadership to do anything at all about what is going on. The Democratic nominee for president—who, in an unfortunate coincidence, happens to be one of the chief architects of our modern criminal justice nightmare—put out a statement over the weekend attacking protesters and literally not mentioning the frenzy of nationwide police violence at all. Today, he proposed that police being rushed by “an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something” should shoot their attackers in the leg, not the heart. Revolutionary stuff.

What message are people supposed to take from this except that the system as it is presently constituted is useless, and does not deserve a shred of the reverence that politicians are demanding right now? Anyone who tells people to reel it in, to work through the proper channels, to watch what they do in case it makes Joe Biden lose, should remember that. No successful movement for social change in America has ever received the approval and consent of the political or media establishment; this is no different.

Nobody knows where this thing is headed. Everything feels overwhelming and surreal. But we cannot lose sight of the basic moral truth at the center of the past week’s events. There is one side fighting for a better society. There is another side trying to crush that fight. When you sift through all of the supposed complications, all the back and forth, that basic truth is what remains. Either you side with the people, or you side with the cops. Nothing else matters.

Screenshot: AFP