Beginning the afternoon of June 2nd, 2020, with a triple mask to protect myself from the transmission of the coronavirus, I joined the protests for social justice and racial equality in downtown Atlanta—protests held concurrently with those in dozens of cities and towns across the US, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25th, 2020.
In contrast to the widespread media attention to vandalism and looting connected to the protests, the demonstrations in downtown Atlanta have been entirely non-violent—tens of thousands of people marching, chanting, shouting in disciplined outrage, in grief, in determination. I have attended countless protests over the last forty years—opposing US wars in the Middle East, opposing the Israeli occupation, opposing police violence, opposing the death penalty, supporting organized labor, supporting the power of women to create change, supporting LGBTQ+ communities, supporting the removal of corrupt politicians like Donald Trump—and it is precisely this tradition of democratic protest that is propelling the uprisings in Atlanta. I have every reason to believe the same is true across the US.
Tear gas is a weapon of war prohibited by numerous international treaties, but widely used by police departments against civilians. Social media has been teeming with examples of police brutality in response to protests against police brutality, most notoriously the use of tear gas to clear demonstrations in front of the White House to allow Donald Trump to create propaganda photographs of himself posing with a grimace and a bible in front of a church—a farcical-if-it-wasn't-so-serious return of the ancient idea of the divine right of kings. Police brutality against protesters appeared also in Atlanta. Moments before I made the picture immediately above, after a few minutes of stony confrontation with protesters, the police put on their gas masks. To be clear: by “police” I mean soldiers, armed with automatic weapons, tanks and all the weapons of urban combat. To shouts of “Get ready, they’re gassing us!” the protesters retreated, and then returned to the police line, many defiantly taking a knee or two knees in response to the imminent violent attack on non-violent protesters. (None of the police in Atlanta took a knee, as police in other cities have done.) A few minutes later, the police detonated two tear gas bombs and began firing rubber bullets at the unarmed crowd.
By stressing the non-violent character of this resistance, I do not mean to deny the existence of militant voices on the left that want armed conflict with the police, or the existence of people so fed up with the predatory realities of state power against black- and brown-skinned people that they are willing to see their cities burn if this is what change requires, or the existence of people who smash and steal for kicks. (It is also not to minimize the existence of disguised white supremacists marauding to induce civil war.) But wanton destruction is not progressive politics, and it is the progressive left that is driving the moment.
Two things seem to me to be characterizing this evolving moment, and its evolving movement. First, many others are joining Black Americans on the front lines, across race and ethnicity, non-Black people joining with Black people to break one of the pillars of white privilege, namely the freedom not to listen. In the logic of American racial privilege—which I think is one form of majoritarian entitlement more universally—if you are not one of the people being targeted, you are free to ignore the realities of those who are targeted, or free to listen on your terms, when it moves you to listen, and then return to the luxury of not listening. Being free not to listen means being free not to respond, and being free not to respond means being free from responsibility (the English language itself makes the connection for us: to respond is precisely to become responsible). It seems to me that these protests are re-seeding the powerful message that Black pain is not only a Black problem. It implicates us all.
This message is of course not new—it was central to the mission of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-1960s. Many white Americans absorbed this lesson to a certain extent. In my family, for instance—I grew up in a Jewish family in California in the 1970s-1980s—the struggle for social justice, and the lasting peace that is made from justice, was the defining ideal, a Jewish ideal that found resonance in the language of the American Declaration of Independence. In my childhood, the face of this ideal was undoubtedly Black. If the story of the Exodus was our deep mythic home as Jews, the Movement made the myth real. But the privileges of white America had already descended, and it wasn't urgent or even necessary to follow the persistent forms of systemic racism, or the new forms which were a backlash against the Movement's gains—militarization of the police, ever increasing police brutality and ever increasing political impunity, the drastic expansion of the prison system, overtly racist sentencing protocols, not to mention the "war on drugs," which was plainly a cover for a war on Black men. Growing up, I didn't register these aspects of the struggle. I didn't need to register them.
And this brings me to the second point about these demonstrations: overwhelmingly the participants are young. Those who are non-Black have learned to listen, to see, to respond better than their parents and grandparents, better than I learned at their age, probably better than I have learned altogether. If in the traditional consciousness, Black pain is not everyone's pain—and its corollary in an anti-Black society, that Black wisdom is a surplus good for non-Black people, something non-Black people are free to regard and disregard, forcing onto the Black community the double burden of victim and teacher—if all of this is true, the traditional model is exactly what many protesters have already gotten beyond. In their youth, the alliance of Black and non-Black demonstrators is showing what the future of progressive consciousness looks like, and they are doing it through the language of demand, without which, as Frederick Douglass famously observed in 1857, power concedes nothing.
My friend, the Atlanta-based artist and activist Carlton Mackey, sent me an anguished and beautiful letter yesterday. Carlton has a background in the church, and he always brings a religiously-inflected voice to issues of social justice. He's best known for his project, "Black Men Smile," which takes an ingeniously direct approach to rewiring stereotypes about Black men: https://blackmensmile.com/.
In his letter, Carlton likens the average white American to the three police officers who watched George Floyd's murder, and did nothing to stop it. They were horrified (to give them the benefit of the doubt) but petrified, immobilized by fear of stepping forward, fear of the consequences to their own position, status, identity. Carlton writes: "The average white person is certainly afraid of making a mistake in the process of doing the right thing...and so you stand there. And we die." And he continues: "Today Black people have collectively found you guilty as the one who has their knee on our neck... Today Black people don't want to hug your neck and say we know YOU didn't do it, and we understand how tough of a position your racist friend or parent or partner or company or history in general put you in. Today Black people are saying we don't trust you. We don't trust that your concern is greater than your fear."
Carlton is a man who has devoted his life to dialogue and reconciliation and teaching. He is a fighter and a seeker and a mensch. He has devoted his enormous personal gifts to the very hope that recent days have drained from him—and even without trust, he still signs his letter "With Love." Today, the weight of his own heart is too much for him to bear. He is moved to put down the burden, put it down right at our feet, my feet, point to it and ask—what next? In response, I ask myself: how to accept the centuries of the broken trust for what it is, the fatigue, the despair, the rage, how to accept the enduring historical trauma rolling down through the centuries, how to accept it without false promises and also without shirking the new promises that are exactly what ending white supremacy requires? To speak in American terms, how to get from where we are to the "more perfect union" that the Declaration of Independence wants for us?
I don't know the answers to these questions. I too am searching. I can only hold up Carlton in my own heart, accept the tears that his words bring. They are tears that, for me, mingle with memories of the hundreds of death pits I have stood over in eastern Europe in the last twenty-five years, where millions of Jews and others were murdered in the Nazi race war, which for awhile ran parallel to the American race war. I don't have answers. When I go into the street with my camera, I follow what I see (accepting that we do not see things as they are, but rather as we are, to paraphrase the Talmud). And what I see is the beginning of a new generation of burden sharing. The ancient weight of Isaiah's demand—"to unlock the shackles of wickedness... to set free those who are smashed and shattered, to break every yoke"—is not on Black people, or Latinos, or Asian Americans, or Muslims or Jews or anyone else targeted by hate. The burden is on everyone, each carrying our own share.
It seems to me that what distinguishes revolt from revolution—what pushes revolt past rage and what keeps "reform" from becoming just another form of brittle and ultimately repressive orthodoxy—is a revolution's capacity for spiritual invention. Part of this invention resides in narrative, in retelling the story and reframing the terms of the story. In the photograph immediately above, which I made on June 6th next to Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, the large digital billboard reading "Black Lives Matter" had only two days before blared city's curfew fiat at demonstrators, proclaiming that public free speech and non-violent action were limited in advance, after which the state would arrest and jail. In the middle of the day on June 6th, the curfew was suddenly revoked. The narrative had changed, not because the protests had changed, rather the movement for Black lives had very quickly broadened and deepened its hold on vast reaches of public consciousness. The reactive official response to the protests as destabilizing and threatening to what "really" matters—property—began to loosen.
But it seems to me that the process of controlling and reshaping the narrative depends on other things, things that are not themselves narrative, but poetic. Revolutions are not made of poems, but if a revolution fails to find its poetry, it falters. A revolution's poetry consists in its capacity to unfinish its work, to infuse unfulfilled dreams with necessity and durability. And in this regard, symbolism becomes central. The slogan "Black Lives Matter" is itself not only a message but a symbol of resistance to the barbarism of the American experience as so many Black Americans have lived it. The raised fist as a symbol of solidarity and unity is rapidly returning—first used a century ago by the Industrial Workers of the World, later used as an anti-fascist salute in the Spanish Civil War, prevalent in the May '68 revolts in Paris, and associated in the US with the Black Power movement. But the symbolism stands to go much further.
I see no reason not to demand an official apology from the US government for slavery, Jim Crow, and continued forms of oppression, dehumanization and normalized cruelty to Black Americans. I see no reason why this apology shouldn't be made into a national holiday on which the apology is renewed annually, in which millions around the country celebrate Black Americans publicly in marches and concerts and teach-ins. Within the structure of such symbolism, new practices stand to emerge that deepen the reshaping of the narrative.
I myself would like to see South African-style Truth and Reconciliation commissions in the US, through which the US can slowly continue the hard work of transitioning to a full and free democracy. In my mind, it is exactly through sustained public hearings that wider and wider cross-sections of the US will come to understand what it means and has meant to be on the receiving end of a violence-prone, violence-laden society structured around normative whiteness. It is through sustained public hearings that the perspectives of the oppressed stand to move from the margins to the center—specifically American society's relentless capacity to produce Black misery, not least through the ubiquity of the police in Black communities, whose purpose is fundamentally to hold down the racial order which sees supervision, control and domination of blackness as a central task. (And of course it is not only Black misery that American society manufactures so well, but in this moment the Black experience emerges as the leading edge of a multifaceted system of oppression targeting many other groups and peoples also.) It is through sustained public hearings that arguments which have been at the fringes of the national conversation about race can move meaningfully toward the center—arguments for the demilitarization of the police, for the abolition of existing forms of policing, for reparations and a universal basic income for Black Americans, for free college education for Black students. The spillover effects immediately roll into view, especially concerning the urgent need for wealth redistribution broadly.
Eventually, as Jamelle Bouie writes in a searing recent essay in Slate, we come to the roots of the problem: "Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery." I would like to think that these images and so many others circulating now online and in social media are visual forms of a revolutionary poetry. Photography, after all, is not merely a technology for passively recording things. Just as much it's a tool of active imaginings, in this case a positive vision of dissent, radical fellowship and radical citizenship. And in these images, perhaps, are the small outer signs of a revolution in thinking and feeling that will prove as lasting as the Enlightenment's own revolutionary claims, which inspired the ideals of democracy that we collectively have so bitterly failed.
Atlanta, June 7th, 2020