Alone and inside in these first weeks of summer, I monitor the riot within myself. As one of the infirm, the immunocompromised, the quarantine and lockdown have not ended for me. When people first began to emerge from their homes, cautious, sleepy-eyed, and then bold and rambunctious, I did not feel envious of them. They were courting the virus as they cavorted in parks or guzzled down drinks from sweaty bottles on the patios of bars and taverns. I was happy in my refuge, surrounded by books and occupied with writing. I felt dread for them, for the vigor they felt they had earned by capitulating to a long sentence of solitude. I was still serving the sentence, but contentedly, with a circumspection that was surprising even to myself.
George Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests that have erupted all over the country, even the world, have changed that. We have watched the tableaux of torture that was Floyd’s death, the policeman-murderer a wolfish Grendel for our age, his “brutal, blood-caked claw” invisible yet omnipresent. His pack ensured that he would get his kill, and we saw them too, watching, ensuring that the morbid hunt would get its sordid public finale.
Everyone else—much like the polity brutalized by Grendel, that beast of old epics—cannot but gasp at what they have seen, what they know, and what course such knowledge entails. This is the moral burden of watching George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police. There is not one answer; the bravest and the youngest have taken to the streets, where they march, and sit, and lay prone, and march again, some forced to mourn the sudden death of their own American fantasy. In the heat, amid the asphalt, rubber bullets are aimed at their flesh, gases wring tears from their eyes; their paltry rags and masks cannot match the careful technologies of harm inflicted by guns and grenades.
All the same, I am envious of them. I too want to offer up my body as they have offered theirs, bone and sinew and flesh, all of it taunting the police, the National Guard, the military, with their refusal to be hurt as the protesters have been hurt. Against the evidence of such proudly rapacious injustice, this offering up of bodies appears to be the only thing to do. It seems awkward and even wrong to want to preserve my own, to invoke reason and sense in a suddenly turned world where nothing proceeds according to its parameters.
Like an amorphous cloud of uncertain expanding borders, death has been lingering over the United States for months. Insistent on exacting some staggering, still-unknown number, it has lodged itself among the country’s poorest, blackest, and brownest. On June 1, President Donald Trump, or one of his toadies, ordered a crowd of peaceful protesters deliberately attacked and pushed back so that he could prowl from the White House to a nearby church, mark his territory in the way of savages past. On the same day, I spoke to a doctor friend who has cared for the Covid-struck. “There will be more deaths,” she told me. “Yes, there will be more deaths,” I thought.
Like an amorphous cloud of uncertain expanding borders, death has been lingering over the United States for months.
I have some experience of monsters prowling the streets and savages ruling from palaces. In the Pakistan of my childhood, democracy was an endangered, frail sort of thing, and martial-law rules were real and enforced. As a child, I remember watching soldiers roll in, the muzzles of their weapons peering at us through slits in sandbag bunkers. When I learned to read the newspaper, I became familiar with the vocabulary of oppression, the fingers of the unharmed and unmoved always pointing to the loss of things, even there, even then. Law and order and even peace and security, I learned, were words that could be hurled like stones, shot like bullets, used as pretexts to torture and maim and murder.
Now the children of America, that one-time “model democracy,” will learn it too. Moments before President Trump had the protesters violently dispersed, he recited a litany of oppression. The goal now would be “to dominate” the streets and the protesters. The military would be mobilized, ordered to shut protests down. Errant governors unwilling to let the tanks roll in, he announced, would be forced to do so under the Insurrection Act of 1807. That Act, passed at a time when settler-colonialists were busy pushing Native Americans westward, has only been invoked in one era in recent American history without the request of local authorities. That time, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy used it to enforce court-ordered desegregation of schools.
Everyone knows that this time is not like that. It is a lot like that stunning moment when the police beating of Rodney King was captured on video, and the rage that followed in April of 1992 when the four police officers involved were acquitted. Los Angeles erupted in five days of unrest, and there was much talk about the need for a national conversation on race and policing. Now everyone, just like me, is looking to the young men and women gathered in the streets, who have not given up, who are undeterred by the bloodlust of those who see oppression as a virtue. This summer will be one of culling and sowing. Even those of us who are inside, who cannot be among the ranks of the brave, have choices to make. Those who are white must confront the cruelty of their silence and the ugliness of their complicity, the ease with which they denounce racism but never choose the black or brown job candidate, pretend at tolerance but use the well-connected uncle, the powerful friend to push themselves, their children, forward. These too are acts of racism; left untouched and un-interrogated, they accrue into consent, into acceptance of violently racist police forces which gives us the cataclysms of Breonna Taylors shot in their homes, George Floyds executed on streets.
Black and brown Americans have their own choices. In the riot within our hearts, one side clamors to protest, to scream, to number and list all the times in which we have been brushed aside, left unseen, passed over for jobs, for health care, for everything. The other side endorses the meek silence that has enabled some of us to survive in a land where racism, like the mythic monster Grendel, roams free and untethered. In that story, a hero named Beowulf came around to slay the monster. But this is the America of reality, and no epic hero is likely to appear, and no single decisive battle will mark the victory. It will instead be a war of a million tiny battles, fought by protesters who refuse to be silenced, men and women who refuse to enact the submission that the president demands of us when he threatens us with domination.