These are some of the most tumultuous times in living memory.
Hundreds of thousands of people are dying to COVID-19. The economy is currently being decimated by the virus’ fallout. Dissatisfaction with those in power is high. The world’s wealthiest business owners seem the enemy of the people, forming what appears a conspiratorial oligopoly over our everyday needs and wants. They hoard the riches their workers produce for a pittance. Their possession of immeasurable means leaves a sour taste, and they seem just as gluttonous as everyone else seems envious. Our personal data is now a commodity, coveted by these massive corporations just so they might know what else they could sell us.
There is no health, no truth, and no privacy.
And with the merciless execution of George Floyd in Minnesota on May 25th, 2020, neither is there any more justice.
In the days following his killing, riots have sprung up across North America, with the biggest cities in the United States (such as New York and Los Angeles) carrying the most press coverage given the scale of the response. Social media has been flooded with viral tweets expressing support for protestors, dissent for police, and condolences for Floyd’s family.
Moreover, there is enormous outrage at the atrocity of the crime committed by Officer Derek Chauvin, whose anachronistic and frankly disgusting “restraining technique” might be better characterised as a botched torture tactic as if carried out by an overeager evil villain. This outcry has been further compounded by evidence of police brutality all over America, and seemingly with the support of President Donald Trump, this does not appear set to change any time soon.
Yet, the people are calling for more than just this Officer’s head. The death of George Floyd has reignited popular passion for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the riots taking place are about more than just one man. The broken shop windows and graffitied streets are about more than just the black men unjustly killed by police every year in the U.S.A. The skirmishes with police are about more than extending some militaristic campaign between “the blacks” and “the blues”.
They are about expressing the people’s disgust at the systematic oppression felt by all minorities in an establishment diagnosed as dominated by the prejudices of white people. They are about a battle for equality, where the stakes are more than just equal opportunity in education or employment, but rather: life and death. They are about demanding change.
Will these demands be heard? I’m pessimistic.
The infrastructure underpinning government has been able to consolidate so much power and influence that the isolated incidents of rioting seen over the last week will have very little effect on policy decision. The police in the United States are willing to demonstrate greater violence, immorality, and contempt towards protestors than that with which demonstrators are able to respond. The American military is the best funded military in the world, so, if this kind of rioting were to escalate further, to the extent that more advanced forces might be needed, there would be no hope for the lives of anyone on the streets.
Of course, this is not to say that the protests are futile. The message of extreme discontent has been made very clear to the whole world, and most of those onlooking I would imagine support the meaning their demonstrations convey.
However, they seem toothless. The decentralised, disorganised, and ad hoc nature of their demonstrations makes them an easy target for the police and for the military. They come with smartphones to record the brute force used by those who swore to protect and serve, more eager for the accurate documentation of events (which is an understandable desire given the global insight and personal legal “insurance” that filming their participation provides) than for the fight that might seem inevitable given the precedent police have set.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been alive in spirit since the Black Power movement in the 1980s, and has its foundations in the same issues to which Dr King has dedicated his legacy. However, it has been around nominally since 2013. In that time, almost every year since its inception, both peaceful and violent protests have occurred — that’s close to a decade of demonstration with no palpable results. More to the point, it’s over half a century of global public discourse (with a focus on the USA) on issues of race with no remedy, no end to the killings, and no hope of change seemingly in sight.
There is a popular, although clinically inaccurate, saying that goes something like ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting new results each time’. For decades, protestors across North America have demanded equal rights for people of colour, with the maltreatment of African-American people being just one grievance. Some progress, it must be said, has been made.
However, I do not think that significant structural change in political systems can be achieved by methods currently employed by protestors.
History tells us that setting the stage for massive political change is an immensely complicated phenomenon. Although this essay by no means wishes to do any injustice to the complex theories of political philosophers and historians by oversimplification, a brief discussion is helpful here. On reflection, any major political upheaval might be suggested to involve an intricate concoction of economic downturn, miserable public sentiment, poor and untrustworthy governance, and a dream.
In 18th century France, it was the financial mismanagement of Louis XVI, the people’s desperate poverty caused by poor harvest and a freezing winter in 1788/89 juxtaposed by the comfort and safety afforded to the wealthy, and the ideals provided by the Enlightenment for a Republic that gave sufficient ammunition to start the French Revolution. In 19th century Spanish America, it was the Spanish monarchy’s slow extradition of Church power and wealth, the Napoleonic invasion’s destabilisation of Spanish governance, and the vision of Simón Bolívar that propelled their wars of independence.
In the 21st century United States, people of colour have been the object of oppression for centuries, and of repression for decades; they are already substantially economically disadvantaged, with coronavirus set to push even more black people under the poverty line; public approval for President Trump’s administration amongst African Americans is just 14%; they are being killed routinely by police, and even possibly targeted for their participation in protests; and they have been let down by the worst American President in living memory. The stage has been set. All that’s left to add into the revolutionist’s cauldron is the vision.
If the Black Lives Matter movement wishes to enact the substantial constitutional change they desire, I believe they need a leader. They need a Bolívar to realise the movement’s potential, mobilise those the system oppresses, and organise. They need a great strategist, orator, and fighter. In their struggles, they need an individual (or individuals) whom they can look to as ‘good’ surrounded by what they might perceive as ‘evil’.
They need a leader.
As Machiavellian as it sounds, I believe the significant change the movement desires will not be attainable without the kind of catalysing leadership that a figure like Bolívar would provide.
There will not be enough direction to see out the protests to a viable and attainable end. There will not be enough motivation to fight, should that be required, because there has been no sufficiently constructed narrative that cleverly conveys the grave consequences of inaction. There will not be enough cohesion because there cannot be any centralised organisation of protestation.
Nobody wants a civil war. I doubt Americans want another one. Even the suggestion is highly radical. But I don’t see the current climate ultimately being resolved through recourse to any other method. I see a revolution coming, spearheaded by the next Simón Bolívar.