Scenic Views on the Road to ApocalypsePosted: June 3, 2020
Everyone seems to be talking about the riots following the recent protests. I’ve gotten some flak because I’ve said I don’t believe in looting or needless destruction of property (especially destruction of property by people from OUTSIDE the community where the demonstrations are taking place – but more about that point later). I’m not one of these people for whom capitalism is a religion — I think people who know me can probably confirm that. But I think a lot of the vandalism, particularly the vandalism that is not directed against places of real power*, is a bad strategy for people who want to see change happen. My reasons for believing this are rooted in my understanding of history.
In 1977 (a long time ago, but still recent enough that witnesses are among the living, unlike, say, the riots of the 1871 Paris Commune), we had the New York City blackouts. The power utilities had a massive failure and most of NYC went dark. NYC (like most larger cities at that time) was struggling with a shrinking tax base and white flight to the ‘burbs, and, when the blackouts happened, the lid blew off the situation. The results were predictable – riots in the streets, store windows smashed, looting, fires, etc. Almost all of the destruction took place in the areas of the city that were majority poor or majority black or both. A few years later, a man named Donald Trump was able to force a bankrupt NYC to give him the largest tax break in US history as he bought up block after block of property in the city at fire sale prices. The people who lived there had to move so the neighborhoods could be repurposed as playgrounds for the rich. And now the NYC of cultural relevance, the NYC of Patty Smith and Basquiat and Haring and Stonewall and drugs and sex and porn and punk and funk and rap and disco – the dirty and real city – has been remodeled and you gotta be a rich investor in order to live in the same buildings formerly occupied by artists, workers and poets. The wealthy and powerful were able to take advantage of the situation to end up richer than they ever were before by making the real people move out so the “Disneyfication” could take place. And we’ve seen this pattern repeat itself in cities across the country. This situation hasn’t always been kicked off with something as dramatic as a riot or a blackout, but the changes in the economic makeup of many of our cities is depressingly familiar. Compare post-Katrina to pre-Katrina New Orleans. Redevelopment of New Orleans for the benefit of the rich under the guise of disaster relief began after the poor were forced by death, poverty and tragedy to flee from the city in droves. Big money never lets an opportunity go to waste – should we be helping to create more opportunities for the banks and deep pocket investors to buy low and sell high and create more playgrounds for the rich where the former occupants are either relocated or forced by economic circumstance to change their status from “resident” to “a member of the hired help”?
Aside from all the other horrible news (and there is a lot of it – I haven’t even mentioned the pandemic), I keep finding myself drawn back to thinking about a video where two well-dressed young women (I think they are white and I think they are college aged – but they are dressed like fashionable ninjas with masks, black hoodies and yoga pants so it is hard to say) are spray painting “Black Lives Matter” on a wall as an exasperated black woman wearing a blue T-shirt asks them to stop. And I’ve seen several similar videos – some who look like people of privilege engaging in vandalism on behalf of “the downtrodden” without stopping to ask if the people they are “helping” really want this kind of help. That’s the part that troubles me. I’ve got no issue with people of any background engaging in civil disobedience on behalf of social justice – I admire it. But if a middle class white guy like me goes to someone else’s neighborhood and smashes shit up in the name of “justice” and then returns to his own zip code where the stores are still open and intact and the streets are not littered with burned out cars and trash, then have they really helped the people who actually have to live in the area where the vandalism took place?
If vandalism is a part of a path to social justice (it might be – I have my doubts but I can admit the possibility) and if we really mean it when we say that we want to force change by smashing windows, then shouldn’t we do these things in the communities where the investor class are the ones who will be terrorized or inconvenienced? It seems the height of presumption and condescension to tell someone from a community that I don’t belong to that I am going to “help” by doing damage to their environment. At this point, the fighting and vandalism seems largely concentrated in areas that benefit those (like our president) who want to make the argument that words like “thug” are synonymous with “black.” If middle class whites like me are serious about wanting all this shit to change, if we want to point out the lie in everything that Donald Trump and his surrogates say about “making America great again,” then I think marching, showing support for our brothers and sisters of color and standing up to the police are all positives – but when we middle class white people only do this in a manner which does not inconvenience ourselves, I fear we remain just tragedy tourists taking selfies while strolling through the communities of other people’s pain.
*A place of “real power,” in my opinion, might be the police station where the officers who murdered of George Floyd worked instead of a store where people from that community might work or shop. “Real power,” in our age, resides more on Wall Street than on the main streets of our communities. I suspect burning down the Starbucks or looting the 7-11 probably does more damage to the people who live and work in that shop’s vicinity than to any corporate entities who are shielded from risk by insurance.