America on Autopilot
As protests and violence hit every major American city at once, a country still reeling from a pandemic finds itself alone once again.
It’s hard to describe what the moment feels like. Since the country woke up to the reality of the Coronavirus in early March, there have been several anxiety-filled days and sleepless nights. Uncertainty and fear dominate the American psyche.
But in the moment of crisis, rather than bringing us all together to confront our fate, America is pulling itself apart.
Then there was George Floyd's death on video, another black man killed by police in plain view of the whole country. Undeniable, incontrovertible evidence of police brutality coming not so long after the accidental shooting death of Breonna Taylor and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men who assumed a jogging man was actually running from the law.
Somehow, while millions of people stayed at home, avoiding large crowds and finding themselves without work, America still found the time to kill black men and women.
Despite all this and the long list of tragic killings that preceded them in just the last decade, when the protests began in Minneapolis, it was hard to imagine what was still in store for the country.
Now we find ourselves in a moment of danger with curfews more restrictive than any in place in the worst days of the pandemic. We see crowds of people shouting, marching, kneeling, DEMANDING change. Images of fires, flashbangs, tear gas, looting, defacing come at us by the second as we scroll through social media feeds.
And from the highest office in the land, the most powerful man on earth remains silent.
He managed to fire off a few Tweets. In full defensive posture, using obviously racially-tinged words, calling the protesters “THUGS” in all caps, and threatening to shoot looters. As the violence intensified, he tweeted “LAW AND ORDER!” and a series of other meaningless words meant to seem very tough and in control.
But tweeting isn’t speaking, and entire generations of people have little knowledge of what goes on in social media. In every other way, the President has remained invisible to the American public.
It’s clear now that his tactic is to cast aspersions on the protesters. To call into question their motives. You could argue that he wants cities to burn, if only to increase the country's divides. But we can only guess what he intends to do because he has been absent from the position.
Imagine if, after 9/11, President Bush had remained in his bunker, only sending out press releases. Or if after Sandy Hook, President Obama refused to address it. Imagine the Civil War without the Gettysburg Address or World War 2 without the fireside chats. Imagine a burning building without the sounds of sirens in the distance.
In times of need, people look for leadership. We seek out a rallying point. And the President, with his singular nature, compared with the judicial and legislative branches of government, has always managed to speak directly to the American people. To reassure and empathize. To take up his moral duty to the whole nation, not just his constituents or party. Or, at least, they used to.
Instead, Trump chose to ignore the Coronavirus, muddying the waters and deferring to local leaders. He mostly rode it out from the sidelines, occasionally injecting embarrassing suggestions and anecdotes and focusing on economic matters, making sure that his Sauron-like signature was boldly printed on our long-forgotten stimulus checks, followed by a letter declaring how helpful he was being. In two months, 100,000 people died, and more die every day.
And at this moment, local leaders are once again tasked with dealing with the crisis, while he snipes at them from the sidelines, telling them to “GET TOUGH” while his own symbolic home sits in darkness as men and women who are beyond fed up burn the city down around him.
The results have been predictably mixed, down to the individual police department. Some responded with empathy that, whether or not it was sincere, at least represented a de-escalation of tension. Others responded with more brutality, seemingly unaware of the irony of responding to protests about abuse with more abuse.
For the second time this year — the year to end all years — Americans are left to fend for themselves.
On my way to pick up dinner for my family on Saturday night, my phone buzzed with an alert. Los Angeles, the city I was in at that particular moment, declared a curfew beginning at 8 pm. Glancing at the time on my car’s touchscreen, it read “8:02”. When I arrived at the restaurant, they were turning away customers.
The next afternoon, I sat upstairs reading Neuromancer while my son and wife watched TV downstairs. We planned to take him for a walk around the neighborhood in a few minutes before putting him down to sleep. My phone buzzed. Another alert. This time the curfew was for all of LA County, effective at 6 pm. Ten million people in a space covering 4,700-square-miles now had 40 minutes to get indoors or be in violation of the law. On Twitter, a video showed National Guard troops filling up their Humvees at a gas station in Echo Park that I’d been to several times in my life.
In a year filled with moments I never want to live through again, I pray for peace. But I also pray for change.
On the eve of Trump’s election, I asked the question, who do we, as Americans, want to be? Four years later, it remains an open question.
The protests will die down; storefronts will be repaired. Wounds will heal, and life will go on. But if nothing changes in this country. If we refuse to learn from these trying times, maybe there is nothing worth fighting for anymore.