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A Letter From Saint Paul

As I write this we are about a half an hour from curfew. I’m in St. Paul. It has been hit far less than its counterpart across the river but my neighborhood, the city’s poorest and most diverse, is still boarded up. My neighbor is a mental health professional and helped out at a makeshift hospital for the protests. I mowed her lawn the other day and found a clear attempt to start a fire in the alley. It looks like they tried to set another neighbor’s garage on fire. 

Things have been much calmer the last few nights. After George Floyd was murdered I felt sick to my stomach. (And I’m a white guy. I don’t pretend to know how people who have been attacked by those brutes for generations feel.) My view is that the first two nights were what you could call a rebellion, the pinnacle being the burning down of the third precinct. (The city was reduced to abandoning it and pretending there was a gas leak.) 

Night three saw a qualitative change. It was lumpenized to the point of the movement switching focus from directly challenging the police to protesters defending and protecting their own neighborhoods (particularly the predominantly black north side of Minneapolis). There were reports of white nationalists and “outside agitators”. This claim, however, was almost certainly exaggerated as a tactic to get people inside. (Dumb strategy. There is nothing self-styled revolutionaries like more than to pretend they’re in Orwell’s Catalonia fighting fascists. I remember the feeling.) Finding the balance between political action and opportunist criminality is impossible without organization, which is something that takes time.  

This realization puts the metaphorical brick in the window of these (mostly white and middle class) revolutionaries, as there’s no organized political force able to steer the narrative away from “law and order” let alone take state power. I sometimes get the feeling these self-styled revolutionaries are fine with changing the definition of revolution. I think they will eventually end up working in advertising, but I digress. 

I am also getting fatigued with people, most of whom are completely unaffected by the arson and looting, talking about rebuilding. Just as when they tried to seperate people from the economy during the pandemic (remember that?), they are missing the point. Yes, the Super Target will get rebuilt. But they still have neglected to rebuild parts of Newark and Washington D.C. (etc.) that were destroyed during the 1968 riots (or rebellions or uprisings, whatever is most palatable for you). Guess who lives in those neighborhoods? 

What they are really talking about is rebuilding their brand, giving it an edgy pro-rebellion tint. That way, when we give the brutes more NGO human resource sensitivity training, they will be first on the job list. 

The most sober assessment of social forces thus far has come from--wait for it--Ross Douthat. (Even if you disagree with his assessment that riots don’t work.) Bernie Sanders, who has been more or less absent from public life after a pathetic endorsement of Joe Biden for President, appears to be the last attempt by the democratic socialist left to gain mainstream appeal for the foreseeable future. The best hope we have is Trump overplaying his hand. Strangely, as political timing is usually his strength, he seems to be doing just that with this idiotic focus on “antifa,” which even the FBI considers bullshit, and his threat to send in federal troops, which also appears to be bluster

Community defense groups saved the protest. They built true solidarity. They show a better way to protect neighborhoods than the brutes. America does not appear to have the stomach to actually do anything about wealth and income inequality, the foundation of so many social pathologies, so we are left to demand we stop giving massive portions of city budgets to people who reliably kill its black inhabitants. This may be a case where that supposed American pragmatism comes in handy. We will protect our own neighborhoods, thank you very much. The big question is, how long can we keep it going? And even if we do, without fundamentally changing how we allocate resources, do we just turn into cops?

June 2nd, 2020

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