The people have learned to write with fire and it is a language understood around the world. Smoldering police stations. Flaming police cars. Blazing barricades. Smoke billowing around the White House.
A new day has dawned, and it is beautiful.
What has changed?
On 23 February, Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and lynched by an ex-cop, his son and a friend—all filmed by the killers—and the murderers were protected by the District Attorney. On 13 March, Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police while in bed in her own apartment. Local prosecutors shielded her killers. On 25 May, George Floyd was lynched by four Minneapolis police. The cops saw nothing wrong with kneeling on a handcuffed man’s neck for nine minutes as he said “I can’t breathe” until he stopped breathing. They were in front of a crowd of onlookers and were being filmed. They knew they would not be punished for their crimes.
After all, Black people being murdered by police is a routine occurrence in America.
Consider that, six years ago, I wrote about the response to the police murder of Michael Brown on 9 August 2014 and the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in an essay for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I began:
“Illegitimate. The police in Ferguson, illegitimate. The Department of Justice, illegitimate. Governor Nixon, illegitimate. Barack Obama, illegitimate. This whole system, illegitimate. This is what people are increasingly being taught by what we are seeing unfold on the streets of Ferguson. People who on 8 August, accepted the norms of this society and viewed the police and its monopoly of the use of armed might as acceptable, are increasingly questioning this and other foundational values of American society.”
Listing the names of black people killed by police up until that point, I asked then the same question I posed at the outset of this essay: “What has changed?” Was the era of a black president the vehicle for progressive change that many claimed it would be? Have you still had to have a talk with your child about surviving an encounter with the police? Do Black Lives Matter?
Since then, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling have all had hashtags added in front of their names. And there are many more whose names we do not know.
What has changed?
The fire is spreading. Six years ago I remarked on the courage and resistance of protestors and residents in Ferguson as they stood up to tear gas, wooden bullets, rubber bullets, police snipers, tanks, machine guns, sonic weapons, military occupation, arrested journalists, curfews, lies, slander, and “reasonable leaders” telling people to not protest too much or to remain calm. The protesters are true freedom fighters and they have stood up to the armed enforcers of this system. They had been heroic and unbowed.
We refuse to live this way any longer.
The popular rebellion in Ferguson was mostly contained. The fire this time has ignited the country and many, many, many more people have joined the battle and have been transformed. People are defying the law and ignoring curfews. They are defiant and courageous, shutting down highways and streets demanding justice. Roofs are stood upon. Tear gas is flung back at police. The writing is on the walls.
What has changed?
The government fears us, but the people in the streets see little to lose and increasingly don’t fear the government. President Trump in particular hides in his bunker with the lights off and can only walk outside for a photo op surrounded by hundreds of armed bullies and thugs.
The government response to people’s demands to end police brutality has been to violently defend the murder with repression. National guardsmen in Minnesota fired riot control rounds at white middle class people on their own porches—shouting “Light ‘em up” as they did. New York police drove SUVs into crowds of protestors—and the Mayor and Governor supported this. Baton-wielding cops have beaten people out after curfew, especially in Black neighborhoods. Across the country people have been gassed and maced. Journalists covering the protests have also been repeatedly targeted, detained, shot at and even blinded with pepper spray by police.
Protestors have been dragged out of their cars and held on the ground at gunpoint. Police in a tank blocked by a protestor threatened “Move out of the way or you’ll be dead.” Military helicopters have terrorized people in DC. More than 10,000 have been arrested. The police and National Guard have killed people in New York, Louisville and probably elsewhere. The US Defense Secretary encouraged state governors to respond to protest by “dominating the battle space.” And the President threatens to use the army after quoting 1960s segregationists: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In the face of all this state violence, the people have defied.
What has changed?
For weeks we’ve been sensitized to death and seen the massive inequality, injustice and racism at the core of this society revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Black people dying from a virus at three times the rate of white people?! “Essential workers” forced shoulder to shoulder to butcher hogs or ship Game Boys in virus laden plants?! Nurses at public hospitals wearing garbage bags when the wealthiest country in the world doesn’t have enough PPE?!
And then. And then. And then. A modern-day lynching by police on video. Prosecutors ignoring it. Weeks after another filmed lynching. A white woman calling the police on a Black man because he asked her to comply with the law and leash her dog. White people calling the cops on Black people for playing music, or being in a Starbucks, or napping, or playing, or driving, or ________, or_______, or ________. To hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions—of Americans, this system, looks decrepit and outmoded. We refuse to live this way any longer.
What has changed?
This is no longer just an American issue. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin have witnessed tens of thousands demonstrate in solidarity with rebellion in the US. Protests have been held in Nigeria and Kenya. In Rio de Janeiro, people demanding justice for a 14-year-old recently killed by the police marched with the banner “Vidas Negras e Favelas Importam”. Most beautifully, Indigenous activists in New Zealand performed the traditional Haka ceremonial dance for Black Lives Matter.
What has changed?
Many people aren’t as easily fooled by ad hominem arguments about looting and violence and suggestions of voting as a remedy. Looting is when America stole the land from the original inhabitants, stole people from Africa to work that land and stole the labor from their descendants. Most recently, America looted the people to transfer hundreds of billions of dollars to wealthy corporation in the midst of a pandemic. Looting is what this country does. Focusing on a few missing pairs of Air Jordans is an effort to discredit and undermine a widespread fight for justice.
Complaints about “violent protests” are brushed aside with knowledge that the time to complain about violence was when four cops murdered George Floyd and when police around the country assault protestors.
Finally, some pundits have said we should not protest now and that for real change we need to vote in November. Bullshit! Because of the defiant protest, the cops now face murder charges. Contracts with cops are being canceled by public schools and mainstream museums. There is open talk of defunding police departments and some city budgets may be about to propose cuts to police spending. This is after just a week of protest.
What has changed?
We were told that the era in which Black people were bought and sold and where we were hung from trees and could be killed for no reason whatsoever was a thing of the past and many people have come to understand that this is not true. The lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson insightfully said: “Slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved.” This system’s efforts to defend white supremacy in 2020, now seem like mere evolution of their 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling which wrote that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Millions have recently learned that they cannot live with this and they feel their power to change it.
It’s all about slavery. And it’s about more than that, too. Unemployment stands at 42 million. More than 100,000 have died from Covid-19 in the US, and many of the deaths were caused by American policy and inaction. Science is under severe attack. The media is under severe attack. The planet is burning and US leaders are literally adding petroleum and coal to the fire. Racist, women-hating conservative judges are being installed in courts around the country. Immigrants are hounded and demonized.
The light from the flames is illuminating much about America. The stories we are writing today are an interesting new chapter in American history.
America is currently ruled by a fascist president intent on undermining the rule of law and he is emboldening heavily armed white supremacists. And the Democratic option is a condescending racist (with a well-known black friend) who takes Black votes for granted.
Cities don’t burn because of one police murder. People have learned to write with fire, because they first learned to read invisible writing. We’ve learned to read unwritten American rules that say that we have to block interstates, lie silent with our face in the pavement for 8’46”, scream until we’re hoarse and flip over police cars in many cities across the country to get cops who were videotaped killing somebody even charged with murder.
What has changed?
The unrest hasn’t been extinguished with four murder charges. The fires may die out and people may be forced back into our homes one day, but the embers will continue to smolder until the ongoing injustice that defines America is eliminated. People are actually confronting capitalism and to abolish the manifestations of it that are killing people and crushing lives, to eliminate the white supremacy that rationalizes much of this, will take a revolution.
Anything even resembling justice requires deep structural changes. But this country is based upon exploitation and couldn’t make these changes if it wanted to and frankly the ruling powers locally and nationally are making it abundantly clear they don’t want to. But some of that is not up to their desires. Around the world, dictators have been forced from office by mass action.
Trump and Pence must go. Hosni Mubarak, Park Geun-hye and Ricardo Rosselló were forced from power by massive sustained popular protest. Can anyone honestly say that we can get justice while a vindictive, racist, cop-loving president who views protestors as the enemy remains in the White House?
Millions of people view him and this whole system as illegitimate. Those in power, the laws they enforce, the massive inequality, and the ideas used to rationalize this, are all understood as dead weight from the past.
The light from the flames is illuminating much about America. The stories we are writing today are an interesting new chapter in American history. Together with new authors we can write a surprise ending to this book. Perhaps we can write the final chapter of America and on its ashes we will all build a society where humanity can flourish.
What has changed? The people have changed.
• Dread Scott is an American artist whose works focus on the experience of African Americans in the contemporary United States. His work is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum, and has been included in exhibitions at New York’s MoMA PS1, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Jack Shainman Gallery, NY, and Gallery MOMO in Cape Town, South Africa. His performance work has been presented at BAM in Brooklyn and on the streets of Harlem, NY. His works have also has been featured on the cover of Artforum magazine and the front page of NYTimes.com. Hear him speak about his recent project recreating a historic rebellion in Louisiana on our podcast.