A wave of American protests: where are we headed?

What happens next in America, after the events of the past few days?

Personally, I have followed developments with a mix of horror, dismay, admiration, and dread.  I have not participated in face to face protests, from fear of COVID-19 infection.

George Lloyd unrest DC susanmelkisethian

Yet I don’t want to talk about my personal reactions in this post.  Instead, I’d like to host a space here for thinking together about what recent events (the Amy Cooper video, the killing of George Floyd, rising protests) mean, especially for the future.  I’ll start by adding some futurist-oriented observations, linked out to supporting materials and really aimed at the short term.

One big caveat: this is a developing story, and we’re in the middle of it.  So it’s hard to get good information and tempers will be raging.  We’re still in the early first draft stage of history, and I’m uncertain about a lot of information.

Another: most of this post is analytical, intellectual grappling with the dynamics of the present situation.  I’m not writing about my emotional response here.

So: the possibility of national unrest is something I’ve been tracking for a while.  Back in late 2016 I asked about how American could enter into civil unrest.  I raised two then-current crises (deportations, the Dakota pipeline) as possible grounds for broader revolt or chaos; neither turned out to be so.  Then I added a third,

the growing public division over policing.  On the one side are civil libertarians, Black Lives Matter, and people temporarily horrified by videos of police doing horrible things.  On the other are the police, Blue Lives Matter, and people who feel the thin blue line needs our support to stamp out anarchy.  Trump’s support for increased stop and frisk might become a national movement to increase police power, given the enormous successes Republicans have had in winning state and national power.

And I asked: “Will Americans stick to social media as our sole weapon in resistance, or will some in this exceedingly well-armed nation resist violently?”

In 2018 I returned to the topic, critically viewing my 2016 post.  One commentator argued that police oppression of people of color was one way for unrest to build.  David was prescient.  Now we see that area in sharp focus.

To begin with, there doesn’t seem to be an organization that can hold and build upon the antiracist insurgency. The Democratic party appears to be too large, inflexible, and focused on November.  Some parts of it will try, which basically means folding this week’s energy into the Biden campaign. Some state and city parties and/or local nonprofits may push for police reform (especially Minnesota), including demilitarizing police forces. I’m not sure what Black Lives Matter will do as an organization at this point: if it’ll grow into something larger, or another group will step up/appear. It’s possible the activism we just experienced will drain into the sands, especially given so many competing demands on Americans’ time and attention (pandemic, national election, recession shading into depression, etc.).

George Lloyd unrest_Eytan

Getting tough on crime: Trump and the GOP now have a gift, handed to them in part by tv news.  The specter of dangerous and violent criminals allows them to run their classic, reliable tough-on-crime playbook, amplified by the War on Terror’s additional apparatus (surveillance, fusion centers, a public used to a certain post-9-11 degradation in civil liberties).  Trump tweeted that he was declaring Antifa a terrorist group, but apparently things don’t work that way.

Democrats may try to echo or outdo the GOP on this, following the centrist path laid down by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, so we could expect some politicians or pundits to denounce looting and violence.  Taken together 2020 might represent another ratcheting up of policing in America.  Alternatively, we could see progressive approval of destructive acts as justifiable or revolutionary, following some interpretations of urban uprisings in the 1960s… which would then almost certainly elicit condemnations and more calls for law and order.

Policing and the military: if unrest continues after last night, the military’s role could expand. The Trump administration could easily push for more deployments, ostentatiously landing troops in Minneapolis or Atlanta, while doing more surveillance.

George Lloyd unrest_SWAT tank_Becker1999

I do wonder if journalists will become more critical of policing, given the spate of incidents like this one:

Technology: given the crucial role played by smartphones and social networks in sparking these events, some on the right, maybe joined by some on the liberal side, may push against Silicon Valley, building on the recent techlash. They can reprise familiar charges (addiction, privacy) and ramp them up by accusing them of causing social unrest, driving property damage, and even enabling injury and murder.  Facebook may come in for particular scrutiny, given its CEO’s recent comments about Trump’s comments. Legacy media will probably join in. Certain forms of surveillance (drones) could add to the case.  Ultimately, we could see a classic technopanic.

Conspiracy theories: these are already blossoming, and will probably grow. I’ve seen stories about false flag attacks, the hidden hand of China and/or Russia, Trump secretly staging unrest, child soldiers in Atlanta, etc.  Some Minnesotan elected officials blamed swarms of outside agitators, an argument with a long and often bad history in the United States; that seems to have been debunked, but the theory could easily persist. Some of these may have grains of truth in them. Some state governments have called out the National Guard.

On the right, I’m seeing a few things. First, charges of lawlessness being the key to the whole story (can share a link if needed), leading to law and order (as above). Second, *some* role of fringe extremist groups (Proud Boys, Boogalooians), but it’s hard to tell how that played out in reality. Since most are really cosplayers, how many sat things out? Those who did, what do they take away from the experience, and what to do next? Third, expect demonization of whatever liberal/left group is handy – ACORN, Antifa, the Sanders campaign. Fourth, some may combine the Floyd protests with COVID-19 by focusing on blue or blue-ish states and cities where both occur in greater numbers: New York, California, Oregon, Washington state, Washington DC, and so on. They can charge those regions and polities with incompetence, being too PC, ignoring traditional values, being filthy, etc. (Cf my March post about a “blue pandemic”.)

Speaking of the pandemic: biologically – and nearly nobody’s talking about this, which is fascinating – I can’t see how the unrest wave won’t spark at least a bout of new COVID-19 infections. You’ve got hundreds, thousands of people interacting closely, and often hollering or otherwise exerting in ways splendidly designed for sharing the virus. Check back in two weeks for numbers and maybe a couple of superspreaders.  Meanwhile, the global pandemic continues to spread:

coronavirus epidemic curve 2020 May 31 WHO

From the last WHO situation report.

For those who think the Trump era is about fascism, you should watch for pitched, chronic battles between groups (not individuals) here. Look for (say) Atomwaffen and some Antifa brawling in LA with injuries and deaths, then each group growing and hardening, followed by escalating violence. We haven’t seen this yet, but it’s a crucial condition for fascism in at least two 1930s situations (Germany, Italy) plus, at a far greater level, Spain.

On education: we’re in the summer period now, when very few students are in class.  Some staff are working, while others are not.  Faculty may or may not be on campus – most likely not.  What do this string of events mean for academia?

This is a time for some academics to fulfill their public education/public intellectual role.  Social media is the ready route, as are engagements with traditional media outlets.  Meanwhile, some faculty are doubtless thinking about how the Floyd protests might impact their fall classes.  Some classes and programs are automatically engaged, from African American studies to Homeland Security.  Staff may also follow similar lines, considering everything from residence life programming to library displays and professional development (what remains of it).

And that’s where I’ll pause for now.  Readers, I hope you are all safe in this moment.  What do you all make of this?

(photo credits: DC street by Susan Melkisethian; marching crowd by Ted Eytan; armored officer and Columbus SWAT by Becker1999)

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8 Responses to A wave of American protests: where are we headed?

  1. Sue C. says:

    Hi, Bryan,
    Just read your post while looking at this paper, which also mentions the Boogaloo movement and use of analytical tools to “create an early warning system in response to unanticipated cyber-swarm activity.“ Thought you might find the predictive methods interesting.

    https://ncri.io/reports/cyber-swarming-memetic-warfare-and-viral-insurgency-how-domestic-militants-organize-on-memes-to-incite-violent-insurrection-and-terror-against-government-and-law-enforcement/

  2. Ed Webb says:

    Although the focus here is the US, I think we need to prepare for even greater uncertainty in international affairs with the US MIA and lacking credibility, and that absence providing challenges and opportunities for all kinds of actors to assert themselves. Populist bullies have been emboldened everywhere the past few years, and that is likely to continue. But sensible women leaders have shone in handling the pandemic. As economic and other consequences of the pandemic intensify, as unrest and instability become more prevalent, we will see all kinds of systems getting disrupted, and we will see new leaders and maybe even new models of leadership arise.

    All of that flows back to the US economy, recruitment and retention of international students, elections etc.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Very true, Ed. I focused on the US situation in this post.

      I am looking hard at how China will play this, with Xi’s global ambitions, One Belt One Road, etc.

      You mention populism: I am also interested in how left wing currents may rise.

  3. Glen S McGhee says:

    What we need is a strong dose of analytic sociology, then move forward.

    Here’s a start — Randall Collins’ lengthy history of the issue from 2016, “CAN THE WAR BETWEEN COPS AND BLACKS BE DE-ESCALATED?”
    https://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2016/07/can-war-between-cops-and-blacks-be-de.html

    “Riots publicize ideologies of protest. But whatever the slogans and the statements of spokespersons who are quoted in the news, at the line of confrontation mainstream society is always represented by the police. The police are often the only visible presence of white society in what Elijah Anderson calls “black spaces.” Much of the time they are regarded as an occupying force. A riot not only brings about a confrontation of masses of local people against masses of police, but it is one of those rare moments when locals have enough numbers and enough emotional dominance to be able to defy the police.”

  4. Glen S McGhee says:

    As I mentioned, Police brutality and violence and riots are Randall Collins main area of interest.
    He posted this today.
    Notice the Generational Divide here, too, in one quick, quiet reference.
    But to me it is huge. Interesting take on Covid, too. http://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2020/06/seven-reasons-why-police-are-disliked.html

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