Rebecca Solnit: The Slow Road to Sudden Change

On the Decades of Activism That Leads to Historic Change

I. The Bonfire

The death of George Floyd was a match that lit a bonfire, and how the fuel for the bonfire piled up is worth studying. That is, for a national and international uprising against anti-Black racism and police violence to achieve such scale and power, many must have been ready for it, whether they knew it or not. Not in the sense of planning it or expecting these events, but by having changed their minds and committed their hearts beforehand. For those who were not directly impacted by decades and centuries of racist police violence this great uprising underway is about a long-overdue critical mass of solidarity with the fury and frustration of those directly impacted.  And finally there is something mysterious about why something happens at this moment and not that—in this case why the response to the police killing of George Floyd is so much larger than previous reactions, and why it is having such a widespread impact on Americans understanding of racism.

A great public change is the ratification of innumerable small private changes; the bonfire is a pile of these small changes lit by some unforeseen event. Looking back on the American Revolution, this country’s second president,  John Adams reflected, “The revolution was in the minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities commenced.” Adams was a waffler on slavery, both opposed to it and opposed to strong measures to abolish it, but he offers a useful description of how change works: the revolution was in consciousness; the war with Britain was just an outcome of it. Chateaubriand said something similar of the French Revolution, that it “was accomplished before it occurred.”

CNN reported on June 9, “that 67% of Americans believe the criminal justice system favors white people over black people in this country. And the same percent say that racism is a big problem today, compared to just 49% in 2015, a year after [Michael] Brown’s death in Ferguson… Those findings were echoed in a recent Monmouth University poll that found 57% of Americans believe police are more likely to use excessive force against black people—up from 34% in 2016.” And then the report cited a Republican pollster who exclaimed, “In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.” But the change in consciousness didn’t happen overnight, or over 30 days; it happened over years, and the organizers—most especially Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013—deserve credit for building this.

You can point to specifics about this moment—the horrific brutality of Floyd’s public death by lynching at the hands of the police. To the frustration and desperation of people who had been locked up and financially crushed by the pandemic and had seen Covid-19, thanks to structural racism, become increasingly a disease of black and brown people. To the years of simmering disgust and rage against the white supremacist destructiveness of Donald J. Trump. But none of these would have signified if the smallest thing hadn’t happened millions of times over: people changed their minds. Or in the case of the young, grew up with minds shaped by something better than the obliviousness and indifference that passed as not being racist in my own youth.

One more group deserves credit for the present moment: the police. They themselves have made a fantastic case for defunding or abolition.

There is a danger of believing, as the Republican pollster seemed to, that this happened all at once, rather than that something slowly growing and changing suddenly became visible. The same misperceptions happened with what got called #MeToo in 2017: several years into a remarkable era of feminist activism, organizing, education, and transformation things suddenly escalated when the Harvey Weinstein stories broke in the New York Times and New Yorker and a number of other stories came tumbling out.

And at last there were consequences where there had been none. Too many pundits and amnesiacs framed that as something that began then and there. It wasn’t a beginning, but a culmination, of decades of work by feminists that resulted in people who believed women deserved equal rights, power, and valuation began to be in charge—to some extent—of what stories got told, who got believed. Gradually, more people who regarded women as people whose rights mattered and voices should be heard had come to play a role the news, the courts, the universities, and it mattered. And so it is with this moment.

One more group deserves credit for the present moment: the police. They themselves have made a fantastic case for defunding or abolition—at least as they currently exist. Nationwide, with the whole world watching, these civil servants showed they use public funds to brutalize, murder, and deny the constitutional rights of members of that public. One might imagine they’d have wanted to be careful in the wake of the Floyd murder, but they went on a spectacular display of their own sense of immunity by—well, shooting out the eyes of eight people with “sublethal” weapons, managing to blind a photojournalist in one eye; attacking and arresting dozens of members of the media at work, especially nonwhite ones; San Jose police shooting their own anti-bias trainer in the testicles; knocking over an old man who’s still in critical condition as a result (yeah the one Trump theorized must be Antifa); teargassing children; pointing weapons at other small children; and generally showing us that the only people the police protect are the police. They struck the match that lit the bonfire. Because they thought they could not themselves burn, and that they were indispensable. They’re wrong on both counts.

 

II. The Waterfall

You can think of it as a bonfire. Or a waterfall. The metaphor of the river of time is often used to suggest that history flows at a steady pace, but real rivers have rapids and shallows, eddies and droughts. They freeze over and get dammed and their water gets diverted. And sometimes the river comes to the precipice and we’re all in the waterfall. Time accelerates, things change faster than anyone expected, water clear as glass becomes churning whitewater, what was thought to be impossible or the work of years is accomplished in a flash.

This had already happened in a way with the pandemic. Suddenly life changed; institutions from schools to air travel largely shut down; the federal government pulled three trillion dollars out of thin air and threw it around; nearly everyone changed their daily life. The status quo’s old excuses that change is impossible got smashed up in the torrent of change. And this too prepared the way for what is happening now. The civil unrest has shifted and grown and had extraordinary effect. Early on people who preferred order to justice carped that riots never change anything, and then out of this uprising monumental change came.

Cities all over the USA are rethinking the funding and parameters of policing and what the alternatives are. Minneapolis, where all this started, actually voted to abolish the police department, and dozens of cities, from Los Angeles to New York, voted to cut funding to the police and in many cases narrow their mission. While all this actual living out of the mandates to #abolishthepolice and #defundthepolice was happening way too many mostly white people around me fussed that #defundthepolice was scary and incoherent and proposed exactly the kind of polite language for reform that has accomplished little in recent years.

It was both a kind of tone policing and a tone deafness about the fact that the people who feared being killed by the police—or mourning those who were—were impatient, six years after the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. and seven after the birth of Black Lives Matter. Impatient and not looking for messaging lessons from white people. The willful incomprehension and disapproval brought back the early days of Occupy Wall Street, when pundits and purse-lipped onlookers were calling the insurrectionary gatherings incoherent and incomprehensible and demanding to know what the demands were, imagining the occupiers as supplicants, not people in earnest conversation with each other about what the alternative to economic injustice might look like. Occupy was immensely effective as it spread across the world, and in the US it reshaped the conversation about the economy in ways that still matter.

It is an ongoing mistake to refer to politicians as leaders. Almost all are followers, and they should be if they are to be representatives.

Those offering unsolicited advice about #defundthepolice were also mistaken about how change works. They advocated “say those things that everyone is already comfortable with, aim low, don’t rock the boat.” The best ideas that change the world emerge from the shadows and the margins; they are at first ignored, then regarded with alarm or disdain by many outside those zones, and they work their way inward. When they are a consensus idea, that’s the end of the insurrection, or the waterfall, and politicians are smoothing things over and people have accepted the idea that they at first resisted, whether it’s the abolition of slavery or the right to marriage equality

It is an ongoing mistake to refer to politicians as leaders. Almost all are followers, and they should be if they are to be representatives; unfortunately this country is so skewed by the power of money that most represent more conservative positions than their constituents. They are where ideas end up, not where they start. In a waterfall moment the movement from margin to center accelerates. Cities all over the country are defunding the police, and somehow the case has been made in the press, as never before, that militarized men with guns and the propensity to use them too often are the often the worst people to send out to do social work, crisis intervention, and mental health counseling, and that there are better ways to do these things.

The New York Times reported on June 10, “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. And since the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25, public opinion on race, criminal justice and the Black Lives Matter movement has leaped leftward. Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.” But that support followed Black Lives Matter; Black Lives Matter didn’t follow the support.

 

III. The Statues

When historians fifty or a hundred years hence look back on these weeks of insurrection, they may see them as the point at which the old white America gave up the ghost and the coming nonwhite-majority country really began to take the reins. And the protestors know it; they know that they are making history, and that the future is determined in part by the stories we tell in the present, and that those stories are not only words but names and monuments.

Thus has a statue of Columbus been thrown into a Minneapolis lake, another Columbus came down in Richmond, Virginia, a third in Boston, and  a fourth in Detroit. In New Mexico statues of the conquistador Onate, who brutalized the native population, are coming down. A figure of a British slaver was toppled and dragged through the streets to be thrown into Bristol Harbor, and Antwerp took down a statue of King Leopold, the brutalizer of the Congo. People around the world have risen up in solidarity and in many cases found an occasion to address racism in their own society and its public landscape.

In the USA, many Confederate monuments have come down, and the ever-magnificent Elizabeth Warren attached a rider to a defense authorization bill to rename military bases currently named after Confederates, which raises the question of why the hell they got those names in the first place. Statues commemorate the victors—which is why the US has been an upsidedown country all these 155 years since the Civil War supposedly ended, one in which the antislavery north supposedly won the war, but the south has celebrated itself as though it did.

That NASCAR finally banned Confederate flags is also remarkable, though those future historians and their readers will find the extent to which explicitly racist iconography permeated our society into the present moment shocking. Equal to NASCAR’s gesture was the NFL’s tweet “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and…believe Black Lives Matter.”  These expedient gestures were done out of a sense of necessity that marks something more important than their good will would have: the world has changed.

But these high-profile places and actions should not overshadow how vast this uprising is: yes there are huge crowds in big cities, and not only in the USA but in London, Paris, Rome—but there are also thousands of small protests in small places. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth of the Crowd Counting Consortium says that for sheer number of places and participants this is the biggest protest in US history. Small gatherings keep popping up in rural California towns, remote, tiny Baker, Nevada, in Paris, Texas, the Great Plains, and in other places where the crowds are largely or entirely white. They were largely Indigenous as far as I could tell in Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northermost town in the USA—and that’s how I found out that the town formerly known as Barrow had decolonized its name in late 2016. Immigrants locked up in a detention camp in Bakersfield, California, went on hunger strike in solidarity with the protests.

The consequences of this uprising are too many to count. The case that the police bring danger, escalation, and expense to many situations rather than peace and resolution is now far more widely accepted.

This remaking of the public landscape has been going on for years with the taking down of Confederate statues and flags and other racist statues and names across the country—thus it was that after the massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston by a white supremacist South Carolina finally took down its Confederate flag (after black-rights activist Bree Newsome Bass scaled the capitol’s flagpole and took the flag down), that New Orleans took down the statue of Robert E. Lee and some of the most egregious other confederate monuments a few years ago, and at the University of North Carolina students toppled the Confederate “Silent Sam” statue.

New monuments have been going up as well as old ones coming down. In 2018, New York City got rid of a statue of a racist gynecologist in Central Park; in 2019 plans were laid to erect a statue of Black congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm in Brooklyn. An elementary school in Berkeley named after a slaveowner was renamed after civil rights hero Sylvia Mendez a couple of years ago. From Oakland to the avenue leading to the White House, streets have been inscribed BLACK LIVES MATTER and DEFUND THE POLICE in huge letters.

The consequences of this uprising are too many to count. The case that the police bring danger, escalation, and expense to many situations rather than peace and resolution is now far more widely accepted. Now it must be defended and implemented, and protected from both backlash and that dreary dragging resistance to change that makes the river sluggish.

Two years ago Michelle Alexander reached for that image when she wrote “In the words of Vincent Harding, one of the great yet lesser-known heroes of the black freedom struggle, the long, continuous yearning and reaching toward freedom flows throughout history ‘like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.’” She argued in that moment when “the resistance” was a popular term for those who opposed Trump and all he stands for and with, that we were the majority, the river, and it was they who were the resistance, the dam. She described a revolutionary transformation more powerful than resistance.

Last week she updated it, “Our only hope for our collective liberation is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love. In recent days, we’ve seen what it looks like when people of all races, ethnicities, genders and backgrounds rise up together, standing in solidarity for justice, protesting, marching and singing together, even as SWAT teams and tanks roll in. We’ve seen our faces in another American mirror — a reflection of the best of who we are and what we can become.”

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit’s first media job was in fact-checking and her last book is the memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence. She’s sent a lot of mail to her nieces and nephews during the pandemic.





More Story
Lit Hub Daily: June 17, 2020 What is an escapist read in 2020? Deborah Shapiro suggests some fiction for the unsettling moods of summer. | Lit Hub ...