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Updated: Nov 4, 2020

June 20, 2020

But the issues that sparked them still urgently need to be resolved

In the U.S., an international pandemic is forcing all of us to look not at the world but mostly at ourselves. There seems to be so much roiling under the soil of this nation that we have no choice but to excavate it, and see what we want to keep and what we desperately need to throw away.

No American alive today will ever forget this period of time. We all say 2020, the year, but in fact and incredibly, it’s been just months since the nation as we knew began to implode. Or whatever it is that's happening.

In that time, the pandemic arrived here, followed by an economic collapse almost immediately. Now there's social unrest on a scale not seen since the 1960's, or even then. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s horrific death, it’s like our whole sick nation is heaving itself up and vomiting into a bowl.

How can we have gone from who we were in January to who we are now? To what we were doing then to what we're doing, thinking about, and talking about now? And the year isn’t even half over yet!

How much will we even remember next year on this date, or 10 years from now? What about even next month? To me it feels like everything is happening too fast to even react, much less understand.

It’s like we’ve lived years since corona came.

Between March and May, most of us were down, quiet, scared, and still. I’ll remember that, how it felt to be here in New Jersey, so close to the epicenter. How terrified we were. How we crouched in our houses, hardly daring to breathe.

Back then the terror was everywhere, not just here — especially at first, when so little was known about it. Emotions, like viruses, can be contagious. Even in places where contracting the illness was rare, fear kept the energy of our whole nation, and much of the world, clamped down.

That much trapped energy is dangerous. It always re-emerges, usually stronger. Often different.

When I was a kid, I had a bad injury that kept me in a hospital bed, in a dark room, for almost a month. I recovered but was never the same afterward. I’d lost some of my eyesight, yet I “saw” things I wasn’t able to see before — how my parents felt about each other and about me; looks that passed between adults, and how fragile they were. I was eleven, and this pretty much marked the end of my childhood. During that time I discovered a subtle sixth sense that’s never left me.

I wonder now if something similar isn’t happening in America right now.

In the winter, we saw the pandemic visiting other places in the world and we didn’t panic much, because we really didn’t think we were next. Not really. Most of us didn’t, anyway. Those who expected it to come may have thought it wouldn’t change our lives that much. SARS hadn’t, Ebola hadn’t, even H1N1 hadn’t much.

On our screens, we watched the numbers rise around the globe. The graphs seemed unreal, like news footage of wars in distant villages. For years now we’ve been seeing people all over Asia going about their daily lives wearing surgical masks -- on subways and sidewalks, at the grocery store. We didn’t relate to that kind of everyday caution.

Photo: Kate Trifo, Unsplash

When we realized the big virus was coming, was in fact here, most of us assumed we’d get through it as the other countries had done. We'd test, contact trace, quarantine and then re-emerge cautiously, all while waiting for a vaccine.

Instead our numbers rose and rose and kept rising, way past the point anyone could ever have dreamed possible.

So we just clung to the insides of our houses, stunned, waiting to be told it was safe to come out again. Which for some parts of the population still hasn’t happened. To this day We remain in the lead position, worldwide: we have more new cases of virus than anywhere else, more new deaths, and more deaths, total.

In the meantime we've watched our economy falter and fall. And the economic news kept, keeps, washing over us, worse every day.

Mass protests followed. You'd think, wouldn't you, that they would've been about our virus response (if you can even call it a response; it seems like this government mostly wants to ignore this crisis). Or about the economy -- so many of us losing our jobs, income, security, almost overnight. But it was about a social issue: systematic racism, and how deadly it is for fragile communities, especially the black community, and especially in relation to the police.

Although racial justice seems unrelated to a worldwide pandemic, it's not. In a lot of ways this crisis, like any other our nation goes through as a whole, illuminates and intensifies challenges that have long existed. In this case, the disproportionate numbers of illness and death from the virus among minorities, to name one. Two, the unequal access to healthcare in America. Three, income disparities overall, which have gotten so extreme in this country, especially under Trump.

So nothing was unconnected at all. The energy that has been accumulating in America these last three years as fear, as dread, as waiting, now urgently needs a way to escape. It's finding that way through mass public protest. At least, that's my theory.

Needless to say, much of that energy had been building for a long time before COVID came.

We can try to go back and find the moment it started — not racism itself of course but the pain people have been in during these last years of great change. Did it pre-date Trump's Presidency? Should we focus on Inauguration Day, 2009, when Barack Obama took office not knowing that the entire Republican party had decided to block every action he took as President?

Was it the day Donald Trump famously came down that golden escalator, looking like deliverance to some people, and calamity to others?

Photo: Nicholas Lobos, Unsplash

I want to believe that the shock and horror people felt watching George Floyd die on video was shared by all of us — in the U.S. and everywhere else. As humans, surely indifference was impossible. That video was the starkest, most brutal depiction of casual racism most of us can imagine.

But what did Floy's death land on top of? Would the 2020 protests have been as intense and widespread as they've been if we hadn’t, as a nation, been through the last two fraught Presidencies, then confined for months, trying to wait out COVID-19?

Action often follows outrage. In this case, it seemed to happen fast. Less than 24 hours after the George Floyd video went viral, protesters took to the streets.

But was it fast?

Photo: Alex Radelich, Unsplash

I believe rage has been simmering through all of Trump’s presidency. Yes, these protests are about one man, George Floyd. But they’re also about the many people who have died or been harmed in police custody, as he was. They’re about how much more likely Black Americans are to be stopped by police, frisked by police, beaten by police, charged by police, and killed by police. And they’re about the daily lives of Black Americans, who fear police not as a singular threat but as one of so many others, in a country that’s always saying we’re all equal but has never acted like it.

I believe it goes even deeper, and wider, than that. I believe Americans generally — Trump supporters being still in the minority — have had enough of a society that’s so grossly unfair at this point, it rivals nations where the masses have, in fact, risen up.

I don’t know if that’s what’s happening right now but I know the protesters showed up every day for weeks to walk in the heat, the rain, the darkness, or to face tear gas and rubber bullets, often with counter-protesters screaming at them, spitefully mask-free.

They were angry but it was a just anger. Look at what sparked it. Look at what has been happening for so, so long.

Some were lawless but the huge majority were peaceful, respectful and dignified. Chased, jeered at, called looters, called lots of things, the protesters kept on for reasons other than wanting to “just get out of the house and make trouble,” as some have said.

Others have said they wanted to re-create the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. But it wasn’t that, either. It wasn’t even all about George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and the others, or about our terrible race wars, per se.

I think it was about a large segment of American society in 2020 rising up to begin creating something better than what we’ve had. It was about coalescing into a group that would not, will not, elect leaders like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Senators willing to accept high levels of pay and public respect without doing their jobs.

This group will be the group that finally takes on climate change in earnest. It will be the group that makes sure movements like #MeToo and BLM lead to lasting change. It will be the group to finally get schools and infrastructure funded, reduce college debt among our young adults, raise the minimum wage, and legislate affordable public health care.

I think we’re seeing the birth of a change generation.

Like any birth, it comes with pain. We are crying out right now. But the tears on our faces aren’t just from grief or rage. In some deep part of our collective psyche, we may be rejoicing, too.

It feels so good to finally speak out and take action. It feels so good when what has been under the surface festering gets dug up, aired out, and examined. If we plan to keep it, we have to clean it up.

I hope we do.

Photo: Barry Weatherall, Unsplash

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