A Helicopter over the Neighborhood
I live on Chicago’s South Side, which has seen more than its share of protests over the last few weeks. They began right after May 25th, spread into Chicago by the last days of May, and continue to simmer with announcements of new gatherings.
Most of the protests around here have been mostly peaceful–but not entirely. When I search social media, it takes very little effort to find videos from my neighborhood of the police hitting protestors, restraining and arresting demonstrators, and “kettling” (i.e., surrounding) crowds.
When the police descended on this neighborhood, they brought a jolt to the senses: roaring in with all their vehicles–cars, SUVS, vans, buses, I don’t know what it all was–and running the sirens until they bled into the background, just above the level of awareness, like static. Then there is the shriek of whistles, yells and counter-yells, commands and chants, and the drone of the media helicopters that try to get the view of everything at once.
In this country protests are not common, or not treated as common. When a protest happens, people look, and may feel the need to react (whoops, yells, horns, jeers etc.). They draw attention, mostly a stare, because the crowd asserts a freedom that is merely implicit on all the days without protests. On the average day, the average person moves across paths that have already been walked. Anyone who lives in a city has them. If we wore paint on our shoes every time we went outside, they’d be laid out like train tracks staked in the ground: from home to work, from home to a few stores, maybe to somewhere at night.
But a protest is a different movement through space, and a different use of time.
The parties–participant, observer, and police–don’t know where they are supposed to walk; they don’t know what they are supposed to say, they don’t know what they are supposed to do next, if “supposed to” means that there is an expectation of how this largely symbolic event plays out. There is no “supposed to” in the protests right now because the protests have not (yet) been given a purpose and a goal like daily life is supposed to have.1 No one thinks the protests will change anything by themselves; they signal a mood, a message, an intention. The protest is always the beginning: so where does it end, and why does it end?
Not all behavior is supposed to accomplish something; or rather, some behavior accomplishes something just by being acted out. But life in the United States in 2020 does not always encourage its citizens to think about their behavior in symbolic terms. Americans are reasonable people; we do stuff; we get stuff done. Maybe we are particularly prone to forgetting the symbolic dimension of the everyday, mistaking what is accomplished under the name of the symbol for the symbol itself.
If a workplace has a dress code, it is all-too-easy to forget to inquire into what it actually means. There is the uniform of the police officer, the professional athlete, the general professional in a suit or–now just as common now–the nonchalant “business casual.” Each has its purpose: the shield with the badge number, the utility belt, the gun, the featherweight mesh, the jacket with its straight lines, the jeans and lightly wrinkled dress shirt. Or, each had a purpose at one time. And that purpose was added to the script, a backstory that could be memorized if it was not understood. After the parts of the uniform became the uniform, it took effort to remember why each piece was chosen, to weigh what it actually does against what it is supposed to do. The whole is less than the sum of the parts (what is the tie for again? or the gun?). The whole, by being a whole, gains the right to speak for itself. The whole carries the presumption of a purpose even if the story of the pieces has been forgotten.
To inquire into the purpose of something can be a dangerous act. It asks others to remember lines they are supposed to know but may not have recited in a while. Maybe the lines were never learned that well, already forgotten by the previous generation who were the teachers.
What makes these protests so volatile is that the police are both the target of the protests and the ones keeping order. They are the guards whose reason for existing is being questioned on the job. When protestors go out into the streets to confront law enforcement, to speak publicly about the death of a citizen for which they hold the police collectively responsible, the protestors are opening up a live conversation about purposes, about backstories. All this is behind the call to “defund the police,” so jarring to the ears of those hearing it for the first time. It’s a request to return to the beginning of the whole deal, when the uniform was still being assembled.
Over the course of these protests, it is clear that many have less freedom to engage in open-ended symbolic expression than they are supposed to have. They are watched from above, “kettled” into smaller and smaller spaces on the ground. Their communications are monitored. What hasn’t been decided yet is if it's still possible to have a real conversation about the status quo.
- It seems certain that part of the power and ferociousness of these protests must be attributed to the overturning of daily life by the pandemic.