Letter From an Ally

The exasperation and confusion about looting that I see in on TV news makes me wonder if anyone else remembers the past three months. The United States just horrifically botched its response to a hundred-year plague. At least 112,000 people died. They were our mothers and our fathers. They were our daughters and our sons.  As their bodies filled the graves, the people in power called for workers to sacrifice themselves and their elderly relatives in the name of the economy. Unemployment claims soared into the millions. Some people have waited for unemployment benefits for ELEVEN weeks because many state unemployment systems were built to fail. The mortgage and rent forgiveness programs were insufficient to the scale and duration of the problem. Now, many are facing eviction in the middle of a plague. The danger hasn't passed, but the few relief measures extended to working people are disappearing anyway. Those who still have jobs are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions. We jump every time someone clears their throat. All the while, the news reports from other countries remind us that these horrors were avoidable.

Over the past three months, the message from many of our leaders has been simple and clear: DIE. It's too expensive or inconvenient to do the simple things that we need to do to keep you alive. Your life doesn't matter to us. Die. 

Some of us already knew how that felt. The mountain of dead brown and black bodies taught us that lesson. But, in the last three months, we all learned the difference between cynically believing that there is no one looking out for you, and watching men in hazmat suits dig mass graves for THOUSANDS OF HUMAN BEINGS that DID NOT HAVE TO DIE. Recent murders by police and vigilantes reinforced the horrific lesson of the past three months, a lesson that many black and brown people already knew in their bones: the systems that are supposed to protect us are hostile to our existence.

So, why are these protests different from the hundreds of mostly peaceful protests against police brutality we have seen over the past decades? Why are we seeing unusual levels of support and understanding for the rioters? It’s because we are tired of seeing bodies added to the pile, because the staggering cowardice and incompetence of our leaders has literally left millions of Americans with nothing left to lose. If the system refuses to show you respect, why would you show it any? 

Looting and property damage are not my favorite things, but anyone who believes that this chaos is not INEVITABLE is being naive. It is like being mad at water for being wet or fire for being hot. When people are desperate, not free, and convinced that their rulers are hostile to them, they will revolt. What did we think would happen? Like it or not, this chaos is here to stay. The rioting may have diminished, in some places, for now, but as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, it will be back and it will be worse unless we build a system that’s worthy of our respect. We can wag our fingers disapprovingly and decry the disappearance of civility all day long, but it won’t do us any good. It only takes one person in a crowd to light up a courthouse or set a fire in the National Mall. You can convince 10,000 people to protest peacefully, but 50 angry people will still be able to light the city on fire. This is especially true when many police insist on throwing tantrums: kicking handcuffed, kneeling women; pushing photographers into fires, knocking down 75-year-old men, and permanently blinding peaceful protesters. 

When we condemn looting, we aren’t wrong, but we are wasting our breath. Instead, we need to have the courage to make real changes. Ultimately, we need to reduce police power, shrink the scope of their responsibilities, and use the savings to invest in our communities. There are evidence-based solutions that need to be implemented right now (see for example CampaignZero.com). But, we cannot stop marching, donating, boycotting and yes, credibly threatening to defund police departments until we have built a system that values our lives. If we shrink from this moment and meekly accept cosmetic reforms, we will only have ourselves to blame. Our choice is simple: if we want peace, we need justice. Without justice, we would all be fools to expect peace.

About the Author

Baltazar Zuniga is a PhD Candidate at Vanterbilty University in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences program.

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