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After the Lockdown, the Jailbreak

If there's finally an effective antidote to cynicism, it's people in the streets.

People hold banners during a protest over the death killing of George Floyd on June 2, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

What’s going on? We had lockdown, we've got jailbreak.

But the prisoners aren’t running away; they’re marching, chanting, getting rearrested for the cause of justice. They’re risking infection, in fact, they’re embracing a new infection —  people power. Their risk is not in trying to reopen an economy, but to rebirth social justice, racial justice, just economy. Any regime, even a corrupt one, can create a burgeoning economy; only a democracy can build social justice.

What’s going on? America has gagged on itself. Three more murders of innocent, unarmed Black people — Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Too much to swallow. The right response? A great paroxysm,  a struggling, heaving, effort to expel the gnarled mass of our indigestible hobgoblin history. Not easy. Every organ of the body politic is complicit, bound into systems of wealth and labor exploitation, racial oppression, environmental desecration, militarism, freedom of giant corporations to engineer a society for their own benefit. Time to regurgitate, turn ourselves inside out.

What’s going on? It’s not the coronavirus lockdown that’s being challenged now. It’s 400 years of lockdown in hypocrisy. No matter who you are, what color you are, what ethnicity, winners or losers, we all have been trapped in the same history — unable to fully admit it, unable to break free of it. The exalted claims of this history habitually insult its own reality. For native people, black people, all people of color, all the marginalized — finally a reckoning.

What’s going on? The campaign for president is not assaulting us with billion dollar ads, dark money PACs, talking points, talking heads, and spin doctors. Not being run by manipulation and bullshit. The campaign is being waged by the people in the streets — exuberant, raw, messy. Not mail in ballots, but march in. If there’s finally an effective antidote to cynicism, it’s people in the streets. Many politicians are in denial, trying to shut it down (How dare the people direct their own country!), or they are trotting along behind, hoping to catch up with the right message. Even the opportunists, the provocateurs of both the left and the right, are not able to derail the  people’s will of love and anger, grief and hope, resistance and redirection.

What’s going on? Extreme times produce extreme situations. We see a contemporary version of lions lying down with the lambs — the cops kneeling with the protesters. Looks like compassion and understanding; yes, but it’s also power being reconfigured. And have we ever seen anything more strange, more ludicrous or pathetic, than the Devil holding up the Bible to justify  God-given authority to use violence against peaceful demonstrators? (Even stranger would be this same Devil laying his right hand on the Bible and swearing to tell the truth.)  But hasn’t that image — the Devil with his Bible — haunted this country? Isn’t that the trope Trump was channeling?  White supremacy holding up the Bible to justify slavery, lynching and Jim Crow; men holding up the Bible to justify dominating women; corporations holding up the Bible to sanctify the destruction of nature; creationists holding up the Bible to disprove evolutionary science; militarists holding up the Bible  proclaiming that God loves war; prigs holding up the Bible to command sexual conformity. We can be damn sure our current Devil has never read any further into the Bible than the KKK’s Grand Dragon has read into the Declaration of Independence.

I was a young activist in the 1960s, marching, protesting, committing civil disobedience in the struggle for civil rights and ending the Vietnam War. But I’ve never seen the sudden vibrancy nor persistent urgency of this moment. A perfect storm: Trump, appalling racist murders, 110,000 Covid-19 deaths and  all the inequalities the pandemic exposes, failure to act on climate change, Mitch McConnell, a handful of billionaires having more wealth than the rest of the country combined, the stock market rising while millions suffer and lose their jobs, a government refusing to solve problems so it can play off the divisions they cause. So what’s going on? Where there’s a vacuum of wisdom, compassion, decency, justice,  equality, care and honesty, the people flood in.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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