Notes from the heart of this collapsing empire

Twenty months ago, Bill the spouse and I moved back to live in Washington DC fulltime after living in “bucolic” Charlottesville, VA for 21 years. Three months ago, the Covid-19 crisis found us here; and since then I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how starkly the three braided strands of this crisis expose the deep (fundamental) flaws in “The American Way.” These strands are:

  • The crisis of public health
  • The crisis of the economy, and
  • The crisis of shattered social trust.

The events we’ve seen in nearly every US city over the past ten days have revealed the crisis of shattered social trust in an inescapable way; and the events here in DC as much as anywhere else. Here, we saw very lively protests against the national scourge of police brutality against African Americans be themselves very brutally suppressed (last Monday evening) at the orders of a president who talked endlessly about the need to “dominate” the protesters and also about the need to “activate Barr”– an appeal whose importance would only too rapidly become clear.

Trump’s calls to “dominate” were amplified even more hideously by Secretary of Defense, Mike Esper, who urged the forces of repression to “dominate the battlespace”– a mil-speak way of referring to American cities.

Esper walked back his belligerency the next day, but the damage had been done. Between 6pm and 7pm last Monday evening, a terrifying alphabet-soup of federal and local-city forces, including two low-flying helicopters, expelled the protesters completely from Lafayette Park, the green space just north of the White House. Some of the local-city forces then chased protesters into small streets, attempting to kettle and subdue/mass-arrest them there.

On Tuesday, there were (believe it or not) primary elections in this virus-plagued and openly protesting city. For most DC residents, these are the key local elections, since the DC Council swings heavily Democratic. Thus, the key races are for the Dem nomination. In the Ward 4 primary, sitting Council member Brandon Todd, a longtime ally of the until-now very pro-business Mayor, Muriel Bowser, got outvoted by self-avowed Democratic Socialist Janeese Lewis George. We can surmise this came as a bit of a shock to Mayor Bowser.

The street protests continued all week, becoming considerably less confrontational once the forces of “law and order” took steps to de-escalate. On Tuesday, both SecDef Esper and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear they did not support the use of the U.S. military against U.S. protesters in U.S. cities. There is something in US law called the Insurgency Act that does allow such use of the troops– but the bar for that to happen is still, Esper noted, very much higher than anything that has happened in U.S. cities so far.

On Monday night, in addition to the helicopters that flew dangerously low over the crowds in at least two places, there were contingents of the US “National Guard” reserve forces with helmets and other combat gear and large automatic weapons in the streets and this terrifyingly unaccountable alphabet-soup of other federal forces– from the DEA, FBI, Secret Service, CPB, ICE, HSB, Park Police, etc– many of them also heavily armed and often with no insignia on their (generally dark-blue) uniforms, at all. Since many of these well-armed paramilitary units are under the direction of the “Justice” Department, it can be guessed that this was what Trump was talking about when he vowed to “activate” something to do with his slyly noxious Attorney-General, Bill Barr.

And units of the 82nd Airborne had been flown up to the city to wait as a back-up force.

Much of the second half of the week was taken up with Mayor Bowser trying to rein in the president’s deployment and potential employment (use) of these federal forces.

National Guard units in this country have a strange status. Nearly all of them are under some degree of the command of the states in which they are headquartered, though the federal Department of Defense can also call them up for duty in national military efforts. However, DC is not itself a state– so it is the only mainland-US jurisdiction in which the National Guard is wholly under the command of the President with no local control over it, at all.

The National Guard units that have been in DC this week have come from the DC National Guard and from the National Guards of a number of Republican, pro-Trump states. By Thursday or so, they were deploying in a much less confrontational and aggressive way: soft caps instead of helmets, no guns. (Today, Trump finally announced that he has ordered the NG to start withdrawing from Washington.)

Bowser was clearly arm-wrestling with Trump for control of the city’s streets. On Friday, after he directed yet another barrage of demeaning tweets against her, she famously renamed the area of 16th Street just north of Lafayatte Square as “Black Lives Matter Plaza”, directing city workers to paint the name in very large letters onto that section of the street itself– as seen above.

This morning, I was one of a group of about a dozen Quakers who held an “at-distance” Quaker meeting for worship down on BLM Plaza. We sat (mainly) in an at-distance circle atop the top half of the “R” in “MATTER”. The distancing generally worked well for our group; and nearly all the people out enjoying the sunshine and the sense of community on the plaza were masked. I was facing south and could easily see, atop the White House, the half-dozen or so spindly high sniper stands that were placed there, with a couple of tiny black figures hefting very large power-rifle cases between them.

Trump withdrawing the National Guard will be good. We also need Bill Barr to withdraw all his quite unaccountable “little blue men” from the city. The DC police itself needs considerable retraining (restraining) and defunding… and of course the whole issue of “Taxation Without Representation” that we DC residents suffer from needs to be urgently addressed.

Nationwide, the whole issue of the violence of our heavily over-militarized police has now moved front-and-center of the political system. There has been surge of support for the numerous protests all over the country, and for the protesters’ urgent calls for deep reforms. This should have a huge effect on the all the elections due this November– if we are allowed to have them. The strength of the “white backlash” has thus far been much smaller than many of us feared.

Meantime, I am really happy that Just World Educational will be launching, this Wednesday, our new webinar series which will be a series of discussions I’ll have with some wonderful people, on the shape of the global order after the eruption of the Covid crisis. Learn more about this project here. First up will be:

  • Richard Falk, June 10
  • Medea Benjamin, June 17
  • Bill Fletcher, Jr., June 24.

Do sign up to register for these webinars if you haven’t done so yet! You can do so, here.