Why were the protests and riots of 2020 so explosive?
George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman ended a two-month period of induced quietude due to the pandemic, and it marked the resumption of an age of turbulence and revolt. The protests that erupted after the incident, often attended by violence and destruction, should appear familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the world over the last decade. From Paris to Hong Kong, from Mogadishu to Bogotá, an unruly public has been on the march against governments of every description. The Covid-19 lockdown was a lid placed on this sociopolitical cauldron. Pressure was released, explosively, the instant the lid was cracked open.
The current unrest had an immediate trigger and responded to a specific grievance about racial injustice and police misbehavior. It also connected to something bigger and deeper: the tectonic collision between a public empowered by digital platforms and the elites who control the ruling institutions of modern society. George Floyd’s brutal killing, coldly considered, can be interpreted in different ways. Why have so many come to perceive it as a call to action? How did a local instance of apparent police inhumanity expand, with vertiginous speed, into a street revolt that has absorbed the attention of the country and the world?
Given the complexity of the matter, I will stick to the three pieces of the puzzle that I find most significant.
The first is the enormous persuasive power of the information sphere. Today, we swim in an ocean of information that carries us, willing or not, toward particular destinations. George Floyd died before a battery of cell-phone cameras. One horrific video went massively viral: without this direct visual experience, it is unlikely that such a remote event could have been transformed into a global cause. We watch Floyd die with our own eyes and share in the anger and disgust of the crowd. Sheltered in our homes, far from the strife in Minneapolis, we have been swept along to certain political conclusions.
In a real sense, the digital environment represents the triumph of the image over the printed word. Because it provides the illusion of immediacy, the visual is viscerally persuasive: not surprisingly, the web-savvy public has learned to deploy images to powerful political effect. A photo of Mohamed Bouazizi burning alive sparked the protests in Tunisia that inaugurated the Arab Spring in 2011. As I write, we are flooded with images from dozens of U.S. cities in turmoil, a visual argument about the fragility of government control. Night photos of flaming buildings “drive the mission forward,” as one young street warrior put it. The Yellow Vest rebels of France insisted that, without images of burned banks and vandalized monuments, the media would pay no attention to their movement. That was undoubtedly correct.
Beyond offering the capacity to repurpose these images, share the catchiest slogans, and plan the next assault—all at the speed of light—the digital universe gives insurgents the chance to ride a herding effect to command attention. The information sphere today contains an immense universe of voices interested in talking about ever-fewer subjects. For three years, for example, we have been allowed to express whatever opinion we wished—so long as it was about Donald Trump. This impoverishment of reality created the illusion of magnitude: Trump seemed to tower like a colossus over our lives. Covid-19, as a story, pushed Trump into the shadows and became, in terms of the amount of human attention it commanded, the most frightful event in history.
The video killing of George Floyd then banished the pandemic story. Protesters and rioters, not government or media, owned our mediated attention, and their sense of the enormity of the crime, as well as of the transformative nature of the protests themselves, became our default reality, not just in the U.S. but globally. Huge demonstrations against racism have taken place, from France to New Zealand. But this, too, is a distortion. The information sphere has taken on the traits of an obsessive-compulsive personality; its fixations, always mistaken for public opinion, will wander again, leaving would-be revolutionaries baffled and outraged.
The second piece of the puzzle concerns the mind-set of the protesters. To understand this, we must first grasp that the public is many, not one. Digital herding on subject matter is matched, when it comes to political opinion, by a fracturing of the public into raging war-bands. Protesters today might be anarchists, Black Lives Matter enthusiasts, Bernie Sanders–style progressives, identitarians of contradictory kinds, old-fashioned liberals, or vaguely idealistic twentysomethings. Their visions of the future diverge wildly, but they are united and mobilized by a shared loathing of the established order. They stand ferociously against. They see the present as a nightmare of injustice. That, incidentally, can be true for both the Right and the Left: the Right glorifying America’s past as the greatness from which we have fallen, the Left rejecting that past as a fallen state that pollutes the present.
The repudiation of everything in a free, reasonably prosperous democratic society echoes the web’s rhetoric of the rant but probably springs from deeper sources. Lacking community and religion, a significant percentage of the public has looked for personal meaning in utopian political aspirations that invariably collide with reality. The pose of universal grievance may well be based in a politics of cultural despair.
The protests I have studied have had speed and agility but little depth. The same slogans appear around the world: “I can’t breathe,” “Silence is violence,” “Black Lives Matter.” Beyond the slogans, we hear the same calls for generalities like “racial equity” or “social justice.” Beyond that, there’s nothing—no agreed-upon proposals to achieve these ideals, no organization, no leadership, no coherent ideology. Any hint of a positive program would likely shatter the movement into its component war-bands, so revolt has come to mean an exercise in pure negation, in the repudiation of the status quo without an alternative in sight. At this point, the question of nihilism becomes impossible to avoid.
A frenzy of violence, arson, and looting accompanied the first days of the Floyd protests. The protesters insisted that we make a sharp distinction between these two events—but one wonders. Nihilism is the belief that the destruction of the system is a form of progress, without any obligation to erect a substitute. If you believe, as many protesters do, that the U.S. was “founded on genocide and slavery,” and is today dominated by white supremacists, the implications are self-evident. In a sense, the arsonists and looters can be said to have acted out the principles that the protesters merely mouthed.
The last piece of the puzzle is the behavior of elected officials. I have written of a crisis of authority: this was a collapse in the self-confidence of our ruling elites. It started at the top. President Trump alternated between bluster about shooting looters and bizarre photo ops. The president has been roundly criticized for his actions, but every other elite player in this drama behaved as egregiously. While Minneapolis burned, Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota rambled on about how the people of his state were “second in happiness behind Hawaii.” Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis, claimed involvement in the riots by “white supremacists, members of organized crime,” and “possibly even foreign actors,” raising the specter of Russian president Vladimir Putin walking the mean streets of his city. Frey sobbed as he knelt by Floyd’s casket. The governor of Georgia burst into tears while discussing the damage to Atlanta. It was a display of infantile panic by the people who should have been the adults in the room.
With some notable exceptions, local police performed as if they had never been trained for civil disturbances—disappearing in the face of mass lawlessness or at times aggravating the situation with excessive force. For this, too, we must hold their elected masters responsible. After severe looting in New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo observed that “the NYPD and mayor did not do their job.” That was true all around. Many of the officials involved were liberal Democrats who shared the ideals of the protesters and were paralyzed by fear of doing anything that might transform them into villains of the narrative. They refused to discriminate between protesters and criminals and were content to pass the blame to white supremacists, Putin, or Trump.
The demonstrable failure of our political elites during this episode can be added to the long roster of disasters they have mismanaged. Those in charge continue to bleed out authority, and the democratic institutions they represent have begun to totter. Since we, the voters, elevated them to office, the supreme lesson of this troubled moment should probably be how to replace them with competent grown-ups. But that is another story.
Photo: The digital universe gives insurgents the power to command attention—for a time. (DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES)
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