The ongoing protests against racist police violence, which have taken place in every state in the United States and are now in their third week, have offered endless illuminations of the political and moral urgency of the moment and the conditions that preceded it. Long-standing racial and economic inequalities—that allowed hospitals, education, and other community resources to starve while police budgets expanded—and the inadequate and often incoherent government response to the pandemic—which has so far led to the deaths of more than 110,000 people in the U.S. and put more than 21 million out of work—were kindling for unrest. The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, captured on video, lit the match. Despite violent police crackdowns and citywide curfews, the marches—those peaceful and those less so—have carried on, even growing in some places. And while these uprisings have already generated proposals to cut police budgets and shifted public opinion, their full meaning is still unfolding. “Only time will tell whether this moment is really different, or whether black Americans have merely thirsted for so long that we are drinking sand,” the sociologist and author Tressie McMillan Cottom recently said. “The United States has the remarkable ability to reconstitute old oppressions from the ashes of social movements.”
In addition to propelling new policy shifts, the mass demonstrations have sparked a parallel rise in small, sometimes unexpected acts of solidarity by people not immediately involved in direct actions. City bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York, for instance, refused to transport arrested demonstrators at the behest of the police. (After a Brooklyn bus driver refused police orders to shuttle protesters from the Barclays Center to the precinct for processing, the bus drivers’ union tweeted, “TWU Local 100 Bus Operators do not work for the NYPD. We transport the working families of NYC.”) In an affluent Washington, D.C., neighborhood, resident Rahul Dubey opened his front door to let in around 70 protesters who were cornered, beaten, and pepper-sprayed by the police, helping them avoid arrest and further violence. Dubey’s neighbors passed him milk over their fences for washing the pepper-sprayed protesters’ eyes; one ordered pizza for them. Off the streets, an army of K-pop fans flooded a number of reactionary hashtags on social media with “fancam” videos to drown out racist material. (K-pop has a surprisingly international and multiracial fanbase, and the K-pop group BTS recently donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, an amount that was promptly matched by the band’s fans.) In New York City, establishments from the Brooklyn Museum to bodegas have opened their doors (and bathrooms) to passing protesters. If the protests have demanded neighborhoods made safe through social provision, rather than police presence, then these actions have functioned as a real-time response in miniature.
At the same time, each of these evocative if small expressions of care is also a kind of inadvertent condemnation of the lack of institutions that have the leverage to press for sweeping change in this moment. We have frightfully few options for retooling our broken social order in the absence of, say, a strong labor movement or an effective opposition party, let alone an actual left-wing political party. Our consequent reliance on individual action has the effect of being simultaneously deeply moving and deeply unsettling. A moment in which the government has offered only the most perfunctory aid to alleviate mass unemployment, while also threatening to deploy the military to contain protesters, necessitates such actions, and people have risen to the occasion, as they’ve always done, in ways large and small.
At the end of May, a group of volunteers in Minneapolis converted a former Sheraton hotel into a homeless shelter in the memory of George Floyd—himself a former shelter worker—and for a brief period, the result was a breathtaking, evolving experiment in what might be called mutual aid, or simply just human decency. “In less than 24 hours, we housed nearly 200 people and are now organizing meals, first aid, and harm-reduction services, security teams, and housekeeping to make a home for people in need during the worst pandemic in recent history,” the volunteers wrote. Because its very existence indicts our absurdly deficient federal and municipal solutions to homelessness—for example, the city of Las Vegas painting social distancing boxes on pavement for homeless people to sleep on, while its hotels went mostly shuttered—such a project is at once inspiring and entirely gut-wrenching. Similarly, as protests unfolded, the spread of bail fund donation links was so rapid—and the outpouring of support so overwhelming—that after only a few days, a number of early funds started asking people to send their money elsewhere. With so many protesters facing the double edge of Covid-related unemployment and new medical bills after being targeted for violence by police at demonstrations, others have stepped in to fill the gap with more individual donations.
And as is usually the case, this instinct toward care and accountability has been fed through a fun-house mirror among the country’s wealthiest. Celebrities and “influencers” have predictably been the worst offenders, and their responses to the current unrest have ranged from tone-deaf (Olivia Jade Giannulli, who was admitted to the University of Southern California on the basis of bribes paid by her mother, Lori Loughlin, waxed about white privilege on social media) to hypocritical (Mark Wahlberg, who has a history of multiple racist assaults, issued a tepid statement of support for Black Lives Matter) to opportunistic (at least one Instagram model was caught staging a photo op at a protest).
But returning to the meaningful acts of mutual care, we remain in a strange holding pattern. Small actions of solidarity are, by their nature, incomplete endeavors to remake our world. In the end, though, that says somewhat less about these activities themselves or individuals that undertake them than about the implosion of the social contract at large. Margaret Thatcher once famously quipped, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Unfortunately, after decades of a world structured by the punishing and atomizing economic system that Thatcher herself helped create, she’s more or less right. The point, however, is to build one.