A pandemic is sweeping the country, driving over 40 million Americans out of work. Protests have sprung up in major cities and small towns, citizens pouring into the streets to rally against police violence and racial injustice. A record seventy-five percent of the country think we’re on the wrong track, as democracy of the people, by the people and, most especially, for the people is perishing. There is unprecedented unrest and uprising, all of it seemingly bent on a single demand: racial injustices in policing must end. And if the people who really run this country have their way, those particular injustices will end…and then we’ll all sit down and shut up once again.
Reforms to halt police brutality and unequal treatment by our criminal justice system are needed. But to pretend that this will solve our problems, that this is the full measure of what people are truly crying out for, is naïve — or more aptly, sleight-of-hand. It’s an easy, corporate-friendly answer. Look over here as we grapple with your visible and obvious problem, while we continue to enable the rot and corruption that engendered the ills to fester beneath. Notice how Citi, Google, Apple, and Amazon all immediately jumped aboard the virtue signaling yacht. JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon even knelt before a bank vault in hilariously on-the-nose, unintended parody (he just forgot to turn around). They clamber not only to broadcast their support for the protests (because, yes, people are keeping track), but to define and contain them.
Of course they would; police reform, even large-scale dismantling, costs them nothing. It changes nothing about the underlying foundation of our economic and political systems, systems of which they are the main beneficiaries. The demands to “defund the police,” to focus more resources on alternative strategies and prevention, may have merit; but they serve to divide the country viscerally while, in effect, amounting to nothing more than a political shell game; take some money from this modest community pot and move it to this one, robbing Peter to pay Paul but never touching the overflowing cauldron of riches hidden just out of sight. When an impassioned SEIU union email demands we “invest in COMMUNITIES over COPS,” we unwittingly play right into their hands. Divide and conquer has long been their strategy, and it’s working perfectly yet again.
As protests mount and our cities smolder, our leaders fail to accept any of the responsibility. They either appear to inhabit an alternate universe, or facilely stress that we must stop deadly use of force by police, without a whisper of the myriad other deadly consequences Americans, often especially people of color, increasingly face under Congress’s watch: multi-decade highs in stress, anxiety, depression, drug overdoses, suicide and financial instability. There’s hardly a soul in a position of power or influence who wonders publicly why this might be, or recognizes that racial injustice and police brutality, while vexing problems to be solved, are merely the flashpoints — symptoms of a social complaint that goes much deeper. Our representative democracy continues to fail to represent our interests and the people have finally had enough.
Americans are angry and have every right to be. The social contract we hold up as our ideal has been stripped down and replaced piecemeal until the only thing it now encompasses is fealty to the corporate overlords of our so-called representatives. We’re waking up to the fact that nothing gets passed in Washington until it’s been vetted by corporate interests, often even written in full by the same, dispensing with the middle man entirely. Nothing is done for the good of the people. Partisans contribute to the problem, professional wrestling fans never let in on the joke. They root passionately for their side and boo the other, failing to recognize that the outcome has been predetermined, the paychecks, in the end, all signed by the same organization.
The selling out of America happened under our noses, yes, but in many ways behind our backs. We were each kept busy on our own treadmills; we worked longer hours as our organizations were streamlined, picked up the financial and emotional slack as community programs for our kids were cut, and were left feeling helpless as the increasing stress of life wore away at our relationships. At the end of the day, there was no energy left for civic engagement, just sitting in front of the television, soaking up brainwashing in thirty-second doses from the very corporations who plopped us there. Enter COVID-19. Lockdowns have taken a lot from us, including our jobs. But they’ve given many of us something valuable in return: time and energy to finally pay attention to what’s being done to us, and to do something about it.
This movement may well end when its current demands are met, which they will be — though not before we’ve once again had that perpetually-useful wedge of race relations driven ever deeper. To the corporate class and their cronies, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Those in power are hoping that once we taste a bit of reform, we’ll be ready to go back to our treadmills and couches in gratitude for the way corporate America stood by our side and Congress leapt to meet our demands.
But we won’t; because what they will have conceded will be just the tip of the iceberg of corruption our country has been foundering on for years. This movement must evolve to demand broad reformation, a dismantling of the unjust systems that have been put in place, bit by bit, while we were kept running in place, unable to intervene. And we must reject their attempts to fan the flames of our division, foisting on us the narrative that certain reforms help “them” and hurt “us,” a well-worn tactic that keeps fundamental change always just out of reach.
The evolution of this movement must include the demand for an updated social contract, one we not only cite as an ideal, but one we truly live by — a contract that puts the interests of the people first. Our New American Covenant must be premised on the belief that our society should enable all Americans to thrive, not just those with access to the current levers of power. The levers of American power need to go back where they belong — into the hands of the American people. If we care about the continuation of the Great American Experiment, we’ll put equality and greater economic justice for all at the top of our list of demands. Far from being a newfangled concern of socialists and starry-eyed idealists, as it’s often painted, it’s long been understood to be a critical component of a functioning republic. Whether Plutarch ever said, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,” the historical point stands. When corporate power increasingly drowns out the voice of the people, we become a Democracy in Name Only.
No movement succeeds without a leader. Two recent mass, grassroots movements, Occupy Wall Street and the original, people-powered Tea Party, were co-opted by corporate interests and fizzled from lack of strong leadership and clear demands. Once mistreatment reaches a certain level, the people excel at making it known, but we need to coalesce around someone who not only understands our struggles, but can articulate a clear vision of both the problems and the necessary solutions.
Leadership is, unfortunately, not Washington’s strong suit. A corporate-power-weakened Congress offers nothing but lip service and surface-level solutions as they watch their corporate campaign donations roll in and look toward their cushy post-Congress lobbying gigs. They have the audacity to kneel before us, cameras rolling, as they surreptitiously oversee the largest upward wealth transfer in our nation’s history. This nascent movement of the people, fittingly, must find and elevate a leader outside the traditional halls of American power. We need a new kind of leader who not only sees behind the curtain, but has the courage and integrity to tear it down for good.
Let’s not let these protests simmer down, not let the spark that created them flicker out in vain. Let’s let go of partisan ideologies and scripted responses and pivot our demands to a new birth of freedom that includes us all. No more scapegoating and arguing about whether John Cena or the Undertaker should wear the belt while Vince laughs from the control booth. Let’s tear down the curtain, not each other. Let’s unite alongside a leader with a clear-eyed vision of the America we could be, the one where we all arrive together. In his book The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang reminds us that the better world is still possible. He asks us to come fight with him for a just future for us all. I say it’s time America takes him up on it.