In a book I once read of the slogans spray-painted around Paris during the May 1968 worker-student uprisings of the time, sprinkled amongst the more-famous quotes (“Be realistic: demand the impossible” or “under the paving stones, the beach”) the one that stuck with me the most read, simply, “Quick!”
I loved it because it meant the anonymous author understood the moment he or she was living through: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move the needle, a moment when what was just days or weeks ago thought impossible (however desirable), now might not only be possible but seems almost within reach already; a re-arranging of reality. A chance, at long last, for progress. Not the slow, frustrating, one step forward, one step back charade that’s too often labeled progress even by those most engaged in it, but real progress, the kind of quantum leap after which the old world seems already sepia-toned and somehow almost quaint (if frequently awfully so).
Yes, many times, it is at least in part the hard, grueling work done by those who could not abide the status quo so much that they spent their energies and lives in a usually fruitless push toward something different, better, which is what helps lead (eventually) to moments like now. But too often, work that fruitless winds up changing those who engage in it, from well-intentioned idealists with vision and goals into jaded careerists who come to enjoy the feeling of failure (or at least non-success) and the taste of the bit in their mouths. Either way, when that moment arrives, the first task of those who are living through it must be to realize it for what it is, and the second must be: to be prepared to engage in new ways of thinking and acting, because the moment does not last forever, though the changes it brings about in consciousness and our shared perception of the fabric of reality itself can be and often indeed are permanent.
That’s why the forces of repression, from entrenched interests to the simple revanchist instinct for things to remain as they are, work so mightily all the time — but especially when the ground seems like it might be shifting — to re-establish themselves, to reassert control, to crush the shoots of the new, the hopeful, the better and insist that in fact, they were right all along and nothing better is possible.
It is a lie, it always has been. But we believe it because, well, everyone else seems to believe it as well, and for most of us, a Quixotic life of energy spent in a frustrating quest to change things that seem intractable and which many people don’t even agree need to be changed, seems wasteful. Better to drink or screw or study or even become a useful cog in someone else’s machine.
But every once in a while, a set of circumstances coalesces in a way that no one at the time quite understands why, to provide an environment where people’s ability to understand some things, and to tolerate some things, changes — or at least has the possibility to change. It happened in Paris in May of 1968. It is happening now. George Floyd’s death is arguably no more horrible than Philando Castile’s or Sandra Bland’s or Tamir Rice’s. Yet something this time is different. I don’t know if it’s the combination of the exhaustion of quarantine, exhaustion with Trump, the economic effects of the virus, or some combination. Maybe it’s just a tipping point, but America seems poised to recognize potentially a whole host of things. Things like the fact that we’ve allowed “lower taxes” Republicanism to bleed our communities dry of nearly every public resource with the exception of the police. Social workers, job training centers, housing assistance — all of these (and many more) have been on life support while both parties have for decades told us (sold us) the falsehood that what we really need is to “put 100,000 more police on the ground” (thanks, Bill Clinton) and turn over all the problems, from mental health treatment to domestic violence mediation, to men armed with guns and increasingly given “warrior training.” And that if we want to change that, we need to not only reimagine and recast the police fundamentally, but all of the rest of society, of public life in America, as well.
How much we progress on these things will be decided right now. In the next few weeks or months, if even that long. Exchanging Biden for Trump will not do it, alone. A President Biden who feels not a bit of his toes held to the fire will be the President of chumminess with James O. Eastland and Strom Thurmond. No. We – all of us – have to demand that “going back to normal” (or “to brunch”) is simply not enough. White people must be active allies to black people. All people must reject business as usual. If we do not seize this opportunity while the situation is still fluid, no (or very little) progress will be made.