The Atlantic
The Atlantic
New Mexico: Images of the Land of Enchantment
New Mexico is the fifth-largest state by area, and is sparsely populated, with nearly half of the state’s 2.1 million residents living in the Albuquerque metropolitan area. Below are a few glimpses of the diverse geography and history of New Mexico and some of the wildlife and people calling it home.This photo story is part of Fifty, a collection of images from each of the United States.
COVID-19 Won’t Change Us Forever
Soon after COVID-19 struck the United States, prognosticators began sharing a dreary vision of America’s post-pandemic future. Workers will trade mass transit for their cars and abandon cities for “the hinterlands,” proclaimed a contributor to The Washington Post. Sports fans will swap stadiums for man-cave bunkers and music lovers will watch concerts on their screens, predicted a writer for ZDNet. “Coronavirus Could Make Us Wary of Hugs,” a CNET headline warned, and might “change friendship forever,” The Wall Street Journal pronounced. In June, news stories suggested that the pandemic will “forever” change livestock shows, life insurance, banking, the cannabis industry, the beauty industry, college dorms, the NBA, and golf carts. A writer for the Athens Voice in Greece declared that the hunger for safety will destroy individuality. “We will have lost our human character and the characteristics of humanity,” he wrote. “We will live like amoeba.”Amoeba? Really? I have to say that I find these unending “how coronavirus will change us forever” stories insulting. The assumption is that fear will guide our post-coronavirus lives, not for a few years, but forever. The scaredy-pants prophesying in these stories underestimates humanity’s historic toughness—our plague-defying, atrocity-surviving, don’t-mess-with-me grit. Humanity has endured fires, droughts, civil wars, world wars, earthquakes, terrorism, famines, floods, killer bees, Honey Boo Boo, and near-nuclear annihilation. We may be greedy, shortsighted, and violent, but we’re resilient little creatures too. So the idea that we’re destined for a hug-free, homebound future seems, well, offensive.[Read: We’re living in the retro-future]Let’s give ourselves some credit. No matter how horrific the disaster, no matter how damaged our psyches, we wounded humans always bounce back. We rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. We rebuilt Chicago after the great fire. We rebuilt Dresden, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. We grieve, adapt, endure, progress. And frequently we thrive. The Black Death was followed by the Renaissance. The 1918 pandemic was followed by the Roaring Twenties. So why are we destined to become the United States of Agoraphobia, hiding from friends and disinfecting our Amazon packages for years to come?“Trauma like this pervades our subconscious for generations,” an AdAge writer opined, but Americans are adept at shrugging off societal stress and re-embracing normalcy. In an online chat, Thomas Boswell, a baseball authority and columnist for The Washington Post, noted that in 1919, the year after the flu pandemic killed roughly 675,000 Americans (and 50 million people worldwide), Major League Baseball set an attendance record.Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Washington Nationals fan, and while I’d love to watch Max Scherzer and drink an overpriced beer at Nats Park, there’s no way I’d attend a game this year, even if the stadium reopened. I don’t make that decision out of fear. It’s just common sense. We’re only in the second inning of the pandemic, as multiple health experts have stated—and autumn could be worse. But does that mean I’ll avoid the ballpark forever? Will most face-painted fans hide in their homes, particularly if there’s a vaccine? Not likely.[Read: Athletes during the pandemic are learning what fans have always known]Clearly people are suffering—mentally, physically, economically. In a May survey conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Medical School, 55 percent of Americans said they were more stressed than they were before the pandemic. But while our fears can be intense, they’re not necessarily world-changing. As Ruchir Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, wrote in The New York Times, crises rarely change anything. They simply accelerate existing trends. Predicting our long-term future now, when we’re still in the early phases of COVID-19, is like predicting the postwar world three weeks after Pearl Harbor (or, to use the baseball analogy again, like predicting the outcome of a season on opening day). And let’s not forget: Prognostications are an irresistible exercise for many journalists, futurists, and intellectuals, but they’re usually wrong. Remember when the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and others predicted “the death of irony” after 9/11?The September 11 attacks were supposed to change everything about daily life. Our airport experiences were certainly transformed, as we all know from walking beltless and shoeless through security lines, but within three years of 9/11, the airline industry set a record high for passengers, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. While we collectively work to prevent similar tragedies from happening again, we also discover that our desire to explore the world is stronger than our fear.Trauma can even be transformative. Most people are familiar with post-traumatic stress, but the more common reaction is post-traumatic growth (PTG), when people thrive after enduring a negative life-changing event, according to Thalida Arpawong, a faculty member in the Resilience Lab at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. In one study, more than half of trauma survivors said they felt stronger after their experience and had gained a new appreciation for life. In another, survivors of traumatic injuries (primarily from car accidents) viewed their struggles as “a springboard for growth.” PTG can spur people to reconsider priorities, improve relationships, and take bold actions, such as traveling abroad or changing careers. After disasters such as the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and the 2017 fires in Paradise, California, some survivors found that their pain provided new perspective on what’s important.[Read: There’s no going back to ‘normal’]A desire for growth—not the lingering effects of fear—may ultimately fuel our national and personal recovery. COVID-19 has provided an agonizing reminder: Life is precious. Life is short. A long human life lasts only about 650,000 hours, Bill Bryson wrote in A Short History of Nearly Everything. How will we use our time? Before the pandemic, Americans spending roughly three hours and 30 minutes a day on their phone, 90,000 hours of their life at work, and an average of 54 hours a year in traffic (103 hours a year if you live in the Bay Area). But traumatic events are often a personal wake-up call, Arpawong told me. We will likely emerge from the pandemic craving richer, deeper lives, not more screen time or seclusion. To adapt the words of the great American philosopher Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast. If we don’t put on a mask and look around, we might miss something.
How Mass Protests End
Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, crowds demanding racial justice have surged into public spaces across the country and throughout the world—with solidarity actions springing up in South Korea and South Africa, Argentina and Australia. Domestically, demonstrations have materialized not only in major cities, but also in small-town America, including places with deeply conservative populations. As several political scientists noted in The Washington Post, "The United States rarely has protests in this combination of size, intensity and frequency; it usually has big protests or sustained protests, but not both."When will the protests end? And what will it mean when they do? Although all waves of mass protest are different, they tend to follow a similar course. Demonstrators can’t stay in the streets forever. When they relent, though, that doesn’t mean they have stopped caring—or that the movement is over. After protests die down, their goals and ideas can survive as the ongoing work of organizing continues.While movements as a whole are propelled by long-term vision and deep-seated grievances, mass protests in particular emerge in response to what some theorists call “trigger events.” Here, a dramatic incident such as a natural disaster, a media exposé, a political scandal, or a killing may ignite passions and prompt outrage, sending people into the streets. A moment of unrest may extend for weeks or even months, especially when guided skillfully by organizers.But activists trying to sustain momentum face serious headwinds. The media are fickle in their attention, and a flitting spotlight makes it hard for activists to be seen and to draw in new people. Already, although issues of racial justice raised by the protest remain a crucial part of public discussion, headlines have moved away from focus on street actions and instead turned to stories such as President Donald Trump's reelection rallies and the surge in new coronavirus cases.[Adam Serwer: ‘Protest is the highest form of patriotism’]Another factor that can slow protests is that they demand a serious commitment of time and energy from participants; eventually, many tire out. As the weeks stretch on, the pressures of ordinary life begin to reassert themselves, and people must return to responsibilities that they might have set aside in a moment of crisis. Some of those who are most committed may be encumbered with arrest and subsequent, time-consuming legal entanglements. As just one example, protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention, in Philadelphia, resulted in hundreds of arrests, bail as high as $1 million for those deemed "ringleaders," and a legal battle that took years to resolve.Either due to strategic calculation or exhaustion, some protest participants may divert their energies into more institutional channels. For instance, many of those who protested the Iraq War in early 2003 turned to focus on electoral work by the summer or fall, believing that the campaigns of candidates such as Howard Dean represented the best hope of unseating President George W. Bush and thereby ending the war.Political officials and other targets of protests may offer short-term concessions to movements or invite high-profile activists to sit on commissions and propose policy solutions. Optimists might cite these as positive examples of reform. Critics are more likely to label them examples of “co-optation” and point out that the changes enacted are only small steps toward addressing the root causes of an issue. Depending on the particulars, either or both assessments could be right (although the fact that corporate PR agencies recommend task forces and advisory boards as means of "managing activism" would suggest that skepticism is warranted). Regardless, the perception that something is being done to address protesters’ concerns can serve to blunt public discontent.For all of these reasons, and with the passage of time, the initial shock of the trigger event fades. At that point, mass protests decline and other components of social movements tend to come back to the fore—that is, until a new trigger reignites the prospect of revolt.[Read: Do protests even work?]Mass mobilizations take place within a wider ecosystem of social-movement activity. Other pieces of movements include building long-term organizations—such as unions and community groups—and taking on "inside game" work, such as electoral campaigns and legislative lobbying. Still other segments of a movement might devote themselves to political education, cultivating personal transformation at the individual level (through spiritual and cultural programs), or to building alternative institutions (such as community spaces, bookstores, food co-ops, and independent media). All of these types of organizing contribute to the movement’s long-term impact, even if they might have varying importance at different times in a movement's lifecycle.When a period of peak protest inevitably dissipates, many media commentators declare the movement dead and decry its inability to realize lasting change. Occupy Wall Street, for example, is regularly cited as a failure, despite the fact that it contributed to a major change in the conversation about economic inequality in America and helped pave the way for the mainstream acceptance of congressional and presidential candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. It is more accurate to say that mass protests operate in cycles. Organizers laboring on the changed terrain that large-scale mobilizations leave behind can help prepare for future uprisings—establishing infrastructure that can help movements respond when new trigger events launch fresh waves of indignation. The current round of racial-justice actions, for instance, owes a significant part of its vitality to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted during the Obama administration and the organizing that has continued since.More than ever, America has awakened to patterns of structural racism and the systemic nature of police abuse. Until that system changes, we should expect that even as older waves of mass demonstration recede, new ones are sure to rise.
What Camp People Are Losing This Summer
I fought my parents with everything I had when I was 11 years old but they insisted on sending me to overnight camp for eight weeks. It was 1990, and the 17-year cicadas were out in full force. My suburban Chicago neighborhood was a screaming bug cloud, and I hated the idea of being sent into the Michigan woods, where there’d likely be even more insects. I had tried a different overnight camp the previous summer and had loathed almost every minute of it. To top it off, Mom and Dad were sending me to a place I’d seen only in photos on a slide projector; I’d know no one. The weeks leading up to opening day filled me with dread.Turns out, shipping me off to summer camp against my will was the best thing my parents ever did for me. I loved it. I returned every summer as a camper, then as a counselor. Now, in my 40s, I still go back. I’m one of those camp people. The fact that so many kids and staff are missing out on camp right now because of the coronavirus pandemic is devastating.In those Michigan woods on the lake, I learned to sail, shoot a rifle, and build a fire. I also realized that I could take care of myself without my parents. I learned social accountability by sharing chores with my cabinmates during cleanup duty in the mess hall. I figured out how to talk with girls by befriending the female counselors. I found out that switching from tighty-whities to boxer shorts improved a boy’s social standing. (Thanks, Mom, for sending that care package.) I nearly mastered the art of finding mischief and avoiding punishment. I gained the ability to hide in the shadows and walk silently over gravel when sneaking into the girls’ cabins; I threw myself into the transcendent art of writing my name in bug spray on the cabin floor and setting it on fire; I discovered that the best way to ruin breakfast for the entire camp is to sneak into the mess hall and discharge the fire extinguisher, blasting chemicals on every surface. I also discovered that no one else thought that was funny. Oh, but we can all laugh about it now. I learned how to make friends when I knew no one. As a whole, I learned how to be myself, on my own terms.[Read: RIP summer camp]I’ve always said that a day at camp is like two weeks in real life. Every emotion, friendship, and romantic feeling is amplified. On those campgrounds, an extraordinary, emotional magic takes place. Some of my most vivid and fondest memories are of my days at camp. And those memories are the foundation of so much continued joy. The relationships are carried over into the real world, strengthened and forged by the bonds of camp, so that even now, as an adult, some of my dearest friends are those I met 30 years ago. So to think that thousands of kids won’t get to have their moments this summer is a difficult thing to wrap my head around.Camps of all kinds—day, overnight, sports, etc.—have postponed opening day or been canceled altogether. And for camp people, when camp goes, so goes the summer.Mark SteinmetzFor those who can still attend, it’ll feel a little strange. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its guidelines on how camps can execute a safe summer-camp experience. The American Camp Association has its own. So does each state and each camp. Some suggestions include a no-in, no-out policy, which eliminates those beloved trips into the real world for bowling, visits to state parks, and the viciously competitive basketball or soccer games against a rival camp. That rule also means the staff can’t enjoy nights out at the local bar or days off unwinding in the nearest big town or beach. Social-distancing requirements mean bunk beds might be a no-no, removing the exhilaration of sleeping five and a half feet up on a narrow cot with the risk of rolling off and crashing onto the cabin floor. And what is a campfire like when you have to be six feet apart? If kids can’t throw their arms around one another during campfire sing-alongs, what’s the point?In these circumstances, many parents will choose to keep their kids at home—or have no choice but to keep their kids at home. And they should dampen their expectations too. They simply won’t be able to do for their children all that a camp counselor does. Kids need guidance, love, and inspiration from an adult who isn’t bound to them by blood. A strong camper-counselor friendship does more for a kid’s confidence than any amount of praise from Mom or Dad.[Read: Summer is approaching. Bring camp back.]Camp is an escape—from the everyday, from the routines imposed by parental figures and school administrators. It’s a place that teaches us to cope with stress and adversity. Camp helped me accept myself—and others.This strange summer will stand out as the one with the masks and the advice to keep a safe distance from best friends, that time when we pined wistfully for camp food, the smell of the lake, and the adventures only youthful independence in the woods can provide.Mark Steinmetz
Scolding Beachgoers Isn’t Helping
We’ve entered another risky, uncertain phase of America’s pandemic summer. COVID-19 cases are surging across most states, and once again, intensive-care units are filling up. Eighteen states have either paused or rolled back their plans to reopen, and even Republican governors who previously resisted public-health guidelines about masks are now asking people to mask up.So why on Earth do so many articles about this crisis feature pictures of people frolicking on wide-open beaches? Why is an attorney dressed as the grim reaper bothering beachgoers in Jacksonville, Florida? Why are cities such as Los Angeles shutting down beaches?The answer, unfortunately, goes a long way to explain why, of all the developed, rich nations, the United States may well be stuck in the worst-case scenario, and for the longest amount of time.Our national pandemic conversation, like almost everything else, has turned into a polarized, contentious tug-of-war in which evidence sometimes matters less than what team someone is on. And in a particularly American fashion, we’ve turned a public-health catastrophe into a fight among factions, in which the virus is treated as a moral agent that will disproportionately smite one’s ideological enemies—while presumably sparing the moral and the righteous—rather than as a pathogen that spreads more effectively in some settings or through some behaviors, which are impervious to moral or ideological hierarchy. Add in our broken digital public sphere, where anger and outrage more easily bring in the retweets, likes, and clicks, and where bikini pictures probably do not hurt, and we have the makings of the confused, unscientific, harmful, and counterproductive environment we find ourselves in now. [Read: America’s Patchwork Pandemic]“You’d think from the moral outrage about these beach photos that fun, in itself, transmits the virus,” the Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus told me. “But when people find lower-risk ways to enjoy their lives, that’s actually a public-health win.”The beach shaming is especially terrible because, so many months in, we now know that the virus spreads most readily indoors, especially in unventilated, crowded spaces, and even more so in such spaces where people are talking or singing without masks. Outdoor transmission isn't impossible, of course, but being outdoors is protective for scientifically well-understood reasons: Open air dilutes the concentration of virus in the air one breathes, sunlight can help kill viruses, and people have more room to stay apart in the great outdoors than within walled spaces.In other words, one can hardly imagine a comparatively safer environment than a sunny, windy ocean beach. It’s not that there is any activity with absolutely zero risk, but the beach may well be as good as it gets—if people stay socially distant, which is much easier to do on a big beach.And yet many news organizations have seized upon beaches, and scenes of beachgoers, as a sign of why things are so bad in the United States. For example, a New York Times article about the “disturbing” number of younger cases featured a beach photo with two women—in bikinis—who are very far away from everyone else in the image frame, who are also clearly far away from everyone else, alone or in small groups. They’re demonstrating the ideal precautions public-health experts have been begging us to undertake for months. Similarly, a Washington Post article talking about how Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, became “a coronavirus petri dish” includes a picture with the caption “Crowds pack the beach in Myrtle Beach,” but the very few people in the photo are separated by tens or even hundreds of feet, at least, and there are no crowds and no packing.Still, people enthusiastically retweet or share photos of beaches in disgust, even when the photograph shows no crowding whatsoever. Worse, many photos make a scene look more packed than it actually is, because of the way the camera lens or the angle distorts the distances. It’s gotten to the point where even articles about the coronavirus in cities that don’t have a beach feature photos of beaches.Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or people who’d like us to get mad at others who dare enjoy life for a day outdoors, which epidemiologists overwhelmingly agree is safer than many other activities?[Read: Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should]But what about the indoor restaurants, packed shops, and house parties at vacation hot spots by those beaches? These activities represent a real risk, and especially given what scientists have found elsewhere, it’s crucial to emphasize that the crowded indoors appears to be conducive to transmitting this virus efficiently. A pandemic is a communications emergency, as the saying goes, and the only effective way to communicate risk effectively is to tell people the truth in plain language, and to give them evidence-based advice on reducing risk. Furious scolding about the least risky part of a potentially risky chain of activities is certain to backfire. When we scold, people stop listening, especially when they figure out that the scolding isn’t evidence-based—and they eventually will. When authorities close parks and beaches without strong scientific evidence, socializing may well move out of sight to more dangerous settings indoors.This is particularly concerning because some of the places where beach outrage has taken hold, like Los Angeles and Jacksonville, are large cities, so locals enjoying the beach wouldn’t even necessitate travel or other risky behaviors. But limiting access or closing beaches down, as L.A. has done, might result in people congregating in less safe environments indoors. When we conflate high-risk and low-risk activities, people will not know what to avoid or how to do things safely.We are drowning in anger and fear, but at the same time, we don’t get the basic information we need to live our lives in a pandemic. We don’t even receive the simplest message that applies in this case: Please enjoy the beach and practice social distancing while there, but avoid bars, indoor restaurants, and parties. And if you do have to be indoors around people you are not quarantining with, keep it as brief as possible and wear masks.This furious scolding isn’t limited to beaches, but often to anything that can be deemed frivolous. But that is no way to sustain ourselves through a pandemic that may last another year. Until we learn how to assess the dire risk we all face, and how to live more safely and with reasonable precautions, we will be powerless to protect ourselves. And all the while, the pandemic rages on.
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The Boogaloo Tipping Point
On May 29, two federal security officers guarding a courthouse in Oakland, California, were ambushed by machine-gun fire as elsewhere in the city demonstrators marched peacefully to protest the killing of George Floyd. One of the guards, David Patrick Underwood, died as a result of the attack, and the other was wounded. For days, conservative news broadcasters pinned the blame on “antifa,” the loosely affiliated group of anti-fascist anarchists known to attack property and far-right demonstrators at protests. But the alleged culprit, apprehended a week later, turned out to be a 32-year-old Air Force sergeant named Steven Carrillo, the head of a squadron called the Phoenix Ravens, which guards military installations from terrorist attacks.According to prosecutors, Carrillo and an accomplice, 30-year-old Robert A. Justus Jr., were part of the “boogaloo” movement, a patchwork of right-leaning anti-government libertarians, Second Amendment advocates, and gun enthusiasts all preparing for another American civil war.Authorities say that when they went to apprehend Carrillo at his residence, he attacked them with pipe bombs, killing a police sergeant named Damon Gutzwiller. Investigators found a boogaloo-themed patch in a vehicle used by Carrillo. And Carrillo had scrawled boog, along with various boogaloo slogans, in his own blood on the hood of a car.The boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan over the past several years. By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In the past six months, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests in what became their signature uniform: aloha shirts and combat gear. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer, many boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize the group’s central fantasy—armed revolt against the U.S. government.In Colorado earlier in May, then in Nevada in June, police arrested several other heavily armed self-identified boogaloo members, who the authorities claimed were on their way to demonstrations to incite violence. Disturbingly, the boogaloo movement is at least the third example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical political movement, the first being the leftist-libertarian hacktivist collective Anonymous, which emerged in 2008; the second was the far-right fascist group of angry young men called the alt-right, which formed in 2015. (The conspiracy theory QAnon might be considered a fourth, but it is more than a political movement.)[Read: The Prophecies of Q]At first glance, armed right-wing militants dressed in floral shirts may seem like another baffling grotesquerie in the parade of calamities that is 2020. However, their arrival can be explained by tracing their online origins. Similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, they are the product of an unhappy generation of men who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes.Since its founding in 2003, 4chan has attracted a unique population of deeply cynical men, once all young, but now aged from their 40s down to their teens, who generally use the board to express their angst through dark humor. People who are unhappy with the circumstances of their life tend to retreat there. The unhappier they are, the longer they stay and the more they post.The site was originally conceived as a blank slate, where anyone could scrawl what they pleased. Gen Xers and Millennials started out wanting to talk about escapist fantasies such as anime and video games, but after two decades of economic crises and political deadlock, the discussion eventually evolved into cartoon-inflected talk of political mobilization.The birthplace of the boogaloo movement, 4chan’s /k/ section, is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons. But in practice, it is a space where weapons discussions combine with 4chan’s politicized male anger. The name “boogaloo boys” is a reference to the critically maligned 1984 sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo—around 2012, users on /k/ began referring to the possibility of “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.” Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time and grew more elaborate. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status.This meant that the oft-repeated phrase Electric Boogaloo became corrupted into the similar-sounding Big Igloo and Big Luau. Soon users were creating images in which revolutionaries appeared beside houses made of ice and at Hawaii-themed parties.The co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos was inherently cynical and meaningless. There was no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word boogaloo to igloo and luau. But this co-option fit the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government, libertarian views by draping them in colorful jokes and nonsense that could be remixed and reinterpreted endlessly.The message board /k/’s culture overlapped heavily with 4chan’s virulently racist politics discussion board /pol/. However, by 2017, the movement that had developed there—the alt-right—had largely imploded, after the disastrous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.While overt fascism fell out of vogue for many, the core demographic of disenchanted men remained, their circumstances and unhappiness largely unchanged. Indeed, the unique mixture of right-wing male discontent appealed to many who never frequented 4chan. By 2018, as talk of fascism declined on /pol/, the more libertarian and less overtly racist culture of 4chan’s /k/ and the boogaloo movement began to fill the empty niche.[Read: It’s Not Easy Being Meme]The memes about a new civil war spread from /k/ to various groups on Facebook and Reddit, all with names that evoked the terms boogaloo, igloo, or luau. Enthusiasts also congregated in group chats using services such as Discord. The politics of the boogaloo boys are deeply contradictory and varied but can be roughly summed up by a few agreed-upon ideas. They are libertarian, in favor of gun rights, and opposed to government police forces. Many users say they are active-duty service members or military veterans.The boogaloo groups disagree when it comes to racism. Some members are white supremacists. Others compare the movement to the left’s campaign against police brutality. Many boogaloo memes are focused on police overreach, equating the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and FBI sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the ’90s with the recent high-profile police killings of Black Americans.As with the alt-right, many boogaloo posts are about men in crisis, humiliated or debased. Intermingled with memes about revolution are nostalgic images and video clips, glitched out to look like old VHS tapes, of what they imagine was the ideal existence: being the patriarch of a middle-class American nuclear family sometime between the 1950s and the 1990s.As alt-right protests waned, boogaloo boys began to appear on the streets. Armed men in aloha shirts and boogaloo patches made their first widely noticed appearance at a heavily attended pro–Second Amendment rally in Richmond, Virginia, in January. And they came out again for the anti-lockdown protests in March. Later, many attended protests over the killing of George Floyd, some in solidarity, others to oppose the left.The catalyst was similar to what mobilized so many young people on the left: the notion that the government enriched a privileged few at the expense of the people. In this, the boogaloo boys shared the anti-corporatist left’s belief that the government had betrayed public trust by maintaining a growing police force to perpetuate an unjust status quo. President Donald Trump’s inconsistent response to the coronavirus pandemic and his promise to march the military into American cities to quell unrest only strengthened these convictions.The recent killings in the name of the boogaloo appear to blend two once-distinct domestic-terrorist movements, one new, one old.Last summer, murderers who identified as fascist “incels” (involuntary celibates) attacked synagogues and mosques, and, in one case, a Walmart. Like the boogaloos, their stated goal was to spark a larger conflict. And in addition to posting hateful manifestos on 4chan and a copycat site, 8chan, some coated their automatic weapons and gear in images from memes from the chans.But Carrillo’s crimes in Oakland are also closely related to Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of an Oklahoma federal building in 1995. McVeigh was a military veteran whose experience in the Gulf War left him radicalized and resentful of the government as a source of injustice. His hatred killed more innocents than the ATF and FBI did at Ruby Ridge or Waco, his bloody-shirt causes that have since become the boogaloos’.Having spent the past several years speaking with radicals on 4chan for a book I wrote on its political history, I’m not surprised by the odd mixture of ideologies that the boogaloo movement encompasses. One of my first sources was a chan-going Black man in his 30s, an accelerationist Communist who was friends with a variety of radicals, including many in the alt-right. What these men shared was years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society.As decades of rising inequality produced successive generations who felt they were consigned to the fringes, 4chan became an outlet to express rolling waves of escapist memes and radical anger. Among the left, this uptick in radicals and the corresponding increase in funding for law-enforcement agencies have generated further support for protests aimed at defunding the police and diverting the funds to social programs. Among libertarians, they have produced phenomena such as the boogaloo boys.Boogaloo boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of marginalized groups in the United States, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Also like the alt-right, they now face a wave of de-platforming. In the past few months, both Reddit and Facebook have purged major boogaloo groups, though not all of them, from their sites.But 4chan occupies a unique place on the social web, distinct from more mainstream sites. If 4chan’s history is any indication, it’s extremely likely that some portion of these social-media users and posters on /k/ are federal agents. Having interviewed many young men who ran chan-style sites, I know that state security agencies knock on their doors early and often and ask for comprehensive records. On 8chan, many posts were automatically logged for federal agencies issuing subpoenas in a data-collection system nicknamed “Sunshine.” (8chan was taken offline last summer and replaced by a site called 8kun.) When chan radicals are caught and prosecuted, court documents often reveal police “honeypots,” meant to tempt extremists into unwittingly plotting crimes with undercover agents.Indeed, before most people, including myself, got wind of the boogaloo movement, Rutgers University had generated a “contagion and ideology report” for law-enforcement agencies in February that detailed the group’s online network. Its conclusion: The boogaloo boys are terrorists. Its recommendations: more law enforcement, more surveillance.
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A Revolution Doesn’t Look Like a Revolution
Three months ago, a global pandemic and a sudden economic crisis looked grave enough to suggest that something—if not a revolution, then at least the stirrings of a revolutionary era—was under way. Since then, the revolt against the pre-coronavirus status quo has only gained force. Crowds chanting “Black lives matter” and “Enough is enough” have marched all across the country. Statues have been toppled, buildings have been renamed, and pollsters report that public opinion has shifted with almost unprecedented speed. In Ferguson, Missouri, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, protesters carryied a guillotine. As a historian of the French Revolution, I can’t help but pay attention to guillotines (adopted in the 1790s as an alternative to the cruel and unusual punishment of death by hanging). If the United States right now is not in the early months of a revolution, Americans are certainly surrounded by the signs of past ones.Revolutions dress up in the costumes and rhetoric of the past for the same reason that, as Karl Marx once asserted, people learning a new language begin by translating word for word from a language already known to them. By repeating gestures and slogans from past upheavals—such as damaging a statue of Louis XVI, the French king beheaded in 1793—people pushing for permanent social change make the present recognizable as revolution. They might as well be chanting, “This is what a revolution looks like.”Simultaneously, opponents can exploit the word’s association with violence to make any change seem frightening: When early election returns in New York and Kentucky appeared to favor progressive insurgents over establishment favorites, the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that the French Revolution had come for the Democratic Party. In an article likening “the illiberal left” and “cancel culture” to Robespierre, the libertarian author Samuel Gregg predicted that the United States is about to fall into an intolerant Great Terror of “wokeness.” In images that went viral Sunday, a St. Louis attorney brandished a rifle as protesters passed his palatial home. He thought they were “storming the Bastille,” he told an interviewer later.[Shadi Hamid: The coronavirus killed the revolution]Would-be revolutionaries and radical counterrevolutionaries both forget, however, that real revolutions invariably catch people by surprise. Revolutions happen when the distinct concerns of many different groups are for a time more or less soldered together—and this coming together is not planned in advance, but produced largely by chance. This is what historians call “contingency”: One thing builds on another in a way that is neither inevitable nor easily reversed.Think about the Russian Revolution. Mutinies in the army, strikes in the factories, a parliamentary body willing to ignore the czar and declare itself a provisional government—all these dramatic struggles had been under way for months before the Bolsheviks eventually took power. So, too, the Black Lives Matter movement has been building for years. Now the COVID-19 crisis and establishment politicians’ continuing battle with Donald Trump have helped move Black Lives Matter’s concerns to the center of American politics. The threat to Black lives from official violence, the failure of anything like public-health policy, the catastrophic scale of unemployment, the inadequacy of federal and state relief measures (so mistakenly referred to as “stimulus”), the climate crisis, America’s dramatic loss of international status over the past four years: All of these threads are now interwoven. It is too early to tell what shape the resulting social fabric will take.The historian William Sewell Jr. helpfully distinguishes between ordinary “events” and “historical events”; the latter resonate as world-changing because they somehow transform the very structures of daily life. In his analysis, the reaction to and aftereffects of an event—and not just the event itself—determine whether it is historical. Imagine, for instance, if the United States Navy had responded to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by concealing the number of lives lost and saying it had long planned to scupper the USS Arizona—the attack would still have happened, but it wouldn’t be the historical event “Pearl Harbor” anymore.Or consider the French Revolution. In the summer of 1789, King Louis XVI convened roughly 1,100 men from France’s tiny elite (aristocratic military officers, major landowners, lawyers, clergy) for the first meeting of the Estates-General (the closest thing the kingdom had to a national parliament) in 175 years. Refusing to abide by rules that effectively silenced most of those notionally represented (as gerrymandering and voter suppression thwart the popular will today), many delegates instead proclaimed themselves members of the National Assembly, a new, constitution-writing body. This was a standstill, not a revolution.A few weeks later, the king summoned troops to Paris and fired his most popular adviser. Parisians poured into the streets; on July 14, about 800 of them swarmed to the Bastille, a fortress on the city’s edge, where they hoped to find weapons and gunpowder. First welcomed by the fortress’s defenders, then fired upon, the crowd eventually succeeded in getting the troops to lower the drawbridge and abandon the Bastille. They then marched the soldiers to central Paris, killed the commanding officer, and paraded his head through the streets on a pike. Popular unrest had become a rebellion, but not a revolution.When word of the violence and mayhem in Paris first reached the National Assembly, 20 miles away in Versailles, its members were horrified. Educated men, many with great fortunes, they had little personal sympathy for a mob of workers and agitators. Fearful for their own lives, many worried they would be the next victims. Within days, however, their anxiety turned to hope, as National Assembly members who took part in a fact-finding mission to Paris reported being greeted by a peaceful and joyous crowd eager to shake their hands. Men whose politics we would today characterize as center-right then spoke positively about the attack on the fortress, describing its conquest as legitimate resistance to tyranny—much like their own decision to write a constitution.[Rebecca L. Spang: The revolution is under way already]The modern concept of revolution—as an enduring political and social change created through mass action—can be traced directly to that reevaluation. Neither the creation of the National Assembly nor the attack on the Bastille was a revolution in and of itself. Both might be dismissed as “performative” insofar as neither alone achieved anything like its stated goals. But revolutionary events, those that result in sustained transformations of society, are not made by strategic plan. They do not have bullet-pointed deliverables and clear metrics of success. If they did, they would be business as usual, not a revolution.The protesters seeking justice for George Floyd have similarly combined collective creativity, a devotion to ritual, and an ability to draw mainstream approval. The Black Lives Matter movement has worked for years to oppose police brutality and show how the American justice system condemns Blackness and routinely presumes the guilt of Black boys and young men. The grossly disproportionate health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic made fundamental inequalities all the more glaringly apparent. But it was Donald Trump encouraging governors to “get tough” with protesters and his threat to mobilize the United States military that attracted prominent supporters and establishment politicians—including former President George W. Bush, Senator Mitt Romney, and many others—to the cause.An unexpected and growing coalition now exists. On a basic level, these are pro-democracy protests made difficult to recognize as such because they’re happening in a country that has widely been considered a leading site of liberal democracy. Critics have been fast to dismiss statements from Romney, Bush, and others as mere show, but they signal a decisive change in the direction of public opinion. Republican leaders may (in the eyes of many activists) be on the wrong side of history, but they want to be on the right side of the future.[Shadi Hamid: Things were going to be so much better]Yet if one major lesson of the French Revolution is that people make history, another is that it rarely turns out as planned. The members of France’s first National Assembly were hardly men with an obvious stake in disturbing the status quo. Their conscious impulses in the first months of the revolution were in many ways conservative; they wanted to protect themselves, ensure continuity, and get things over with as quickly as possible. In the name of honoring the absolutist monarchy’s debts, however, many of them opted for policies (such as nationalizing properties held by the Catholic Church and issuing a new currency) that proved to be far more disruptive than expected. We might think of the revolution’s radicalization as a Möbius trajectory—moving in what seemed to be a single direction, it nonetheless arrived on the other side of a metaphorical strip.If the United States is in the middle of a new American revolution, months and probably years will pass before its effects or causes are fully discerned. Even when structures are unstable and existing institutions lack legitimacy, “old regimes” never fall apart neatly and completely—they have to be taken apart piece by piece. Tearing down the Bastille took nearly a year; years more passed before the workers who did the job had all been paid. Late on the night of August 4, 1789, members of the National Assembly voted to give up privilege and abolish feudalism. But privilege (literally, “private law”: one set of laws for the nobility, one for everyone else; one set of laws for the province of Brittany, one for Normandy; one for pork butchers, one for pastry cooks) had been the foundation of the kingdom’s entire judicial and administrative order. Only after decades of legal, political, and violent conflict was something like a new order stabilized.The protocols and norms that emerged in the aftermath of 18th-century revolutions—the inviolability of private property, the abstract idea of the rights-bearing individual, the fiscal-military nation-state—are today under attack as forms of privilege themselves. For now, translating that critique into an existing revolutionary vocabulary (the “poetry of the past,” Marx called it in the text I mentioned above) helps to sharpen it and draw attention to it. But those acts of translation should not, however, be mistaken for revolution itself. For real structural change, Americans will need to look not behind them to vanished certainties but ahead to uncertain possibilities. What is the difference between a revolution and the failure of a state or the collapse of an empire? Only that in a revolution, many men, women, and children have the emotional energy to imagine a better future and put lots of creative work into trying to make it so.
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Veterans’ Hospitals Have a Cleanliness Crisis
On a warm November day in 2017, Representative Mark Takano, a California Democrat, met with a whistleblower who had serious concerns about the 270-bed Veterans Affairs facility in Loma Linda. Later that day, Takano took a tour of the hospital, and was shocked by what he saw. Grime encrusted the water fountains; the floors of the operating room were noticeably dirty. Takano called for the VA’s inspector general to launch an investigation, which found “inconsistent levels of cleanliness” in the main hospital building, and unwashed floors, dusty cabinets, and a sterile instrument resting on a dirty rack in the inpatient dental unit. The rate of infection among Loma Linda’s patients was higher than the agency average, and the housekeeping department was largely incapacitated by high turnover, poor pay, and shaky management. A separate investigation found the bacteria Legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, in the water supply—a discovery that the facility had failed to communicate to clinicians.Today, in the midst of a pandemic that threatens everyone, but especially people with preexisting conditions, including the many veterans who suffer respiratory illnesses likely brought on by exposure to Agent Orange and burn pits, problems with cleanliness at VA facilities endure. For nearly two decades, the agency’s federal watchdog has uncovered filthy conditions at facilities across the country. The problem is due, at least in part, to the fact that 40 percent of all VA hospitals suffered from severe shortages of housekeeping staff in fiscal year 2019—the most recent data available. More than 2,000 cleaning positions are vacant across the VA’s national network, according to granular workforce data released by the agency in late May. And despite Takano’s spotlighting of issues in Loma Linda, the facility still has 21 unfilled housekeeper positions.“The way many think of custodial staff does not reflect the value that they provide to hospitals,” Takano told me recently. “They are critical to infection control; we need to see these employees as skilled workers.”[Thomas Chatterton Williams: Do Americans understand how badly they’re doing?]In the VA, housekeeping positions are generally reserved for those who served. Retired service members struggling with mental illness or physical impairments fill many of those slots. As of 2015, roughly 65 percent of VA housekeepers were people of color; currently 85 percent are veterans. Unlike clinical hospital staff, who are less likely to be veterans or minorities, housekeepers aren’t required to have advanced degrees, and they rarely win public accolades. But the VA’s 257-page COVID-19 battle plan relies heavily on housekeepers, and requires sanitizing everything from hospital chapels to body bags holding the remains of those who succumbed to the coronavirus. The VA, however, lacked enough cleaning staff to fully execute that plan. Ten days after its release, agency officials announced they needed to quickly hire housekeepers.In an impressive feat, the department hired 1,126 cleaning staff over the next month. But it’s unclear how quickly these employees were onboarded and whether this boost meaningfully shrunk the vacancy number or simply replaced some of the staff lost to attrition each quarter. The VA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.President Donald Trump earned historic support from veterans in 2016, in part by promising to fix the VA. Yet one of his signature legislative achievements, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, has disproportionately targeted lower-level employees, who are typically veterans. Many of them are housekeepers.From 2017 to 2018, nearly 900 cleaning workers were suspended or fired as a result of the bill, many of them for specious reasons or minor mistakes. The president, however, boasted of the office’s firing spree just a few weeks ago, in Memorial Day comments dedicated to America’s fallen. “They don’t take care of our vets, we fire them,” Trump said. He enthusiastically estimated 8,000 employee terminations—many of them veterans—calling the fired staffers “sadists” and “thieves.”“They didn’t take care of our vets,” Trump said. “Now they’re gone. We got ’em out.” Those no longer in the agency include housekeepers, yes, but also clinical staff crucial to COVID-19 care. Although an analysis by the American Federation of Government Employees showed housekeeping as the top position targeted by the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, nursing came second.The necessity of VA housekeepers—and the story of their mistreatment—is vividly illustrated on the grounds of the Pittsburgh VA’s University Drive campus, a sprawling, 14-acre system built on top of an abandoned mine shaft. When the virus reached the Steel City in March, it circulated on the third floor of the Pittsburgh VA’s mental-health ward. Four housekeepers manned the floor in good times, but staff fluctuations in recent years had brought that number to as low as two. Just before the pandemic, the Pittsburgh VA acknowledged 36 custodial vacancies, and had three housekeepers on the third floor, all of whom were veterans. The oldest was in his 70s. The virus moved throughout the floor quickly. Soon most of its patients were sick.[Read: The biggest worry for doctors fighting the pandemic]None of the rooms in the mental ward were negatively pressurized, which heightened the chances of virus transmission. Staff witnessed dust spilling out of the building’s air ducts, and housekeepers spent precious time running water faucets—supposedly to prevent the spread of contaminants. Another puzzling policy that raised eyebrows on the third floor: COVID-19-positive patients were allowed to freely walk about, in and out of their rooms. This added stress to already-demanding eight-hour cleaning shifts. A VA Pittsburgh spokesperson did not respond to a detailed list of questions concerning conditions and policies on the floor.“In that situation, you’re constantly having to disinfect,” one housekeeper, who requested anonymity because of a fear of retaliation from management, told me. “Even if [patients] were wearing a mask, anything they touched you had to bleach clean. But not knowing exactly what they touched or didn’t touch, we were constantly wiping. That’s your whole day. And after a while, that bleach gets to your head.”In the early days of the pandemic, housekeeping staff lacked access to preferred cleaning supplies and nurses had to reuse protective gowns. N95 masks were also in short supply and seemed to come last for cleaners. “If they did have them, we weren’t the priority,” the housekeeper said. “We are the ugly stepchild.” As housekeepers shoulder additional risks related to COVID-19, only a few are receiving additional pay.As of April, at least half a dozen Pittsburgh VA employees had caught the virus, including the oldest housekeeper, who fought in Vietnam. Reached by phone, he confirmed that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19, but declined to speak on the record. More than 24,000 VA patients and employees have been diagnosed, and nearly 1,700 have died, including at least 40 VA employees.As the Pittsburgh VA’s housekeeping staff contended with COVID-19, they surely could have used the hands of Kevin Patterson, a feisty Marine veteran who, for 16 years, cleaned many of the hospital’s nooks and crannies. I first met Patterson more than two years ago when on a reporting trip to assess the immediate impacts of the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. The office was created under Trump’s 2017 law and was responsible for the VA purge. At the time, Patterson was busy fighting an overwhelming number of proposed terminations as part of his work as the local vice president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Federation for Government Employees. Speaking in his cramped union office in 2018, Patterson warned that the purge was “getting the guppies instead of the trout.”The VA’s leadership has long undervalued housekeepers, and the federal Office of Personnel Management hasn’t updated the job description for VA housekeepers since the Vietnam War. As a result, many earn a lower hourly wage than their private-sector colleagues, which puts them on the edge of poverty. Their firing can be catastrophic to their personal finances.The AFGE warned that the 2017 law’s provisions could be exploited to fire employees without cause and crack down on union activity, but few lawmakers took their warnings seriously. Although the OAWP no longer releases adverse action reports to the public, data from 2017 to 2018 show thousands of frontline employees were demoted, suspended, or fired, including the housekeepers.Although some OAWP terminations were surely justified, many others relied on issues as minor as narrowly missing performance metrics or arriving late to work. Last October, the VA’s inspector general found that the OAWP “did not consistently conduct procedurally sound, accurate, thorough, and unbiased investigations.” In March, the Project on Government Oversight came to a similar conclusion, and found repeated instances of retaliation against employees who raised concerns about office dysfunction. (As of late last year, the OAWP’s current director had targeted just one department leader for punishment.)In our 2018 interview, Patterson bluntly warned that the widespread termination of employees would cripple hospital services and hit veteran households hardest. He and other sources also pointed me to a Pittsburgh VA administrator untouched by the accountability office despite his work to cover up the 2011–2012 Legionnaires’ outbreak and other accusations of misconduct. (He has denied any wrongdoing.)Shortly after my story was published, Patterson was fired under Trump’s accountability statutes. The official justification for his departure cited a shouting match between him and a colleague, though multiple VA employees described the incident as a minor dispute.During arbitration, Patterson argued that he was slapped with the charge as retaliation for his union activity, including his cooperation with my story. (In the course of his case, then-AFGE local president Colleen Evans, who also spoke with me on record, testified that after my piece went live, she was “approached by somebody from public affairs, who basically told me to watch my back.”) In May, a federal arbitrator overturned Patterson’s firing and ordered the department to reinstate him with back pay. (The arbitrator found no evidence that the firing was retaliatory.)[Read: The veteran who could be VP]Patterson is eager to return to work, both to help out his fellow union members and to come back from the brink of his financial collapse. After being fired from the VA, he found a job at an Amazon warehouse. Within a few weeks, a colleague injured Patterson with a pallet jack.As he healed and sought employment elsewhere, Patterson said his job history made it virtually impossible to secure a steady position. “My wife told me to stop saying I had been fired, but that was the truth; I couldn’t lie about it,” he told me. “Plus, some employers just don’t like to hear that word, union.”Despite a couple years off the job, Patterson can still quickly run through a housekeepers’ best-practices list and can tick off specific uses for the cleaning chemicals tucked away in broom closets throughout the Pittsburgh VA. “You have to pay attention to detail,” he told me, “because cleanliness in a hospital is not just wanted—it’s necessary and needed.”Many veterans face an untenable economic future. The veteran unemployment rate has nearly tripled since January, to 8.6 percent, only slightly lower than it was in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, the VA is grappling with roughly 50,000 vacancies across a host of departments. Hiring qualified veterans into these positions would not only improve agency functionality but also provide security for struggling veteran families. Patterson and his wife, Crystal, face foreclosure on their home and pressure to pay their daughter’s college bills. Even though he won his arbitration case, he noted the VA could still appeal the decision, preventing his return to work for months.Takano told me he had reservations about the VA bill that led to so many terminations, but he voted for it, citing its statutes as strengthening whistleblower protections. He told me he now sees the OAWP’s work as “classist” and “galling.”“They fired a lot of cleaning staff to prove accountability came to the VA,” he said, “only to create a situation where cleanliness during a pandemic is difficult.”
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Du Bois Gave Voice to Pain and Promise
W. E. B. Du Bois was torn between hope and rage. Following the First World War, challenges to colonialism in Africa and Asia, revolutionary labor movements, demands for women’s rights and universal suffrage, and the growth of what would become the modern Black freedom struggle portended a new, radical future. However, the harsh realities of imperial conquest, capitalist exploitation, the subordination of women, and horrific racial violence remained firmly intact. Black people fought back. But, Du Bois wondered, could democracy ever become a reality for Black folks?In 2020, across the nation and the world, people have turned out in unprecedented numbers to answer this question. We are again grappling with the failures of democracy, the specter of Black death, and the tension between faith and despair. We are again fighting to affirm the sanctity and beauty of Black life. And Du Bois’s 1920 book, Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil, offers us a clarion call to action, to imagine a better tomorrow and continue, even in the face of death, to live, to fight, and to love.Du Bois finished the first draft of Darkwater on February 23, 1918, his 50th birthday, believing that it might very well be his final work. The previous year, he had undergone surgery to remove a damaged kidney. In the book’s autobiographical opening chapter, “Of the Shadow Years,” Du Bois wrote that he had “looked death in the face and found its lineaments not unkind.” He survived, although he felt assured that soon he would “enjoy death as I have enjoyed life.”America’s entry into World War I had tested his resolve. Du Bois, echoing current debates about the efficacy of Black patriotism, supported the war effort and encouraged Black people to “forget our special grievances,” as he wrote in the July 1918 Crisis editorial “Close Ranks,” and stand “shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.” Du Bois was widely excoriated, with his harshest critics calling him a traitor to the race. In December 1918, Du Bois traveled to France, where along with organizing a pan-African congress, he saw firsthand the devastation of the war and heard directly from Black soldiers and officers how American racism had wounded them in body and soul. “With the armistice came disillusion,” he later recalled.[From the March 1901 issue: W.E.B Du Bois on ‘The Freedmen’s Bureau’]Du Bois’s disillusionment deepened by the end of the summer of 1919. Racial violence had exploded across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago to Elaine, Arkansas. The lynching of Black people had skyrocketed. On August 30, 1919, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Lucious McCarty, a Black veteran, was shot, dragged through town, and burned to the howling delight of some 1,500 spectators. Two weeks later, Du Bois submitted the final manuscript of Darkwater to Harcourt, Brace, and Howe.The trauma of the war and the horror of the “Red Summer” explain the harsh racial world Du Bois depicts in Darkwater. Race, as an ideology and social reality, had become an immutable fact, with the modern investment in whiteness being one of its most dreadful costs. “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Du Bois asked rhetorically in the prescient chapter “The Souls of White Folk.” After pausing to reflect on the countless everyday acts of privilege—some silent, some ugly, all enraging—white people wielded like a weapon, he sardonically concluded that “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”In Darkwater, Du Bois reprised the image of a veil from his 1903 work, The Souls of Black Folk, to characterize the color line as inhibiting yet ultimately permeable. But this time it was much more violent and unforgiving. “There is Hate behind it, and Cruelty and Tears,” he painfully revealed. “As one peers through its intricate, unfathomable pattern of ancient, old, old design, one sees blood and guilt and misunderstanding. And yet it hangs there, this Veil, between Then and Now, between Pale and Colored and Black and White—between You and Me.” The veil, no longer solely a metaphor, was “true and terrible.”East St. Louis, Illinois, offered a prime example. Du Bois detailed how the wartime influx of Black migrants into the city unsettled the color line, heightened labor tensions, and caused “red anger” to flame in the hearts of white workers. On July 2, 1917, it exploded. White mobs “killed and beat and murdered; they dashed out the brains of children and stripped off the clothes of women; they drove victims into the flames and hanged the helpless to the lighting poles,” he wrote. Du Bois argued that racial terror is thoroughly ingrained in the soil and psyche of America.[Ibram X. Kendi: The American nightmare]Darkwater also speaks to the deep roots of our current struggle with the precarity of Black life and the traumas of premature Black death. “We know in America how to discourage, choke, and murder ability when it so far forgets itself as to choose a dark skin,” Du Bois lamented. He posed questions that still haunt Black parents: “Is it worth while? Ought children be born to us? Have we any right to make human souls face what we face today.” Having lost his first son, Burghardt, in 1899 at only 18 months, Du Bois pondered these questions from a place of personal sorrow, while also writing that Black mothers felt, and continue to feel, this pain even more acutely.At every turn in Darkwater, shadows seem to overtake the light. And yet, through the pain, Du Bois offers hope.Darkwater was the canvas for Du Bois’s bold postwar political vision and challenge to global white supremacy. This included ending European imperialism, pursuing economic justice and the redistribution of wealth, expanding the franchise and protecting the right to vote, recognizing the struggles and contributions of Black women, and investing in education. Darkwater represents a foundational moment in the long battle for Black freedom and democracy that endures with the movement for Black lives today.Du Bois also knew that any vision of the future for Black people had to be coupled with an appreciation for the beauty of life. In Darkwater, he wrote of his travels in the United States and abroad: the iridescent colors of the ocean in Maine; the vast living awe of the Grand Canyon; the heroic quaintness of France. “Grant all its ugliness and sin,” Du Bois wrote, “the petty, horrible snarl of its putrid threads,” but he could not forget that “the beauty of this world is not to be denied.”And above all else, there was the beauty and gift of Blackness. Tears welled in Du Bois’s eyes as he listened to the “wild and sweet and wooing” sounds of the jazz musician Tim Brymm and his military band playing in the small French hamlet of Maron. He delighted in memories of a walk down the streets of Harlem, surrounded everywhere by “black eyes, black and brown, and frizzled hair curled and sleek, and skins that riot with luscious color and deep, burning blood.” All this and more affirmed Blackness as a life-sustaining force that even the harshest forms of white supremacy could not deny.[Adam Serwer: The most dangerous American idea]“Which is life and what is death and how shall we face so tantalizing a contradiction?” Just as Du Bois asked this question in 1920, we ask it again a century later. Du Bois lived until 1963, leaving behind an enormous corpus of writings for us to learn from. Darkwater, however, rings especially prophetic. Du Bois gave voice to the pain and promise, the hopelessness and faith, the rage and beauty that continue to define so much of the Black experience in America.
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We Returned to Normal
#ThursdaysChild x Trunk Archive / Jingyu LinAfter 24 hours of travel from our home in Brooklyn, we landed exhausted and disoriented in Iceland on a Saturday night just two weeks ago, the midnight sun shining through the airplane windows. The otherworldly feeling I always get landing on this volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic was more intense than usual, because we had left one reality—the crisis-induced confinement of our small apartment—and were entering another—a country that has by and large stopped the spread of the coronavirus. We gathered our sanitized belongings, roused our young children, and exited the plane for the empty airport and our COVID-19 test, which we needed to get through customs. With the national contact-tracing app installed on our phones, we felt free for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.We had been planning our annual trip to Iceland to visit my wife’s family for a long time, but getting there took on increased urgency during the outbreak in New York City. First there were near-constant ambulance sirens and an ominous feeling that people were suffering and dying all around us. During the Black Lives Matter protests, the sirens transformed into police sirens—a new kind of ominous. Low-flying police helicopters and fireworks kept the children up at night. New rituals—limiting our outings to only the most essential trips, sanitizing our groceries, constantly washing our hands—helped us manage our persistent trepidation, but they were unnerving in their own right. I learned to master the mute button on conference calls when my children would fight or scream for whatever reason children fight or scream.The kids needed family, friends, other people. They needed playgrounds. Our downstairs neighbors also needed our children to have playgrounds, and we constantly felt guilty about that. We all needed a break, and a summer in Iceland was our opportunity for one. The country had done what it needed to do. People had listened to the scientists, trusted its leaders, tested widely. If you needed to quarantine, the government would put you up in a hotel and you would continue to receive your pay. The country responded in a rational and robust way and did everything it could to ensure that schools remained safely open. Iceland was still managing the pandemic, but it had thus far been successful, and life was continuing mostly as normal.[Thomas Chatterton Williams: Do Americans understand how badly they’re doing?]After three canceled flights on two airlines and lots of time spent on hold, we were finally able to book a confirmed flight through Boston. Despite a ban on Americans entering the country, we managed to secure a letter from Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that would allow us to return to my wife’s home country together.We completed our COVID-19 tests at the airport and collected our checked bags, but no family was there to greet us. We did not yet have our test results and did not want to endanger others. Without a ride, and to avoid taking the airport shuttle, we rented a car to get to the apartment where we’d be staying. As we drove into downtown Reykjavík, now past midnight, I felt like we were driving into the twilight zone. The streets were alive and joyous—and mask-less. It was all so jarring. Normal had become bizarre. We arrived at our destination and secured our masks before exiting the car. We did not want to be the people to bring the virus back to this country.We received our negative results in the morning—relieved, but not surprised. We had been hypervigilant in New York. We were most afraid of what we might have contracted while traveling. There was the man behind us on the flight to Boston who refused to wear his mask properly. There were the taxis and the hotel in Boston. There was everything that our 1-year-old daughter might have put in her mouth when we were not looking.Feeling cavalier, the first thing we did on Sunday in Reykjavík was go to the playground. It felt like the first playground we had been to in forever. Our kids were overjoyed.On the walk back from the playground with my son on my shoulders, I felt a hand touch my back. It was our Danish friend Peter, happy to run into us. This was the first physical contact I had had with someone other than my immediate family in more than three months. We asked him to give us some distance. We told him that we had tested negative but wanted to be extra cautious because of our travel. He was surprised and questioned the need for our masks. COVID-19 was over in Iceland, he said. We told him about New York, the fear of getting sick, the overloaded hospitals, the long-term closure of schools and playgrounds, the economic devastation there and throughout the country, the lackluster federal-government response. We told him how grateful we were to be here in Iceland. Our masks weren’t for our safety, we said, but for his.[Molly Jong-Fast: The new New York will be better]Peter knew much of this. He had been watching the news and had seen the disaster of the United States’ COVID-19 response. But if it was that bad to live through, he wanted to know, why didn’t the country respond to the virus in a serious way, so that it could move on safely? I didn’t know what to say. I don’t understand it either.I have always seen Iceland as a laboratory for the future, particularly for the United States. Its leadership in climate change, renewable energy, gender equity, and so much more show what could someday be possible with real innovation and effort. Today, Iceland also shows us a vision of a missed present.A few days into our trip, with normal life beginning to feel more and more normal, I sat in a café on the ocean edge of the city and called into an urgent parents’ meeting for our children’s preschool. Our tuition was due imminently and so many questions were still unanswered. Preschoolers don’t do well in virtual classrooms, we all agreed, and what about child-care needs for those of us who are working, not to mention those of us who might have to go back to the office? How do we keep our beloved school solvent and teachers employed? It felt like I was calling into another planet. There was so little governmental guidance or support. There was still the virus.We love New York City. We are going to return. But we don’t know what New York will be when we do. After only a few days in Iceland and a taste of normal life, the city and the coronavirus already felt so far away. As we settle in for our summer here, we hope this is an early return to normalcy. What we fear, though—and what I think we know but struggle to accept—is that this is just a temporary reprieve. Soon we’ll be back in New York City, ready with our masks and rituals, steeling ourselves for the months ahead.
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