The last time this happened. I was ten years old, arm in arm with my dad. The radio from an open summer window told us King had been assassinated.
I just looked it up. Because it must have been summer if the window was open. So was it Bobby Kennedy? June 5. King was in April.
But I remember riots.
That was 1968.
I remember riots. New York in the 1977 blackout.
We were at a table in a restaurant. The restaurant went dark. The waiters brought candles.
My father had died.
My brother, sixteen, begged my mother to let him ride his bike home, four miles through the city.
Women. We were all women at the table. My father’s women. The first wife who was the mother of his children. The girlfriend. The girlfriend’s mother. The girlfriend’s sister.
No, we said.
Why not, he asked.
Just no. We clutched him to us.
We, too, knew what it was to lose men.
The worst part of what is happening now is that no one is in charge. It’s been that way since the beginning of the pandemic. Trump could have responded to the crisis two months before it reached epidemic proportions. He could have invoked the Defense Production Act to send protective equipment to medical workers (60,000 infected, 300 dead).
Instead, Trumpland tunneled deeper into corruption. Jared’s little deal with the COVID website was as nothing; we’re used to it. Follow the big money. ProPublica reported (and they are good, the best) that the Trump administration has promised $1.8 billion to contractors, often without competitive bidding or thorough background checks. One is a firm set up by a former telemarketer who once settled federal fraud charges for $2.7 million. Others include a vodka distributor being sued for overstating sales and an aspiring weapons dealer operating out of a single-family home.
Or this: Trump's government gave a nearly $1.3 billion contract to a North Dakota company backed by Steve Bannon to construct 42 miles of The Wall, despite investigations of that company by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Defense. (Inspector Generals? We don't need no stinkin' Inspector Generals!)
The Trump administration is a Mafia clubhouse. Foreign officials pay exorbitant rates to stay at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel. Favors are handed down to capos: former Trump official Zach Fuentes won a $3 million contract to sell masks to the Indian Health Service on the Navajo reservation without the normal bidding process. The masks do not meet FDA standards “for use in healthcare settings by health care providers” yet they were charged to the government at the rate of the correct masks.
COVID-19 cases on the Navajo reservation: 5,145 out of 173,000, 167 dead.
“If Native American tribes were counted as state, the five most infected states in the country would all be native tribes, with New York dropping to No. 6,” Nic Kristof wrote in The New York Times, citing statistics from the Indian Studies Center at U.C.L.A.
Many Navajo do not have rights to the water under their ground. The water goes to golf courses in Phoenix. When water is scarce, it’s impossible to wash your hands as often as fighting off the disease requires.
That is the Trump administration.
And you know it already. Or you deny it.
I still remember that summer night. Or spring. The sound of the radio. Crackle in the air at the news. We could feel it. The world had changed. You could feel the violence. Well. New York. Maybe violence always there, inevitable, too many people jammed together in a city.
Just as I still feel the electric dank city air, hear the scratchy radio, sense my father (did he hold my arm tighter? did his body stiffen?) this time, I see Atlanta’s police chief.
I have nothing to do with Atlanta. I am closest to the riots in L.A. I am paying attention to Minneapolis. But on one screen or another (because that is how we are living in these pandemic days) I see the video clip: A trim, brown-haired white woman in uniform listening to a black woman. The white police woman wears no mask; the black woman's mask is loosened around her neck. They are in a crowd of demonstrators. All around them the crowd moves like a centipede. Over the noise, I can make out most of what they're saying.
“I can’t sleep,” the woman says. “Because I’m worried. Because it could be my dad, my brother.” I watch the policewoman's face. I know that look of empathy. I know her. I know the woman talking, too. She keeps talking and then she is crying a little as she talks. The policewoman places one hand on the woman’s shoulder and when the women cries more, she places both hands on the woman’s shoulders.
Someone is in charge, I think. Finally.
The woman in uniform is the police chief, Erika Shields. In another clip, the reporter talks in voice over. “I’ve never seen a police chief in a demonstration like this walk right into the crowd.”
I watch a press conference with Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Shields stands at one side, quiet but I can see her react, subtly, as Bottoms talks.
“When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt," Bottoms says. "And yesterday when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do. I called my son and I said ‘Where are you?’ I said I cannot protect you and black boys shouldn’t be out today.
"So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day and I pray over my children each and every day.
"So what I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Junior. This is chaos. A protest has purpose.
When Dr. King was assassinated we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city, this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the businesses are minority business owners, if you care about this city, then go home.
"And pray that somebody like Reverend Beasley will come and talk to you and give you some instructions on what a protest should look like and how you effectuate change in America.”
She talks for a while more and finally what she says is this: “If you want change, go out and register to vote.”
I’ve resisted all the talk about the world being a better place if women ran it. I know what women can be, and how they can be worse than men, subtle in their cruelty: disturbed women, angry women, drunks and drug addicts. My mother (the mother of his children) was Mrs. Rochester and she was no heroine. She burned that house down. Our house.
When Trump got elected, we were put back in our place. Women, I mean. I wasn’t fond of Hillary and her Methodist hypocrisy; on the other hand, I knew what kind of man we were dealing with. We all did. Some of us liked it. Or pretended to.
In the three years since the election, women have been my antidote. Until the pandemic closed life down, a few nights every week, I’d go to a Nia dance class. I deprecated how important that class was to me, joking that Nia, mashup of jazz, martial arts, Tae Kwan Do and yoga was like the old Jules Feiffer cartoons of a modern dancer. Now we call this sort of thing woo woo. I am anti-woo woo; a skeptic, a reporter, a do-the-math person.
I needed woo woo. Well, not exactly woo woo. I needed a reassertion of what I knew to be important. Caring about other people. Mutual support. Joy. Laughter. A little bit of funk. I needed other people around me, even women with whom I had nothing else in common, to assert those values. I needed a tribe, I guess. An antidote to the virulent inhumanity that had seized control of my country.
I called my friend Eugenia. What’s going on in Atlanta? I asked her. Eugenia and I became friends in graduate school. She comes from Atlanta. She’s a TV producer. And, right: black. And, yes, I am not.
Tell me about this mayor, I said.
“She has a delicate tango,” Eugenia said. “She has a governor who's definitely not a friend."
“Oh, right,” I say. “Kemp.”
Republican Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams by under 55,000 votes after refusing to resign as Georgia’s secretary of state, so he could oversee the election. The vote was rife with irregularities.
“Keisha is always professional,” Eugenia said, warming to her subject. “When she was elected there were t-shirts and sweatshirts: 'Atlanta has a mayor named Keisha!'”
“Just the imagery on that stage," she went on, "the police chief - Erika - and then you had the rapper T.I. and Killer Mike. And Reverend Beasley, the city's hard-won dignity in the flesh. If that’s not a lineup that identifies what Atlanta is, I can’t tell you.”
“Keisha and Erika?” I say. She laughs. It used to be considered sexist to call women by their first names and men by their last names; a hit against the women’s professionalism. It was the kind of thing we got busted for in the journalism school we both attended. Now we know that calling these women by their first names means something else.
“I was so proud to be a voting resident of the city of Atlanta,” Eugenia said. “She’s leading. And she’s mad. Keisha just channeled her inner black mom and take your ass home.”
“They were not from Atlanta,” she added, referring to the violent protesters. “We know our history. We’re cut different." Paraphrasing Killer Mike, she said: "We don’t have a reason to tear our city up. We built that city.”
What about the police chief? Chief Erika was the only white person on the stage, I'd noticed, and Keisha Lance Bottoms gave her a shoutout. An NBC correspondent had marveled at wading into the crowd, saying she listened to everyone who wanted to talk to her. She ordered officers to stand down, even when attacked.
“What Erika did do was she allowed them to protest, even when they were throwing knives,” Eugenia said. “She was really cool with it.”
Before we got off the phone, she told me to listen to Killer Mike. So I did.
“I don’t want to talk and I didn’t want to be here,” Killer Mike said. He talked about the family members, including his father, who had been police officers.
“I don’t want to be here,” he repeated before proceeding to give the most emotional speeches anyone has given in the United States in recent memory.
The takeaway: “strategize and organize” and to “beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth.”
The voting booth. Got that? Because the protests aren't only about physical safety. They are about housing, schools, health care. We all know now that COVID-19 is killing African-Americans and Latinos and Native Americans in disproportionate numbers. You want to sit in your apartment and wait for that?
Last night, protests were in 30 cities, many infiltrated by violent white supremacists and, presumably, a fair number of agents provocateurs. That’s not conspiracy-mongering; it’s history. The FBI’s COINTELPRO effort against radicals in the 1960s has been well-documented.
We probably won’t know for years how much of the violence was orchestrated by Trump and his gofers. (“Just take care of it,” I imagine him saying, waving off the details in the interests of future court testimony.) We already know that Russia is interfering in the election and Trump is determined not to stop them.
But we have the antidote. Just act like a human being.
“You have a right to be scared,” Chief Shields said to the women at the protest.
We are all in history now. For the last fifty years, we thought — some of us thought — we lived outside it.
The last time this happened.
I catch myself wishing sometimes I was ten years old again, my father’s arm linked in mine, the thunder distant. But I'm a grownup now and like other grownups, I can understand what's happening. This is history. We are in it.
Georgia's governor called the National Guard to Atlanta on Sunday, May 31, at the request of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Keisha Lance Bottoms : Press conference, Saturday, May 30.
T.I. and Killer Mike : Press conference, Saturday, May 30.
Susan Zakin is an editor of Journal of the Plague Year.