Commentary. Everyone applauded when James Baldwin, summoning the Biblical echoes of a great spiritual tract, warned: “The Fire Next Time.” Well, that “next time” has arrived.

A beast with its knee on the human spirit

There is something that evokes the mythological in the image of the policeman with his knee on the victim’s neck in Minneapolis: it recalls the image of Saint George trampling on the defeated dragon, the holiest deity crushing the serpent, the white hunter standing on top of the elephant or the rhinoceros killed on safari, etc. These are figures representing the victory of virtue over the wild beast, of the human spirit over nature, of civilization over the savage world—and of “white” over “black.”

That’s how policeman Dereck Chauvin must have felt, vanquishing George Floyd’s prostrate body in the middle of the street, in front of everyone. But in this image, the meaning has been turned upside down: the animal is actually the one on top, the one who is trampling, and the victim trampled on is the one who is invoking the most human and the most symbolic of rights: breath, the life of the body and of the spirit. In Minneapolis, civilization has itself become the beast: order is savage, the law is mere caprice, humanity is being suffocated and suppressed. Jack London presaged this in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel.

This time, it’s a knee; in New York, Eric Garner died with an arm wrapped around his neck, but the substance is the same. This is also why not only African-American brothers and sisters, those who have the most ties to the victim, have taken to the streets, but also many of the others—white and Latino, men and women—who are increasingly feeling on their own necks the deadly knee of growing inequality, the precariousness of subsistence, the loss of rights, the emptying out of democracy. Like the dragon, the reptile, the object of the hunt in the imagery, these human beings are given no right to speak in the victorious hagiography of power. The breath denied to George Floyd and Eric Garner is also a symbol of the voice that was denied to them.

A part of America with no right to speak, no vote and no representation has risen up throughout the country. The state is currently in the hands of forces that conceive of it as a power to dominate without responsibility in rule. When the country becomes ungovernable, the only thing they know how to do is threaten gunfire and bring in “vicious dogs” to attack demonstrators—and run and cower in a bunker, like a dictator scared of his own subjects.

Moreover, cowardice is also instrumental to a conscious political plan: to dramatize the situation, accentuate the conflict, radicalize the areas of support on which Trump’s electoral support is based, make people forget his disastrous management of the health emergency, seize the opportunity to criminalize dissent. There is an intentional parallelism between Trump’s gesture to go down into the bunker and that of Vice President Cheney after September 11: it’s as if to communicate that this crisis is of the same kind as the one back then (with “antifa” as the “terrorists”) and attempt to legitimize the same security policy, the same violations and suspensions of democracy as before.

However, the alternative cannot be the feeble, conventional, pragmatic words that came from Biden and the so-called Democratic party (most of all because they are just words, at a time that demands action, significant gestures), who have too many skeletons in their own closets.

Until a week ago, the most plausible Democratic candidate for vice-presidency was Amy Klobuchar, a former Minneapolis county prosecutor, who from that position had allowed the endemic aggression of the police to run wild, and indeed supported it—and was even accused of letting Derek Chauvin himself off the hook in a previous case. Even as it’s now clear that she will not be the one chosen, the fact that she was considered for the vice-presidency (and therefore for a possible presidential candidacy of her own in the future) tells us how foreign these issues were to the vision of the Democratic leadership.

The only opposition at the moment is in the streets. No one likes “violence”—but if the speechless hadn’t raised their voices, Dereck Chauvin would have gotten away with it as usual, like all the others like him; and if they hadn’t spoken out even louder by bringing fire into the streets, the institutions would have fired him but wouldn’t have even indicted him—which itself came too little, too late. Everyone applauded when James Baldwin, a great writer from the time of the Civil Rights Movement, summoning the Biblical echoes of a great spiritual tract, warned: “The Fire Next Time.”

Well, that “next time” has arrived: the police stations in Minneapolis are really burning. And now that Baldwin’s words have become reality, everyone is stigmatizing the violence, as if they hadn’t been warned before, instead of wondering what we could do so it wouldn’t become inevitable once more, and what we should do, when the fires will appear to have gone out, so that they don’t have to rage once again.

Fortunately, we have seen in the streets of America concrete gestures from another part of the opposition, which truly marks a historic novelty—and comes from groups of workers from whom no one expected it. The bus drivers in Minneapolis were the ones to start, by refusing to drive the arrested protesters to prison. But the most powerful message came from inside what one would assume had to be the opposing camp: those policemen who joined the marches of the protesters, who declared their support for the protests, who are no longer willing to show the expected solidarity with those of their ranks who are beaters and murderers.

For me, the most striking fact was that the most sensational episodes of support came from places with a strong symbolic power: Camden, New Jersey (the city of Walt Whitman, poet of democracy, now full of desolate suburbs), Flint, Michigan (the working class city of General Motors and Michael Moore, poisoned by industrial dumping of pollutants in the water as the federal government kept silent), and especially Ferguson, Missouri, the city where the murder of Michael Brown and the military repression of the ensuing protests in 2014 started a new phase that has culminated (for now) with today’s events.

In Ferguson, the police were armed like an occupation army, and were trained to think of protesters—literally—as “enemy forces.” That the policemen in Ferguson are now kneeling down in homage to an African-American killed by one from their ranks means that there is a limit to everything, that this limit has been crossed, and that some consciences are beginning to change. Maybe it’s not enough, but it’s never happened before. Maybe now that the dragon is showing signs of life, St. George is beginning to have some doubts too.

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