Singing down Babylon

The song of protest spreads across the land

This weekend of protest has been noted for both its size and its scope — not only big numbers in the hot zones of Minneapolis, DC, New York, and LA, but also in small towns across the country — including some not famous for their hospitality to black folks. The protests have also been noted for their relative lack of friction, apart from some cops who are still out there busting heads, like criminals who just can’t stop confessing to a detective who won’t take them in.

DC, I can report, was packed. I heard more than one person say it was like the whole town was protesting. I know what they mean; first of all, with the pandemic still on, most people wear a mask outside, which makes us all look a little like Black Bloc. Second, I’ll wager many of us feel at least a little like Black Bloc, what with the COVID-19 pressures on our finances, our society, and our psyches. All this outrage probably would have come out in some form anyway, but the frustration of not only having to cope with Trump’s appalling bumbling of a national health crisis, but also being even less able to do anything about it than usual, got to be too much. So when one of the fetid wellsprings of Trumpism — violent racism — bubbled up stinking with the Floyd murder, we just couldn’t take it anymore.

I told you about the prior week, and the BLM kids keeping the pressure up. There’s a wonderful feed called DC_Oracle (I know, but I’m sure the cops are already aware of it) that does regular mapping of the movements of protestors, cops, first aid stations and safe spaces, etc. (“Safe spaces” sounds less snowflakey when you’re trying to avoid police violence and arrests, doesn’t it?) The feeds show the protestors zipping around the area — usually within the same small quadrant bounded by the Capitol, Lafayette Square, Pennsylvania Avenue, and some nearby commercial streets, though they have gotten further afield at times, to Chinatown, U Street, and elsewhere. Them kids ain’t sitting still.

The limited field of play offers a few possible explanations for why there’s been far less looting reported in DC than in New York and elsewhere: For one, there are few targets in the battlespace, and the big and fancy Northwest DC stores have all shuttered themselves with particle board barriers (as have some on H Street Northeast, absurdly; we haven’t seen any ruckus out this way at all). But I believe the real reason is this: Even the “opportunistic” element among the protesters hasn’t shown any interest in stealing — as is clear from the BLM graffiti on monuments and office buildings, they merely want us to know their cause and their ability to force it into our view. This is why the protestor crews dash from site to site; they don’t want to be contained and snuffed out; they wish to remain a burr on the conscience of the nation until their demands are met.

This weekend was sort of the MOR version of that. Naturally it would be, after the signal events of the protests — the sudden ignition, the cops wilding, the looting, and Fat Donny’s absurd tear-gas-and-Bible show at St. John’s. (By the way: Who did set fire to that church? I know what fantasy figures the wingnuts blame, but history points in a different direction.) This protest was for the wider coalition of liberals and moderates (did you see Mitt Romney out there Sunday?) and plain people who don’t want a mess but who also know the protestors are in the right (and, as I said last week and even polls the Wall Street Journal dares to report are showing, that’s most people).

So the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday had exhortations that white people get with it (“rather than ask me or another black or brown person how they are doing ask them what they’ve experienced, ask them to ask you to see the world from your eyes; ask them to remove the veil of ignorance from your sight”) but also prayers and sacred songs and appeals to brotherhood and love. The march to Lafayette Square had a lot of the fierce energy of the early events — the chanting, the kneeling, the hands-up were shot through with it — but it was a ride everyone, even the less fierce, was invited to join. And when we got to Lafayette Square, or rather the streets above it because Trump in his cowardice had penned it off, we had... a block party.

It was the street fair we’d all been missing. No food or alcohol, but plenty of free water and snacks that one could duck away from the crowd and lift one’s mask to consume as needed. I’ve heard people complain about this as not really revolutionary protocol but really, what was that old line about your revolution and being able to dance? This is a people’s movement, not some Marxist practicum.

My wife says that this is what’s meant by the old idea of singing down Babylon — Bob Marley had a take, as did the biblical Joshua at the battle of Jericho. Righteousness — not in the sense we associate with self-righteousness, but true righteousness, the real thing as seen in the holy book Trump profaned last week — spreads among the people like a song, and the song shakes down the walls.

I would add: there’s also a sense in which the enemy collaborates in his own destruction. In the two weeks since Floyd’s death and the protests’ beginning, the police have been proving their own viciousness and lack of accountability in literally hundreds of video-recorded incidents of police violence against the innocent — this is a good thread just for example, with 399 outrages and counting; so’s this one. Before, there were a lot of people offended by the protestors’ violence; now those people have to consider why it is that, as the protestors’ violence subsides, the cops’ violence continues and they refuse all efforts to reform them. In a way, this is also an answer to the people who said they wished the protestors would take Martin Luther King’s path of non-violence — you see now these great new protests, all as peaceful as you could want, and the police still with their nightsticks out. So it would seem the allegedly violent protestors have indeed heeded King’s message and pointed up the violence of their adversaries.

On Sunday I came back to the protest scene or, as we Washingtonians like to call it (and its new official name), Black Lives Matter Plaza. Everything was chill. Some men were solemnly playing a speech about the Prison-Industrial Complex on a boombox, and a half-dozen visitors stood and listened; freelance leaders bade us chant, kneel, tell our friends, do more. St. John’s, even with its windows boarded up, looked handsome in the sun, and a protest medic set up shop against its wall. The free snacks and water flowed. Tubby was holed up behind his fences, which protestors had festooned with Black Lives Matter art and messages. Tubby has snipers on his roof and money in his vault and grifters in his pocket and racists on his side. But dem soft, yes dem soft.