In 1962, Bob Dylan, a Minnesota boy, wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song asking
“. . . how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?” After 58 years, on Memorial Day, 2020, in Minneapolis, the death of George Floyd under a white policeman’s knee gave the answer.
For the first time since the civil rights era, black anguish has become American anguish. Americans are in a reckoning with ourselves, our country, our history. The questions were always there. Popular culture has been asking them since Woodie Guthrie. The answers were in the wind, but most of America didn’t hear them.
Why was this time different? Why did America take to the streets in protest in all its multicultural multiracial multigender beauty? Was it as banal as being cooped up so long by the coronavirus that we had to get out and mingle? Was it a White House so corrupt, coarse and cruel we can finally hear what Louise explains to Thelma about the art of the deal: you get what you settle for? Was it more likely the power of the video? So much of the footage of cops killing black men, women and children is grainy, jumpy. Shapes in the darkness, fifty feet away, backs to the camera. Sudden movement, a muzzle flash. Black people could see what was happening. White people would have preferred higher resolution. In 17-year-old Darnella Frazier’s phone camera recording we are the width of a car trunk away. We’re at social distance. We see Floyd’s face, hear his pleas. Police officer Derek Chauvin gazes at us, complacent as a reptile, as he kills a helpless man.
Whatever the reason, something snapped in America. White Americans learned things that were known but not understood. That many of our famed military bases were named for traitors who chose the defense of slavery over their oaths of loyalty to the nation. That our ideas of the Confederacy were lies implanted on the American landscape and in the American mind. That so many of our police forces have lost the distinction between cops on a beat and warriors that Major Colvin spelled out to Sergeant Carver in The Wire. (Season 3, Episode 10.) If you wonder what defunding the police might mean, watch that conversation. Most poignantly, that the black friends we think we know go out their front doors every morning as wary as an infantryman walking point in high jungle grass. And if they have sons . . .
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for a rich body of work, but if one stanza clinched the distinction for him, it was probably this:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Joe Biden has taken to reciting it.
Trump’s awful presidency, the coronavirus, the economic crash, the police murder that shook a nation—demand a tidal wave of democracy. Politically, Trump is a dead man walking, a one-term president, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Generals openly challenge his attempts to corrupt the military. Just weeks ago, governors hesitated to confront Trump publicly over his criminally negligent response to the virus. Now the mayor of Seattle tells him “go back to your bunker.” People worried what a president could do to them in a second term would be more circumspect.
Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan evoked a country that never existed outside a 1950s television set. But the idea of a return to some pre-Trump normal once the White House has been exorcised is equally false. Too many police officers and chiefs have cracked the blue wall that protected violent cops. Too many people have died from the virus, which selects for race-related poverty, age, and as recent spikes of infection suggest, being stupid enough to believe Trump instead of scientists. Too many millions of jobs and businesses have been lost. Biden, who just months ago reminisced about working across the aisle with racists, now speaks of transforming the American economy as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the Great Depression. He’s talking to Elizabeth Warren, who has the plans for that. To get his programs through, FDR left southern blacks to the mercy of Jim Crow segregation. Clearly, black Americans won’t tolerate anything like that again. The demonstrations and the polls after George Floyd’s murder indicate that a majority of white Americans won’t either, which suggests that Trump’s only hope, an out-and- out racist campaign, won’t work any better than his coronavirus response. Listen carefully, America. Our menu options have changed.