Seven score and four years ago

The Kentucky primary election is still too close to call.  A landslide of mail-in ballots are going to need to be counted, and that’s going to take time. Understandably, many voters were reluctant to head to the voting booths in the middle of a pandemic. But many weren’t, and the lines outside polling places became a story, as they did in Georgia, and as they did in Wisconsin, and as they also did right here in New York City.  Whether the White House succeeds in torpedoing the postal service or not, universal mail-in balloting isn’t going to be implemented before the general election in November. By then, a second wave of coronavirus may well be cresting, right in time to coincide with flu season.  Expect fear, waits, confusion; expect a long count and, maybe, an indeterminate outcome. 

We might also anticipate a legitimacy crisis.  Decisions such as Bush vs. Gore have placed an asterisk next to the results of certain general elections.  But I don’t think I have ever seen the country as unready to accept an electoral result as we are right now.  No matter who wins, it’s a lock that millions of people will refuse to believe that the result was reached fairly.  The President is already telling his followers that mail-in voting is some sort of conspiracy against him.  Meanwhile, a not-insubstantial percentage of Democrats are already convinced that Trump is a Russian plant, and that his foreign creditors will intervene and throw the election his way.  If Trump ekes out a narrow victory, those long lines at the polling places will be viewed as indicative of Republican electoral shenanigans, just as Biden’s wins in the primaries were often attributed to voter suppression.  Should Biden prevail, you can expect to hear from the White House about busloads of immigrants, and the crooked media, and deep fakes, and general fraud, and an entire litany of finger-pointing excuses meant to undermine public faith in the system.  If the final count is in question, as it may well be, we’re likely to be rudderless for awhile.  Nobody is going to know for sure who’ll form the next government, so promises and suggestions made by politicians will be effectively meaningless.

It’s tempting to think that there’d be something salutary about this result.  Our politicians haven’t been serving us too well, so there’s no harm in seeing them all discredited, right?  History tells us otherwise. Legitimacy crises tend to consolidate the power of entrenched authorities, who are able to step into the vacuum created in the absence of the public’s imprimatur. Should we convince ourselves that elections are meaningless, and it’s all rigged anyway — and buddy, we’re almost there — we surrender one of the few tools we have. This is why certain unscrupulous politicians won’t take obvious measures to make voting easier, even in the midst of a health emergency that threatens to make it more difficult. They don’t fear a legitimacy crisis, because they believe they can exploit one to their advantage. They’re probably right.

Consider the consequences of the centennial election of 1876. Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York, reasonably believed he’d become the first Democrat to be elected President in two decades. He’d won more than fifty per cent of the popular vote, and, with three states to count, he was within one electoral vote of clinching the victory. All he had to do was win one of three states in the Deep South — states bordered by other states that he’d already won. To put it another way, Rutherford B. Hayes, his opponent, needed every electoral vote in every ambiguous state in order to usher in a Republican successor to the second Grant Administration. The Republicans cried voter suppression, and accused the Redshirts and the Klan of intimidating freedmen voters, which was surely accurate, but not something the Democrats were going to accept. The electoral commission established to examine the votes in disputed areas consisted of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, and in a foreshadowing of the party line machinations of Bush vs. Gore, they voted 8-7, over and over, in favor of Hayes. By a single electoral vote, they named him the nineteenth President of the United States.

This kicked off one of the nastiest legitimacy crises in American history. Democrats felt swindled out of the Presidency and refused to accept Hayes as the winner; they called him “Rutherfraud”, demonstrating that coinage of mean nicknames for politicians is not a 21st Century phenomenon alone. The blood had barely dried on the Civil War battlefields. Republicans had no taste for a renewed insurrection. So the representatives of the kind of interests that always seem to take the lead during a legitimacy crisis worked out a compromise. Hayes and the Republicans would get the White House. In exchange, Reconstruction would end. The remaining Yankee troops would pull out of Dixie and segregationist state governments would be allowed to treat freedmen however they saw fit to treat them: horribly, usually. Many of the discriminatory measures enabled by the Compromise of 1877 would remain in place until the 1960s.

A terrible irony of this: Rutherford B. Hayes was a decent person. He made his name in Cincinnati as an abolitionist lawyer who defended runaway slaves in court. During the Civil War, he served as a field officer, and he took a Confederate bullet at South Mountain during the invasion of Maryland that culminated in the Battle of Antietam. Grant commended him for his gallantry and bravery, and he was brevetted to the rank of major general. He campaigned for equal rights at a time when it wasn’t always easy to do so, and in a place (Southern Ohio) where the Copperhead movement was strong. It’s a shame that he’s associated with the rollback of Reconstruction measures meant to integrate America, but then Hayes wasn’t driving the train. He came to office at a moment when trust in government was in the gutter, and that severely compromised his latitude for action. He wasn’t an expression of public will, or the people’s voice, because he couldn’t be. He lacked the democratic authority that comes from the result of a true plebiscite. All he could do was stand by while powerful people — institutional party leaders, industrialists, white supremacists, etcetera — struck a noxious private deal on behalf of their own interests. That deal was ostensibly made on his behalf, but really, it cut him out. That’s what happens during a legitimacy crisis, and it’s what I expect will happen in November unless we can recover some of our faith in the systems we’ve designed to divine popular sentiment. The lesson is the same as it was in 1876: when we don’t believe our elections are on the level, that benefits those who’d prefer that we didn’t have elections at all.

Can’t happen here

We started getting reports from China in early January. They were sketchy, but we knew something was going on. Then there were the cruise ships, at least one of which regularly docked in Bayonne. Close to home, quite literally, but the news didn’t clarify much. By late February, the doors to the Life Care Center in Kirkland were shut. Shortly after that, life in Seattle changed, and it has yet to change back. The Seattle Times was all over this; they lifted the paywall and shared their coronavirus stories with anybody who wanted to read them. I read them.

Ordinary dispatches from Seattle reached us, too. One independent journalist laid it all out for us in blunt language. What we’re experiencing now, she told us, you’re all about to experience. It’s all coming to your town: lockdowns, shortages, store closings, park closings, government warnings, constant fear of contracting and transmitting a communicable disease. If you think you’re going to dodge this, you’re wrong. I read it. In mid-March, people in Bergamo posted videos from isolation and sent love across the Atlantic in anticipation of our coming hardship. Soon you must suffer like we suffered. I watched those videos.

Yet there was a part of me that simply refused to believe it. It was completely irrational, but it was there. I didn’t want to stockpile food. I didn’t want to stay inside. Maybe I wouldn’t have to. Maybe the virus would burn out before it reached us. If you’d sat me down during the second week of March and forced me to have a reasonable conversation, I think I would’ve conceded that the whole world was about to go sideways. But I was not open to reasonable conversation; not entirely, anyway. There were already too many voices in my brain — too many anxieties, too many competing claims, too much noise in an overtaxed system.

While the certainty of the denialists isn’t something I have the capacity to understand, I do think I get where they’re coming from. I experienced a version of it myself. Because visible worry is a bad negotiating tactic, and we value strategic acumen above all other mental traits, Americans are taught never to admit weakness. Americans are trained to downplay threats. We refuse to behave like we’re rattled, even when circumstances might forgive us a little panic. If somebody rushes into town with the news that the neighboring village is on fire, we’re supposed to remain cool, act nonchalant, and lead with our skepticism. So it doesn’t matter what I say to a doubting Arizonan or Floridian about my experience in Jersey City in April and May. He might not dismiss me outright. Intellectually, he might understand that community spread is accelerating in his state, and an intervention might need to be made. But he’s probably not going to change what he’s doing. He’s more likely to dig in.

The global health crisis has magnified the country’s least appealing traits. Among other things, we’ve been exposed as atrocious risk assessors. Our tendency to minimize has never served us well; lately, the consequences of our national complacency have been pretty lethal. They’re reminders that the coronavirus is hardly the only crisis we’re facing. People have been warning about our ecological recklessness, our unequal distribution of power, and our staggering debts for decades. Sometimes, we’ll even agree that these are crises. Nevertheless, we won’t act. We treat them like television shows that will inevitably wrap up with tidy endings, and all we’ll have to do is kick back and watch. We’re not going to be the ones running around with our heads on fire, because those people look silly, and silly is the one way that Americans cannot bear to look.

People in other countries don’t share our vanity. They don’t have to pose with their chests puffed out and pretend that they aren’t afraid of fearsome things. They’ve cultivated other modes of sociability and other ways of being, and hard as it might be for us to hear, we might want to follow their lead. As an American myself, I hate to be shown up, but as a person with eyes and ears, I can acknowledge that that’s exactly what has happened. Hong Kong has shown us up. Austria and Germany have shown us up. New Zealand has shown us up. Taipei has shown us up. Vietnam, a country we actively tried to destroy not so long ago, has certainly shown us up. People did not have to watch their immediate neighbors die before they admitted that the virus was real. They didn’t wait until the house was on fire before they turned on the pumps. They took the word of the epidemiologists and acted accordingly. America prides itself on its initiative and its productivity, but our individualism isn’t worth much if individuals can’t muster the will, or the wisdom, to put aside their differences and work together when we absolutely have to. The whole world has watched us mess this up. Admirers overseas are now going to turn to other models, other leaders, and other systems to emulate. It’s hard to blame them.

The Tulsa trap

About a month after the 2016 general election, George drove me home from practice. He was, as we all were, very worried about the consequences of the decisions that the country had made and the experiment in extreme laissez-faire that was about to commence. The American governing apparatus, he believed, was a machine too powerful and too globally consequential to put in the hands of an operator who refused to read the owner’s manual. George felt that it was likely we wouldn’t live to see the end of a Trump Administration, and ticked off the ways it could all go wrong. There could be an atomic attack, or an old-fashioned nuclear accident. Social divisions could be exacerbated to the point of violent insurrection. Rollback of environmental protections meant that we stood a pretty good chance of getting poisoned in one way or another. George — and I recall this clearly — also predicted that the country would be unprepared for a pandemic.

Politicians make scary choices. Those in power are always threatening our lives, and livelihoods, in one way or another: prioritizing certain groups at the expense of others, making decisions that expand or contract different segments of the economy, stoking the engines of their future campaigns with the hot coal of public discontent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chief executive do anything as deliberately, unforgivably, irrationally dangerous as the boneheaded thing that Donald Trump is determined to do tonight.

We don’t know everything about the coronavirus, and we’re unlikely to get a complete picture for years. But we’ve developed a workable transmission model, and that model tells us that packing thousands of unmasked chanters in an indoor arena — and keeping them there for hours! — is indefensible. That the White House feels at liberty to act in contradiction to the germ theory shouldn’t be a surprise; nevertheless, the brazenness with which they’re flaunting their defiance of basic science in the midst of a pandemic that has already affected millions of people worldwide is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. Some of the people who’ll attend tonight’s rally no doubt believe that prayer will see them through. I’ll be praying for Tulsa, too. I pray that they remember that God gave them brains, and He expects them to use them, even when the authorities refuse to use theirs. Especially when the authorities refuse to use theirs.

I try not to write about the President. This disinclination of mine isn’t hard to maintain, because the President does not tend to do interesting things, or say interesting things, or make choices that are salient to the health emergency we’re facing. Since he lacks organizational skills and intellectual discipline, I didn’t expect him to make a productive intervention in the progress of the pandemic, and boy howdy, he has not. All I ask of this administration and its enablers is that they don’t exacerbate a terrible problem. They’ve failed to clear that very low bar. Tonight, they don’t even plan to jump; they’re just going to run straight into the bar at top speed.

You may suspect that they have genocidal intentions. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but.. that gives them too much credit. There’s no plan I can see other than the consolidation of power at all costs. They’re more than happy to throw you straight into the volcano to appease the hunger that remains their only motivation. The President’s poll numbers haven’t been good. He wants a televised rally, because television and rallies are all he understands. If he has to jeopardize or even sicken people to get what he wants, well, that’s tough luck for America.

Defenders of the administration are using a tit-for-tat argument: they feel that the recent street demonstrations have given them authorization to stage an event of their own. If you can set aside the batshit insanity of this and look at it squarely, it actually tells you a lot about the mentality of the President’s supporters. They’re not interested in scientific models and probabilities; they’re not interested in the pandemic at all. They’re certainly not interested in social justice movements. Everything in the world is filtered through a simple, elemental calculus — does the item under consideration help Donald Trump, or does it hurt him? Entrenching the President’s position becomes the foremost priority, and all else is secondary, including a global health crisis that endangers everybody on the planet. It is astonishing to me that any politician can have this sort of effect on his followers, let alone one who doesn’t seem to be able to string together a coherent sentence, but here we are. Trump has an uncanny ability to draw objects of all sizes into a dark orbit around him. Don’t get caught up.

Hard choices

The five-day rolling averages continue to alarm me. Cases and hospitalizations are up, sharply, in Florida, Texas, Nevada, Alabama, the Carolinas, Arizona, and other sunny states where the warm weather was supposed to make it difficult for the coronavirus to reproduce. We all knew that reopenings were likely to assist the transmission of the pathogen, but some of these places never exactly closed. Nowhere is the virus spreading as aggressively as it did in New York and New Jersey in April. Numbers are climbing nevertheless, and if they continue, it’s likely that governments will intervene again.

On the other side of the globe, China is locking Beijing back down after an outbreak traced to a wholesale food market. The Chinese authorities have been loud about their response to the coronavirus — how decisively they’ve moved, and how well they’ve been able to put out fires — but I get a sense that they speak with fingers crossed behind their backs. They clearly expect to be slapped by a second wave.

Regardless of the direction of the lines on the state graphs, America ought to be ready, too. Some epidemiologists predict a spike during flu season, but that’s just a guess based on older models that may not apply to the threat we face. Here in the Jerz, some of my neighbors proceed as if they’ve been through the storm and made it to the other side, and this pandemic is now the Sun Belt’s problem to deal with. Restaurants in Asbury Park opened their doors and invited patrons inside. Through court order, the state government put the kibosh on that. Nevertheless, businesspeople on the Shore are getting restless. They don’t want to lose their livelihoods. They want to get the summer rolling.

Meanwhile, street protests continue. In Atlanta, where coronavirus remains steadily problematic, a white cop killed a black man named Rayshard Brooks. This shooting, which happened on Friday night, was more kerosene tossed on a blaze that is burning from coast to coast. Even before it was ruled a homicide, it prompted justifiable public outcry. That’s going to mean more people congregated in public, and more opportunities for the virus to spread, and I imagine some unscrupulous politicians are readying their excuses and gathering their talking points even as I type.

Can the acceleration of cases be attributed to the protests? Not too cleanly, it turns out. Many of the hottest zones are located in places where people haven’t been marching. But let’s be fair here: unless the germ-theory is somehow inaccurate or inapplicable in this case (no evidence for that), mass actions and mass gatherings will necessarily lead to more coronavirus. It would be nice to think that structural change and public awakening might happen in a manner that didn’t further the spread of a deadly disease, but I doubt it can. We may not know whether street actions will prompt municipal governments to reform their police departments, but we can be pretty certain that nothing positive is going to happen unless there’s public pressure.

So that’s the state of the nation on the ides of June, and it’s an ugly one. In order to stare down one threat, we need to run the risk of amplifying another. To make matters worse, there’s no guarantee that our efforts to address either problem will amount to much, and more than a little reason to believe that they won’t.

But we’ve got to try, because inaction would be downright suicidal. There are many who say that we’re all bound to be infected with the coronavirus eventually, just as there are many who’ll say about institutional racism and police brutality that that’s just the way it is/some things will never change. Don’t you believe them. Other countries have demonstrated that the pathogen can be stopped in its tracks, or at least kept at bay, through a combination of tracing, isolation, mask-wearing, and good hygiene. In America, our government is going to be whatever we will it to be. For quite some time, it’s been terrible because we’ve been terrible; it’s been a frighteningly accurate expression of our national priorities. We can realign those priorities, and we can get healthy. It’s not going to be easy, and we’re not all going to make it. But all the airborne particles and all the smoke from the burning Wendy’s can’t obscure the way forward. It’s pretty damned visible.

The beat goes on

Businesses in New York City reopened yesterday. Our side of the Hudson is coming back to life, too. There was a party on the block this weekend, and I don’t think anybody really minded. A few countries have managed to knock out the virus altogether, at least for now: New Zealand, for instance, announced a temporary eradication. Some European cities that were bracing for a June spike have found that the second wave hasn’t materialized. Some lockdowns have been lifted, others have just been allowed to lapse. People are back out on the street in Jersey City, and New Jersey in general, some masked, some unmasked, many absolutely determined to have a summer as long as the pathogen cooperates.

Elsewhere, the picture isn’t as pretty. The Johns Hopkins tracker reveals that America has flattened its logarithmic curve, which means that the virus isn’t spreading exponentially anymore. But new cases, new hospitalizations, and new deaths keep right on happening. Attention has turned to the protest movement, and the coronavirus has become something of an afterthought, even as the American case count reaches the two million mark. We might be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball: it’s been a grueling three months, and if the epidemiological models are accurate, we may face another tough period ahead once the summer is over. Nevertheless, it’s more than a little dispiriting to see American officials behave as if the mission has been accomplished.

It has not. In New York and New Jersey, the caseloads continue to decline, but they’re hovering quite a bit above zero; the plane hasn’t touched ground yet, and we all feel the lurch of every sudden updraft. Elsewhere in America, the picture isn’t too pretty. The rolling five day case average in Texas reached a new peak last week. After a May plateau, numbers are climbing in Florida again, and Florida has consistently underreported and obfuscated, so it’s a safe bet that conditions are worse than the government admits they are. North Carolina, which never completely closed, is reporting three times the number of coronavirus cases as it did in mid-April. I don’t even have the stomach to look at the Arizona graph. My hope is that none of these places will have to suffer the extreme hardship that we did: we’ve got a better transmission model in place now, and viruses don’t like June weather. But it helps nobody to pretend that the crisis is over and it’s time to move on to juicier stories.

We don’t know yet whether the protests will drive a surge in cases. I believe those of you who’ve argued that activists have taken prophylaxis more seriously than the government did, and those who’ve distributed sanitizer and face masks at the rallies are definitely doing the Lord’s work. Most of the protesters have been young and healthy, and even as they’ve chanted in unison, and many of them have respected distancing suggestions. Nevertheless, given what we know about asymptomatic spread, it’s virtually certain that some transmission is happening at the street actions — especially when authorities have become confrontational and tipped the marches into chaos. The action in Jersey City drew a huge crowd to City Hall this weekend: people came to say things that they were absolutely driven to say, even in the face of lethal peril.

My sense is that some of my neighbors will call that an irresponsible thing to do, and I certainly understand why. But the plan was never to stay inside forever. We were trying to buy ourselves some time to figure a few things out, break old habits and learn some new ones, and apply what we’d learned to any subsequent re-engagement with public culture. That work is incomplete at best. But we’re not Taiwan, and we’re not New Zealand. In America, we get by on a little bit of information, a little bit of prayer, and a whole hell of lot of unstoppable forward momentum.

Screwed up

Forgive me if everything I’m about to write is redundant to you: if you follow pop news, you probably know all of this already.  Yet the overlap between the music press and mainstream media is not as great as those of us who spend our mornings reading Okayplayer and The FADER often imagine it is, so it’s possible that your account of the life of George Floyd isn’t as complete as it could be. In case this is new to any of the people who occasionally read this page, I’d like to explain.

George Floyd was a genuine affiliate of the Screwed Up Click. He was a high school athlete in Houston, but he was a rhymer, too, a participant in the creation of the Screw Tapes that rechanneled the flow of hip-hop. For those who aren’t aware, the late Robert Earl Davis, better known as DJ Screw, was the facilitator of an expressive movement that gave a voice to places that most of the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city, hadn’t heard. George Floyd, or Big Floyd, was from one of those places: Third Ward, the Cuney Homes. He had a tale to tell. DJ Screw provided a platform, and a matching, marvelously illustrative sound. 

That’s what Screw did for many, many rappers, some of whom, like Lil Keke, Z-Ro, and Lil Flip, would go on to achieve some measure of national recognition. But none of the members of the Screwed Up Click, including Screw himself, achieved a fraction of the fame that Screw’s method did. DJ Screw slowed down his beats quite radically, sometimes to a poured-molasses crawl, and he favored rappers whose rhyme styles suited the pace he favored. That meant thick-voiced rappers, wary rappers, low, rumbling, cautious baritones, ones with the heaviness of hot and humid summer nights in their voices. Big Floyd had a voice like that: his was perfectly suited for the chopped and screwed treatment. While Screw was the visionary, it’s fair to say that he achieved the sound he was going for – one he developed over the course of making hundreds of tapes – in collaboration with the vocalists he recorded. Tape distortions and synth-signals pulled like taffy, or dripping on the tarmac like melted ice cream, and plaintive, soulful, aggrieved Texas vowels: from those building blocks, Screw built an aesthetic that is now embedded in the hip-hop vernacular. You can hear the echoes in Drake’s artfully-muffled production, or see reflections in Kanye’s candy-coated paranoia, or Future’s digital masks, or fellow Houstonian Travis Scott’s own fantasies at the meeting point between the steaming street and the oil-black Gulf Coast sky. It’s a provocative sound, a beautiful/disgusting sound, a disorienting and pained sound, full of suffering and longing, and unfulfilled promise, and fear, and everything else that makes hip-hop the great American art form it is. George Floyd was part of that.

Even at the time, the chopped and screwed style was associated with a specific drug: lean, that purple drank, promethazine with codeine, mixed in a Styrofoam cup with plenty of crushed ice and a jolly rancher for flavor. Some Southern rappers called it barre, or syrup, or sizzurp, and those who partook would get “throwed”; everything pleasantly, or maybe not-so-pleasantly, slowed to a near-halt and rendered irreal. The psychedelic applications of Screwed Up music is immediately apparent – it’s an altered state in progress, the mind playing tricks on you, and word was always that Screw’s music never sounded more appropriate than it did to those under the influence. In 2000, Screw overdosed on sizzurp, forever cementing the association between slowed-down Houstonian underground hip-hop and drug addiction. But if getting throwed was all there was to the Screw Tapes (there are 350 of them!), their significance to hip-hop history would not have been nearly as great as it is. Like all great drug music, from Pink Floyd to P-Funk to Lana Del Rey, the Screwed Up sound is less a celebration of hedonism than it is an exploration of a particular state of consciousness. What does it feel like to be alone and hunted, in the small hours, on a hot street in the summertime, when all you can feel is the beat of your heart and your fear that you’re in somebody’s crosshairs? What does it feel like to be observed, even as you can’t see who is looking at you?  How long do the moments stretch when you’re afraid? How hard do you tug on the second hand in an attempt to stop time when you feel like you’re slipping, inexorably, toward the edge?

These were the beats that Big Floyd – George Floyd – rhymed over. In strict adherence with H-Town tradition, he rapped about his aspirations, his skills, the pride he took in his block, and his faith that he’d have a future worth inhabiting. There’s always something liturgical about the rapping on Screw Tapes, as the rappers bring out H-Town signifier after signifier, the draped up and dripped out paint, the barre, the gold grills, the smooth conflation between the ornamental car and the decked-out human behind the steering wheel. In verse, Big Floyd knelt at every station with the peculiar combination of awe and confidence common to true believers everywhere. As he did, Screw swung around the hammer: the big, slowed-down beats that stood in for those crushing, pile-driving pressures that dented the lives of the artists he worked with. We all find the churches that suit us, and Screw’s was a wide one, a beautiful one, a brave one, and ultimately, a realistic one. George Floyd was not an atypical parishioner, and eventually the prophecy inherent in the music came true for him, just as it came for Screw himself.

I was just a kid from urban New Jersey when I first heard Screwed Up music. Three decades later, I am no kid anymore, and I’m no less pale-faced. I don’t get throwed; I don’t even take aspirin. But I hope that true Houstonians will forgive me for saying that I felt this music from the moment I heard it, and I further feel that my understanding and respect deepens with each trial I face. I felt I knew exactly why Screw slowed the beats down, and why the emcees sounded so burdened, even as they rhymed about liberation through drugs, through fast cars, through their own outsized talents. Superficially, my life experience might not share much with that of George Floyd, but I know what it is to have a story to tell, and to search for a sound that matches my own sense of destabilization, and alienation, and my worries about my place in a society that never seemed to have any use for me. I know what it’s like to be told to shut up and go away, and to go right on talking nevertheless. And I know that’s precisely where fascism starts: first, the speaker is discouraged from telling his story because of who he is, or how he speaks, or his association with an unfavored class or group. You’re told that your voice is illegitimate, that you’re unworthy, or you’re too stoned, or you’re not man enough, or you aren’t using the right kind of language. For most, that discouragement suffices. Others continue speaking, right up until the day they feel the knee on their neck. You may feel it too, right now. You might be pushing through that same shortness of breath. You march for George Floyd, you march for Third Ward, you march for DJ Screw, you march for hip-hop, you march for me. I thank you. God bless you.     

Tumbling polyhedrons

Technically, I never stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons. My regular game with my childhood friends went on ice when my obsession with music swallowed all my other interests, but you could still find me on my Commodore 64 at night, bathing in the pixels of Telengard, or Bard’s Tale, or whatever other fantasy titles the studios brought to my home computer. Besides baseball simulations and Katamari Damacy, there aren’t too many videogames I’ve committed myself to that weren’t based on Dungeons & Dragons; Shadows Of Amn, and Icewind Dale, the original concept of Dragon Age, the ground-shaking thunderclap that was Planescape: Torment, and even Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, which was just Dungeons & Dragons in outer space. Then there were the many ways that D&D became my frame of reference for non-fantasy reality, like my observance of alignment protocol, my constant desire to level up and gain new skills, and my ongoing, well-chronicled attraction to the elfin. My early interest in Leiber and Lovecraft came straight from the D&D sourcebooks that referenced them reverentially when they weren’t ripping them off, and vocabulary is still straight from the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook. Gygax and Arneson forged my consciousness as surely as any teachers did, and that’s because they were teachers, too, only their subject matter was unbeatable, wasn’t it?

So it wasn’t my interests that changed — it was my social world and my interpersonal priorities. At fourteen, I went from making music on my own and playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends to making music with friends and playing Dungeons & Dragons on my own. And so it went for decades until the quarantine. I haven’t raised my voice in a practice space with others in months. Not so coincidentally, one of my bandmates told me on the phone that he had a hankering to play D&D over Zoom, and he volunteered me to be the game-master. I’m not in a position to turn down a request like that. I set to work on a milieu: encounters, non-player characters, a mythological system, maps and dice and all of it.

We’ve tried a couple of sessions. How have I done? Not too well, by my own estimation. As a young person, I was never the Dungeon Master: I was always a player, and I was deeply invested in the survival and progress of my tween-age creations. Attempting to run a game over a videoconference is a tricky proposition, but I don’t blame the software or the distance. I just think I haven’t managed to instill that sense of consequence or intrigue that good Dungeons & Dragons campaigns always had. My own fumbling attempts to get the milieu off the ground and make my play-world compelling have given me new respect for the older kids who ran the superb game I participated in when I was young. Granted, it’s easier to enchant eleven-year-olds than jaded grown-ups, but that’s really no excuse. Either the spell holds or the spell fails; there’s not a lot of in-between.

Regardless of my limited talents, re-engagement with Dungeons & Dragons has been rewarding. I returned to my First Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (a book that, as a player, I wasn’t supposed to look at) and enjoyed Gary Gygax’s wonderfully pompous purple prose all over again. Via mail order, Hilary gifted me with a vintage copy of TSR modules D1 and D2 — brutal, grotesque higher-level adventures that sure tested my characters and my stomach when I was in sixth grade. Those were fun to re-read, and they made me want to play; they also made me want to hunt down the mesmerizing sequel The Vault Of The Drow. Beyond that, much as I try hard to contrive some, there just aren’t that many occasions to roll a dodecahedron in ordinary life. Computer-generated random numbers are fine as a direction, but there’s really no substitute for throwing a natural 20. It’s not accurate to call it a nostalgic thrill, because D&D has never been far from me. Shaking hands with Gygax again, forcefully, has provided some comfort during a time when I can’t shake hands with anybody else.

Interiors

On our trip back from the ocean, we stopped at a classic Jersey farm stand in the Monmouth County suburbs. It seemed like a decent bet. We’d been there before, and it had always been wide open and well ventilated. Very few people on the highway sidewalks (the farm stand, like so many south of the Raritan, is right on a busy highway) bothered to wear masks, and fewer still proceeded with the sort of social distancing paranoia that’s now commonplace where we live. No creative avoidance techniques while walking, no hesitation huddling at a bus stop, no panicked crossings of the street when another pedestrian approaches. Granted, all of that is much harder to do on a highway than it is on a city block. There’s often nowhere to pivot that wouldn’t put a walker face to face with a delivery truck.

The stand itself was crowded with shoppers, mostly seniors (the town is old) hustling together bundles of shoots for their gardens, bags of dirt, sea-blue paper containers of cherry tomatoes. The pace was springlike, cheerful, leisurely. If it wasn’t for the masks, dispensers of hand sanitizers, and the visible nervousness of the checkout people, it could have been mistaken for an ordinary day at a typical market in easy driving distance to the shore. It struck us that it was only the store’s policy that compelled customers to cover their faces. They knew they could not get service without a mask. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered. These people were through worrying — if they were ever worried in the first place.

Cases are down. Perhaps our safety measures have made a difference, or maybe this virus, like other viruses, doesn’t care for June. We in the Garden State have managed to slow an invader that had us flat on the canvas for awhile. I reckon it was the development of a transmission model and our own behavioral adjustments that helped; that and the change of seasons. You may have a different account of things. Perhaps you credit your neighbors, or your doctors, or a merciful God. All that matters to me is that you give credit to somebody, and you don’t forget the precise dimensions of the pressure-cooker we were all trapped in. There’s already an effort underway, driven, no doubt, by leaders who don’t want us to think too hard about their performances, to fog our memories: an instant revisionist account of the crisis that suggests that the measures we took were extreme, or overblown, that it wasn’t all that bad, and we were always bound to survive it. That might play in rural Kentucky. It shouldn’t hoodwink anybody in Jersey.

A few days ago we went to a car dealership on Route 22. This was our first extended trip to an indoor space since February. Like many Jersey businesses, they were desperate to reopen. They had been trying to sell cars by phone, which had been a financial disaster, and confusing for everybody involved, too. The phone solicitor assured us that the facility was spotless, and regularly sanitized, and masks were mandatory. New car salespeople fib professionally — that’s part of the job description, and it didn’t surprise me to find that the particular car that we’d been promised to see was not present on the lot when we arrived. The interior of the dealership was open and airy, but I was suspicious of the ventilation anyway, haunted as I am by the now-famous diagram of the Chinese restaurant where virus-saturated air was re-routed from the tables of shedders to the uninfected via the pipes. The salespeople, much like the customers at the farm stand, wore their coverings like they had to: some kept their noses free throughout, as if it was a chin strap, some took their masks off to talk on the phone, and one had a mask with an opening in the front, like a coronavirus-era Lucha Libre. The main man at the dealership — a sterotypical sales hotshot — didn’t bother with the mask at all. His reasoning was written all over his bare face: I just moved ten tons of steel in February, I’m top sales rep, I’m top dog. No virus is gonna get me.

Our own saleswoman kept things as respectful as she could. She kept her mouth covered, and her nose (mostly) tucked in, and her voice down. Any time we expressed any discomfort, she tried to accommodate us rather than assuage us. Perhaps she was assigned to us because it was apparent to the dealership that we’d respond better to kindness than we would to pushiness; regardless, it was a good fit. A half an hour into the transaction, our conversation turned to the virus. She told us that she’d been as careful as she could, both at home and at work. Then she told us why: she’d lost a son. If I hadn’t had on sunglasses, and a KN95, she would have seen that I’d begun to cry. But she didn’t, so we completed the deal.

Operation shutdown

If you follow New Jersey news, you’ve probably encountered Gustavo Martínez Contreras. He’s a multimedia reporter for the Asbury Park Press, but he mostly covers Lakewood, and Lakewood is a place that regularly makes the news. There’s been more than a little virus in Lakewood, and Contreras has been on top of that story. His bilingualism has been an asset in a changing Ocean County, and he put it to excellent use in Mexico City after the 2017 earthquakes. He brought back some stunning, stomach-churning photos of the wreckage, and helped alert the world to the devastation there. On Monday night, Contreras was working closer to home: he was shooting the protests in Asbury Park, which is exactly where you’d expect a reporter to be. He was doing his job. For that, he was arrested, loaded into a police van, held by the cops overnight, and accused of failure to disperse. This charge is major b.s., and if it was ever widely enforced, would make it impossible for a reporter to get a story.

Which may be the plan. All over the country, journalists are getting arrested for photographing, or filming, or reporting, or just acting the observer in the place that their occupation requires them to be. NeimanLab records over a hundred instances of police assault on working journalists over the last four days. Something has shifted. It’s not inconceivable that there’s been a coordinated effort to target reporters, but I think it’s more likely that many rank and file cops have concluded that anybody with a camera is an enemy, and anybody with a camera and a platform needs to be silenced, or at least scared shitless.

The relationship between reporters and policemen is a complicated one. It’s not necessarily adversarial: those tales of cops and scribes drinking together and swapping notes are, in my own Jersey newsroom experience, absolutely accurate. Policemen are often sources for journalists, and sometimes, journalists are the sources for police. Beyond that, cops and reporters are tied together by their duties to the cities they’re professionally obligated to serve. There’s a common acknowledgment that both jobs are difficult, and require daily strolls through gray areas, and the strange precincts of distortion and confusion. Policemen know that if they don’t have confidence of the city — if they lose their legitimacy as arbiters — a tough role gets much tougher. That’s why they’ve always kept the lines open with news desks and cable stations. The better the cops look, the more moral authority they wield, and nothing makes the cops look good any quicker than a favorable A-1 story.

Or perhaps that only used to be true. Perhaps cops have decided that they don’t care what members of the community think of them anymore. Maybe they believe that as long as they maintain the upper hand, might will always make right, and if people don’t like it, too bad, here’s some tear gas for your face. This would be consistent with trends that have recently swept right across America, and that includes American newsrooms. If a break has happened, I don’t think there’s any way to overemphasize its significance to American democracy, or whatever is left of it. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the city. A real journalist — one who goes out, talks to people in the community, and brings back a story — is an indispensable person and a load-bearing pillar of public culture. He might make his agenda apparent, but he isn’t driven by it; he’s not a desk pundit or a professional opinion-haver. Instead, he’s going to throw himself into the middle of the fracas, try to orient himself, and hammer together something approaching objective truth. Then he’s going to sing his song back the way he heard it — no matter who it pisses off.

Beat cops ought to understand and sympathize with that. When they do their jobs right, they’re actually up to something similar. They have ideological proclivities just like the rest of us do, and that’s natural, but when they’re out on the street, they’ve got to assess everything they encounter as objectively as they can. When they put the blinders on reporters and stuff videographers into squad cars on ludicrous charges, it is a dead certainty that they’re not taking that responsibility seriously. They’re leading with prejudice, and applying authority, and sometimes lethal force, in ways that they wouldn’t if they were using their heads and behaving fairly. They’ve decided that a class of people — African-Americans, or socialists, or the destitute and homeless, or journalists — are the enemy, and they’re the good guys, the boys in blue, and entitled to treat that underclass however they see fit.

A police force that has arrived at this conclusion is worthless to a city. Nobody but anarchists like anarchy (and in practice, even anarchists rarely do), but it’s actually safer for the people if a force like that was simply disbanded. Suspicion of the growing prejudice of the police is the entire motivation behind the recent wave of protests. We’re worried that our local protectors have decided that they’re our judges, juries, and occasional executioners, and the killing of George Floyd, captured on camera in graphic detail for the whole planet to see, demonstrates for the umpteenth time that those worries aren’t paranoid delusions. We fear that a combination of militarism, surveillance and plain old American arrogance has turned the police into the advance guard of an armed force in a culture war that nobody in his right mind wants to fight. Every time they cuff a journalist, they reinforce those fears, and hasten the collapse of civil society and accelerate our descent into mindless, muscle-bound autocracy. If they want to avoid that outcome — and believe me, they used to — they’ve got to let reporters take pictures, and write stories, and, whenever necessary, hold them accountable.

And if you see Gustavo Martínez Contreras, give that poor guy a pat on the back. Sorry you had to go through that, man. Failure to disperse, sheesh.

Uprising

History suggests that pandemics are followed by civil unrest. I still didn’t think that the upheaval would arrive quite so soon, or quite as forcefully, as it has. Well before the first wave has passed, protesters, some masked and some extremely unmasked, are out in large numbers, shoulder to shoulder, shouting, engaging in activities that are guaranteed to spread around the pathogen. Given the transmission model we’re working with — one that seems pretty accurate — I can’t envision any way they could have mounted a real street action without also advancing the march of the coronavirus. A global crisis that’s already out of control is likely to be worsened by an American political crisis that also demands a response. And America was already sick and reeling.

Public outcry operates on no particular timetable, not even one established by an alien invader. No matter how violent this insurrection gets, it’s important to remember that it began in response to an act that was utterly unconscionable. Many people — African-Americans in particular — are terrified of the police, and we saw exactly why. We further recognize that when authorities exert extreme and prejudicial force, they need to be challenged. Otherwise, the problem worsens: cops already prone toward civil and human rights violations feel emboldened. Policemen can’t be allowed to kneel on the necks of American citizens, or stand by whistling Dixie while one of their crew carries out a brutal public execution. George Floyd’s murder can’t be waved away without a reprisal. The die was cast the moment he suffocated under the officer’s knee. There were going to be protests, they were going to be out on the street, and they were going to get ugly. In the midst of a pandemic, police cannot exacerbate problems we’re already struggling with, or throw more kerosene on a fire that nobody has been able to put out.

I would very much like to see protesters maintain social distance, and behave in ways that won’t spread a communicable disease. I’d like many other wildly unrealistic things, too. Efforts to contain the epidemiological damage that’s going to be done by the protests are, I’m afraid, on the shoulders of the cops, who need to understand that the pain is real, and warranted, and worthy of expression. The police need to operate with a light touch, and avoid tipping marches into chaos and fear. A mass of people marching and shouting in unison is fortuitous enough for the coronavirus; a mass of people running, screaming, and shoving is about as fertile a ground as any pathogen could ever want. In the much-maligned Jersey cities of Newark and Camden, there wasn’t any violence or chaos, and that’s because police marched alongside the protesters. Those officers didn’t pledge their allegiance to a badge and uniform in defiance of common morality. They did what all representatives of the law should. They saw criminal behavior — the cold-blooded killing of a man on the street — and they stood against it. That’s really all we ever ask of them.

For personal reasons, I had to take a four-day break from posting to this space. I hope very much that I won’t need to take another. I don’t want to go too far into it, but I do appreciate your well-wishes. At the time the protests first broke out, I wasn’t even aware that they were happening. I wouldn’t have been any help anyway: I’m not a street fighter, or even a behind-the-screen ideological warrior. I’m a Carly Rae Jepsen fan from North Jersey, and a hazardously gentle person. But I know that street fighters are slugging it out for me, and for people like me, just as I know that Nazi-punchers are, absolutely, punching people who’d like to see me dead. I am proud of you for fighting; me, I’ll keep on writing. It’s obviously what I was put on earth to do, because it’s the only thing I’m any good at.