The protests evoked comparisons to the 1960s, which gives some people hope while causing others to shrink from the stench of nostalgia. On one hand was the exhausted query, “Why are we still marching to resolve this shit?” On the other was validation and living proof that my sisters and their ilk have raised a generation of people who are fiercer, nobler, and more sincerely inclusive and boldly egalitarian than their elders. Thousands of young Americans lay on the pavement in full view of the White House, chanting the last words of George Floyd:
“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
The leadership vacuum laid bare by the pandemic was now at critical mass.
The first Saturday after George Floyd’s death, Donald Trump gave a speech about a rocket launch. On Monday, he went briefly to his bunker under the White House and emerged late in the afternoon for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, where protesters were cleared away with chemical repellent and nonlethal riot measures so he could march over there and pose holding up an apparently unused copy of the Bible — an eerie echo of the Europeans who arrived with their Bibles and a side order of syphilis.
In June, still disdaining the idea of wearing a face mask, he held a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his campaign workers removed stickers that designated proper physical distancing. Turnout was dismal, so maybe it’s coincidence that the rally was followed by a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. In July he sent federal troops into American cities. More viral videos showed unidentified officers rousting unarmed protesters into unmarked vans.
Through the dog days of summer, Barack Obama talked about united efforts in the interest of public health, praised the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, and advocated for meaningful police reform. Meanwhile, Trump complained that people wore masks because they didn’t like him, denounced “thugs and looters,” and repeatedly raised the specter of military “domination” of US citizens.
In August, we blew by one grim milestone after another: four million cases in the United States, 120,000 dead, 130,000 dead, 140,000 dead.
At the time, we thought that was a lot. That paradigm was about to shift.
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was published in 1963, as JFK was preparing to meet his destiny in Dallas, and Martin Luther King Jr. was praying for sleep on a fetid bunk in Birmingham City Jail. I wasn’t born when Baldwin’s book was written, and Baldwin was dead by the time I read it, so it was shocking how well he knew me. My first shopworn copy from the 1980s is still on my bookshelf. The margins are scrawled with mind-blown notes. Vehement underlining scores almost every page. The book itself is slender and elegant: 144 pages of vibrant storytelling, erudite commentary, dry wit, and uncanny vision. It begins with a sweetly gut-wrenching letter to his nephew and ends with a caveat that rings in my ears today, chilling and prescient: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”
This is the fire. We’re in it. JFK and Obama led us to the rainbow; Trump forced us into the fire. And then he poured gasoline on it.