2020: The (second) Year Without A Summer
Seattle University student AJ sat in her apartment on Seattle’s Broadway stretch on the evening of June 6th. She had heard coverage of protests heating up in the area, but as a counselling student, her studies had to take center stage that day. Sharp noises rose in the distance as the light faded.
“I remember thinking it was thunder.” She said. “Then I heard it again and I thought ‘oh shit, that’s not thunder.’”
Mayhem The Riot Child, a black activist who spoke at many of the rallies at the time, said that same fear coursed through her that night as she thought the whole precinct would burn. The district lit up like Times Square when racial justice protestors clashed with cops sporting riot gear.
I had marched in protests before, but this was my first live concert of flashbangs and rubber bullets. I watched protestors push back against the blue line and recede again like ocean tides. One dude showed me a busted piece of a discharged tear gas cannister around his neck that had just grazed his dome.
Out of these fireworks grew The Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) in Seattle’s East Precinct. Protestors declared the few blocks around the site a sovereign area separate from the United States. It was a couple of days after the protests when I first strolled through the place. Gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman stopped by too, causing some sparks that had to be quelled by some folks calling themselves security. But that was the only eventful piece of the warm summer evening. Groups sprawled out across the nearby streets and fields, artwork and freak flags flying everywhere. National Lawyers Guild reps walked around to pounce on illegal activities by law enforcement, though they declined to go into detail about what they were looking for or how it would be handled. Two guys in charge of security, Jay and Eric, expressed their ideas of this movement’s goals: peaceful, nonviolent resistance focusing on local victories.
The block gave off some Occupy pulses from nine years ago when I was living in Olympia and could stroll through the tent city on Capitol Lake. The CHOP vibe, much like Occupy, was peaceful with a coating of impulse. Not much was planned beyond next week, leading to a lot of game time decisions. CHOP felt temporary despite the impressive mobilization behind it. Much like Guns n’ Roses in ‘88, you took one look and knew this project would burn out fast.
Hell broke loose the following week as organizers failed to keep rotten apples out of the zone. Multiple shootings, assaults, and a march to mayor Jenny Durkan’s residence prompted the mayor to plow the streets on July 1st. Have we reached The Spaghetti Incident yet?
CHOP was a flash in the pan and it failed as a long-term project for many of the same reasons I and others have discussed before, but it is emblematic of a trend in U.S. civic life unique to our age. CHOP would not have happened twenty years ago, even with the same documentation of police killings that spurred its creation. What is the difference between then and now? A crisis of legitimacy.
The United States feels more turbulent than most can remember as the sunny season wraps. Even in our small slice of the Pacific Northwest, the last few months saw myriad protests, retaliations from local and state street muscle, political battles that prompted controversial resignations, and a fractured populace representative of the country at large. Our southern neighbor Portland is still fighting these battles as federal police forces roam the city against the wishes of local authorities. Kenosha, Wisconsin erupted in protest after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Many more examples can be found as far back as six years ago with the Ferguson uprising in Missouri. On the political level, more than half of Americans believe November’s presidential race outcome may not be legitimate and large numbers of supporters in the major party camps claim they will not accept the other candidate as a genuine winner.
Declarations that this is the end of the Republic and Civil War 2.0 looms on the horizon dominate commentary cycles, but it seems like I’ve been hearing this talk for almost ten years. Right-wing commentators were so sure the U.S. would never hold together after Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Mitt Romney got starched so badly that many believed the GOP would disappear in the coming years and never hold the presidency or either house of Congress ever again. Some even suggested the party would fracture into its radical wing and a new “moderate Republican” party.
Then 2014 happened and the GOP reclaimed the Senate to control both houses of Congress. 2016 saw the Democrats hold the lowest number of seats in almost a century after losing more than a thousand in the preceding eight years. Turns out politics ain’t like NFL betting lines in its reliability.
We’re not headed for civil war; we’re headed for fragmentation.
The Civil War 2.0 talk is understandable, and some commentators present compelling arguments that such a conflict is already here. But the core difference between this unrest and the days of Lee, Sherman, and Grant is a 21st century state and world dominated by rule of law over jingoistic arm-wrestling. Mass genocides of First Nation people were still taking place and factory workers were turning into piles of corpses every week during Episode 1. It was a crueler world where standard and legal precedent wielded a butter knife to military action’s gatling gun.
Governance and international philosophy changed in the early 20th century when then Secretary of State Elihu Root envisioned a modern world in which legal procedure and lawfare would replace traditional warfare as the main conduit for dispute resolution among nations. His ideas spawned the founding principles of the original League of Nations and its spiritual successor the United Nations. Civil wars among rich economies of the 19th century variety are unlikely to take place in this world ruled by law and precedent. Governments and citizens alike can’t stomach the costs and bloodshed involved, plus international bodies would not tolerate such a conflict in a country as economically central as the United States.
Splits into regional hegemony is the more likely outcome, much like the successor states of the Western Roman Empire.
Before jumping into that pit, it needs to be acknowledged that comparisons between the American and Roman empires are often too cliché to apply these days. Warnings of the United States’ fall, comparisons between American presidents and ancient Roman emperors, etc. abound political science circles. Historian Mike Duncan points out the flaws in this logic by explaining that, however large and dominant the U.S. has become, its current age of less than 300 years is not even a third of the Roman Republic and Empire’s combined 1,000+ year history. The U.S. could well attain that legendary timeline itself one day, but other seemingly powerful empires that don’t warrant comparisons to Rome disappeared in a flash throughout history, many of which lasted longer than the current U.S.
Listening to Duncan’s History of Rome podcast brings up several parallels between the two that are difficult to deny though. As I mop the kitchen floor and hear about the murder of the Gracchus brothers, I recall geographer Jared Diamond’s thesis that a long list of small factors, rather than one huge blowout, more often creates the conditions for implosion. This process can sometimes take place over more than a century, and a society’s survival rests on its capacity to recognize and respond to such issues.
Whether it’s Gothic hordes sacking Rome or a novel virus pandemic squeezing an already-crumbling healthcare infrastructure, what we see in the case of both Rome and the United States is a reversion to regional power centers in response to a crisis that may or may not be conquerable.
Scholars spend their whole careers analyzing Rome’s KO loss. Medieval European historian Dr. Patrick Wyman created a brilliant series about it that’s well worth hearing in full, but here’s the cliff notes of his analysis: the Empire lost its main economic drivers and failed to adapt to a changing economy while the imperial line had been handed to a series of child emperors, usurpers, and puppets to whom no legion felt any loyalty. The key word here according to Wyman is legitimacy. So long as the Empire had an authentic ruler sporting the purple, crises could be managed and recovery was possible. When that legitimacy dried up, legions and aristocrats looked to their regional main men for support and protection. These figures formed the aristocratic classes of infant Britain, Francia, Visigothic Spain, and other territories.
Similar trends rose in the U.S. across the last couple of decades. Strongman personalities who forged their political careers on opposition to D.C. became increasingly common in regional governments. Think Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio or Washington State’s Bob Ferguson. The Sovereign Citizen Movement first rose in 1971 as a resistance to federal tax and jurisdiction policies. It includes notorious figures like cattle rancher Cliven Bundy who rallied militia forces into a throwdown with federal agents in 2014. Several states pushed their own autonomy during the Trump administration’s first term by negotiating trade pacts with foreign countries after the trade war with China began. California and Texas are known for their fierce independence and talk of secession becomes louder every year (although only Cali has any real shot of going nomad). Think of all the chants and hashtags of “not my president” either from Democrats referring to Donald Trump or Republicans to Barack Obama.
These trends indicate a feeling of greater comfort in regional and local power as confidence in the federal government erodes, similar to how British subjects in the early Middle Ages resorted to gearing up and fighting the invading Picts themselves after no Roman detachment showed up for ten years, or how aristocrats in Gaul consolidated their power and formed the successor state of Francia after realizing they controlled more land and power than Rome itself.
Washington state doesn’t have invading Canadians to worry about, but the CHOP fiasco demonstrates a visceral need among citizens to consolidate resources and power in an age where D.C. feels further away than ever. Millions of Americans face eviction and food scarcity while the two major parties play beer pong in kente cloth.
And you wonder why people leave the presidential slot blank on the ballot.
Previous election years often saw voters decompress after November. Everyone goes back to being friends and Facebook fills up with cats and white middle-manager self-help memes.
That calm is dead as dirt in this crisis point of United States history. Obsessions over national elections and political personalities are a side effect of American celebrity culture. In a republican country like the United States where local and state seats command substantial autonomy, the progressive focus must be on these areas, both inside and outside the electoral sphere. Black and brown movements understood this dynamic decades ago as evidenced by Black Wall Street and other projects that built wealth and power away from the ballot box.
Holding together the national state with ballots is a pipe dream when neither major party considers election results legitimate, armed militias roam the streets, and trust in the federal state erodes with each passing day. Now is the time for us to turn to our local communities and organizations. Our black and brown brothers and sisters need our support as white accomplices in their organizations and projects that build power independent of a government built on violence. The second storm is coming. Where’s your backyard shelter?