by Nick Bain, GonzoToday contributor –
As we see cities burn across the country, a thought refuses to leave my mind. It manifests in those last famous words of Neil Armstrong as he prepared to return from the moon “…with peace and hope…” On Friday, we watched a symbol of today’s America, the SpaceX Corporation rocket, carry American Astronauts into the airless vacuum of space, while in their country, under the same flag, African Americans cannot breathe here on Earth… where there should be plenty of air to go around. The fires that propelled Elon Musk’s ship into space are the same ones that burn across more than 20 American cities.
That the demonstrations and riots would take place on the same weekend tells us so much. This has become a country that regards the ability of a corporation to commercialise space as an endeavour worth shaping a tax code around, but in doing so, we also shape our society. It follows the money. We strengthen and embolden the biggest and strongest to take almost unimaginable leaps. The country is there to catch them when they fall. We need only follow the money in the case of the bailouts for business in the wake of Covid. The powerful and wealthy have bought their own soft landing.
Yesterday, May 31, 2020, in Santa Monica, rioters burned down Sake House, the first place I sold a project upon arriving in LA. They smashed our coffee spot, my bank… more than 80 businesses. We’re shaken by this… By the inhumanity of it… We see the people who have poured their hearts into making a living… Small businesses that might as well be the homes of those who run them. We see this and we feel hurt and sadness. We feel like we’re under attack. We find words coming to us that make us sound a little like our right-wing uncles at Thanksgiving… “Why do they have to do that… What does this have to do with the killing of X? Surely there’s another way… A better way people could express their anger…”
I call BS.
This is not my first rodeo. In 2011, I lived in South London. Riots broke out following the shooting of a black man by police… This is an act of comparative rarity back in the UK, but it burned nonetheless for days and nights on end. The store below my one bed apartment was looted. Cars burned in my street, and the version of me that was ten years younger was out there, not looting, but standing in solidarity with the protests that unfolded. And the narrative is always the same. After the ‘peaceful demonstration’ comes the violence. It appears that this violence and looting is indiscriminate. (though you probably don’t want to be in the sneaker business in either instance) After the spasm of violence, comes the morning after, the concerned citizens emerging with their brooms… as if these well meaning people are ‘not the same Americans’ as the ones burning and looting when the sun goes down.
Next come the recriminations… Why were the police not able to protect our businesses? Where were they? Then come the arrests. Assisted by technology, slowly but surely, thousands of people will be rounded up. And the judiciary will impose harsh sentences as a warning.
I remember after the London riots, working in the Prison System at the time, and meeting people sentenced to four years for encouraging riots on Facebook. I heard stories of a guy sentenced to three years for stealing a can of coke who later died in jail. The ‘rioters’ I met and worked with were philosophical about what they’d done. It didn’t make much difference if they smashed up a Starbucks or looted 10 pairs of XXL jeans from the Levis Store. It didn’t matter much if they got caught. None of it really changed anything, beyond a memorable night in their lives. Some were political. Most weren’t.
I struggled to understand it at the time but could see that when people are not invested in a society, when it is not structured to allow them to succeed, they won’t care whether they’re looting a Walgreens or a Mom and Pop shop, or a minority owned business, and it’s almost tragically comical for us to expect them to… Like they should somehow ‘Loot Organic’.
I understand it better now, and the reason I do is the same reason that when the call to march in solidarity came this weekend, even though I marched against gun violence, against wars and against racial injustice in the recent past, I stayed away. I stayed away because as a white, foreigner on a Visa with a six months pregnant African American wife, I was too invested in this society to take the risk. Like my friends who are waking up horrified, feeling violated about what has happened to their towns, I do not want the world to burn, while, at the same time realising that for life to be any different for my African American daughter when she enters the world in a few weeks, in some shape or form, it has to.
That feeling of sickness to the stomach that we feel now. That is the feeling of the society we rely upon breaking. I try to imagine having that feeling every day, waking up in a different skin-tone, in a different socio-economic group… waking up and knowing viscerally, deep down that the society I’m trying to live in is broken when it comes to my place in it. That sick feeling is the one that I already feel as the parent of a mixed child who will be viewed differently to how I am… Her experience of the society I don’t want to burn will not rest on her as comfortably as it does for me. I know that there will be moments where it tries to choke her. She as a born US citizen will never breathe as easily in this country as I do as a white foreigner… unless it changes… unless we as a society are prepared to make a bonfire of the worst of our vanities.
So while I want to live in a society that can look up and aspire to the stars, that aspiration cannot be supported by the weight of a knee on someone’s neck. Not minorities, not the poor or the homeless who live in tents further up my street or any of the people of different races and creeds for whom looting Vans represented something they had nothing to lose in doing. We must be a country in which innovations and economic successes can be felt by all. We need to find a way to break the grip of the people who will let society rot as long as the dollars keep flowing into their pockets and the laws are made and paid for to ensure it happens. Far from having the biggest and best companies who can send people into space, our pride should first be in the lives our citizens can have here on earth if they abide by the rules that are applied the same to everyone.
It’s easier to look to the stars when your face is not being pressed into the concrete.
Nick Bain is a Scottish screenwriter, producer and occasional journalist living and working in Los Angeles.