According to my local (Birmingham, Alabama) newscast last night (December 8, 2014), there were protests in Talladega, Alabama over the Ferguson and New York City cases where local grand juries had refused to indict police officers whose actions caused the deaths of a couple of Black men. Talladega is not a hotbed of racial strife. But it has a historically-Black college—Tuskegee College– and it appeared to be mostly Black college kids, probably about fifty of them, egged on by the local chieftain of the NAACP, who were protesting. Exactly the nature of what they were protesting was probably as mysterious to them as it was to me or anyone watching. Nothing happened to them to cause the protest. And surely they can’t imagine that it makes any difference to New York City or to Ferguson, Missouri that some little town in east central Alabama has Black kids with free time enough to march down the streets protesting the actions of their police forces and grand juries.
This little police-brutality drama, and the protesting arising from it, seems so contrived. It’s almost as if the Black kids and the spoiled little white kids (apparently the bulk of the protesters) are trying hard as they might to reenact the sixties, when protesting anything and everything like a tempestuous two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum was all the rage. The sixties protesting got carried away, to the point that it became protesting for the sake of protesting. The young women of the free-love sixties liked protesting because it gave them license to behave in ways their parents and polite society would disapprove. The young men liked it because it improved their chances for sex with the free-loving female protesters seeking social and parental disapproval. Last night, when a television reporter interviewed the young, good-looking Black student at Talladega College about Ferguson, etc., he looked the camera sincerely in the eye and said that it was ‘love, just love, just a whole lotta love’ could heal the pain. I looked over at my wife and asked, “You reckon that might get him laid?”
“Well, it can’t hurt,” was her curt reply.
Cal-Berkeley students (Cal-Berkeley is one of the campuses of the University of California system and is located a few miles northeast of Oakland), and apparently a few interlopers, were out in force, protesting and rioting last night, according to wire reports. They actually shut down a major interstate, I-80, the connector between Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco. The interstate does not pass through campus, but is a couple of miles away. Those Berkeley kids must have been really bored and in fairly good physical condition to march the thirty or so blocks from campus that it took to get to the interstate, and then to get around the barricades, and stage a shutdown of travel with presumably not much more than their bodies to stop the cars and trucks from moving. The protests had turned a bit riotous the night before, on Sunday, with looters breaking store windows and grabbing stuff at random, but were mostly tame last night. (Radio Shack—who even knew there still were any—was one store hit on Sunday, presumably because someone at Berkeley or in the surrounding Oakland area needed a long roll of coaxial cable or some telephone jacks and knew better than pay for them, as such things might be obsolete before the ink dries on the warrants made out for their arrests.)
Cal-Berkeley, has become somewhat infamous for its riotous, protesting, undergraduates. Cal-Berkeley students were among the first to stage sit-in protests in the sixties, and even after most of the rest of the world had figured out that protests were mainly for the sake of protesting and therefore pointless, Berkeley kept right on at it. In Berkeley protesting has become institutionalized. The City and campus have passed rules on the allowable police attire during a protest—no storm trooper accouterments allowed. But what does it mean that protesting is institutionalized? Isn’t defying social institutions and norms the whole point of protest? How can that be done when the very act of protesting is itself part of the institution? Where can a good, Northern California hippie agitator go to find an orgiastic protest where he can really throw off the shackles and chains of civilization in the pursuit of some higher purpose? Perhaps all that’s now left for him is to protest the institutionalization of protests. But try fitting that on a sign.
It seems that these sporadic protests, from the Occupy Wall Street movement that fizzled before it ever really sizzled, to the latest protests over what is allegedly police brutality but is really only the police doing what they were hired to do, are nothing more than young people, bored with their present, and anxious over their future, letting off a little steam. Or, that’s mainly the case with the kids at Berkeley and elsewhere who have at least pretended sincerity for the cause of reforming police procedures. For the looters and rioters, the protests are just an excuse to, well, loot and riot. They don’t care about police brutality, even as they are the ones most likely to be directly affected by it, exhibiting in real time a propensity for being on the wrong side of the law. For the Blacks, it seems to be a mechanism for keeping the Civil Rights movement alive.
Angst and ennui are the twin devils plaguing the utopian developed world in this age of the ‘New Peace’ or ‘Long Peace’, as Steven Pinker describes things. Since the Cold War ended and the existential threat posed by a bipolar world teeming with nuclear weapons passed, the developed world, and particularly the US, has thrashed about seeking to define the purpose and meaning for existence. This plays out at the aggregate level through the federal government continually conjuring new missions for itself (e.g., flood reliever, health care insurance progenitor, financial system rescuer, etc.) in an attempt to replace its old and traditional purpose of protection, a purpose that economic strength and the absence of existential threats have rendered relatively less important, if not totally irrelevant. It plays out at the individual level, as peace, and the prosperity that inevitably accompanies it, has rendered the individual struggle to survive and thrive dramatically less difficult and thereby less meaningful. There is no angst and ennui among the starving, but among the well-fed and sedentary, battling angst and ennui and the waist line is the primary struggle. Anything that alleviates the boredom—like a protest for what seems a good cause, at least for indignation–is a good and glorious thing.
For the millennia prior to the Bomb, when first clans, then nations, then states fought incessantly just to keep even, the struggle to survive was far more difficult and fraught, and thereby less tedious and anxious. Today, with the Bomb promising near complete annihilation of all man’s civilizations if ever it were generally deployed in war, there is precious little anymore of the confrontational-type struggle for existence between two powerful states that characterized the human experience for so long. When it comes to nuclear armed states, the choice is to live more or less peacefully together, or push a few buttons and the world as it is known evaporates.
At least partly as a result, the general populations in the developed world have become herds of placid bovines, unthreatened by existential threats, willing to gently chew the cud day in and day out. But the bodily pains of life that are no longer experienced because of the comfort and security of modern living conditions yield to the painful thoughts and feelings of minds that were tempered in the crucible of predictable savagery and unpredictable nature to be always vigilant and aware. While the body takes to sedentary living quite well, the mind wallows in existential pain, driving itself crazy for something to do. For the protesters, at least temporarily, contrived indignation is as good as anything, like the kids at Berkeley found out decades ago, at relieving the unbearably light burden of being.
The developed world has become quite as close to a utopian paradise as could ever have been imagined by our ancestors. There is peace and justice and plenty. But the problem with utopia is that happiness is not achieved from reaching the destination of peace, justice and plenty. Happiness is in the striving to get there. It’s why rich white kids are apt to be haphazardly angry and discombobulated pretty much all the time. They need to strive for their own utopia, but all the striving’s been already done for them. With regard to Civil Rights for American Blacks, which comprise at least the nominal cause for the protests, the Civil Rights journey is the destination. Even as the Black Civil Rights train pulled into the station with its load of emancipated Blacks several decades ago, the passengers won’t disembark. Continuing the struggle gives their lives meaning and purpose and indeed, is a great source of happiness, not to mention social power.
So the protests and riots aren’t surprising. Acting within the scope of their duties, White police officers in two locales that could not be any more different, happened to kill a couple of Black guys. It was unfortunate, but it happens. The unrest that followed was, for rich White kids, just a grasping at straws by people drowning in angst and ennui for how easy and thereby pointless life in 21st century America has become. For Blacks, it kept the Civil Rights movement alive, which is all the movement is about anymore anyway.