Saturday, June 06, 2020

The Edge of Chaos

Last Monday, a curfew was announced in Riverside -- blaringly announced, with calls on my landline in both English and Spanish, emails from the city and from my employer, cellphone text alerts from emergency services. I decided to violate it.

Being a middle-class white guy in my fifties, when I think of curfews, I think of the former communist countries of eastern Europe. I think of police states and dystopias. The curfew started at six. At seven, against the advice of my wife, I drove downtown. I noticed boarded up shops, loitering groups mostly of young men, blocked off roads, parking lots with police cars. I parked several blocks down a side street, donned my face mask, and walked toward the center.

Heading toward the noise, I felt conspicuous for my age and race. I felt examined and judged by groups of young black and Latino men who were leaning against the buildings. A stream of wailing police cars looped around toward me. I dashed around a corner onto another street and they rolled past.

On Market Street, people were milling in all directions -- mostly not protesters, it seemed. No one was chanting or holding signs in a large organized group. Instead, they appeared to be curious residents out to see what's happening in their neighborhood, men looking for excitement or trouble, and a few college or high school students with friends and cameras.

Someone called out to me, "Hey, weren't you my professor for Evil?" (Every fall, I teach a 400 person class on the moral psychology of evil.) A couple of Asian students approached me. They had been at the protests, taking pictures. The protesters had been fired on with rubber bullets, and my student (or was it his friend?) showed me an injury on his hand -- an inch-long laceration where a bullet had struck him while, he said, his hands were in the air and he was shouting "don't shoot". He had picked up the bullet that struck him. I took this picture:

Someone who takes a round of this sort to the neck or head can be seriously injured or potentially even killed.

Ahead, I heard an explosion -- not for the first time -- and saw the bright star of a firecracker rising over the roofs of the two and three story buildings. The protesters were taunting the police with commercial-grade firecrackers. They were moving as a mob from place to place. When police advanced, the protesters would flee and regroup somewhere else. Teams of squad cars looped around with sirens on, attempting to intimidate and scatter curfew violators, but they couldn't cover the whole area. A least two helicopters were also circling.

Cars would drive down Market Street when the lights were green. Most cars seemed to be traveling on ordinary business, but a few drove slowly and honked, some with signs. One car had windows rolled down and a sign that said "Fuck you Karen". Pedestrians shouted "Fuck you, Karen!" several times to cheers.

Groups of about a dozen people would suddenly appear, fleeing down the middle of Market Street. Crowds on the sidewalk would briefly run too, or duck around corners, in case police came chasing. I saw a man who had been shot in the leg sitting by the side of the road. Some people stood on the sidewalk with their phones out. Others appeared to be fleeing a T-Mobile cellphone store. I heard, but didn't see, shouting and more firecrackers. People were mostly wearing masks -- I suspected both because of the pandemic and to reduce the chance of being identified by police.

Two women in a car pulled up, windows down, and demanded several times that the crowd stop taking pictures. No one paid attention to them until I asked them why. Their reply was drowned in the noise and they drove away. An ambulance roared past.

Photos don't capture the tension, the feeling of a crowd despite the broad California streets, the sense that chaos might approach from any direction.

Maybe seventy protesters turned onto Market Street as a group, some carrying signs, some shouting, none threatening or violent. At that time I saw no police, except in helicopters. I headed back in the protesters' direction, taking photos from the sidewalk.

Ahead of me, I heard a crash, then saw a broken window and someone in a shop, messing with the blinds and broken glass. On the sidewalk, I was suddenly surrounded by large, strong men -- and then they were running. I was jostled among them, then I tripped up against bolted down sidewalk furniture. I feared becoming the tail end of a group that was being shot at by police, so I ran amid them. After about half a block of running, people calmed down. I could hear squad cars blaring on nearby streets.

A crowd was stopped in the street, looking various directions but mostly up at a crane -- a huge, bright blue crane rising maybe 120 feet. A lone man was climbing its interior. The crowd cheered him on and probably, like me, wondered if he would fall. I watched him climb nearly to the top, but then I heard explosions or gunfire and nearby sirens and decided I'd seen enough. Later, I heard that the crane climber had somehow entered the control booth and turned the crane. Under what conditions might a badly operated crane fall?

Leaving the scene, again I felt assessed by loitering men and curious residents. The last person I saw was also the only person my age that I recall seeing the whole time I was out. He greeted me from the small front yard of his house. I don't recall his words, but I thought he looked at me in camaraderie, one middle-aged white guy to another, as if we stood together above or to the side of the chaos.

I returned home and related my adventures to my family. That night, as I lay in bed unable to sleep, I found myself longing to return downtown, despite the risk and fear I had felt. It seemed exciting and important, compared to daily life as a professor, compared to being caged at home amid the pandemic. If I were younger, more in love with excitement, if I had no children, no job, the streets would call to me more strongly, I'm sure.

The Riverside police couldn't handle a thousand curfew-breakers downtown. They, we, pushed the police to the edge of what they could do with rubber bullets and their existing rules of conduct. It is easy, so easy, to imagine this amplified -- larger, more persistent tumult in the streets, unpredictable, potentially violent, police frustrated and tempted to use more extreme measures -- street-level chaos of the sort we in the U.S. are used to hearing about in other countries, but rarely imagine happening in our own.


Anonymous said...

this is the coming future of ghettoized sacrifice zones and disposable people, see the massive youth unemployment in southern europe, the americas, africa,etc and know that we too are favela bound...

Arnold said...

A philosophy towards psychological neutrality could be...when enthusiasm is at the door...

To always be prepared to save some of life's enthusiasm for voting in elections...

To always be prepared to save some of life's enthusiasm for oneself in everything...

Isn't that preparatory work is never ending...

Philosopher Eric said...

I recall coming home from work recently and my wife asked if I saw any riots. I said “Oh shit! Not again?” So I get on the internet to see what’s happening (given that I generally don’t follow current events). But here’s the thing. Wherever I went, there seemed to be just as many white protesters as black! Is this not something new? I can’t recall anything like it.

Yes the cops are being prosecuted given associated anger (which reminds me of the “Gandhi” scene where the offending Indian cops were given back to the mob, not that the mob was satisfied). But when have we seen this kind of bi-racial support? I’m genuinely impressed!