Panic! At the Capitol
Avoid making things compulsively worse. If that sounds like it came from a fortune cookie, that’s because it did. I received it not so long ago from a local Chinese Restaurant I frequent. I’ve kept it on my refrigerator ever since. It is, like most dispensations from fortune cookies, solid if trite advice. Frankly, I can’t help but think that if the protesters who advanced on Austin last weekend had received it instead, we might all be better off.
Understandably, even the most open-minded of us have little patience with those protestors. There’s good reason for that, too. When Alex Jones organizes your protest and trucks emblazoned with rebel flags move through your streets like floats in a parade, whatever the point is you’re trying to make, you might want to consider more extensive social distancing. Even “social justice warriors” who opine on the burden of respectability politics have cause to sit back, fold their arms and exclaim, “I’d love to take y’all seriously, but I can’t! Just look at the state of you!”
And this is before we acknowledge that, because of the protest’s sheer number, it was a cesspool, a hunting ground for the virus which has brought a nation to its knees. Such is the right to freedom of assembly in the time of a pandemic. The protestors weren’t just endangering themselves; they were endangering the rest of us.
But amidst the commentariat’s condescension, pay some mind to Jennifer Bailey. The Dallas Morning News reports she “has nearly exhausted her savings” and “is the main provider for her 73-year-old mother and her two adult daughters.” She is part of a cohort “unable to get on the phone with the Texas Workforce Commission to file for unemployment.”
What exactly should she be doing? What is her play here? As Katt Williams might say, “Don’t worry, I’ll wait.” Because those aren’t hypothetical questions. I’m genuinely curious. And if, upon placing yourself in her circumstance, you can’t rustle up a solid answer which guarantees the safety of you, your mother and your children, I would suggest your righteous anger is self-righteous, that it is tinged with a touch of hypocrisy.
I ask you, how many column inches have been written by those who don’t know her desperation, who have the privilege of working from home and collecting a check? And of those column inches, what number were devoted to the rebel flags, the conspiracy theories, the lack of social distancing? All are worthwhile criticisms, sure, but those aren’t bold stands in 2020. Who stuck up for people like Bailey and demanded the government straighten out its response?
Consider her plight: If you were playing a game by its rules, discovered the rules were unfair, and learned that the penalty for losing the game was death, would you not flip over the table? Call it compulsively making things worse if you must. I’d argue it’s playing your last card when you have no more cards left to play. I’d argue it’s a rational response to a dire situation. I’d argue it’s identifiably human behavior as wretched and infuriating as it might be.
Indeed, the protest would be tragic if it weren’t so predictable. Ever since the faltering steps of the Trump Administration dribbled into the state capitols — the lack of widely available testing, the failure to use the full force of Defense Protection Act, the ultimate shutdown of our economy — protests of this magnitude were something of an inevitability. It is trivial to say that the ultimate responsibility for the protests falls upon the protestors themselves, but coming in at a close second is the Texas Workforce Commission and its inability to manage a surge in phone calls.
As such, what is required here is discernment, a more perspicacious eye. To groan at Alex Jones’ bullshit from a bullhorn is justified. But if it’s all you have to offer, you have provided only a shallow critique. You have observed the house is rickety but have failed to inspect the foundation.
Because for a not-insignificant number of the protestors, the foundation for their protestations was panic. It isn’t as identifiable as a hoard of marauders breaking into a hospital for PPE or people of means fleeing a COVID-19 hotspot for safer refuge.
For the Jennifer Bailey’s of the world, that panic looks like the casual disregard of health and safety regulations as they beg the state to give them back their livelihoods, the manner in which they feed and clothe and protect their families.
For people like Bailey, what we saw last weekend was only panic’s beginning. It was the first itch of poison ivy’s rash. It was the drizzle before the hurricane. It was the squirming at the game table as you realize: “I just might not get out of this alive.”
We forget that humanity at our own peril.