What We Choose to Live With | Alex Reinsch- Goldstein
We speak often about the things we value in America, but I fear that in practice, human life is not very high on the list. Americans die in mass shootings and wars that never end, and in a pandemic that has raged for over a year. Americans die because our medical system closes its doors to those who can’t afford treatment, and because thousands of Americans feel so utterly hopeless that they take their own lives. And, as is on all our minds at this moment, Americans — disproportionately people of color — are murdered by the very policemen who are supposed to protect them. There is almost a constant background noise of suffering and death in American life today, and yet it seems that our present social system offers us no way to stop it.
What happened to Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb last Sunday is the same brutally familiar story; another unarmed black man killed by a police officer, another trivial interaction between a cop and a citizen turning suddenly deadly because the police cannot be bothered to control themselves. This sort of thing happens so often that even the exact details of cases begin to resemble each other; the officer who killed Daunte Wright claims she meant to tase him but shot him instead, the same justification offered after the infamous killing of 22-year old Oscar Grant by an Oakland BART policeman on New Years’ Day 2009. This happens so often, too, that the victims of police violence sometimes share personal connections; George Floyd’s girlfriend had once been Daunte Wright’s teacher.
People in Daunte Wright’s community and around the country are rightly angry about what happened, and as always our country’s ruling class appears more concerned about that anger than about the fact that people are routinely murdered by policemen. President Biden, speaking to reporters about Wright’s killing, said, “Was it an accident or was it intentional? That remains to be determined by a full-blown investigation. In the meantime, I want to make it clear again: there is absolutely no justification, none, for looting, no justification for violence. Peaceful protest? Understandable.”
Biden gives at best a cursory mention of the fact that a human being was just killed, before immediately jumping into admonishing people for not expressing their anger in ways that are acceptable to the elite. Mind you: the “looting” Biden is talking about consisted of some people stealing some stuff from a Dollar Tree and milling about in a Little Caesar’s. Isn’t that trivially miniscule compared to the loss of a human being? Why do we care more that some stuff was stolen from a Dollar Tree than we do that a young man was stolen from the people who cared about him?
And this is from Joe Biden, the leader of the party that supposedly backs Black Lives Matter and supports its aims. I think it’s extremely revealing that what passes for a tolerant, compassionate response from powerful people in this country is some almost perfunctory hemming and hawing about how sad a person’s death is, followed by much more impassioned appeals to please for the love of god leave the Dollar Tree alone.
We saw much the same thing during the protests over the summer; histrionic denunciations of “looting” and “violence” from politicians and the media which seemed to gloss over why people were so angry in the first place. The use of the term “violence” to describe actions of protestors was fairly ridiculous in itself; basically all of the violence against human beings that was happening was coming from the police and the National Guard, who beat, shot, tear-gassed, ran over, and even killed protestors who were not in any way attacking law enforcement. What violence there was that wasn’t perpetrated by police was almost always committed by right-wing militiamen and other pro-police vigilantes, such as the infamous case of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. What most people meant when they referred to protestors committing acts of “violence” was them destroying property; setting fire to an Arby’s or a convenience store or a police station or, as happened in La Mesa, burning some banks. But the fact is that setting a bank on fire hurts nobody, and so to describe it as “violent” is firstly ludicrous and secondly an expedient way of giving an excuse for even stricter police crackdowns. And on the looting point: I do not think one can understand that our society commodifies everything — food, water, housing, healthcare, the very things needed to survive — and not understand looting as a means of protest. The poorest people in the United States are told that they must pay for everything, that they must fork over the lion’s share of what they have merely to stay alive. In a society that makes people pay through the nose simply for the privilege of existing, how can we not understand taking things for free as a form of revolt against that unjust order? In Les Miserables, we find Jean Valjean to be the hero. But now we are asked to make a wholly different judgement; why?
And moreover, it betrays a ghoulish warping of priorities to get so bent out of shape over some minor theft and property destruction when human lives are being taken away on so regular a basis. Is the loss of an Arby’s more grievous than the loss of a human life? Does it really matter in the end? Why spend, as Biden did, more time admonishing property destruction than expressing condolences for a person who was killed for no reason?
It is because, at the end of the day, the ruling class of this country — Republican and Democratic — do not care very much about people; their loyalty is to property, and protecting the interests of the wealthy and corporations. Only with such a worldview would denunciations of theft from a Dollar Tree be more vigorous than denunciations of the murder of a man. The value of a human life is very low, it seems, relative to the value of such high and mighty things as the property of corporations. Human life is so immeasurably more precious than property that they aren’t even worse discussing in the same sentence; but discuss them in the same sentence they do, and often give more importance to the preservation of the latter than the former.
And it matters very much, too, who is doing the theft. A poor man steals a case of water bottles and that is pillaging; a bank steals millions from normal people, and that is merely the cost of doing business. Was not the 2008 financial crisis a form of looting when it resulted in one of the largest upward wealth transfers in the history of this country? Was it not a form of looting when the big banks got bailout money from the government and working people got nothing? Is it not a form of looting when a boss pays their workers less in wages than the value their labor produces? And what about our adventures overseas? Was it not looting when we invaded Iraq and plundered its oil reserves? Was it not looting when the CIA helped overthrow the democratically-elected government of Chile so that American corporations could expropriate Chile’s vast supply of copper? Was it not looting when American corporations and billionaires — including, very vocally, Elon Musk — backed a military coup in Bolivia to gain access to Bolivian lithium? When the big banks steal from the government and from taxpayers, when the United States intervenes abroad to depose governments and slaughter people so that we might acquire natural resources, that is merely the way things are. Those things, we are told, can be lived with. But god forbid you ever steal something from a Dollar Tree.
Karl Marx wrote that “The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar.” The loyalty of the ruling class is to the preservation of private property, and human life is of less concern to them. They are making that very clear now.