Here is something worth considering. The sequence of protests that erupted on May 26 in Minneapolis and spread to all 50 states have more than one cause. The first cause is, of course, the death of George Floyd, a black man who, on Memorial Day, died while the knee of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed on his neck for nine straight minutes.
The force of this primary cause was amplified by the case of Ahmaud Arbery (a black jogger killed on February 23 by two white men who were not arrested and charged with murder until May 7); the case of Breonna Taylor (a 26-tear-old black women who on March 13 was killed at her home by three white police officers during a "no knock" drug raid); and the Central Park incident (a white woman, Amy Cooper, who called the police and claimed an "African American man," Christian Cooper, was threatening her "life and safety," when he clearly wasn't). These cases and other incidents (such as the venture capitalist in Minneapolis) are directly related to the death of Floyd, the primary cause of the protests.
But there is more to Floyd's death. On March 13, his source of income—a Mexican American live music venue called El Nuevo Rodeo—was closed by the stay-at-home order. In a matter of two months, Floyd was joined by 30 million Americans who lost work in a society with little to no preparation for a massive social service crisis. And at the time of his death, the US was re-opening the economy as the pandemic's death count approached 100,000. (That mark was officially crossed on the second day of protesting). This connection—another black life cut short by a white police force, and the general push to subordinate American lives to the economy—is of great significance.
If we go back to the long weekend that ended with the shock of Floyd's murder, we find it filled with news stories about large gatherings of American consumers packed in this and that place without face masks or anything. They filled a pool in Ozarks, Missouri; they stuffed a beachside street in Daytona Beach, Florida; they crowded a boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland.
The story that cannot be found during this period, the Memorial Day weekend, is that most Americans did the boring thing: stayed put, watched another movie on Netflix. Fear of the virus could easily overwhelm the temptations of boozy pool parties or beachside theme parks. Though absent from the news, the standard American Memorial Day feeling (not going nowhere) could be read in the polls.
A week before Floyd's murder, and a few days after Governor Tim Walz began unwisely reopening Minnesota (May 18), the polls showed that the vast majority of Americans (one poll had it a 83 percent) did not support the strong push to end the lockdown in the middle of a pandemic. No cure for the disease existed, one could only describe the government's capacity for testing and contact tracing as primitive, and two things worked to save lives and reduce infections: social distancing and sheltering-in-place.
But during April, a shift occurred. The effective shutdown policies imposed on states in March were increasingly dismissed by commentators and politicians on the right. Indeed, what caused a scandal on March 20 (Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick beseeching vulnerable boomers to sacrifice their lives for the economy) entered an accelerating process of normalization. By April 21, Dan Patrick could say "there are more important things than living" without fear of sounding satanic.
We entered March with lots of talk by leaders at the state and national level about how the cure should not be worse than the disease. There was no stopping this talk, despite its general lack of heart and popularity. The US was devolving to a kind of capitalism that white America had, for the most part, never heard of or experienced. True, it was there at the early stages of European capitalism, as the American philosophers Mike Hill and Warren Montag make clear in their book The Other Adam Smith: Popular Contention, Commercial Society, and the Birth of Necro-Economics. Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish moral philosopher who penned capitalism's first coherent and sustained defense, The Wealth of Nations, argued in an earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that the accumulation of capital was not easy and demanded the sacrifice of human lives. Even if you failed to experience a happy life, your effort, your toil, your losses would ultimately contribute to the growth of the market. Smith's own words: "The prosperity of the whole should, even to us, appear preferable to so insignificant a part as ourselves."
This was the European understanding of capital accumulation until World War One. You must wait, you may even have to die, for wealth to grow. The great-great-grandparents of many white Americans alive today crossed an ocean to get as far away from this unforgiving Old World order as possible. But the establishment of the New World required the compliment of necro-economics, which is what the Cameroon philosopher Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics: slave labor.
Recall these opening lines from the Jorge Luis Borges's short story "The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell":
In 1517, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines. To that odd variant on the species philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things: W. C. Handy's blues; the success achieved in Paris by the Uruguayan attorney-painter Pedro Figari; the fine runaway-slave prose of the likewise Uruguayan Vicente Rossi; the mythological stature of Abraham Lincoln; the half-million dead of the War of Secession; the $3.3 billion spent on military pensions; the statue of the imaginary semblance of Antonio (Falucho) Ruiz; the inclusion of the verb "lynch" in respectable dictionaries; the impetuous King Vidor film Hallelujah; the stout bayonet charge of the regiment of "Blacks and Tans" (the color of their skins, not their uniforms) against that famous hill near Montevideo; the gracefulness of certain elegant young ladies; the black man who killed Martin Fierro; that deplorable rumba The Peanut-Seller; the arrested and imprisoned Napoleonism of Toussaint L'Ouverture; the cross and the serpent in Haiti; the blood of goats whose throats are slashed by the papalois machete; the habanera that is the mother of the tango...
We also get a black man's neck getting blocked by the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, 2020.
The murder of Floyd is directly tied to the US history of necro-politics (the politics of slavery), but the command to return to work during a pandemic, to sacrifice one's life for the economy is tied to a necro-economics that formed in the infancy of capitalism. And so the drive to open Americans to death was answered by the pro-life protests.
Many white Americans woke up on May 26 to an America that was devolving into an anti-life social order and the savage persistence of the necropolitics of slavery. I think the size and scale and tenacity of the present Black Lives Matter demonstrations can be attributed to a double resistance: the first, of course, concerns a demand for recognition ("I Am a [Hu]man!"); and the second is a rejection of the endless economic growth directive. There is nothing more tiresome than making money. There is nothing more important than life.