1960s Déjà Vu

A protester carries a U.S. flag upside, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, broke out in Minneapolis for a third straight night. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

I got up this morning experiencing a sense of déjà vu that sent me looking for my bound volume of all the campus newspapers from my senior year in college—1969-1970. I was editor-in-chief that year, so there’s a lot of me on those pages, from editorial decisions about what got covered and what went on the front page to editorial statements (many, in retrospect, rather outrageous!) about everything that was going on that year.

There was a lot going on. There was a Moratorium declared in opposition to the Vietnam War. On December 2, 1969, there was the infamous draft lottery. We put out a special issue on the environment in March of 1970. There was also the Texas Pop Festival and skinny dippers in Turtle Creek. But I think what prompted my déjà vu was the memory of our black students’ association (yes, we had one at SMU) and the list of demands they drew up and how meticulously we tried to cover them in the student newspaper. We got criticism for that.

The previous year, in May of 1968, I had submitted a term paper in which I cited numerous political theorists and a few black activists. The paper concluded that white America had long since declared war on black Americans and that black people had every right to fight back, including with violence. I quoted extensively from James Baldwin and even included one citation of Stokely Carmichael’s writings.

There had been repeated riots through the 1960s. We may have thought that the Civil Rights Act and school integration and a few other achievements would fix things. More recently, we may have thought that having a black President would fix things.

Nothing has been fixed. The past decade has seen a vicious resurgence of (never dormant) white supremacy with its constant toxic handmaiden, white privilege. And black people and other people of color have had enough. The current pandemic has revealed the deadly extent of existing economic and healthcare inequalities. The murder of George Floyd forced us to see what we haven’t wanted to see: The heritage of slavery and Jim Crow are with us still.

When people time after time are pushed to the brink, when they ask for and then beg for and then demand change and nothing changes, eventually something explodes.

When it’s a gas fire, you don’t just spray water. You turn off the gas. And until we address the very real structural inequalities that exist within our society, we’re going to keep having explosions. Maybe even some big ones.

 

The Burning

Forest fires play a huge role in my latest work-in-progress (in the hands of beta readers now!) and in writing it I’ve done a fair amount of research into such fires. But I don’t think I envisioned anything quite so globally apocalyptic as what is occurring right now in the Amazon.

It is established fact that fires are part of life on planet earth. Fires are useful in the cyclical health of all kinds of ecosystems. Just yesterday I went for a walk at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where they recently did a controlled burn over a large swathe of their property and posted signs promising a bounty of spring wildflowers.

The fires currently devastating the Amazon are not part of this natural cycle. They’re not even part of the centuries-old practices of indigenous people who clear small patches of rainforest with fire every dry season, a practice that kills off “weeds” and insect pests and leaves a layer of nutrient-rich ash. The indigenous people have always done small, controlled burns and, after planting the field for a couple of years and harvesting what’s left for a few more, they always let the space return to its natural rainforest state. They’ve been doing this forever, so when you hear that “farmers” are to blame for many of the blazes being set in Amazonia and Rondonia, the indigenous farmers are NOT the farmers we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about farmers and ranchers whose intent is to permanently clear land for larger-scale crops and grazing. We’re talking about thousands of acres being permanently removed from the Amazon rain forest.

There’s also the political firestorm surrounding all this. For years Brazil has tended to get huffy when lectured on the (scientifically well established) importance of the Amazon rainforest to the overall environmental health of our planet. The wealthy nations achieved their status in large part through devastating environments with impunity, they said. And now you’re going to tell “developing” countries we can’t follow suit? The general attitude was one of “fuck off.” But there were those within Brazil and the other nations within this vast forest who understood the importance of the Amazon and they formed political action groups and linked up with activists worldwide to engage in what was, until recently, a modestly effective conservation strategy.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro. Echoing the politics of the United States of America, Brazil now has a nationalist president who puts jingoistic Brazil-first profit above all else and has clearly indicated his support for “developing” the vast resources of the Amazon. So the Amazon burns. Animals of all kinds (including rare and endangered species) are roasted within the devastation. Native peoples who have protected their rainforest home for millennia are driven out. And scientists hastily recalculate the carbon balance of our atmosphere and recalibrate hopes of surviving climate collapse.

This blog post has no conclusions. I go back to my manuscript, to my story in which time is marked as much by “before the Great Fires” and “after the Great Fires” as anything else. And I watch the burning.

(NOTE on the image: This is a painting on paper that was sadly damaged beyond repair. The burning of a work of art is not the same as the burning of a work of nature…or is it?)