Thoughts on a ‘riot’

Dear friends back home. You’ve stopped calling me when disasters happen here, or when your news from America is full of angry people and frightening police, or more guns on the street than the average military armory. You’ve even stopped strongly suggesting that I should come home to be ‘safer’ from it all. Even my mother’s stopped doing it – reassured by a visit that I’m tucked away in a sleepy town in a quiet corner of the country that’s so close to Canada it’s caught politeness and salmon (although no signs of ice hockey yet).

I came here a decade ago with a job to do, helping to protect some of the most vulnerable people and places on earth. I found a country of contradictions: of massive opportunities and crushing, life-minimizing poverties; of freedom to do anything if you looked and sounded right, or had the right type of name; of a wide choice of labels in the stores on a very small number of products; of both massive diversity and unity as “xxxx-Americans” where xxxx was every country or culture in the world (except, strangely, British). I fell in love with that pluralism: that people could be from anywhere, everywhere, and yet still be at home here.

Four years ago, when the regime changed, several of my friends did ‘go home’ – back to Europe or their other countries of origin, knowing things would get less safe here. I stayed because I go where the need is, and when I looked around the world, I frankly couldn’t see a country more heading into trouble, more able to damage the rest of the world once it got into that trouble, and more in need of people who could work through a slow-running crisis response and recovery to help get it out again.

Which sounds a bit grandiose, so let me put it differently. That America I fell in love with – the diverse one, where everyone was American first, and it didn’t matter where their accent was from – that’s just one version of America, and there are others. There’s the Daughters of the Revolution version of America (married into that) where America is all the white people from the 1950s posters and movies with everyone else playing maids and other bit parts; the America of children-of-children-of people who were systematically impoverished because of the interaction of the colour of their skin and the unfinished business of America the country being founded pretty solidly on the idea that darker-skinned people were much less important; and the America of children-of-children-of people who used to own other people like cattle and thought that was okay. There’s been a lot wrong for a very long time, including things like police forces not dealing with racism and violence in their ranks (and historical things like some police forces having been created to enforce racism and that not having quite got out of their bloodstream yet), summed up in my first year here when I asked about black people being killed in the South of the USA as “yeah, it happens there. Nothing much we can do about it”.

Two major things changed whilst I’ve been here: we all got more connected to each other through the internet. And we all got more direct evidence of things happening around us, as people started carrying phones with cameras on everywhere. This has been terrible for bigfoot spotters, but it’s made two other things possible: creating and manipulating the emotions and views of large groups of people online, including pitting all those Americas against each other, and making the things that “just happened over there” visible to everyone. You’re seeing both of those things right now. You’ve seen a video of a man being killed by police – something that’s happened too often to black men here but usually without record – you’re seeing now the news coverage of the protests against that being met with a much more violent police response than the non-violent, and sometimes non-response (anti-lockdown protesters took over government buildings whilst armed, without being pushed back, and threatened state governors’ lives without any arrests) police responses to mostly-white protests against local stay-at-home health orders.

That’s realities. But there’s also image, and nowhere is more image than online. People have manipulated each other since they started communicating; countries have been manipulating each others’ populations with mass propaganda for decades, and all humans, all journalism, have biases in how they report things. But for the past decade that’s been happening online too. And those multiple Americas have been strengthened in peoples’ minds, formed into in-groups and out-groups, “us” and “them”, by clever manipulators using social media tools and what basically amounts to a dark version of marketing, to form a fighting, biting, mess of humanity online. This is the thing that I stayed for. I’ve spent years working on human belief manipulation, and nowhere else in the world is as vulnerable to it as America is today. In America, it seems, image is everything.

So next, inevitably, will be those forces using these events to create more divisions. There will be the usual signals, e.g. when “American” means the 1950s-poster version only, the use of emotions including fear to enforce it (American news are excessively emotional, but that’s a discussion for another day). Disinformation aimed at all the usual groups by probably all of the usual actors (e.g. the Russian IRA has probably been busy already with its fake Black American accounts and groups). You’ll see this from where you are too. It will look crazy. It is, to be fair, actually pretty crazy, and has sucked normal, good, moderate Americans into the crazy too, but I don’t think this will be forever. There are good people working on all the things above, despite the difficult political climate for it, and they haven’t stopped working on them in the last difficult years. I personally think there’s hope America will eventually start dealing with the rots of racism and inequality and unfinished war that were built into its founding, and before that will build resilience against these disinformation storms. It’s why I’ve stayed.