Does this shared sense of being under siege give ground to our common humanity? Not from the looks of it; we are each too differently exposed. But there is something powerful in our urgency. Before this we still thought we had time. Now, something feels like it is missing, like a ring worn all your life and taken off one day to the next. Were we engaged to the illusion that we still had time to work through this knot together? Time to understand how we are to forge monuments of self-reliance out of the concrete ruins of the everyday. I should have asked the woman who spoke of the silo and the wheat a few more questions. Even in Syria, where the burning fields billow at a distance, joining the gas flares that pester the blue early summer sky, there was time to talk abstinence. Even where the pumpjacks extracting oil make fun of all of us on our way to the future, where the portraits of Assad hang at one junction and martyrs’ portraits hang at the next, even where everything compels us to ask, »Can this really be the backdrop against which new ways of living in this world take shape?« there was still time to dance.
The place is like being punched in the gut by your lover fighting off their nightmare just before dawn. The place is like reaching out right then and saying, »Hush, I’ve got you.«
There’s an archeological dig in northeastern Syria that contains the partially excavated ruins of Urkesh, an ancient Hurrian city that is thought to date from somewhere around the third millennium B.C.E., and that once contained an entrance to the underworld. At present it looks like a pit wrapped in burlap with a bit of litter collecting at the bottom. The going theory is that this is where the Hurrians went to sacrifice animals, to banish bad spirits, to put away the parts of the world they didn’t know what to do with. When did we stop building places like that into our cities?
I went out of archaeological curiosity, partly, but also because I was interested in getting a sense of a place that became such an unlikely target of another siege. During the fight with Da’esh, the icons of other gods, indeed, the traces of other times, were marked out for destruction like military targets of the highest priority. A Rojavan journalist who visited Urkesh that day wanted to know whether from the perspective of an anthropologist I had an opinion of the failure of UNESCO to fund and support local efforts to take care of and defend the place. Even under de facto siege, she was not asking only on behalf of the living, but also on behalf of the dead. During wars, it seems that the meaningful relationships we forge with death disappear behind the excessive force of martyrdom, a form of grief that leaves little room for other kinds. The desire to protect the dead was, in this case, different. It was about valorizing the long arcs of history; those stories that don’t pay the present any obvious tribute. It was about deep, geological time.
How is it that you expect to help the living if you can’t even take care of the dead?
She was right. While we may be building a necropolitan world one dead city at a time, we tend to drive the memory of the inconvenient dead out of its histories. Funny thing is, they always manage to make their way back. That is something that the current insurrection in the United States has understood with unprecedented ferocity. Take care of the memory of your own dead. But take their monuments to their dead as seriously as their guns, and if demilitarizing your cities means throwing their monuments into the sea, proceed without hesitation.
If we can move from the digs of Syria to the streets of Minneapolis to the rivers of Bristol like this, it is because the damages that define us have been so assiduously distributed that they could be narrated from virtually anywhere. I chose Syria as a point of departure because it stands as a fragile and imperfect experiment in political living, and its betrayal as a strategic sacrifice feels emblematic of an acceleration of forces that will kill us faster than the weather. A patchwork of people trying to forge a way of living together are being hunted, embargoed, besieged, drafted as proxies, criminalized, and sacrificed to the maintenance of a long-ago broken world.
But therein lies another trouble, the danger of fetishizing it. Perhaps because it struggles to work against all odds, the Rojavan experiment has captured the imagination of so many friends and students in Cairo, where living in the wake of a failed revolution has proven more arduous than the revolution itself. Slathered in projections of itinerant hopes from elsewhere, the place would surely collapse under the weight of the imagination were it not already bearing the brunt of full frontal attack. Consider for a moment whether that’s not a permutation of what’s happening to some significant other in your more local social milieu. Consider whether to expect them to have been flawless in order to deserve defense. Consider what it might look like to give unconditional care, under siege, because everywhere, it seems, they are fucking with the wrong generation.
The irony of this new sense of global simultaneity is that it seems to have come with a profound inversion in the logic of our solidarities across the boundaries of time and space. For several weeks in March, the going wisdom was that the virus was finally showing us that we constitute a single and collectively vulnerable humanity. Right. A simple armchair excursion into the world gives the lie to that one-dimensionalizing notion. Were we one humanity when the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in places effectively stateless, or simply unrecognized (Think Gaza, Rojava); when the systematized scarcity and neglect that sanctions and embargoes impose showed its epidemiological outcomes in Iran, or South Sudan? Are we all one humanity when risk factors like diabetes and hypertension follow regimes of austerity with uncanny consistency?
Our political geographies have for so long been inscribing these differences into the world that it’s not entirely clear what it might mean to imagine an immunological event uniting us all; even our immune systems are consummately social things. Insofar as Covid-19 is something of an air-raid drill in preparation for what promises to be the multigenerational blitz of rapid climate change, it should remind us that appeals to global humanity should start to give way to a more socially situated imagination – one that draws us to the defense of people caught on the front lines.
In direct contrast to the superficial sense of human commonality of Covid-19, the refusal of everyday brutality that started in the streets of Minneapolis burgeoned into an insurrection that carries all the seeds of a genuine international solidarity. The killing of George Floyd has triggered an insurrection that is led by people who have been hunted, embargoed, besieged, drafted as proxies into American wars (Civil or otherwise), sacrificed, criminalized and killed with impunity… all by virtue of being Black in the United States. But make no mistake, that movement was consummately global from its very inception.
»The central axiom of that genre (understood by the regimes of Modi, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Bashar al-Assad as much as those of Orban and Trump) is simple. Never, under any circumstances, let others take care of themselves.«
Even the progressive centrist media of the US are stirred by this intuition. As the national guard sets up camp on the White House lawn, CNN is reporting that »this just isn’t something that we’re used to seeing in America, we tend to see that in more authoritarian countries.« Right. What CNN is claiming many of us have said for years: that the blowback of US-led military occupations always makes its way back home, whether in the form of surplus military equipment, the metastasizing violence of mass trauma, or the tactics and techniques of occupation carried home. That’s an amazing moment. An even more amazing moment is when no one on the street is willing to believe that this analysis will be enough. This is not blowback. It’s business as usual.
In the face of these developments, I have never seen American white supremacy, liberal and otherwise, so terrified. Every decade or so in the US, grief and rage congeal into burning buildings, and every time, liberal sentiments are bruised. Their panic makes perfect sense. The violence of states that build themselves around white supremacy unfolds according to certain established patterns, and liberal democracies have never deviated from that script. While being hunted, embargoed, besieged, criminalized, killed, and left to die, it is in and through the people and things that we forge into our own infrastructures of care that violence is meted out. That strategy has been perfectly compatible with liberal commitments because those have always benefited from the confusion of care and policing, of security and self-reliance. This violence, then, has been presented as nothing more than the excesses of an otherwise honorable nation making sure its people are safe.
This time, nobody seems to be willing to see this as a stain on an otherwise righteous soul of a nation. Instead, people on the streets in Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, led by a powerful Black movement that’s been at this for far too long, are articulating in the starkest terms what they have known all along: that they are suffocating because that was the plan all along. This must be terrifying to hear for those used to benefiting from this country’s style of dominance, which amounts to a consolidated genre of how to govern the world, traded back and forth between countries practicing some variation on its theme. The central axiom of that genre (understood by the regimes of Modi, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Bashar al-Assad as much as those of Orban and Trump) is simple. Never, under any circumstances, let others take care of themselves.
This is why those who borrow it all expend inordinate time looking for the chokepoints of communities that don’t look or talk or love or fuck the way they do. Why they orchestrate paranoid imaginations of what it means to be in the world at large with such dogged tenacity. Why, even when they are not white, they embrace all the homicidal supremacy we have traditionally reserved for white domination. White power, whether in the form of racial capitalism or race-blind liberalism, works only because it kills people who are not white with regularity. It kills with regularity because the point is to encumber the skeins of care that weave us together in our concrete solidarity with a grief so profound and so persistent that it short circuits all future bonds.
That is what makes this insurrection in the US promising, seen from the perspective of many particular elsewheres the world over – it has understood how the story goes, and refutes it root and branch. In a struggle fought under the banner of an endless procession of our dead given back their proper names (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin), a generation in the US has taken up a fight on behalf of the globe.
By virtue of their situated refusal, theirs is a fight articulated in common with other places where strategic atrocity has never been entirely replaced by more technocratic solutions. The police they meet on the street truck and barter in tactical gifts, exchanging techniques and technologies of domination (drones, tear gas canisters, small arms, and paramilitary strategies) in elaborate potlatches of war making. And by virtue of that commonality, Minneapolis, articulating in no uncertain terms that they will not be occupied in one fashion of the other, fight a global fight. They know that empire is not the purchase of a single country, but a shared strategy, and it is that strategy, rather than single policies or particular instances of securitizing violence, that they confront.
Say what you will about the optimism that makes this counter-movement emblematic of a moment of global potential. Watching from Cairo, writing this from German cities just recently celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the fall of their fascist regime, I didn’t think I’d be writing this about the United States, not before the Third Precinct of Minneapolis burned and people quickly got on to thinking about more thoroughgoing strategies to make sure they reclaim the ground on which to take care of themselves.
But seen from the streets, the whole place is like reaching out from American cities to the world in gestures of solidarity, never mind that we are still in the grip of our own nightmares. The whole place is saying »Hush. I’ve got you…« The whole place is lashing out with ferocious optimism into the cold light of dawn.