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The Response

June 5, 2020

When media outlets label these anxious days “America in Crisis,” as an (otherwise solid) NBC special did last night, it’s important they state clearly that the crisis is not the protests, but the virulent racism that made the protests necessary. 

Even then, it’s possible that the exclamatory language of “Crisis!”—in conjunction with endless imagery of police on the street in full riot gear—is a sort of dog whistle to those who believe that dissent is fundamentally dysfunctional. In reality, dissent is a social immune response, the swelling of the body politic at the site of a wound. In the best-case scenario, the result is health that is not only renewed but transformed—a hardier society with greater resistance. 

As we’ve all learned in the national biology lessons of the Covid era, immune systems can be capricious; the response can overwhelm the body. But we’ve also learned that without any response, our bodies are playgrounds for pathogens. In the body, as in the nation, the proposition becomes this: Resist or perish. The question is, what is a properly calibrated resistance? What kind of response leads to sustained health?

Media discourse—both verbal and visual—that proposes the false equation “protest = crisis” misreads both the cause of our national pain and the course of our recovery. The real prognosis, while still provisional, may be be better than the discourse is letting on: Dissent, on the whole, might be doing the job it’s meant to do, the one the founders had in mind when they established the rights of free speech and assembly.

If the protests remain peaceful—which is not to say passive—we should (should!) see the language of crisis subside as the media and the nation realize that we are witnessing not only sustained dissent but the birth of a sustainable movement for a more just America. 

Next step, voting. Beyond that, policy.

Text and illustration by Greg Blake Miller

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