Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

(Note: Prison Journalism Project received this submission on May 31, 2020)

This afternoon the SpaceX launched, the first manned mission from the U.S. in several years, and it went without a hitch. The technology that can push a vehicle into space to orbit at 17,500 MPH was impressive.  Even more impressive because it worked flawlessly and beautifully. I couldn’t help but think how ironic that human beings can accomplish such wondrous technical feats and yet fail so miserably in the creation of a functional society.

Just last night protestors and looters raged through several cities spurred on by discontent with a flawed legal system. There are pervasive injustices and falsehoods that continue to be perpetrated by those who need to exert power and control over society. There is a chasm between our technological ability and our concept of social order.

From space, the Earth is a staggeringly breathtaking sight. A fragile sphere of life floating in a sea of darkness like a lifeboat in a void. I’m reminded of Rodney King’s words of 28 years ago. “Why can’t we all just get along?” Why indeed?

This morning the authorities in Minneapolis were attempting to sell a vision of what was happening around the U.S. This vision is mystifying and frightening, while also crudely and patently misleading. We were told that eighty percent of the protesters arrested in Minneapolis were from out of state. That throughout the country agitators were at work and that the dark net had been used to recruit and promote havoc. We were told that White supremacists were in the crowd along with the protesters. This is incredibly difficult to accept, firstly because it is simply irrational. But also because it is possible to see the subtle rationale of deception playing out here.

In their delusional view, White protesters couldn’t be as fed up with the legal system as the Black people because that would imply a much larger and inclusive social rebellion. This runs counter to the liberal notion of a divided racist society. The Whites had to be defined as outsiders, provocateurs, people with another agenda and left-wing radicals.

The looters of course could be written off as thugs. The destruction of businesses and stores as a violation of capitalism’s most essential commandment: thou shalt not destroy property. But if one stops for a moment to think about what authorities in Minneapolis were saying this morning it makes less and less sense. 

There were several thousand people out on the streets. Assuming for a moment this crowd was eighty percent out-of-staters and White supremacists, where were all these people staying? Were they living under highway overpasses or on the streets? Were hotels filled to overflowing? And how was this eighty percent figure determined? Wasn’t it a bit too quick for the police department of Minneapolis to come up with these numbers? Weren’t they too busy to be engaging in a case-specific sociological demographic study?

Today there were protests in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The White protestors were young White women. At first glance, some of them looked like college students or young professionals. The optics don’t fit the Minneapolis authorities’ assessment in any rational way.

These explanations are very familiar to anyone who has studied protests and civil unrest throughout history. When things become chaotic and the reason for the chaos weighs heavily on the shoulders of those in power the specter of outside agency is always invoked – anarchists, communists, foreigners, radicals, agitators etc. This time it is no different although there is a bit more politically correct language that has been thrown into the mix. Maybe it’s like a spoon of sugar to help the medicine go down.

We were told that there is great concern for the injustice committed against George Floyd.  That the authorities sympathize with the family and with the feelings of hopelessness that drives the protesters. Senator Amy Kobluchar was enlisted to help sell their message to talk the protesters down. Kobluchar believed these representatives of authority were being truthful.

But what they were was afraid. It was the sense of fear, the fear of change, the fear that the world as they know it may be coming to the edge of a philosophical cliff. They don’t know what is beyond this break or what action to take other than to call in more militarized units. This fear motivates authorities to see hidden agents, who defile their city and their institutions. Thus, they encourage the good people to stay home and wait for the system to make up its mind about change. They don’t realize that this is not working. People are tired of waiting. Tired of excuses. Tired of a double-standard legal system and corrupt politicians. They don’t need provocation. The system has provoked them sufficiently. Now they’re just exploding.

Some old school Black civil rights leaders have called for calm, resurrecting the long dead voice of Martin Luther King Jr. They present the old argument that by rioting and looting protesters cede the high moral ground to their opponents. But what high moral ground is there in a society where prison has become endemic, a crude tool for social reshaping?

 What high moral ground is there in a society that has elected a leader who constantly incites divisiveness with his quips.  Who fails to take notice of the destructive path of a pandemic? Who is more concerned with fattening up his own ego than what is best for our country? Have we simply turned the corner on everything this system is founded on? We have been in this moral morass for a long time. We are being sucked down into the quicksand of foolish superficiality, looking the other way while this experiment in democracy implodes or erodes.

We’ve come to a watershed moment in the midst of this pandemic. The issue is far bigger than George Floyd or any of the other countless slaughtered Black men and women. The issue is far bigger than racism between Black and White. We are lost to a bizarre notion of public safety and policing. There’s a seismic fault in this society, and it is beginning to crack open.

You can’t see it from space. Earth is a gorgeous marvel of natural creation. You can’t see from up there how we’ve repeatedly destroyed each other and torn down the human worlds we have built.

It’s that vision that in these days of unrest, suffering and directionless violence that stays with me. One of the astronauts commented that when he looked down on our planet, he felt as if this was what heaven must be like.  But zoom in closer. It is not heaven but another place that becomes visible. The hell we make of this Eden with our shallow, mindless quests. It may be that we’re doomed, that we’ll never build a functional, sustainable society. The Agent in the film “The Matrix” harshly defines us: “All humans are simply a foul-smelling virus, a blight”.

What we’re going through now feels as though it’s necessary, as though it was a long time coming, like a storm finally bursting. I don’t believe in conspiracies or agents of provocation. Not in this case. It’s sad, but like that SpaceX rocket blowing upward off the pad, what’s going on may be an upward reach, an unextinguished flame of hope surging toward an unreachable sky. 

Tomorrow the two astronauts will be in orbit around our planet and docking with the International Space Station. It’s that vision of a cooperative future I cling to, maybe foolishly. But it’s the only one we’re being given.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Fernando Rivas Martinez

Fernando Rivas Martinez is writer and prison reform advocate incarcerated in Texas. He is a 1977 Juilliard graduate and award winning composer of film and television music. In 2016, while incarcerated, he received an honorable mention from the PEN America prison writing program for his poem ‘300 Min.’ In 2019 he won the American Short Fiction Insider’s Prize award and an honorable mention on the Texas Observer short story contest.