Like most Americans, I am nowhere near any violence right now. Nevertheless, I am hearing and seeing violence on a series of screens: television screens, smartphone screens, computer screens. Even in a room as quiet as mine—outside the window I can see grass and trees—the cacophony is almost unbearable. It’s as if different choruses are all singing at the same time, and not in harmony.
In Salt Lake City, police knocked down an elderly man who was walking with a cane. In New York City, two police SUVs drove into a crowd. In Houston, on the other hand, the police chief told a multiracial crowd, “If you’ve got hate in your heart for people of color, get over it.” In Camden, New Jersey, police officers marched together with protesters. On Sunday, rioters in Washington, D.C., burned shops and lit a fire in the refectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. On Monday, completely peaceful demonstrators in the square were teargassed so President Donald Trump could have himself photographed in front of that same church with a copy of the Bible in hand.
Many would like to simplify these events—to give them a single, clear interpretation. Some tell a harrowing story about police violence. Some tell a heartwarming story about police and communities pulling together. Some tell an insidious story about black looters. Some tell a murky story about white infiltration of peaceful black protest movements. A few weeks ago, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong described a “patchwork pandemic,” a coronavirus outbreak that is unfolding in different ways in different parts of the country. Now we have patchwork protests, mixed with patchwork riots. In each one of them, the police and the protesters have different motives, create different impacts, affect people in different ways.