At first, this seemed like the Year of the Fire. Scientists predicted smoke off the scorched country of Australia to circumnavigate the globe, some of it passing over flame-seared California. People, both humans and animals, choked on fumes and fled as refugees from thirty million red-hot acres.
Then, this became the Year of the Pandemic. Like the flames down under, a virus crept over from last year, from somewhere – a wet market, an industrial cattle farm, a biotech lab – infecting an interconnected globe with coughs, burning fevers, and an unprecedented economic drop. Infection rates and death tolls are still uncertain, still rising in the United States of America.
Now, this may also be the Year of the Uprising. Thousands of people abandon social distancing for social solidarity to march in the streets against the ongoing brutal violence of police. Many wear protective masks for a respiratory disease as white police killed another Black man who cried “I can’t breathe,” the latest spark in a resistance at least 400 years old, now lighting police precincts and kindling consciousness on fire. The U.S. is learning, yet again, how little it values the matter of Black lives except as a source for extraction.
The Fire, the Pandemic, the Uprising. And we’re barely halfway through 2020.
This is a front-heavy year, counterweighted by another supposedly apocalyptic presidential election, the ever-present understory that feeds into the riotous flaming viral headlines. These newsflashes don’t include the countless other movements and stories that also change the course of present life. Change is always happening, and some changes appear quicker and scarier when we don’t see what moves behind them. Transformation often seems to depend on disturbances and conflicts, whether personally or socially, and transformation is most certainly happening.
In the fierce light of these events, I’ve started to think of 2020 as the Year of Hindsight. As the old saying goes: hindsight is 20/20. Supposedly, looking back, we have perfect vision. But by calling this the Year of Hindsight, I don’t mean a backwards glance after the fact of danger. I mean a clear view from the end, the sight given to us from the results of what’s been done. What moves in the back is staring now down. 2020 seems like the year that actions have world-burning consequences, the year that the past crashes into the present like a fiery flashback. The year that we really should’ve seen all this coming. The Year of Hindsight could also be called the Year We Should Have Known Better.
“We” is too inclusive a pronoun. Lots of people did know better a long time ago, and still know better now. That’s partly why so many are in the streets and why clear demands for alternatives are quickly made because lots of people have known and have been ready. I don’t believe this is just the bias of hindsight talking out of its own ass. Hindsight isn’t that different from foresight when history insists on nearly repeating itself. People have been ringing bells, shouting from rooftops, marching streets, writing books, chronicling reports, prophesying predictions: “Fire! Pandemic! Uprising!”
This year they’ve all happened, though burning, infection, and mass resistance happen somewhere every year, from California to the Congo to Hong Kong. But this year seems different, feels different. All three spreading so clearly at once, all three so blazing in scope. An insurgent viral inferno with similar origins and similar outcomes: heat, deceit, control, repression, oppression. In short, invasion and suffocation, the violation of boundaries that blocks the ability to breathe. Invasion into land, into bodies, into the climate and back again. Suffocation of lungs, of sovereignty, of voices trying to warn or simply to speak. Invasive species of checkpoints, roadblocks, and financial borders treating the movement of people, plants, and microbes as the invasion. Choking on smoke, from dry heaving, from the physical hand of police to the invisible hand of whiteness that is pollution, property, profit, that is written in the weather as climate change. The appalled surprise when the virus or the flames on land or Target catch, despite the ecological epidemiologists, despite the climate scientists and activists, despite the countless Black, Brown, and Indigenous resisters saying the preexisting condition of white supremacy and colonization is going to kill us all, but it’s been killing them more.
We should have known better, and many did, and still Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, Dominique Fells, Riah Milton, and now many more are dead from guns, disease, and suspicious nooses in trees. The Navajo Nation has coronavirus death rates higher than sixteen states combined and is protecting its borders from an imported illness in a repetition of history. The wilds of Australia are still charred and the wilds of Amazonian rainforests are plundered undercover of COVID-19 to release more diseases to be treated with the same microbial xenophobia and the same hammer of control that sees all dissent and difference as a nail to be beaten flat. Calls for defunding and abolishing the police are met with calls to privatize them or to explain why defunding doesn’t really mean what it means. The necessary protection of quarantine fits hand-in-plastic-glove with the modern migration to virtual reality. And the President of the United States tweets threats to shoot the looters, the citizens of the empire he’s elected to serve, and then poses with a Bible like he stepped out of a dictatorial ad campaign. Like he stepped right out of the history of the United States. We should have known better, and many did.
If we’re paying attention, and many have been, the Fire’s smoke signals to us that we can’t dry out the world and then act shocked when it ignites, that huge donations of relief money means that money could have relieved more before, that the world’s asphyxiation is ours too, that if we put the heat on life it will eventually burn back, that old wisdom sets small cleansing fires to prevent massive pandemic ones, that pandemic means “all the people” and the human-generated fires consume other-than-human people too.
If we’re paying attention, and many have been, this Pandemic exposes us to all that ails our society, from extreme disparities in wealth and health to racist and nationalist blame for the virus’ origins and who it infects more, from the reality that those most vulnerable right now are those most isolated or exploited normally to the modern belief that we can control or immunize ourselves from wild life, to the socially-accepted social distance from mutual aid and soil, water, and air, a distance that deprives many from the power to sustain our communities.
If we’re paying attention, and many have been, this Uprising raises voices fed up with normal, raises the reality that power can’t prey on categories of people without them burning back, that people will reject the rules when they aren’t followed by the powerful – from police to the president – who instead offer bailouts to billionaires and a qualified herd immunity to avoid accountability, that statues, structures, and spellings tell stories, and some stories get a cleansing revision with fire.
If we’re paying attention, and many have been, the Fire, the Pandemic, and the Uprising proclaim that all this smoke, disease, and unrest are related to respiration, and the violence and waste that blocks it.
When I’m paying attention, this year teaches me that Hindsight is 2020. I should’ve known better, and so should many others. I speak from my position as a white straight man as I see so many white Americans on the sugar rush of new realizations who for so long skipped the feedback that could help us digest our discomfort into something nourishing. Maybe most of us knew and we let ourselves think that we didn’t. Even if most of us thought we did our best to treat people and the planet with kindness, our best is not always good enough. I think about harsh things I’ve said, hurtful things I’ve done, and how often I believe I’ve tried my very best. That effort wasn’t always good enough and, either way, actions have consequences. The past will haunt the present until we reckon with it, metabolize it. Otherwise the past keeps slipping into the skin of the present and soon it becomes the future. Hindsight becomes foresight.
What could hindsight offer us? What could 2020 vision show us? Now many people and organizations, especially the white ones, are starting to pay attention to what many others have been doing all along, because the right things to do now are really the right things to do all the time: reckoning with the history of invasion and suffocation, naming needs and assets so the abundance can be shared, respecting boundaries of people and the living earth, slowing down and moving with intention, and also catching up to reality, making music and telling stories, offering gratitude for the day’s good gifts, demanding and organizing for justice and redistribution of what’s been hoarded, understanding that reform means to change shape and if the shape won’t change then it needs to be abolished, that burnt land can sprout green with gardens and forests of food and medicine, and that personal and communal health are intertwined and that love and collective liberation for people and land is public health. This is all the same healing work.
Perhaps 2020 vision could unveil to us that life matters and is sacred. That honored boundaries allow fires to chart a healing course and give breathing room to the full diversity and dignity of life. What if the lives of those most often suppressed, eradicated, ignored, coopted, most readily resistant actually mattered? If the lives of Black people, the lives of Indigenous people and their unceded sovereignty, the lives of Queer people, if the lives classed as poor because a few stole the most, the lives of survivors of sexual invasion and suffocation, lives of all shapes and sizes and abilities, if the lives of those who grow our food and the lives grown as our food, those lives of the Land and the many-gendered many-colored kin from forests to microbes to water who sustain the matter of our lives? If these lives mattered, not valorized or canonized or sanitized, but realized and respected as legitimate embodiments of life, then maybe we would be able to say that all lives matter. Not out of spiteful ignorance, but because our vision is whole, because everyone can breathe easy.
Photo by Cooper Baumgartner on Unsplash