Scenes From a Failed State

Caleb Brennan

“Tough guy, huh?” asks the officer. “You having fun?” goads his partner.  As his knee crushes the windpipe of his victim, his body language is stern and unfeeling, as if taking the position is some sort of burden. “He’s not responsive right now, bro!” one pedestrian says. “Check for a pulse,” says another. A cop with nothing to say turns away, expressing his indifference with his posture. Officer Derek Chauvin (already with a documented history of brutality and the use of fatal force) holds the position for what seems like hours. By the time an ambulance arrives, George Floyd, 46, is unresponsive.

The brutality is so stark and the rationale (Floyd allegedly used counterfeit money at a corner store) so flimsy that even some staunch Blue Lives Matter supporters have admitted that justice is due. For a whole eight minutes and 43 seconds, bystanders watch a man breathe his last living breaths under both the literal and metaphorical boot of a state apparatus that is aloof at best, murderous at worst.

But an almost equally disturbing image haunts the footage of George Floyd’s death: the officer who has his arms crossed and his back turned away from the atrocity, a dry, administrative apathy in his voice. As the crowd that gathered during the arrest starts to creep forward, the officer, Tou Thao, shoves one of the onlookers back, as if he is a threat to what is currently unfolding.

As if this concerned citizen is preventing these four officers from doing their jobs. As if this is all part of a process practiced over and over again. As if allowing people to help a dying man is some kind of affront.



“There’s no such thing as society.”

It’s hard to know how literal Margaret Thatcher was being when she spoke that infamous phrase: “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

If we want to take a sociological look at the conditions that precipitated the death of George Floyd, that quote might be a good place to start. Not only does the ruling class have zero commitment to bettering the lives of the citizenry, they actively put up barriers to prevent the rest of the masses from doing so. The Tou Thaos of the world serve this exact purpose. The state as a servant of the people does not exist, especially if you are a minority. It exists only as a vector of repression and lethal force. If you want to intervene in any way, you will be met by the aggression of its only effective function: reinforcing the perpetual cycle of inaction and blunt antagonism.

As austerity politics took hold in the early ’80s, countless governments abandoned Keynesian economics and already-paltry social spending in favor of slashing budgets and deregulating the postwar financial infrastructure implemented to prevent another massive market crash. The age of free-for-all financial investment was upon us, and it was the job of elected officials to get government out of the way.   

What is certain, however, was that Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and a hungry capitalist class were fed up with their contractual obligations. In their minds, governance, in the vaguest sense, was no longer a useful tool for allowing the world to thrive. This ideological epoch comprises the past forty years of capitalist “democracy”: in which institutions, or as Thatcher said, “society,” owe you nothing. If you want assistance or want something changed, then take a number and get in line. We’ll get around to it, maybe. Voting may dangle the illusion of change, but politicians can only promise harsh, bureaucratic law and order and the further unfettering of consumer markets.

If you’ve felt utterly hopeless during this past two months of COVID-19 crisis and while watching the video of George Floyd’s murder, if you’ve become wracked by a sensation of futility, it can in many ways be attributed to the fact that our leadership has simply opted out of their role as the governing caste. And why would they need to meet any obligations if keeping continuity simply means performing the kabuki theater of this kind of political process? If your constituency expects to be atomized and disenfranchised, if the standards are unbelievably low, if everyone has been trained to fear the government’s repressive actions, then you’re completely off the hook.

While these circumstances are exacerbated by the incompetence of the Trump administration, they are by no means unique to his reign: among many other presidential crimes, Reagan intentionally ignored the AIDS crisis, George H.W. Bush doubled down on law-and-order tactics during the Rodney King riots, Bill Clinton pulled social spending out from under the feet of millions and left them vulnerable to the whims of the market, Bush Jr. let New Orleans drown before sending in the National Guard, and Obama’s muted response to the Ferguson uprising resulted in little more than glorified HR training for police officers, as they were furnished with military-grade equipment.

This unwillingness or inability to foster a serviceable government is reaping what it has sowed: a dysfunctional state of affairs that has manufactured and will continue to manufacture social and literal murders akin to George Floyd’s every single day.      


The Failed State

The consequences of the staunch commitment of conservatives to privatize the state’s functions and liberals’ immense fear of robust government action have finally reached a boiling point. As neoliberalism has been cemented as the dominant mode of relations, the ability of state institutions to perform their designated tasks has been entirely neutered. Hospitals have been unable to properly protect their staff or provide the supplies needed to treat COVID patients. Public schools have been gutted; their class sizes swell while staff numbers dwindle. The notoriously rickety, neglected infrastructure of our country continues to collapse with alarming regularity. Unemployment, homelessness, and hunger are at record highs.

These phenomena are especially harmful to minority communities. If we are to bring about anything resembling racial justice, we must ensure the provision of the public goods that communities need to be safe and secure. Unfortunately, the anti-statists won out. Their dream society, dictated by private, undemocratic forces swayed only by the will of commerce, has come to pass.

Just as George Floyd’s murder demonstrates the savage effectiveness of our white supremacist police state, the COVID-19 crisis, in stark contrast, lays bare the rank incompetence of every other piece of our social and political infrastructure. These instances combine to reveal an unfortunate truth: the United States of America is a failed state that leaves the most vulnerable out to die in the street, whether from a plague or at the hands of unaccountable, gang-like police departments. Only the overwhelmingly white upper class is guarded from this cruel reality. As people took to the streets of Minneapolis, and eventually huge swaths of the U.S., our crumbling state carried out the only assignment for which it still musters any urgency: unrelenting, targeted violence at the hands of a militarized police force.

Even still, it may be that we have reached a critical mass. The video of George Floyd, along with many others, may have finally convinced enough non-Black people that our state is, and has been, an illegitimate instigator of systemic violence, both abroad and on the domestic front.



However, there are other variables that define the inability of a state to function.

We have elected officials selling off stock in anticipation of the viral outbreak—just a small example of the rampant cronyism that permeates all levels of our institutions. Our democracy, already shaky and of at-best questionable legitimacy, is deeply prone to suppression, gerrymandering, and the corruption of voting machines tied directly to the ruling party. We have hardline extremists with assault weapons intimidating the governor of Michigan. We have infant mortality rates, especially among Black women, on par with states we associate with political instability. In areas all over the country, but most prominently in Flint, MI, people have little to no access to clean drinking water.

And now with George Floyd and COVID-19, we have the most naked examples of how incapable our institutions are of protecting and nurturing people’s humanity and dignity.


On the Ground

But we must look through the fog of tear gas and the deluge of horrors that storms daily on social media. On the ground in Minneapolis, communities and households have come together to perform the tasks that our failed state, with its trillions of dollars and untold manpower, has been unable—and, crucially, unwilling—to perform.

I have seen elderly people spend their entire days driving back and forth to make supply drops for needy families. I have seen teenagers preparing baking soda solutions to heal protestors attacked with mace and amateur medics tending to the injured. I have seen soccer moms picking up broken glass outside a Somali market and middle-aged men asking if anyone needs free snacks. I have seen librarians rush out into the night to fight fires, doulas performing safety patrols, strippers caring for the homeless, and textile workers distributing feminine hygiene kits.

And I have seen people from across the spectrum of society (the one that in Thatcher’s telling does not exist) stand in solidarity with the black community of Minneapolis. When we occupied the Fifth Precinct, amidst the ruins of a Wells Fargo building, I could feel solidarity resonating from a crowd that knew what justice was, knew what kindness looked like, and knew that silence was the enemy.  Despite the cynical idea that permeates our rotten state—that we are self-serving creatures with no regard for others—I have seen people come together to create genuine, functional networks of mutual aid and to meaningfully demand that the powerful be held accountable.

Community food distribution in Minneapolis.

While these spontaneous networks of social and economic protection are inspiring and laudable, they are sadly unsustainable if they remain scattered. We must carry this momentum forward and demand the production of institutions that guarantee safety, security, justice, sustenance, democracy, and baseline humanity. Call it socialism, call it egalitarianism, call it whatever you like. All I know is that people are hungry for a state that values dignity and refuses to tolerate unnecessary suffering. We do not have to build some fabled utopia to achieve this. It is in our very nature to cooperate, protect the vulnerable, and uplift every soul.  

We can start this process by pushing aside every Officer Thou, relieving the knee from every George Floyd, and ensuring that every Officer Chauvin is delivered to justice. It is our obligation as future members of a humane, functioning society. 

A better world is possible. I have seen it in the streets of Minneapolis. ♦


Caleb Brennan is a reporter and writer based in Minneapolis. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmbrennan

Images courtesy of Caleb Brennan and Mel G.

Consider supporting Protean Magazine on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!