Translated by Katharine Halls
I don’t even like protests. I don’t like chanting, and within ten minutes I’m usually asking myself, what am I doing here. I walk with everybody else, but I observe what’s happening as if from a distance, even when I’m right in the middle of it.
Still, I went to the demonstration on Saturday, May 30. We went early to the park—my wife Yasmin, my daughter Sina and I. On our way we saw that there were already police cars out, lots of them. There were perhaps five hundred people already gathered, and the speeches and chants had begun. The park itself, we found, was closed, and we stood to one side, observing social distancing rules as we’ve done since the start of the pandemic. When the crowd continued to swell, we decided to go home, worried we’d be risking our health and that of our daughter.
We’d just got home when my friend Harrison called. He’d just arrived at the protest and wanted to know where I was. I’ll be there in fifteen, I said.
I headed back partly out of curiosity, and partly out of solidarity with the brothers, sisters, and friends that I’ve found in this country. I went for all the good things I’d encountered in America, and against all the bad things. I took two masks (one to wear, and one spare), hand sanitizer, and sunglasses, even though the sun was going down, thinking they might help hide my identity—but more about that later.
You know the details of the death of George Floyd, murdered by a police officer on camera.
I hadn’t expected the rage to spread as far Las Vegas, where I’ve lived for a year now. George Floyd’s murder had been the latest in a very long series of brutal police murders of African-Americans in the United States. Also, since the outbreak of Covid-19, hotels, restaurants and public spaces have been closed here. In normal times, on average, ten thousand people visit this city of tourism every day. The city has fallen into a dejected silence, as thousands have lost their jobs and are being forced to stay home. Depression and anxiety levels seem to be rising by the day.
Every Wednesday, my friend Harrison Bernard Nuzzo drives to see me. He is an experimental poet, a lover of life, food, and literature, currently pursuing his masters in creative writing. We’d established a weekly ritual of meeting in a bar, but now that the city’s closed for business we meet at the curbside instead. I go downstairs and we hang out on the street for a while, observing social distancing. The closest we get is an elbow bump. His brother is a chef at one of the city’s fanciest restaurants, also closed for now. Harrison sometimes brings us some top-quality beef steak as a gift.
In the time that I’ve known him, Harrison has never shown much interest in politics; he always says the least in a political conversation, he has no social media accounts whatsoever, and he uses his cellphone to make calls and send messages, nothing else. But since the start of the pandemic I’ve been watching his anger grow. Harrison is enraged by the way the government is dealing with the coronavirus, by the lies, and by the cynicism of the plague merchants who have exploited the crisis and enriched themselves by billions upon billions of dollars. After hearing repeated comparisons with the plague, he remarked a few weeks ago that he wished we were still in the Middle Ages, so he could take a sword and a band of followers and go wage war on the king in his castle. That would be a fun way to put an end to this farce, he said.
On the way to meet Harrison at the protest, I went around the back of the park, where I saw park employees unlocking the side gates so the police could park their vehicles in the kids’ play area. I found Harrison at the protest, which now numbered probably around a thousand. We filled the entire sidewalk, and as the crowd swelled and people stepped out into the road, others called them back. I only recently learned what a delicate legal framework governs political demonstrations here; the right to protest in public places is guaranteed by the constitution, but blocking roads is a crime, which gives police the right to intervene.
A familiar vibration ran through the air. It was that moment when individuals fuse together, when emotions and voices coalesce into a single chant. Most of the protestors were young men. They were of many different races, and the dynamic of movement in the protest felt the same as at other protests I’ve attended, in Egypt, Tunis, Morocco and India.
We were standing at an intersection. The police were blocking it on two sides, leaving us another two for escape, if we were attacked. By this point I could sense danger in the air, and I was getting scared—more so than I had been at protests in Cairo, where I’d seen armoured vehicles running people over and dead bodies strewn on the ground. I was an immigrant with temporary papers, and if I got arrested it might complicate my legal status. And under the Trump administration who knew what might happen next—maybe they’d accuse me of being a foreign infiltrator and deport me, as the Egyptian government did with foreigners who were arrested at demonstrations in Cairo.
I stepped up onto a concrete block and surveyed the area around me. On the fringes of the crowd I noticed some people dressed all in black, with masks and sunglasses and military-style berets. Their jackets bore the stalking panther logo of the Black Panthers. A few anarchist and antifa flags fluttered shyly here and there. Next to me were two women in red t-shirts bearing the words “Legal Observer.” They were law students monitoring and recording the police for possible violations by of constitutional or civic rights—something I’d never seen before. Shortly after, another woman in an ACLU t-shirt handed me a tiny card, repeating the words “Know your rights! Know your rights!” On the card were instructions: what to do if you’re arrested, what your rights are, how to demand them.
On the roof of a nearby building another group of police stood watching us—older-looking, perhaps higher-ranking, one of them apparently giving orders. Another took out his cellphone and snapped a few shots of the demonstrators. That was weird, I thought. LVMPD helicopters circled overhead—likely equipped with long-range cameras that could pick out one person’s face amid thousands of others.
Later I read that over the past few decades, the Egyptian interior ministry has sent thousands of its officers to the USA on training secondments to work with American police departments. Americans, meanwhile, send their police officers to train with Israelis, in a complex, secretive network through which police forces across the world share and refine their expertise, creating a unified set of strategies for dealing with demonstrations.
The videos I’ve watched over the past few days confirm this. Police lines advance and begin picking off individual demonstrators, dragging them one by one to a waiting police car. I’ve seen it happen in Egypt so many times.
The number of protestors grew and grew, and there was no way the sidewalk could accommodate them all. People stepped down into the road, and I saw the police lining up into a military formation I knew well—one whose aim is not to block a street, but to advance slowly. Looking up, I saw the helicopters again, some belonging to news networks, some to the police. Suddenly I was gripped by paranoia. Nightmare scenarios spiralled through my head. Those helicopters were taking photos, right? What if they were taking a picture of me right now? What if they followed me afterwards, like they often did with protestors? What would happen if it went on my security file? Would it affect my green card application?
I glanced down at the card the ACLU woman had given me. It assured me that my constitutionally guaranteed freedom of opinion was sacred, but the last time I put my faith in a constitutionally guaranteed freedom I ended up in prison. That was in Egypt, where I was convicted of offences against public morality for writing a book.
Other people had noticed that the police were forming up, and the crowd began to move slowly down the street. I walked a few paces with them before my paranoia got the better of me. Frustrated at my own cowardice, hating myself, I told Harrison I wasn’t going to stick around. I said goodbye to my friends, and went home. At home I sat down on the couch, switched to the local television channels, and watched as the march swirled through the streets around my house.
I woke up the next morning to dozens of messages from family and friends in Egypt asking if I was okay. They’d seen the news of tear gas fired at protests and unarmed demonstrators beaten by the police. Over the phone I reassured my father we were fine. But what do the protestors want?, he asked me. I paused. I didn’t know where to start. Where I come from, demonstrations usually have simple, clear demands: the resignation of the interior minister or president, a new government. Things don’t seem so clear to me here, and it’s not the same revolutionary situation. The main chant you hear in these protests is “No justice, no peace.”
It’s an old slogan that originated against ethnic violence committed against Black Americans by whites: a demand for justice for Black people who still suffer the wrongs of slavery and racial discrimination, who are killed in cold blood as they go about their daily lives. Justice for all those murdered and assaulted by the police—who, since the 1980s have become steadily less accountable for their actions, thanks to successive Supreme Court rulings expanding the principle of qualified immunity. Police who kill, live and on camera, have returned safely home to their families, arrested only if and when the protests become too large to ignore. When they are charged at all, they are often charged with lesser crimes.
For example Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, was first charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Third-degree murder is a felony recognized in only four states, one of them being Minnesota, where it is defined as “depraved-heart murder”—that is, a death caused unintentionally but by someone with no regard for human life. Only later, as outrage exploded across the country, was Chauvin charged with the more serious crime of second-degree murder. To clarify, first-degree murder is premeditated killing, or felony murder where the underlying felony is on a specific list of violent crimes. Second-degree murder is either intentional (but not premeditated) murder, or murder committed in connection with a felony not on the first-degree list.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has said that he will seek to prove the latter—felony second-degree murder—in the case of Chauvin. The other three officers present at the time of Floyd’s murder on May 25th , J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao and Thomas K. Lane, were fired the day after Floyd’s death, but were not charged until June 3rd, five days after the first charges were filed against Derek Chauvin. They are facing charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.
The slogan, “No justice, no peace,” seems to be expanding now in the scope of injustices and injured parties it embraces, as more American citizens connect police brutality with systemic racism and a broken safety net in the underfunding of social services, education and health care. Justice, too, then, for the people held prisoner by student loans and healthcare debt and barely able to afford basic necessities. Where I come from, everyone is poor; here, everyone is in debt.
I tried to explain these things to my father, but I was dispirited. I was scared of what tomorrow would bring, and disappointed in myself for expecting only the worst. It’s not just the techniques of the American police that remind me of Egypt, it’s the entire American political scene.
Protesters in an amorphous, directionless rage, provoked and defamed; a whole nation whipped into a state of terror. A detached and flailing opposition party. And all this setting the scene for a forceful, manly president to call in the army and restore security by shutting people up and making them stay home; an opportunistic leader, planning to be remembered as the hero who saved the country from chaos.
The more I think about the comparison with Egypt, the more pessimistic I get. Thinking back on Harrison’s medieval fantasies, I fear this bold, beautiful fight for justice will not prevail, that these neo-medievalists will be painted as a satanic enemy to be bravely slain by Trump on his steed, clutching his spear in one hand and his Bible in the other. That night, as we lay in bed, Yasmin asked me where we’d go this time, if worse comes to worst. If things get this bad everywhere, I said, there might be nowhere left to go.