The Face of Elite Panic in the USA

Duane Townsend

LitHub - July 1, 2020

Ever since Trump was elected, we have been living through things that we would find overplayed and unbelievable in fiction and film and they keep on coming. Sunday night they came in the form of a rich, white sixty-something couple waving deadly weapons at a St. Louis Black Lives Matter march.

The casually dressed personal injury lawyers Mark and Patricia McCloskey looked incongruous in front of their imposing mansion. The mansion—or palazzo as this ostentatious midwestern imitation of Renaissance splendor in Italy is sometimes called—makes a claim to be a pinnacle of civility and culture and graciousness. So a man out front with a semiautomatic weapon and a woman waving a chrome-plated handgun “like it was a garden hose,” as one Twitter commentator put it, were in some ways undermining the claims their house makes. And in some ways reinforcing it. There was the trial lawyer in a pink polo shirt brandishing a black spewer of death next to a grand pale gray urn that made me think of the gardens at Versailles, but is apparently an imitation of urns at the Vatican.

But the lawyer was certainly thinking of Versailles when he told a local television station afterward, “We were threatened with our lives, threatened with a house being burned down, my office building being burned down, even our dog’s life being threatened. It was, it was about as bad as it can get. I mean, those you know, I really thought it was Storming the Bastille, that we would be dead and the house would be burned and there was nothing we could do about it.” If the fortress-prison known as the Bastille is being stormed, you don’t actually have much to worry about unless you’re defending the Bastille or you’re the ancien regime. And if you are, you should probably ask yourself some questions.

Of course McCloskey’s claims seem likely to be fictions or excuses taking place at the intersection of megalomania and paranoia. For the protestors to be threatening his office building they’d have to care who he was and the protest would have to be about him and there would have to be some coherent grievance against him personally. For them to be posing a deadly threat to him personally, there’d maybe have to be a recent history of mobs lynching white people in their homes. But they were just passing by.

They seem to believe the underclass is only held back from sowing chaos and destruction by the state’s threat of violence, and in the absence of that threat all hell will break loose.

They were on a march to the Mayor’s nearby home. People were outraged that she had publicly read off the home addresses of constituents who had written in to her about defunding the police, seeing that gesture as putting people at risk and violating their privacy (their names and addresses may have been on the record, but amplifying their visibility amplified their danger). So the first violation of private space—and the safety that each of us desires it be surrounded by—came from the mayor. As the Washington Post notes, “The public identification, or doxing, of activists is not illegal, but such an act carries a particularly fraught legacy in the St. Louis area: Since Michael Brown was shot by police in nearby Ferguson, Mo., six people connected to the protests that followed in 2014 have been found dead—some of them in violent, mysterious ways, the Associated Press reported.” The palazzo is less than ten miles from Ferguson.

The street the protestors marched down belongs to a gated community of residents, and Mark McCloskey declared, “Everything inside the Portland Place gate is private property. There is nothing public in Portland Place. Being inside that gate is like being in my living room. There is no public anything in Portland Place. It is all private property.” It is true that the first amendment, the right of the people peaceably to assemble in order to petition the government for a redress of grievances, doesn’t apply to private property, which is why shopping malls (and the Las Vegas Strip, private property pretending to be a great public boulevard) have been able to crack down on free speech.

It’s also true that private streets are oxymorons; streets are for walking and the free movement of the public; people should flow down them the way water flows along a riverbed, only sometimes there are dams, which we call gates and gated communities. The vast mansion sits at the corner of a major public thoroughfare and this street and sidewalk privately owned by a group, not by the McCloskeys personally. The protestors on the sidewalk may have assumed it was public; there’s irony in that the imposing palazzo itself looks more like a university or civic structure than what most of us think of as a home.

Ironically enough one of the protestors in the video seen more than 13 million times so far is wearing a “hands up don’t shoot t-shirt,” and the protestors in the footage I’ve seen don’t seem interested in the property, though of course they take notice of the guns being pointed at them. One young man waves everyone on. The Washington Post notes that the female half of the McCloskeys had her finger on the trigger; photographs show her pointing it straight at protestors; others note that the male half’s semiautomatic seems to be pointed at her some of the time. An article about their home notes, “The dining room is a re-creation of a residence chamber in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, constructed in 1458 by Luca Pitti, though its more famous residents included the Medicis and Napoleon Bonaparte. It took six people an entire year to carefully remove multiple layers of paint glommed over the intricate woodwork.”

Since George Floyd’s extrajudicial execution prompted an uprising, one of the rifts running through American society has become more obvious, the one between those who think a society should rest on a foundation of liberty and justice for all and those who think it should rest on orderly property relations. We’ve seen the latter view often, in this uprising, in which a sector of the population downplayed the violence of the police against human flesh and life and played up the property destruction as the real chaos and crime (or preached that violence against life and limb should be imposed to protect lifeless property).

We saw it in New Orleans in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when wealthy white people sat on their porches with weapons awaiting the mob, according to Michael Lewis, and other white people went further, and in the name of protecting property shot Black men who weren’t actually doing stuff to property. Elsewhere, white vigilantes killed Black men—I wrote about this at length in my 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell—and police killed other Black people, in one case for suspected shoplifting and in others for being Black people moving freely in a ruined city. ...
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