PRINT December 2020

Go Outside

ALL RIOTS EMIT A WORLD-HISTORICAL SHINE, but the George Floyd uprisings were extra radiant because they opened the doors of the world. The riots saved social life by proving that it was possible, with masks and moving air, to spend time together outdoors without getting sick. The riots reconstructed an outside of the home as they enacted an outside of capitalist social relations. Before the riots, even before the pandemic, it often felt as if life stopped just before the point where other people began.

The opening of the outside was an accidental effect of the uprisings. Although the uprisings were a mourning practice, a riot is also the undirected intersubjective power of a crowd, just something that can happen when a lot of people are outside in the same place. By providing new uses for public space—by uprooting street furniture, smashing plate-glass windows into piles of jewels, and pedestrianizing highways—the riots demonstrated that all objects can be transformed by collective play. A riot can’t resurrect the dead, but it can resurrect the dead spaces of cities, animate the streets—“Our streets!” as the chant goes, a civic-anarchic cliché that makes sense in the moment, as the streets get used differently. The physical sensation of taking a street stays even after the street is reconquered by everyday traffic.

It’s important to go outside because you feel different when the weather touches you directly and because there are people there. Social life is the substance that revolution is supposed to work on, so it’s no surprise that the brief, disgusting history of the police is founded not only on the slave patrol but also on crowd control. The police exist in passionate opposition to crowds. Unlike riots or an idea of art, the police are filled to the point of obliteration by purpose, so that in the practice of policing they don’t act as people at all. They are against escape and against gathering. The streets are the frame and context for working-class social life, so the police limit the pleasures that can be experienced there. Their job is to smash the informal life of the streets in all its manifestations: street vending, loitering, all the nothing crimes that hurt no one through which the police project of racist harassment gives itself legal form. Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the spark that began the Arab Spring, was a street vendor; Eric Garner was a street vendor. The banning of loitering is similarly paradigmatic, as it potentially criminalizes being anywhere at all.

A riot can’t resurrect the dead, but it can resurrect the dead spaces of cities.

In New York in the first week of June, when the city said everyone had to be indoors by 8 PM, the chants of Fuck your curfew began as the hour struck. Whoever had really been out stayed out. No one was conscious of being brave; they were powered by the electric currents of collective energy that constitute courage. The police tried and failed to prevent groups of a few hundred or a few thousand people from congregating at random around the city. It was wild how close New York came, that month, to defeating the NYPD. This was achieved without weapons, just physical presence and fire.

After the riots, before the winter, the city was like a creature in between exoskeletons. It turned out everything could happen outside. In summer, the parks were dense with people and competing musics. Grill smoke and weed smoke and Pop Smoke outlined the spectral presence of the New York commune that lived a second ghost life after its erasure by politics. I walked dark streets with people I had met on apps and navigated suddenly ornate boundaries of touch. On Jacob Riis Beach, we swam at night and interrupted someone else’s sex. Groups of young abolitionists still high on outdoor life congregated fleetingly in different parts of the city to eat and talk. It was romantic to see how everyone had grown into one another. In Prospect Park, we lay in the bowl of the earth and watched the sky tear itself into sunset. “I’ve been out every day,” a friend told me in October, “since the first day of the riots.” With winter coming, we rediscovered fire, as if rewinding back to the first language-animals who lived when history had yet to happen. I remember in the image of riot the hyperadaptability of being.

Communism is a movement away from the state and toward each other. Everything that happens in the street is a lesson because it is a point of contact. Conversation and confrontation are a real education. Signs and wonders remain, the names of the dead graffitied on a building, broken windows like breathing holes in an airless world. The government does nothing worth anything for anyone, and on good days, it feels as if the state could just evaporate overnight. When the young people say, New York will breathe, or, Abolition now, they mean it—they go outside, and, for a few hours, they make an image of the present condition of freedom.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer based in New York.