Street Protests in a Digital Age: A Talk with DJ Spooky
It should not have taken yet another scandalous murder of a Black person by a police officer, but this past week much of the country was suddenly shook to its senses about the racism embedded at the core of American society. Protests erupted in scores of cities after the world watched a white Minneapolis police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, killing him. Thousand of people have taken to the streets, demanding justice in the name of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless more Black people senselessly murdered by law enforcement. The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, though occasionally tinged with violence.
The protests skirted close to the apartment of Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, who posted photos of the aftermath on social media. After seeing those posts, I contacted Miller to hear his thoughts and reflections. Miller is one of our most original and insightful cultural observers, an influential artist, author and dedicated activist. Among his better known works are the large-scale multimedia performance, Rebirth of a Nation, which remixes the notorious silent film that glorified the KKK, and the award-winning book Rhythm Science (MIT Press). As a musician he has collaborated with Metallica, Chuck D, Steve Reich, and Yoko Ono, among many others.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
KJ: You live in lower Manhattan. What have you seen on the street during the protests?
Paul D. Miller: Yeah, I’ve been walking around. Personally, on a basic human safety note, I’m a big fan of giving people the respect of social space, social distance. I’m very concerned about the crowds gathering. That’s something that’s been worrisome for me because I want the left wing to stay healthy. I’m just hopeful that we’re not going to see a huge spike in corona after the protests.
My nickname for many of the issues that are facing us right now is bio-politics. The pandemic doesn’t care what your skin color is, or what your racial dynamic is, but it will hit you much harder if you are poor. We’re seeing this play out in terms of class at every level.
Your photos show the aftermath of violence near your apartment.
Oh yeah. There were stores smashed on Sixth Avenue. There were stores that had been boarded up on Fifth Avenue. A lot of small businesses were very fearful of the looting, which to me is the really critical issue. All the owners would probably be on the side of the people protesting, but by burning or causing problems or smashing the stores, that’s not going to convey any political ideology aside from just consumer looting.
At least some of the vandalism was done by white nationalists acting as provocateurs. There’s a long history of this.
Definitely. One thing that was heartwarming was that a lot of activists, if they saw someone doing violent stuff, they stopped it and they made sure to actually document the person. That happened in multiple cities. Usually it was a white person who started smashing stuff or was causing problems, and the people of color would intervene and say, “Hey, that’s not cool, stop.” So there are points of good happening. That also makes us realize that there’s a concerted effort by the right wing to discredit what’s happening.
Of course, when people talk about looting… the right wing and Trump have looted the economy in the last three years for trillions of dollars. So what is looting? Some guy runs in a store and snatches a pair of sunglasses versus snatching an entire economy. It’s just a difference of scale.
I wonder if one reason the protests have had such an impact is because, after 9 weeks in quarantine and living life through screens, suddenly physical bodies are out on the street raising their voices. It hits viscerally.
There’s been plenty of times when a change in history has been advocated for by marching in the streets. But I do think we’re at a crossroads. I don’t know if physical protesting does anything anymore. People need to be aware that the governance of a digital society is going to be through digital means.
You’re seeing pent up emotions. Street protest relieves depression. You’re seeing people who despair they have no access to economic advancement. Then on the other hand, you have a tightly scripted right wing narrative. They want a new civil war. Violence and disruption.
Look at someone like Steve Bannon, his whole idea is right wing American nationalism. There’s a big difference between patriotism and nationalism. I view the protestors as patriots. They actually care about the American notion of a multicultural society that’s democratic at its core. Whereas the right wing has an ideology that strips people of history, of frames of reference. They want to increase the tension, increase the fracture points.
The tools to solve this problem are there in plain sight. It’s just engagement, truth and reconciliation, and economics. Things like a universal basic income, access to universal medical care. Those are the pressure valves. The tools are there. It’s not like they’re hard to see.
There are certainly policies that can soften the crisis. But what is the guiding vision for a politics that can lead us out of this difficult moment? You’re a meditator and in the psychedelic community. I wonder if you see ways these practices can be part of the process of change?
We need to think about the end of capitalism. Burning Man and psychedelic culture activate different approaches to thinking about the realm of what is possible. Most people can’t think of a world outside of capitalism. They really can’t.
What is it about Burning Man that contributed to that insight?
Possibilities, potentialities, rethinking what is available for a near future narrative. Right now we’re in a moment where most people are bringing a 19th and 20th century ideological framework to a 21st century data driven society that has nothing to do with when those ideologies arose. I mean, it’s like you’re comparing a Tesla to a horse and buggy.
How do we give ourselves new myths? Burning Man is a myth making machine. People leave there with new ideologies, new approaches to thinking. It’s where the creative class goes to hit the reset button. Ancient Greece had the Orphic mysteries, in different eras people left their homes for some sort of right of passage. That’s Burning Man. Only the very wealthy can go to these things, by the way. Similarly, there’s a huge class issue.
It’s time to put new ideologies in place with the software of our culture. The eerie thing is, everything can change. I feel that’s what this microorganism is about, which has brought the entire economic system to a grinding halt. It’s incredible that a microorganism can actually stop capitalism much more effectively than any ideology. It shows you the power of biology in all of this.
I like that phrase: the power of biology.
Right now biology is showing us that nature is no joke. Think about the human arrogance of being able to say, “Hey, we run this.” Even if humans are putting plastic in the ocean or dumping carbon into the atmosphere, nature can shrug us off like a flea on the back of a dog. So this microorganism actually is a valuable warning call. It brings a moment for reflection, to decelerate and take the time to reflect. I mean, it could have been a lot worse. I’m actually glad, because covid-19 is a mild form of what could have been. Viruses can be much more punishing, leading to a loss of biodiversity, even mass extinction. So this microorganism is one of the milder forms of what could have happened.
Our politics tends to overlook biology, and instead regards nature only as a resource to be exploited.
Skin is a function of both ideology and biology, but scientifically speaking, most of us are just .001% genetically apart from one another. Many scientists have shown that skin color is a negligible part of your identity, scientifically speaking.
But thanks to cultural programming, many people still see the skin color of another person and jump to conclusions about who they are and what they are capable of.
This is the challenge we’re dealing with, whether or not someone is even considered human. Whether somebody is a person, or an object for putting your knee on their neck.
And that’s where you get dehumanization. The eeriest thing about capitalism and dehumanization is that African-Americans were never considered human in the first place. You’re three-fifths of a human being, even in the Constitution.
Creating a post-capitalist situation means reconstructing human identity from the ground up. We’ve had two or three centuries now of capitalism defining the human subject and human initiative. We’re now in a post-human, post-capitalist, digital and data-driven economy. Digital capitalism is a whole different vibe than physical goods. It’s a whole different thing.
This is where the consciousness practices can come in. They help us to redefine ourselves by sharpening our attentiveness so we notice what’s actually happening to us in the present moment.
What is the next normal? That next normal has to rethink scarcity, rethink so many issues that fueled the 19th and 20th century’s revolutions and pre-digital unrest. If you look at the revolutions of 1848 or political strikes of 1968, they have more in common with each other than they do with what’s going on right now. They didn’t have Facebook. They didn’t have Instagram. They didn’t have hashtag revolution. So how do we update people’s ideology? In 1848 you gathered in some street barricades and you throw bottles and rocks at the cops. In 1968 they did the same thing.
Why in 2020 are protestors doing the same thing? I don’t think that we can do the same thing anymore. It’s got to be more than just chanting in the street, something that reflects the change in both ideological and economic problems of our time.
These are provocations I want to put out there. I don’t have a solution at the moment. This microorganism brought everything to a halt for the last nine weeks. But nine weeks isn’t much time to create a new ideology. That would be pretty rapid prototyping. There we go. You can call this article rapid prototyping in the 21st century.
The options for change are right in front of us. We just have to develop the ideology that gives us better tools for critical thinking about what tools to use. The solutions are out there. There’s nothing that we cannot pick from our own archives to choose to change. The problem is that the archives and the ideology of the 20th century are obsolete and empty. Trump is like the zombie hand of the 20th century, grabbing your ankle as it falls over a cliff. It’s trying to pull you down with it.