We are in a cytokine storm

Peaceful protest in Baltimore, 1 June 2020, photo by Julie Gabrielli

Americans are inflamed by conversations on social media, by divisive rhetoric from our so-called leaders. We are inflamed by the chaos and violence on our streets. We are inflamed by the injustice of systemic racism.

In the body, inflammation is a signal of imbalance in the immune system. When the inflammatory response flares out of control, it’s called a cytokine storm—a term we’ve learned in recent months with COVID-19. The body’s immune system attacks its own cells and tissues, rather than fighting the virus. It can be fatal.

The violent clashes between police, rioting agitators, and protestors are like a societal cytokine storm. This is a precarious, life-threatening situation.

To calm this excessive inflammation, we need real community. The immune response we need right now is to gather in peaceful protests. To listen, share stories, and care for our sisters and brothers. We need to raise our voices in support, to work together to tear down unjust systems of oppression. We can only do this in community.

Psychologists say that troubled people behave in consistent ways that match their emotions and histories. Even destructive behavior has an exquisite kind of logic when you look at the whole picture.

It’s the same at the scale of community. Trauma and oppression beget trauma and oppression. A recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast about the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland presents eerie parallels with the trouble in hundreds of American cities right now.

In 1970, the centuries-old tensions between Protestants and Catholics were exacerbated by the heavy-handed occupying force of British law enforcement. The soldiers were a blunt instrument trying to force historically oppressed people to behave.

The stories illustrate how wrong the British were in their approach. The commander assumed they could put down the conflict in a matter of days, and instead they were there for three decades. Year on year, the violence worsened. What started as a spark became a fire, then an inferno. How could they not see that their approach was not solving anything? Indeed, it was making everything much worse.

Centuries of abuse and oppression, treating people like second-class citizens (at best)—doesn’t that sound familiar? We have the same situation in American cities and towns. The othering is different: racism rather than religious intolerance. But the effects are similar, arguably worse. As Michelle Alexander demonstrated in “The New Jim Crow,” we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of it.

People need to eat. When they are poorly educated in sub-par schools with underfunded programs, they are less likely to advance into good jobs. When their homes are owned by absentee landlords bent on extracting as much wealth as possible, they spend a disproportionate amount of their earnings to keep a roof over their family’s heads. When fortunate folks are able to purchase a home, its location is restricted by racist public policies that guarantee stagnant value, thereby denying families the ability to build intergenerational wealth.

Trauma and despair can lead to logical but destructive behaviors, such as self-medication, which may lead to addiction, which may lead to petty crime and even violence. I doubt that many folks grow up aspiring to enter the drug culture, either as users or dealers. In any case, when authority and “the system” appear as an occupying force—much as the British did to the Irish in the ‘70s—blind obedience is not psychologically logical. The social contract is supposed to work both ways.

Freedom is baked into our national psyche. Our country was founded on the understanding that the thirst for freedom of body and of mind is fundamental to human nature. When you, your family, and your community are given every message for lifetimes and generations that you are not quite human, that you don’t matter, that the only way you DO matter is when you acquiesce and submit to those with power over you, that is the very opposite of freedom.

Gladwell’s point was that power must be granted by a people in order to be legitimate. It must be earned. The British didn’t earn their power over the Irish; they tried to assert it and they failed. In the same way, American systems of racist oppression are not experienced as legitimate in our communities of color. Why should they be? Far too many American communities experience our so-called free country as a police state.

6 thoughts on “We are in a cytokine storm

    • Or else, we are condemned to repeat it. . . which looks like what we’ve been doing for several decades now.

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