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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What I Learned When I Almost Died in the 2020 Riots

My viral turn as a Floyd riot victim is in the receding past, but choice behind it is still very much in the here and now.

Floyd Riots in Philadelpia
Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The summer of 2020 is not one most of us are eager to remember. 2020, in general, is a year I suspect we are mostly keen to forget: an annus horribilis, a year of woe, marked by sickness, violence, strife, and discord. In the boiling heat of that summer four years ago chaos and bloodshed erupted in the streets of the nation. It should not be surprising if it is a year, and a summer, that many wish left in the past.

Yet we must not forget. That summer still lingers. We face another presidential election with the exact same candidates, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, that we had to choose between four years ago. Many of the same tensions, the fault lines between states and factions that split open in 2020, remain with us. Wounds opened four years ago that have not closed, and many people in both parties have no interest in closing them—they have been to the benefit of this or that faction in the United States and around the world.

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I suppose my perspective on that summer is colored by being one of its principal characters. I did not guess that I would become the center of the media universe that night at the end of May, when I went out armed to defend my neighborhood. My thoughts were on trying to do what was right. I was especially concerned with local businesses in my neighborhood, including, infamously, a local bar and restaurant where I had become great friends with most of the waitstaff and servers. 

Businesses had just begun to open up again in Texas at that time, after more than two months of lockdown. Employees of many of these bars and restaurants were just starting to be rehired after weeks of uncertain economic prospects. I remember, at the time, worrying what would happen if the damage that had been done on prior nights in other parts of Dallas spread to my neighborhood. Would the people I had grown to care for be forced out of work? Would the places I had grown an affection for be destroyed, never to be rebuilt?

It is easy to say these fears are foolish with the benefit of hindsight. But much was uncertain in spring of 2020. There was a kind of fear gripping everything and everyone, a worry that things would come undone for good. The riots exacerbated that worry—a worry that is still with us.

It’s funny to still occasionally see that video of me, in my white pants and green shirt, with my machete, pop up here and there on social media. Many people will wonder if the person in that video died. Of course, I did not; the report of my death was exaggerated. But I am not the same person I was before that night, and I suppose that is a good thing. 

In particular I faced a test of my own bravery that night, and, though it came at a cost, it was a test I passed, and that alone has been an enormous development in the course of my life. It is a matter of great significance for a man to know in his heart of hearts that he is not a coward. So I know now.

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And so, perhaps, I look back on 2020, and then at our own time. The wounds of that year still fester. There is a political choice before us now that is identical to the choice we faced four years ago. In that regard, 2024 is the same as 2020.

But it is different in many other ways. The plans of the enemy are both more and less advanced than they were four years ago; more, because they have had more time to act, and less, because they have been hindered more than they seem to have expected. The wounds that opened in 2020 have suppurated, and have become unclosable divides among the peoples and even the elites of the United States and the modern West. 

A time for a great decision is coming. On that night at the end of May in 2020, as I weighed whether to go out armed into the night, I reflected on the damage done by rioters days earlier in my own city, and in other cities around the country. I reflected that there seemed to be little response from law enforcement, amid all that chaos and destruction.

So I found myself asking: What will happen if I do nothing? If I don’t act, who will?

Now, as this year and what follows from it seem to present us with the prospect of great and dangerous choices, I believe everyone who has read this essay should ask themselves: What are you prepared to do? How will you act?