Dear History Students

Photograph Source: Hungryogrephotos – CC0

Last (Wednesday) Night: Interstates Matter

Dear History Students:

Last night, around maybe 11 pm, I got to taste some especially nasty tear gas along with 500 or so people one-third my age (and less). This taste-test came courtesy of maybe 100 or so state and/or county police in full riot gear just south of I-80 on Dubuque St. in Iowa City. The police state drew the line at the Interstate, which is, after all, the “Main Street of America.”

The riot police continued to shoot off canisters and flash bombs even with a young Black man on the ground having a seizure (an ambulance got him out of there as tear gas swirled overhead).

I had attempted to have a conversation with the assembled riot police about race, class, mass incarceration, militarized policing, and democracy with them but they wouldn’t utter a single word. These cop guys (all male and white) are just no fun at parties :).

Their violence was unprovoked. There had been no violence from or by the protesters. Anyone who dares call it a riot needs to be clear: it was strictly a police riot.

“What’s with all the riot gear? We don’t see no riot here.”

Some “democracy.”

What did it (elicited repression) in this case was certainly the state cops’ determination to defend the Interstate at all cost.

Interstate traffic matters to the powers that be; Black lives, not so much.

But for the storm troopers blocking the marchers, this crowd would have easily halted and backed-up westbound I-80 as well as the eastbound side (as many of us did in November of 2016) and it would have been national news.

Hope for Change

These are dark times but hopeful ones too. The energy and courage of the new youthful activists is quite remarkable. I saw a young white woman walk straight up to the gendarmes and take a vicious pepper-spraying right into her face.

Young folks from coast to coast are becoming veteran street resisters. Iowa City, somewhat to my surprise, is no exception. The kids here ID’d medics, did good parade/march control, had excellent coordinated chants, watched out for each other, were masked up, passed out masks, passed out water, had lots of water on hand. It was very impressive and instructive.

This is history in the making.

Beyond Academic Pretense

You do not have to agree with the protesters’ values and/or tactics, of course. I obviously do and make zero apologies for that — I am a human being with values, a world view, and a politics with feelings and allegiances.

Academics’ common pretense of being above values, world view, politics, and “ideology” — of being dispassionate and purely “objective” Mandarins — is just that: pretense.

I am sensing (from whoever it is that keeps harassing me via the Dean of Students and the chair) the expectation for a “good professor” to be some kind of apolitical automaton, a value-free professional- -class cog living in a value-free dream world beyond feelings and commitments. That is absurd and, by the way, dystopian. It is a preposterous expectation, especially now. And it is foolish and cowardly for academics to play along with that expectation.

The best thing an academic can do is make their commitments and values reasonably evident so students can control for them if they feel the need to do so. If you are a professor who thinks corporation capitalism and global empire and militarized policing and racially disparate mass incarceration and savage class and racial inequality and patriarchy and ecocide are just fine and/or that people who rise up angrily and passionately against these oppression structures are misguided, perhaps even dangerous, fools, well, that’s your right Goddess knows, but at least be up front up about it.

Make your values and commitments known. But please do not pretend to be “above it all,” on some purely “objective” (a myth) perch.

Different Trajectories

These are fateful times. We are in a “fulcrum moment” (to steal a phrase from Truthout writer William Rivers-Pitt) that makes neutrality difficult (to say the least) and silence a form of complicity. We will move forward with struggles for democracy, social justice, economic equality, racial equality, gender equality, peace, de-militarization (of the federal government as well as the local police) or we will drift ever further into the nefarious clutches of 21st century Trumpian neofascism, ethno-nationalism, and arch-authoritarianism with a police state on our necks.

If you ask me, it’s socialism or fascism.

Petty Harassment

I repeat for the 20th time that values and world view are grade-neutral in this class. There is, I repeat, no grade penalty, none, for disagreeing with the instructor and/or his assigned authors. There is no grade boost, none, for agreeing with him and/or his assigned authors. Any assertion to the contrary is pure and simple misrepresentation.

The repeated claim that I am “unreachable” is false:; Also false is the claim that I have downgraded anybody for their political values. Please cease and desist from the harassment. I really would like to avoid having to spend more time on a computer filing a harassment charge in a time when remarkable and fateful events are underway in the United States and the world, demanding our serious and adult attention. So please stop.

We have real history to attend to right now as this quarter is ending in a moment of  (to be frank) national and global crisis.

New Writing Option

Here is an additional/new essay option for Part 1 of the Final Paper:

“Have you participated in any of the many protests that have followed the murder of the 46-year-old Black man George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 26, 2020? If so, briefly relate the events you participated in and then situate them within the history of earlier protest waves and social movements in the history of Midwestern Metropolis and the United States.  Mention at least three other such waves. What have these movements’ (including the current one) goals been? What sort of tactics have they used?  What responses have they elicited from the ‘forces of order’? How do you explain the rapid spread and intensity of the current ‘Say His Name’ uprising?”


Iowa City’s city hall and police department’s windows were boarded up behind big concrete blockades that still bore protest graffiti when I looked at 8 this morning – as if the peaceful protesters were going to attack the building. They have never posed the slightest threat of doing any such thing.

Early this morning, in downtown Iowa City, on the University of Iowa Campus, and all along the march route up to the Interstate, dozens of white city and university workers and white business owners were out dutifully whitewashing history with high pressure water hoses and sponges. They were erasing the graffiti that young Black (and some white) taggers had spray-painted and chalked on the city’s and campuses’ buildings, streets, and signs: “BLM,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Say His Name,” “ACAB,” “Brionna Taylor,” “F12,” “FTP,” “F*#k Trump,” “FAmerika,” and “Defund, Disarm, and Dismantle the Police State.”

The white whitewashers were working to toss visible signs of last night’s rebellion down George Orwell’s “memory hole” – the one I mentioned at the outset of this class in my opening (and sadly online) talk on “Why Study History?”

Postscript: A False Dichotomy

I see that has said you can do a Grade Freeze for the rest of this quarter. That’s pretty damn nice of them. If you can take your grade as it is and join a popular movement (perhaps you already have), that’s all for the good.  “Philosophers,” the young Marx wrote, “have sought to understand history; the point is to change it.”  That was an eloquent turn of phrase though it was plagued by a bit of a false dichotomy: (a) understanding history OR (b) changing history. It’s both. They go together, particularly when it comes to the matter of how and what direction you wish to change history.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).