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Normal for Whom?

As restaurants reopen during the pandemic with cautious promises of a “new normal,” ongoing protests show that “normal” was never good enough

Groups made of mostly students marched through Hollywood Tuesday afternoon to protest the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis last week. The group gathered at the intersection of Hollywood Blvd and Vine Street for a peaceful demonstration Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Over the weekend, a photo of a group drinking beer while a protest against police brutality streamed by went viral when writer and comedian Ziwe Fumudoh tweeted, “there are two americas: one fights for black lives and the other fights for brunch.” Shot by Nick Swartsell for City Beat in Cincinnati, the photo depicts eight young white people seated around a cafe table as a large, multiracial crowd marches past in the street. Fat orange traffic barriers bisect the frame, separating the beer drinkers from the street, even as they literally sit within it. Most of the beer drinkers ignore the protest; one man in a red cap watches with his shoulders a little hunched. Only a few marchers spare a glance at the drinkers; many stare straight ahead, confident and united, fists in the air.

I’ve been thinking about that photo, and the many layers of meaning Fumudoh’s caption invokes, starting with a popular sign that appeared at the Women’s March and other early 2017 protests: “If Hillary Had Won, We’d All Be at Brunch Right Now.” Activists pointed out that the cutesy message was actually an admission that the brave brunch-skippers hadn’t seen much of a problem with America’s brutal inequalities before the 2016 election, and likely wouldn’t show up to a protest organized by, say, Black Lives Matter. They’d go back to brunch. This photo seems to provide the proof: carefree white people in the foreground (complete with craft beer) enjoying the sunshine as the street convulses with protests against one of America’s most fundamental sins: state violence toward black people.

Because of the pandemic, these two groups are twinned: The pleasure seekers and the justice seekers both must take to the streets. The beer drinkers risk exposing each other to the virus for a pleasant afternoon, while the protesters take the risk to fight against another epidemic: police brutality. The protesters wear masks; the beer drinkers do not. Maskless and entirely white, the drinkers recall the maskless, white, armed protesters who demonstrated against lockdown measures just weeks earlier. Those protesters were met with toleration and civility; the protesters streaking past in the photo will be met with tear gas, police violence, and arrest.

The wild upheavals and staggering loss of life since March have given rise to two opposing mass longings: for life to return to how things were, and for this moment to spark revolutionary change. Neither of these inchoate desires are new — arguably, they were the two animating forces in the Democratic presidential primary — but like every other fracture in American life, they have been splintered and refracted by COVID-19. As these desires collide, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently, Americans await the dawning of an era embodied in the persistent pandemic cliche: “the New Normal.”

In Los Angeles, where I live, the past weekend was supposed to embody the city leaders’ vision for a “New Normal” — heavy on the normal. Restaurants were given the go-ahead to start serving in their dining rooms with a surprise announcement on Friday, stating that they could reopen that same day. Los Angeles remains the heart of California’s COVID-19 outbreak; the reopening was a gamble. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said, “We’re all really hungering for some return to normalcy, I want to just note that the new normal that you’re going to see reflected in the businesses reflects the fact that COVID-19 is still very active in our communities and there’s a great deal at stake in the reopening.”

But for many Americans, normal is unbearable, and a New Normal promising more of the same was unacceptable. Since George Floyd’s death in the custody of the Minneapolis police, protests and uprisings have taken place across the country and in Los Angeles, from downtown to Fairfax to Santa Monica to Long Beach. Los Angeles is opting to reopen as COVID-19 infections are spiking in black and brown communities and falling in white ones, and where unemployment, concentrated in the city’s black and brown working class, is at least 24 percent. The Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter is the original; for years, its members have been demanding accountability from the city for failing to prosecute a single police officer for killing a civilian. The protests and actions they’ve organized are deliberately set against normal: They have been organized in the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in Los Angeles, to force those residents to engage with their complicity in police violence. They are calling for revolution.

But normal — where normal means status quo, unchallenged hierarchy, familiar violence — keeps raising its awful head. Large, peaceful protests are met with militarized police presence; protesters allege the police initiated the violence, and people whose businesses were looted allege the police ignored them in favor of the peaceful protesters. As ever-more-draconian curfews came down across the city with little warning, restaurants rushed to shut their doors and workers were trapped by transit shutdowns. Other restaurants were damaged in the uprisings and looting. While restaurant owners, bleeding cash and reeling from months of closure, may not all recover, to focus on their plight sounds more like fighting for brunch than for black lives. The question weighs heavier than ever: Who are we reopening for?

People did go out in Los Angeles this weekend; an Irish pub near my house threw open its patio, which was packed with largely white patrons on the same afternoon when, five miles away, the police tear-gassed protesters. Is this the New Normal? In this light, the phrase tells on itself — it would rather be at brunch. Enough with Normal. Bring on the New.

Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent