It had a special symmetry. 2020. The configuration conveyed order and balance, almost a harmony of sorts. Twenty on your side of the ledger, twenty on mine. In a society that bats around phrases like equal justice — never mind what the reality might always have been — its rhythm felt like a homecoming. The conclusion of a quest. All of our questions about this confusing era resolved in four resolute characters.
Now, instead, 2020 feels like a time of reckoning.
If the millennial milestone year 2000 came upon us shrouded in superstitious uncertainty — would satellites fall from the sky? Would automated sentry systems, confused by these four foreign digits, lock-shut bank vaults and activate nuclear arsenals? — then 2020 was the opposite. A new century’s aughts and teens are for adjustment; its twenties are when a century truly begins in earnest.
Remember Bakersfield's Vision 2020 project, undertaken 20 years ago? This year was to be the finish line, the landing spot for all of our civic aspirations.
Almost exactly halfway into this auspicious year, however, 2020 hindsight reveals something very different.
Civilization moves with a cadence, as evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin might have put it when, a decade ago, he predicted 2020 would be a time of seismic change. The “causes of rebellions and revolutions are in many ways similar to processes that cause earthquakes or forest fires,” he wrote earlier this month. “In both revolutions and earthquakes ... (the causes tend to be) ‘pressures’ or structural conditions which build up slowly.”
And our tinderbox was full.
The first evidence was Jan. 3, with the first strike of World War III. That’s what the collective voice of Twitter seemed to see in President Donald Trump's directive to kill a notorious Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, with a pinpoint missile strike in Baghdad.
But of course we’d experienced shock and awe before. Nothing all that unusual to see here.
On Jan. 14, the seventh Democratic presidential debate was held in Des Moines, Iowa, with six candidates — down from 25 just a few weeks earlier. Bernie Sanders, the front-runner, was said to have fared well.
Two days later, the simmering controversy that had dominated the latter weeks of 2019 began its final act: Trump’s impeachment trial began in the U.S. Senate. No small historical footnote, these impeachment trials. This was only the third in U.S. history.
The trial was not yet a week old when, on Jan. 21, the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Jan. 26, former basketball star Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash and the world reeled.
Trump delivered his third State of the Union address on Feb. 4, was acquitted in his impeachment trial Feb. 5, and on Feb. 27 — the same day the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 1,191 points, at that point its largest one-day decline in history — declared that the coronavirus would eventually disappear like “a miracle.”
Then, ignition: a succession of homicides involving Black victims. On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging in Glynn County, Ga., by two white men who said they took him for a burglar.
On March 13, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, was shot eight times in her own apartment by plainclothes Louisville, Ky., police officers executing a no-knock warrant in the dead of night. It was a narcotics investigation, but no drugs were found.
Then, the decisive spasm: On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was videotaped kneeling — for eight minutes and 46 seconds — on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd. Floyd died as three other officers watched and a small crowd begged them to intervene.
Video of the incident went viral and protests erupted, first in Minneapolis then, by week’s end, practically everywhere else. That included Bakersfield, where a new city manager and new police chief were introduced in the last lull before the world burst figuratively into flames. Black lives mattered like never before and they, like civic leaders all across America, Black and white, would have to negotiate it.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus, after appearing to stall ever so slightly, regained momentum, forcing areas that had opened sectors of their economies, or hardly closed them in the first place, to pull back. Among them, just this week: Texas and Florida, governed by two champions of Americans’ rights to do as they please.
Now, as 2020 approaches its halfway point — yes, we’re just halfway through this ordeal, if we accept the calendar as a measuring tool — the nation faces daily protests about its past and present attitudes about race. Simultaneously, we see ongoing skirmishes over the realities of this pandemic. No shoes, no shirt, no masks, no service. Such a horrible imposition, those masks.
Oh yes: a looming national election that looks increasingly like a referendum on the American character.
2020 is starting to feel like a mix of 1968, when war and assassination roiled the nation, and the Great Depression of 1929, which took a world war to defeat. Throw in some 1918 Spanish flu. We might even compare 2020 with 1860, when the man who would free the slaves faced off against a candidate who would keep them shackled. Abraham Lincoln defeated John C. Breckinridge (among others) that year, but the matter wasn’t decided for another five years — if, indeed, some would argue, it ever was.
Much has happened already in 2020 that, in any other time, would seem remarkable.
Amazon opened the first completely cashierless grocery store in the country, in Seattle.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Council gave a California robotics company permission to deploy 5,000 driverless delivery vehicles.
Cancer rates saw the largest single-year decline in the nation’s history.
The U.S. began a conditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, portending a possible end to the longest war in American history.
The Space Force — the first new branch of the U.S. military since the Air Force was created in 1947 — launched its first satellite.
The Pentagon officially released videos of "unidentified aerial phenomena" — apparently confirming what agents Mulder and Scully had been telling us all along: UFOs have at last been identified, and they are not ours.
But those stories have been reduced to blips on our collective radar in this era of new, unforeseeable, unprecedented change. 2020 is one for the ages.
And we’re only halfway there.
One hundred eighty days down, 186 to go. These next six months ought to be doozies. Still to come:
July 4: Independence Day, but for whom?
Aug. 17-20: The Democratic National Convention, set for Milwaukee.
Aug. 24-27: The Republican National Convention, originally set for Charlotte, N.C., but moved this month to Jacksonville, Fla.
Roll the footage from Chicago 1968. Bet on civil disturbances at the physical conventions, such as they may be, and digital disturbances at the virtual ones.
Oct. 12: Columbus Day, in decline for nearly 30 years and losing ground fast to Indigenous Peoples Day. Expect that to accelerate.
Nov. 3-4: Election Day, and Day-After-Election Day, surely like no others before.
Nov. 26: Thanksgiving, and not a day too soon.
2020: 180 days down, 186 to go.