The fury of the fatherless

Lacking family ties, Portland’s feral children have bonded since the 1980s in “street families,” complete with “street moms” and “street dads.” Some of the most grotesque crimes in the city’s history have ensued thanks to “laws” about “family” loyalty—including last year, when a group of three boys from such a “family” shot and killed a man as he was collecting cans, then took his car on a joyride. “Street families” are an especially toxic variant of the current voguish phrase, “chosen families.” Street families are like gangs: poor and desperate substitutes for the real thing, called into being by the absence of the real thing.

In the violent Neverland that is a part of downtown Portland, the lived connection between social breakdown and family breakdown has been inescapable since long before the death of George Floyd.

But the story of the long, hot summer of 2020 is much more complex than the subplot concerning missing dads. More and more Americans, especially young Americans, have suffered not one but several ruptured connections to authority and community simultaneously.

That fact explains why even the young who do come from intact homes are affected to some degree by the crisis of Western paternity. The institutions that once anchored teenagers and young adults in paternal authority are in free fall. Their concomitant collapses generate a social anxiety that is contagious. This dynamic renders the occasional spectacle of well-off protesters from unbroken homes smashing people’s property more intelligible than it appears at first. The saying “People, not property” inadvertently points to what ails young America most: a people deficit.