On January 3rd, 1993, the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine debuted. Now, 31 years later, another significant date approaches. According to DS9 season 3’s “Past Tense” Parts 1 & 2, a watershed moment transpires nine months from now, on September 3rd, 2024: the Bell Riots.

If you’ve hung around Trek circles at all, you’ve probably heard about 2024 being the year of the Bell Riots. There’s a reverent, almost prayerful optimism when they’re spoken about, but what are they, why do they have such a hold on the imagination of Trek fans, and would they even accomplish any part of what earned them that reverence and hold?

Let’s hit the easiest one first, what the Bell Riots are. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes “Past Tense” parts 1 and 2, three members of the crew are transported back in time to 2024: Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig), and Jadzia Dax (Terry Ferrell). The two men, notably both men of color, are found on the street and assumed to be homeless and looking for handouts. The slang term for people like this is “Gimmies.” As Gimmies they’re hauled into a ‘sanctuary city,’ which is the pretty term for an open-air prison where they can be homeless out of sight and out of mind of the rest of the city. There’s lists for assistance but they’re backed up, there’s job programs but those lists are years long, there’s food, but it’s not enough to the point that people fight and kill for it, and the place is overcrowded. 

When Bashir and Sisko line up for food they’re attacked, and Gabriel Bell (John Lendale Bennett), a Black man, is killed trying to defend them. Unfortunately, Gabriel Bell was meant to die later, so Sisko takes on his identity. He turns a tricky hostage situation into an opportunity to speak to the people outside the sanctuary city about what’s really going on in there, and put names and faces to the previously waved-off Gimmies. He makes them human, when the homeless had been stripped of humanity in the eyes of society. Sisko fakes that Bell dies when the hostage situation is broken up, they use the real Bell’s corpse, and they get rescued and go back home. The riots that come from the hostage situation and raised awareness of the circumstances transform the USA into a place that’s more compassionate, and help set the stage for the founding of Starfleet and Trek’s optimistic future.

Why the Bell Riots hold such power seems pretty obvious from that. Who doesn’t want (most of) the future that’s shown in Star Trek? Granted, it still suffers from horrendous amounts of ableism, but that’s a topic for another essay. In general, the world is better off, and specifically after the Bell Riots there’s an outpouring of compassion and pure hopeful humanity that’s inspiring.

Today, we can walk into any metro area and see how dehumanized and abandoned the homeless in our world are, and we can see in the news that various cities are angling to make things along the lines of sanctuary cities. New York wants anyone who even appears mentally ill to be removed. Homeless people are rounded up before large sporting events and taken away from the areas that have the greater amount of resources to offer them – downtowns. Portland is creating homeless ‘enclosures’ at great cost that strip the homeless of any sort of dignity or respite. There’s long been talk about making camps to send homeless people to that are out of the way. Any talk of creating more affordable housing is attacked by NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard people) who of course want the homeless housed, but not anywhere near where they might walk, work, live, or see. Look in the comments of any article or reddit post about people struggling to stay housed or find jobs and you’ll see humanity at its worst.

Of course we want to think it can be fixed. And of course we want to think it’s as easy as one Black man thinking on his feet, changing up a dangerous situation, putting a face to people, and then dying for us. It’s dramatic. It’s an external force that doesn’t require us getting up and helping until after someone else has gotten things started. The Bell Riots don’t even require us to take an unpopular stand, because we can jump in once the momentum’s already going.

This is incredibly uncharitable. I know that not everyone talking about the Bell Riots is sitting back and doing nothing. There are plenty of advocates for the homeless and people who care and give what they can, be it assistance or money. There are also many who just aren’t thinking very deeply about everything the Riots encompass. They recall Sisko saving the day and the world being improved. It’s nice, especially in a time when there’s so much that’s going so clearly and rapidly downhill, to think of something instead being fixed. We live in incredibly interesting and uncertain times. It sucks. Escapism is a wonderful tool to deal with the stress of reality. It’s fine for people to be swept up in the romantic idea of one riot turning all of the chaos around on one front and making life better for around 600,000 people.

We can leave it there. You can stop reading and walk away now, before I get to the third question. You might even want to, because it’s a doozy.

If you’re still here, then congrats and here goes. Would the Bell Riots even accomplish anything? I don’t think they would at this point in time. I think they would need to be a part of something greater, a coordinated effort on a lot of fronts, and it’s the summer of 2020 (the George Floyd protests) along with the protest against Cop City in Atlanta that lead me to that conclusion. 

Despite massive protests after the murder of George Floyd, things haven’t changed for the better. Police departments are more massively overfunded than ever, police oversight exists in name only where it even does that, cops are still kneeling on peoples’ necks, Black men are being disproportionately murdered by cops, and a whole lot of gullible, scared, and willfully ignorant people believe several cities were burned down entirely that summer. In Atlanta a peaceful protester was murdered by the cops, and there won’t be justice. What’s come of this are more and more laws being passed restricting and punishing protests, and attaching severe penalties to practicing one’s first-amendment-granted rights.

Now of course change doesn’t happen with one event. While we remember the turning points in a lot of times in history, there’s a lot that came before it. The Stonewall Riots didn’t magically coalesce out of nowhere, Rosa Parks wasn’t the first Black woman to refuse to give up her seat, and the Boston Tea Party was not as significant in itself as elementary school may have taught you. Things requiring many many failed pushes and efforts before one effort makes a change for the better is one of the two most constant patterns in history, along with history repeating because nobody gives a care about learning from it. The problem is that you never know how much worse something can get before it gives until it gives and change is forced to happen.. 

The Bell Riots aren’t supposed to happen until September. Maybe by then we’ll have reached the peak of how much strain we can take in the housing market; maybe enough people will be uncomfortable enough with the situation to act. A heck of a lot can happen in eight months. A heck of a lot can happen in a single day. I can’t say for sure that if there’s a riot against caging up the homeless in September that it won’t effect change. 

The cynical side of me, the part that recalls well how I spent a couple of months homeless last year and as a disabled person am always aware of how close that danger is, doesn’t think enough people care. Both the disabled and the homeless are disposable to too many people, and many homeless people are also disabled. 

Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) and Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks) at a Sanctuary processing center in San Francisco, 2024. They are both wearing 21st century clothing. Sisko holds a rifle. From Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Past Tense."But there’s a small part of me that wants to believe. There are so many problems facing us as a people, as a world, as a nation. I want to think that maybe this is the year we make some progress, because oh boy was 2023 a year of losing ground. I want to be a part of turning things around. I want people to see that other people are also human, and thus intrinsically have value. I can’t quite bring myself to think that we’re ready, not when multiple genocides are currently ongoing and the USA is even helping finance the one against Palestinians, but at some moment we have to reach a breaking point and say enough is enough.

Maybe this is the year we’ll have a riot that changes the attitude of dehumanization. Please prove my cynical side wrong, world. Let’s take a stand. We can even call it the Bell Riots if there’s no Gabriel Bell involved at all. 

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  1. Demonize, Marginalize, Criminalize, Monetize, Profitize.
    A means for maximizing the employment of people in the Criminal Justice System and making profit for their friends.
    A lot of people promoting ‘Criminalization’ as a solution to all the worlds problems.
    Just make it illegal and the problem will go away. It will not, but it will employ a lot of people.
    In most cases it will not help, but a lot of lawyers will have jobs. A lot of money will be spent on things that are not effective. The lawyers are very friendly with the politicians and there campaign committees.

    Policing is always the ‘AFTER’ force.
    The problem with Policing is that you can not in the real world travel in time. They arrive after something has happened, after the 911 call, after you find the body.
    Most people would prefer prevention than prosecution, The President has the Secret Service to protect him NOT the Dept of Justice. They want to be alive, NOT have a nice trial for their killer.

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