At the beginning of May 2020, hunger riots erupted in Santiago, Chile. Lockdowns had deprived men and women of their incomes to the point of near starvation. A large movement of self-organized community kitchens soon spread across the country. Later in the month, riots spread through Mexico in response to the police murder of Giovanni López — a construction worker who had been arrested for not wearing a mask — while thousands of despairing migrant workers broke the curfew in India. Some Amazon warehouse workers in the US and Germany had begun to strike in protest at poor COVID-19 safety protocols. (1) Yet these stirrings of workers’ struggle in the world’s largest retailer were quickly drowned out, at the end of May, by a mass movement of unprecedented size that swept across the US in revulsion at the live-streamed police murder of George Floyd. Largely initiated by black residents of Minneapolis, the uprising was quickly joined by Americans from every place, race and class. In the first riots and demos one could even spot a few supportive militiamen in a Querfront worthy of the age of QAnon. (2)
“The working class in every country lives its own life, makes its own experiences, seeking always to create forms and realize values which originate directly from its organic opposition to official society.”
—CLR James, Grace Lee Boggs, and Cornelius Castoriadis, “Facing Reality”
1. The George Floyd Rebellion was a Black led multi-racial rebellion. This rebellion cannot be sociologically categorized as exclusively a Black rebellion. Rebels from all racialized groups fought the police, looted and burned property. This included Indigenous people, Latinx people, Asian people, and white people.
2. This uprising was not caused by outside agitators. Initial arrest data shows that most people were from the immediate areas of the rebellions. If there were people driving in from the ‘suburbs,’ this only reveals the sprawling geography of the American metropolis.
3. While many activists and organizers participated, the reality is that this rebellion was not organized by the small revolutionary left, neither by the so-called progressive NGOs. The rebellion was informal and organic, originating directly from working class black people’s frustration with bourgeois society, particularly the police.
4. Not only was the police-state caught off-guard by the scope and intensity of the rebellion, but civil society also hesitated and wavered in the face of this popular revolt, which quickly spread to every corner of the country and left the police afraid and in disarray.
by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (New Yorker, June 8, 2020)
The national uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man, by four Minneapolis police officers, has been met with shock, elation, concern, fear, and gestures of solidarity. Its sheer scale has been surprising. Across the United States, in cities large and small, streets have filled with young, multiracial crowds who have had enough. In the largest uprisings since the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, anger and bitterness at racist and unrestrained police violence, abuse, and even murder have finally spilled over in every corner of the United States.
Today’s politics of identity — the epoch of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and privilege-checking — was already the subject of debate in a 1964 exchange between Amiri Baraka, then still known as LeRoi Jones, and Philip Roth. It began with Roth’s negative review of Jones’s The Dutchman, along with James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, in TheNew York Review of Books. The Dutchman had presented a theatrical allegory of the failures of liberal integrationism, and the seductive treachery of the white world. Roth’s dismissive review displays no real understanding of the political critique at work in the play; nevertheless, the line that became the real point of contention contains a kernel of insight. This was Roth’s speculation that Baraka, then Jones, wrote The Dutchman for a white audience, “not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred.” Jones retorted in a vicious letter that, “The main rot in the minds of ‘academic’ liberals like yourself, is that you take your own distortion of the world to be somehow more profound than the cracker’s.”
Roth’s The Human Stain, written during the reign of our first “first black president” (you have to wonder if Toni Morrison regrets saying that), illuminates the distance between 1964 and 2016. Here Roth presents a biography that moves from the personal costs of segregation to the contradictions of liberal multiculturalism. Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black professor of classics — like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which provoked the trigger warning debate at Columbia — spends a lifetime passing for white. Yet in ’90s America it is not the black identity which destroys his life and reputation, but the somehow ontologically irrefutable accusation of anti-black racism.
In the last two weeks, we first saw violent clashes with fascists and white nationalists which rocked the west coast and shut down an attempted rally by the Traditionalist Worker Party, and now we are seeing sustained activity against the police. Helping kick things off has been two extremely high-profile police shootings of African-American men that went viral in less than 24 hours. The first was that of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the second is that of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Despite these cases receiving the most press and outrage due to their videos being shared across the internet, in the week before and after both shootings (which occurred only a day apart from each other), 28 people were also killed by police in the short month of July. Currently, over 580 people have been killed by law enforcement officers in 2016, averaging over 3 people per day.
As news and anger over the shootings has spread, organic and self-organized protests, rebellions, freeway shutdowns, and violent confrontations with the police has also begun to grow, starting in Louisiana and then growing to cities in Minnesota, California, New York, Colorado, Alabama and everywhere else. It seems that the eruptions, riots, and blockades of the summer and fall of December 2014, following the Ferguson Insurrection and the wave of indignation and mobilization that spread after Darren Wilson was found not guilty as were the police that killed Eric Garner in New York, has not been forgotten. More people are joining the fight and the protests and demonstrations are continuing. Also, the rhythm and time between eruptions is growing less and less apart and there is a remembrance and building of confidence around disruptive tactics. Despite this positive aspect of the last week, still a sea of politicians lie in waiting ready to put a wet blanket on the fires of revolt.
This latest round of outrage is marked by the fact that the “Democratic Socialist” candidate, Bernie Sanders has now officially dropped out of the race and backed Hillary Clinton, leading to a massive backlash and disappointment with the entire political circus. It is a good thing that many people aren’t hoping for a candidate to represent them; we can only hope that instead we put faith and hope in ourselves to change our conditions and build revolutionary alternatives. Interestingly enough, with all of these events taking place so close to election time, this cycle of struggle hasn’t (yet) been sucked back into the political sphere or subsumed by the Democratic Party. Let’s help it to stay that way.
Moreover, this round of demonstrations has taken place alongside a chorus of violent attacks on police (as well as widespread vandalism) which have occurred throughout the United States, including a deadly shooting by a former military man in Dallas, Texas. Despite the media and police waging a counter-insurgency campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement (which is overall an attack on anyone that acts or is critical of white supremacy and the police in the US), this wave of action shows no sign of slowing down. In short, in-spite of the media and everyone in power telling people its time to go home, people aren’t listening.
At the same time, we’re also seeing more and more far-Right groups coming out to the demonstrations in an attempt to support the police: ranging from Neo-Nazis, armed Trump supporters, to militia types. Again, the “threat” of black insurgency is driving many of the Right to organize themselves to protect the established social order. The government in some instances is also using this moment to push back on some of the “gains” made by the BLM movement in the last two years; for instance in North Carolina police now do not have to share footage from their body cameras with the public.
Lastly, some Black Lives Matter groups continue to pull an anti-anarchist line, and use language such as “white outsiders” which parrots the statements of police as a way of breaking the fighting spirit of those involved in demonstrations, especially those that would use force to defend themselves. “Leaders” within the movement also continue to act as a means to destabilize any attempt to generalize the revolt. For instance in Atlanta, BLM protest leaders met with police and city officials and agreed to a “cooling off period,” in exchange for a public forum with the police on relations with the community. In short, “protest leaders” and police worked together against the protests, ending them before they continued to become even more disruptive. We need to think critically about this reality and push back against liberal and managerial elements which seek to defang resistance movements while at the same time building relationships with the base of those that make up these social struggles.
We also have to think about the fact that some within the Left are now talking about physically abolishing the police along with mass incarceration and prisons. While its great that these staples are now being taken seriously by some, we also have to remind people that this is only going to happen when people take control over territory, land, and communities in a revolutionary struggle with the established order. We can’t abolish the foot soldiers of white supremacy and capitalism while leaving this systems intact. Moreover, there has to be a conversation about what are we doing and why? Are we taking action as part of a revolutionary push to change the world and destroy a system of power, or are we simply trying to get the attention of the media, the police, or the government to create small changes?
Through the late eighties and the early nineties, liberals on college campuses often spoke of “multiculturalism”: a reform of the curriculum to reflect the many traditions of the world. As the doctrine gained adherents, though, it was criticized by the academic left—not least, by many nonwhite scholars—who worried that it made a luxury commodity of otherness.
Marc Blecher, an Oberlin professor of politics, had problems with the program at the time, in part, he said, because thinking in terms of cultural identities often leaves out a critical factor: class. He believes the problem goes back to the early days of boomer politics, which he experienced as an activist at Cornell, in the sixties. “When we opposed the Vietnam War, we didn’t take seriously that all the draft dodging we were doing was screwing black people and poor people and forcing them to go fight,” Blecher said one afternoon, in his office. He had a gray beard and a somewhat stark, feral intensity; as he spoke, he put one leg, but not the other, on his desk.
In time, the sixties gave rise to more identity-bounded movements: Black Power, second-wave feminism, gay liberation. Class was seldom fully in the mix, except, maybe, in a generalized Marxist way. Blecher suggests that this is how we ended up with market-friendly multiculturalism and, in universities, an almost consumerist conception of identity politics.
Identity politics used to be obligate: I am a woman of color, because the world sees me as such. Now there is an elective element: I identify as X and Y and Z right now. That can distract from the overriding class privilege of élite education. “Intersectionality is taken as a kind of gospel around here,” Blecher complained. For this he put a lot of the blame on Comparative American Studies, an influential program among Oberlin activists.
Up until the crisis of 2008, racial inequality in the United States was showing signs of improvement. Poverty and unemployment among blacks had fallen sharply in the 1990s, and the wages of black and white workers had begun to converge. These improvements were stopped short by the recession of the early 2000s, but thereafter a boom in subprime lending led to a significant reduction in the wealth gap between black and white households. The popping of the housing bubble threw all these measures into reverse. While most Americans suffered, black Americans were particularly badly affected. In the eight years since the crisis, racial disparities in wealth, poverty, and unemployment returned to or exceeded their pre-1990s levels. It should thus come as no surprise that riots have also made a comeback in recent years.
The triggers were a series of police killings of young black men: Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray. Such events have not become more frequent. Rather, an already existing reign of police terror was the American state’s only means of managing a rapidly deteriorating set of conditions in poor black neighborhoods. Ferguson was a revolt not only against the police, but also against a society which has nothing but police to offer.1
When black proletarians riot, white Americans tend to cast around for an eloquent spokesperson who can either assuage their fear or indulge their guilt. The old Civil Rights leaders were too out of touch in this case, so journalists combed the twitter feeds of protesters for substitutes. Those willing to play the role of spokespersons have been fêted by the media, with cover stories in Ebony, Time and the New York Times Magazine. Some were even featured in Fortune’s 2016 “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. They have received regular invitations to the White House, and Democratic presidential candidates have coveted their endorsement. Yet journalists have also shown a prurient interest in the periodic clashes, both personal and political, among the newly celebrated activists.
All this media attention, however, both positive and negative, owes its existence not to the activists themselves, but to the fact that thousands took to the streets and attacked police and property in Ferguson and Baltimore. Though some activists began organizing prior to Ferguson—in response to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Renisha McBride—their actions had met with the same lip-service that typically greets protests against police brutality in this country. Officer Wilson’s murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, following quickly on Eric Garner’s live-action death at the hands of the NYPD, was a watershed, sparking a week-long uprising in a suburban town far from the bi-coastal activist hubs. Baltimore, with protests closer in form to the “inner city riots” of the 1960s, consolidated this newfound vigor, demonstrating the willingness of poor blacks to rise up against a local black elite. The question partisans of this movement must ask is to what extent the new activists can help or hinder the black proletarian insurgency that threw them into the spotlight.