Lead-Editorial from the July-August 2020 issue of News & Letters
by Franklin Dmitryev
American civilization never ceases to put itself on trial, as shown by the revolt in Minneapolis that jolted the world. George Floyd’s life was extinguished on May 25 in eight minutes, steadily, remorselessly, by a white cop, Derek Chauvin, who was assisted by three other cops in front of a crowd begging them to spare the man’s life. The police take their impunity so much for granted that they were unfazed by the witnesses and a damning video—and, as expected, the department immediately lied that Floyd had died from “a medical issue.”
No wonder that, within three days, protests became an uprising, burning down a police station. Since the taking of Black lives by racist cops and vigilantes is so pervasive, protests broke out in several cities from Los Angeles to Memphis. By early June, they had spread to over 2,000 U.S. localities—big cities from San Diego to Boston; towns from Hanalei, Hi., to Montrose, Ga.—and dozens of countries. Each action was in solidarity with George Floyd and Black America, and at the same time revolt against the racism and police violence in that town and nation.
REVOLUTIONARY YOUTH TAKE THE LEAD
What erupted onto the historic stage was a new generation of revolutionary youth, led by Black youth, women and men, Queer and straight, joined by youth of all races and many older people in cities, suburbs and small towns. It was the most widespread, sustained revolt since the 1960s. Its militance, continuing strong after over three weeks at press time, reflected the depth of its challenge to this deadly racist society and the breadth of its support.
Homemade signs predominated, many saying “Black Lives Matter,” but many others bearing individual outpourings long or short, such as “To be a Black queer woman in Amerikkka is a triple threat…and NOT in a good way”; “Tu lucha es mi lucha” (“Your struggle is my struggle”) held by undocumented immigrants; “Am I Still Black When I Save Your Life?” held by a Black woman healthcare worker; “Down with capitalism”; “This is only the beginning.”
In Chicago alone, there have been hundreds of protests and actions, in virtually every corner, from the Black neighborhood of Englewood on the South Side to the almost completely white Northwest Side neighborhoods of Jefferson Park and Edgebrook. There was a Kids March on the South Side. Students held a sit-in at the University of Chicago, demanding the elimination of the campus police, one of the largest private police forces in the country, with a long history of harassing African Americans to exclude them from the Hyde Park enclave surrounded by poor Black areas.
Black and Latinx mothers from Lawndale and Little Village on the West Side held a vigil in solidarity with the protests and in opposition to isolated acts of violence between Latinx and Black men. More than two dozen Chicago events observed Juneteenth.
REVOLT IN MANY DIMENSIONS & NATIONS
Protesters organically brought together the dimensions of their being: Women demanded “Say her name!” and called attention to the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in March, shot eight times in her bed during a no-knock raid because a drug dealer had used her address to send a package (see “Anti-racist protests across the U.S.,” p. 8). Thousands came out for Black Trans lives on June 13-14 in the Brooklyn Liberation rally, the All Black Lives Matter March in Los Angeles, the Drag March for Change in Chicago, the Queer Black Lives Matter March and Vigil in San Antonio, and the Trans Resistance Vigil and March in Boston.
The preparation for today’s revolt included the new stirrings of youth in the last four years, as part of the Women’s Marches that challenged Trump’s ascent, the March for Our Lives spearheaded by the survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., and the climate strikes. Now many marchers are making the connection between the state’s racist violence and the slow violence of environmental racism.
In each case, young people revealed a new drive to make the resistance to this society’s systemic racism central to their movements (see “Youth in Action,” July-August 2020 N&L), and many young women of color came to the fore, especially in the climate strikes (see “Black women speak a new humanism,” July-August 2020 N&L). That is not alone a question of individual leaders, issues and alliances. What is needed is recognition of the vanguard nature that Black masses in motion have historically had, and continue, which points to the need for a unifying philosophy.
In country after country—New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, Brazil, Colombia—protests called attention to the deadly racism endemic globally. In Hong Kong and in Idlib, Syria, activists related Floyd’s killing to the violence perpetrated by the state against their rebellions.
In Africa, 54 countries urged the UN Human Rights Council to debate police brutality and racism in the U.S.
However, protests related Floyd’s killing not only to the racism of imperialist international relations but also to police violence in Africa and interethnic violence that is often manipulated by the rulers. Black Lives Matter rallies were broken up by the police in Ghana and Uganda. In Nigeria and South Africa, Say Her Name protesters called attention to the high rate of violence against women, and singled out the rape and murder of students Barakat Bello and Uwaila Vera Omozuwa in Lagos (see “Women WorldWide,” July-August 2020 N&L) and the lynching of Tshegofatso Pule near Johannesburg.
YESTERDAY’S UNTHINKABLE ON TODAY’S AGENDA
Reverberations across the U.S. included reporters’ revolts against racism in newsrooms, forcing resignations of high-level editors from The New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. Several statues of Confederate generals and slave-owners fell; in the UK, the people of Bristol threw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the river. Regional labor councils began considering expulsion of police unions, proven enemies of labor. Bus drivers in Minneapolis and Chicago refused to transport arrested protesters to jail.
Under Trump, the illusion of post-racialism had already evaporated, except in the mythmaking of right-wing ideologues. That, however, lives on in the legal fictions used by the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice to rationalize reactionary moves like gutting the Voting Rights Act and neutralizing oversight of racist police departments. Attorney General William Barr denied the existence of systemic racism in the police, while his boss Donald Trump said the chokehold that killed Floyd “sounds so innocent, so perfect.”
It is only through the power of this revolt that reforms that seemed unthinkable yesterday are being passed today. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to dismantle the police department. In several states, politicians who previously would not touch the slogan “defund the police” are now trying to co-opt it. Previously hard-fought but ineffective reforms like body cameras became yesterday’s news, and the words “abolition” and “systemic change” were on many lips.
WILL NEW ABOLITIONISM ELUDE LIMITS?
Abolitionists name themselves after the movement for immediate abolition of slavery, the greatest, most revolutionary movement of 19th-century America. Their agitation, countering the intransigent defenders of slavery, led to the Civil War, whose unfinished revolution still haunts us. The aim is to abolish not only the police but mass incarceration, which is the latest of many forms of racist social control imposed since the Civil War to maintain racial divisions and class exploitation.
Speaking of abolition—creating a world without prisons or police—is abstract to the extent that it shies away from acknowledging that this requires abolition of the class society from which these repressive forces grow, and that it can only happen through social revolution from below and its completion in the reconstruction of society on truly human foundations. That abstractness leaves openings for tendencies and leaders that would limit and co-opt the reforms proposed by abolitionists.
We have to confront the nature of the state as an excrescence of class society, which always requires force to maintain class hierarchy, and therefore requires the function that police and armies perform.
History’s model of an abolition of the police is the 1871 Paris Commune. While it lasted, it did not “simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery,” as Karl Marx pointed out then. It smashed the state of which the police are a part, superseding it by a communal type of self-government. Only such a revolution that breaks down the hierarchical economic relations, including the separation of mental and manual labor, could achieve the kind of abolition aimed for today. Since the hierarchies of class, race and sex are intertwined, they must all be attacked together. The dialectics of liberation are such that all generate Subjects of revolution.
SYSTEMIC RACISM HOSTS COVID-19
In the year of pandemic, the killing of George Floyd struck another chord: African Americans in this movement are aware that their death rate from COVID-19, nearly three times that of whites, is considered acceptable by this country’s leaders, as are the deaths of other people of color, including Latinx people, people who labor in factories such as meatpacking workers, and disabled and older people—all are expendable.
They are aware that they disproportionately make up the “essential” workforce—people whose labor is demanded, though with less pay, worse benefits, fewer protections from infection, and now the administration is pushing to force them back to work in unsafe conditions by making them ineligible for unemployment or other benefits.
They are aware that they disproportionately make up the “inessential” too, in the sense of the part of the working class that is left without jobs or the means to support themselves, those who are homeless or incarcerated, or will soon be forced into those conditions.
They are aware that this institutionally racist society set them up to be more vulnerable to the disease, from exposure to pollution to discrimination in housing, working conditions and healthcare and to the fact that racism itself is a cause of disease.
At the same time, they are aware that this cannot only be blamed on the most flagrantly racist administration in memory. On the contrary, just in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis, in 2015 and 2016 Jamar Clark and Philando Castile were murdered by police who were never punished. In those last two years of the Obama administration, over 2,000 people were killed by the police across the country—a rate of murder that continues to this day.
SPONTANEOUS REVOLT EXPLODES
Everyone can see that the uprisings are about George Floyd’s death, and at the same time that they go far beyond one killing, or three killings. The police murders that have become more publicized in recent years are bad enough—as well as murders by racist vigilantes like the ones who killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Ahmaud Arbery this year.
However, they are the tip of the iceberg of an oppressive apparatus functioning as an integral part of a pervasively racist, exploitative class society, that is expressed in everything from COVID-19 deaths and targeted harassment of people of color for alleged mask-wearing or quarantine violations, to higher rates of unemployment, evictions and astronomical maternal death rates of Black mothers. That is why protests quickly spread, and why many quickly turned into clashes with the hated police forces, after the police initiated violence.
The depth and breadth of explosive spontaneous revolt across the land is the expression of the rage that has been brewing over the many attacks and rollbacks, the callous exploitation and vicious repression aimed at the masses of Black America, Latinx and undocumented people, workers, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and young people. It is the cry of “Enough!” from people who reject the way things are and demand a truly human future for themselves, their families, their communities, their planet. The continuing police murders, the pandemic, the hurling of more than 45 million people into unemployment, poverty, threat of homelessness—all these signs of social collapse have been read and understood.
In Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, the police were unable to stop their cars from being burned, turned over, tagged with graffiti. Demonstrations in city after city showed that the actions were multiracial—primarily Black people but as well Latinx, Asian, white people out in force. At the urging of protest organizers in a number of cities, whites acted as human shields between a mainly Black crowd and hostile police. That is not only a question of “being allies” but a recognition that aligning themselves with Black mass revolt is needed to move toward freedom.
It is this multiracial character that Trump and his supporters hope to cover up by claiming that “Antifa” provoked violence, disregarding the far-right militants who had advertised that they would try to exploit the protests. It was a far-right boogaloo boi who killed a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Cruz and a security officer in Oakland.
BLACK REVOLT CENTRAL TO U.S. HISTORY
The historical memory of Black America does not only encompass oppression but also revolt, from antebellum slave revolts to the 1960s rebellions, from the multiracial 1992 Los Angeles rebellion and its echoes in 100 cities to the 2001 Cincinnati uprising. Most recently, after the Black Lives Matter movement emerged due to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the revolts in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore were sparked by the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
That does not mean this time is the same. For one thing, Trump’s installation in the White House emboldened the fascist, militantly racist elements of U.S. society, who are now, with Trump’s support, crying for the blood of protesters, dubbed “thugs” and “looters.”
Wherever fascism has taken power, the police have been a crucial part of its mass base. Across the U.S., police riots met protests, even peaceful ones. Vicious, unprovoked attacks included use of tear gas and pepper spray—chemical weapons known to help the coronavirus spread, as do kettling protesters, arresting them en masse and crowding them into vans, and throwing them into crowded, unsanitary jails, which are among the worst contagion hot spots.
The orgy of police violence did not spare a seven-year-old maced by a Seattle cop, or 75-year-old Catholic Worker activist Martin Gugino, whose skull was cracked when Buffalo cops shoved him to the ground and left him there bleeding. Police intentionally attacked, harassed or arrested 400 journalists, blinding Linda Tirado in Minneapolis in one eye.
When mayors or governors declared curfews, cops used them as an excuse to assault and arrest protesters and passersby, in some cases blocking people before the curfew started so they could charge them with violating it. The authorities also targeted community institutions that sheltered protesters, like the Chicago Freedom School and Blazing Saddle, a Gay bar in Des Moines, Iowa.
Even the spotlight shined by the revolt did not stop the police killing spree: Tony McDade, May 27 in Tallahassee, Fla.; Sean Monterrosa, June 2 in Vallejo, Calif.; Rayshard Brooks, June 12 in Atlanta; Terron Jammal Boone, June 17 in Rosamond, Calif.; Andres Guardado, June 18 in Gardena, Calif. Right-wingers attacked Black Lives Matter protesters, killing Robert Forbes in Bakersfield, Calif., and sending another man to the hospital in Albuquerque, N.M. In half a dozen cities, they drove cars and a truck into crowds.
Some police flaunted logos of the far-right Three Percenters or Oath Keepers, adding evidence to reports that hundreds of cops run with those groups, the Proud Boys, and others.
Trump, as Instigator in Chief, called out the military in Washington D.C., which used helicopters to intimidate protesters. To counter his image of cowering in a bunker, he had cops attack peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park so that he could stage a photo-op hoisting a Bible in front of a church. His Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for troops to “dominate the battle space” of U.S. cities. After threatening to send troops to put down “rioters” and “terrorists,” Trump backed down. In the Army, 40% of active-duty troops and half of the reserves are people of color, and many enlisted soldiers’ sympathies lie with George Floyd and his champions. However, Trump, his allies in Washington, and his base made clear that they favor a bloody suppression of the movement, and the military have so far followed their orders.
REVOLT IN AN UNPRECEDENTED TIME
This new moment of Black and multiracial revolt comes at a time when rulers worldwide have enforced lockdowns made necessary by their own public health negligence, and by the lack of preparation dictated by crumbling capitalism’s desperation to cut corners in the face of the low rate of profit. They have been exploiting the situation to inhibit all kinds of freedom movements, although reactionary, armed anti-lockdown protests proceed unencumbered. But patience is wearing thin.
There is no sense in waiting for a return to normal, because there is no return to normal. We are already in a new situation because of the pandemic intertwined with a deep economic crisis—a fluid situation, where the Minneapolis revolt is the newest part of the struggles underway over what kind of future the planet will have and who will determine it.
As this year’s News and Letters Committees Draft Perspectives Thesis put it: “In the future, we will be living on a planet damaged by capitalism, but the possible kinds of life we can have are poles apart, depending on whether we succeed in fundamentally transforming society. In the absolute opposite of today’s society, one based on freely associated labor instead of slavery to capital’s production for production’s sake, we can leave behind misery, precarity and antagonism, and self-development and cooperation can flourish, as can a rational relationship to nature. To get there, we need the clear direction that can only come from a philosophy of revolution.”
What shines through the revolt is the underlying philosophy of humanism, and the political maturity of our age. Just as the multiplicity of handwritten messages reflected a dynamism of ideas, the hunger for theory was shown in the way books about racism and anti-racism surged to the top of best-seller lists.
This new revolt arose with awareness of the risks of physical closeness during the pandemic, and with full expectation of police repression. While it is not, as yet, the beginning of a revolution, it once again reveals Black masses as vanguard in the revolutionary transformation of the U.S. and it is a sign of the depth of the passion to uproot this racist, exploitative society. Mass self-activity, the only path to freedom, “illuminates the road to the reconstruction of society on new, truly human beginnings.”1Quoted from American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (News and Letters, 2003), which comprehensively demonstrates how Black masses have ever been the vanguard of freedom movements in … Continue reading
The negative in that self-activity is easy to see: efforts to tear down the systems of racism and other oppressions. The positive in that negation is not as easy to hear, but it is crucial to listen—and not only to support the revolt, letting it speak and highlighting the reason in what the rulers and media portray as unreason, but to let the Idea of Freedom hear itself speak. The negation embodied in spontaneous revolt is a needed first step. To proceed to the reconstruction of society on truly human foundations requires unification of theory and practice, including a clarification not only of what masses in motion are against, but what they are for. In this way the permanence of revolt that Black masses have always represented in the United States of America can become the fullness of permanent revolution.
|↑1||Quoted from American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (News and Letters, 2003), which comprehensively demonstrates how Black masses have ever been the vanguard of freedom movements in U.S. society.|