American civilization never ceases to put itself on trial, as shown once again by the revolt in Minneapolis that quickly spread nationwide. George Floyd’s life was extinguished on May 25 in eight minutes, steadily, relentlessly, by a cop, Derek Chauvin, guarded by three other cops in front of a crowd begging him 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 immediately broke out in several cities from Los Angeles to New York, Memphis to Portland, Ore. By May 31, they had spread to over 70 cities.
Yet in the year of pandemic, the killing struck another chord: Black people are aware that their death rate from COVID-19, three times that of whites, is considered acceptable by this country’s leaders. 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 without safe 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 in many ways, from exposure to pollution to housing and working conditions to discrimination in 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 ACROSS THE LAND
Everyone can see that the protests and uprisings are about George Floyd’s death, and at the same time that they go far beyond one killing. The police murders that have become more publicized in recent years are bad enough—however, they are the tip of the iceberg of an oppressive apparatus functioning as an integral part of a pervasively racist, exploitative society, that is expressed in everything from COVID-19 deaths and targeted harassment of people of color for alleged mask-wearing violations, to higher rates of unemployment, evictions and astronomical maternal death rates of Black mothers. That is why protests quickly spread to hundreds of cities, and even to some other countries, and why so many quickly turned into clashes with the hated police forces.
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 40 million people into unemployment, poverty, threat of homelessness—all of these signs of this society’s 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 and in rage. In Louisville, Ky., the focus was the police murder of Breonna Taylor there, shot in her bed during a no-knock raid at the wrong address. At the urging of a protest organizer, Chanelle Helm, a sizeable group of whites, mostly women, acted as a human shield between the mainly Black crowd and the hostile police force. It is this multiracial character that Trump and his supporters hope to cover up by pointing to provocateurs they label “anarchists,” “Antifa” and “outsiders,” disregarding the far-right militants who had advertised that they would try to exploit the protests.
BLACK REVOLT IS 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 installment in the White House greatly emboldened the fascist, militantly racist elements of U.S. society, who are now, with Trump’s support, calling for the blood of protesters, dubbed “thugs” and “looters.” These fascist proclivities are well represented inside the police and armed forces, as reflected in the arrest of a Black CNN reporter who was legally reporting in Minneapolis, with his team—and in the way the police, who had been clearly informed that he was a reporter, lied that they were arrested for refusing to move and lied again that they were released when the police ascertained that they were press. In Louisville, Ky., police directly shot pepper-spray balls at a news crew. That was just one of 50 instances nationwide of police firing projectiles at reporters, in a majority of cases directly targeting them.
Chicago cop Robert Bakker, being investigated now for his links to the Proud Boys, is only the latest in a long line of cops exposed in recent years as members or collaborators with far-right groups. White supremacists have answered calls to infiltrate demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and other cities to provoke violence among protesters and sow confusion. We should recall Raya Dunayevskaya’s point about 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (who only looks moderate in comparison to Trump):
“All we have to remember is that it is precisely such reactionary stands that laid the basis for the Civil War, which was initiated by the South….This Goldwater symbolism, this organizational ability of the Birchers to become a polarizing force for the neo-fascist elements just below the surface can lead to nothing short of civil war in the U.S. and all-out war abroad for conquest of the world.”
NEW MOMENT OF REVOLT IN AN UNPRECEDENTED TIME
This new moment of Black and multiracial revolt comes at a time when rulers worldwide have enforced lockdowns that were generally made necessary by their own public health negligence, as well as by the lack of preparation dictated by crumbling capitalism’s desperation to cut corners in the face of the low rate of profit. The same rulers 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 tremendously deep economic crisis—a very fluid situation, where the Minneapolis revolt is the newest part of the struggles that are 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:
“We are already in the midst of a battle over how society will change in responding and adapting to the pandemic. That calls for the deepest solidarity, internationally as well as at home, participation in liberatory social movements and battles of ideas, and theoretical preparation for the battles ahead, including revolution, counter-revolution and the question of what happens after the revolution….
“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 pervasive 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.”
This week’s revolt arose with full expectation of police repression and awareness of the risks of physical closeness during the pandemic. 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. 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 reunification 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.
—Franklin Dmitryev, May 31, 2020