The flames burned both for Floyd and for the vanishing dream of a moral economy.
“In America the processes of racial subjection and material dispossession are inseparable.”
As we emerged from a weekend in which legions of protesters in Minneapolis and other cities faced extreme police aggression, it was crucial that we develop a clear analysis of events.
What we witnessed over the last few days was a crisis within a crisis within a crisis.
The immediate cause of the social explosions was outrage at the latest spate of racist violence. Fury over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd overflowed, driving thousands of incensed people into the streets.
They and others grappled with the surreal reality of having to confront a plague of racist terror amid a global pandemic that had already ravaged populations of color, exposing deep lines of racial and social inequality.
But the dual assault of covid-19 and white supremacy (in the form of police and vigilante slayings) unfolded against a larger crisis of human disposability shaped by late capitalism and its relentless attack on vulnerable workers and the oppressed.
The convergence of these crises highlighted the accelerating decline of the United States, a society in which systemic racial subjugation, often viewed with indifference by the great majority, has again become a spectacle that mocks any illusions of democracy.
“The dual assault of covid-19 and white supremacy unfolded against a larger crisis of human disposability.”
The disturbing scenes in Minneapolis, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta and other sites of demonstrations against racist policing only reinforced the view—held by growing numbers of people watching in horror around the world—that America is a citadel of barbarism and racial hatred.
In what must be described as a decentralized but highly intentional police riot, protesters (the vast majority of them peaceful) in several urban centers were indiscriminately gassed, pepper-sprayed, rammed, trampled, battered, shot with rubber (and in some cases lead) bullets and otherwise brutalized. The signs of proto-fascism were clear, from the gangsterism of militarized cops to the contempt of authorities (including our bloodthirsty commander-in-chief) for the basic rights and safety of civilians and journalists.
The criminalization and collective punishment of anti-racist dissent—perhaps best symbolized by the armored vehicles that were deployed to aid in the intimidation of activists—stood in stark contrast to the treatment of recent anti-lockdown rallies, during which officials coddled armed white nationalists and other right-wing forces.
“The signs of proto-fascism were clear.”
Nor could the repression of last weekend’s protests, most of which were inspired by the ghastly murder of Floyd, be blamed on the lawlessness of militants and the misdeeds of the agents provocateur and opportunists (a minor tendency, it must be said) who embedded themselves among the demonstrators.
Sober-minded observers were obliged to conclude that the activists of Minneapolis and beyond were being disciplined for having the audacity to condemn the summary execution of an unarmed black man who had been methodically and almost gleefully smothered to death, before multiple onlookers, by public servants who regarded his skin color as a capital offense.
Yet there was another reason the Floyd protests elicited such ferocious responses from the state. Guardians of the status quo seemed to recognize the radical potential of grassroots mobilization. Perhaps they saw the street skirmishes for what they may be: the early stirrings of a popular insurrection.
Unlike the pathetic, lily-white demonstrations of recent weeks demanding the reopening of commerce and recreation amid a lethal virus, last weekend’s multiracial upheavals were not the contrived acts of a few puerile reactionaries.
“The street skirmishes may be: the early stirrings of a popular insurrection.”
The ruling class need not fear neo Nazi and proud boy rallies. After all, such assemblies funnel collective anger toward the Other and away from the bosses and bankers.
The latest urban uprisings, however, posed a genuine threat to the reigning social order. They were, in many ways, outbursts of anticapitalist feeling.
By battling their way through metropolitan enclaves, the street activists of late May reclaimed the commons. They temporarily repossessed spaces that had been sterilized and privatized—equipped for capitalist extraction rather than for social use. They entered the public square not as consumers or as objects of elite manipulation, but as agents of justice and retribution.
In so doing, the protesters—including young black folk and other marginalized elements—signaled their unwillingness to passively accept annihilation. They demonstrated, as well, their antipathy toward an economy designed to siphon their labor while consigning them to social (and quite possibly literal) death.
The bitterness that had long festered, as billionaires plundered our social wealth and relegated the poor and precarious to a gutted landscape of austerity, finally erupted. In America the processes of racial subjection and material dispossession are inseparable. When that precinct in Milwaukee ignited over the weekend, the flames burned both for Floyd and for the vanishing dream of a moral economy.
“The protesters signaled their unwillingness to passively accept annihilation.”
Trump reportedly spent at least part of the weekend barricaded in the White House. How appropriate! He belongs behind a bunker, huddled alongside his oligarch cronies. The rich should cower. They should dread the unbridled fury of their racial and class victims.
Inevitably, pundits attempted to discredit the protests by noting that, amid the chaos of the weekend, some looting occurred. How absurd. Spontaneous looting from below is nothing compared to finance capitalism’s organized pilfering from above.
That our class enemies would try to equate the uprisings with hooliganism was entirely predictable. Capitalists want their subjects demoralized, isolated and inert. Elites and their proxies have always defined the mobilization of surplus populations as disorders to be crushed. The people must never be allowed to discover that their rulers have only the feeblest grasp on the monopoly of force.
The truth is, the recent insurgencies were quite promising. They helped restore the political confidence of dejected and traumatized people. And they demonstrated that a portion of the rank and file is able and willing to redistribute the social cost of the wanton slaughter of black civilians.
“The rich should dread the unbridled fury of their racial and class victims.”
The upheavals may also have strengthened the hand of those seeking meaningful reforms. Now is the time to escalate demands not only for demilitarized and defunded police, but also for rent cancellation, hazard pay, free utilities and other measures that can ease widespread suffering and help the exploited and abandoned back to their feet amid a disintegrating economy.
Still, much more must be done. The confrontations of recent days must evolve. Militants must move beyond the stage of spontaneous resistance and transition from street battles to deeper political contestation.
We need more than rage and will. We need concrete strategy. We need a sustained mass movement able to produce true social transformation. We need a coordinated revolt of workers, the poor and the oppressed. We need to shift from insurrection to outright rebellion.
Only then will tables turn.
In the meantime, leftists and galvanized workers must seize new opportunities. We must intensify the call for universal healthcare, housing and employment, along with racial justice, decarceration, ecological restoration and peace. And we must bolster our campaigns with fresh waves of strikes and agitation.
Even as the smoke rose above embattled cities over the weekend, a dramatic reorganization of society was imaginable. History teaches us that revolution is never fully beyond our reach. But we must broaden and adapt our struggles to build genuine power amid the extraordinary conjuncture of our time.
Russell Rickford is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power and the Radical Imagination.
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