More importantly, how might we respond?– A Hard Crackers Roundtable Series
John: Let me begin with what is probably obvious. The last several weeks have witnessed an extraordinary explosion of protests, of just about every imaginable variety, by who knows how many people across the US and the world in an ever-changing flow of innovation and improvisation. Protesters have been willing to: be bold, confront police forces, refuse to obey or back down, engage in widespread breaking of laws (including arson) and to be arrested. As a result, they have often met unrestrained attacks by the local police and other mobilized forces—with tear gas, rubber bullets, flash grenades, low-flying helicopters, baton swinging, and rushing and pushing. Rather than thinking about these tactics as evidence only of out-of-control cops (of whom, there are many), it might be better to see them as elements of, perhaps haphazardly, planned tactics of suppression. Otherwise, why would the cops have all these weapons ready to use? What, for example, did de Blasio think that the cops were keeping their supplies for? Was it a wild parade after the next Yankee championship?
Participation in protests in cities has reflected a remarkable heterogeneity—although, for sure, the protesters are mostly young. I am pretty confident that participation in the protests has often been exhilarating (maybe even providing a new sense of being alive) and has expanded participants’ sense of the possibilities of how they can act and enhanced their appreciation of the power they have.
The geographic dispersion across cities, suburbs and rural areas has been nothing less than astonishing. In the cases of the suburbs and rural areas, as well as the cities, the actions suggest that many white people are ready for something beyond going along as expected. The “culture” (to use an admittedly inadequate word) of many social “blocks” (more or less cohesive groups that think and act alike, with or without direct personal connections) that has sustained the existing state of affairs in white communities, has started to break apart. This would include: NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag at its races; the statement by the National Football League (NFL) Commissioner that the league should have listened earlier to its black players and that it now believes that Black Lives Do Matter; the toppling of Confederate statues all over the place (without waiting for legislative approval). Once they lose the flag, NASCAR, the monuments, what do they have left?
Police departments and their traditional supporters are being divided and, hopefully, weakened. Some police chiefs and regular cops are joining marches and kneeling. Predictably enough, the cop unions are mobilizing their defenses—with full support from Trump. And, as noted above, the police continue to rely on desperate measures to halt protests; there are reports that 96 police departments have used teargas against protesters. Some cops appear to be leaving special units in opposition to changes in departmental policies. And, remarkably, in the midst of everything going on, police departments and mayors do not seem able to stop police killings—as made evident by the killing of Rayshaw Brooks in Atlanta. Once the police lose their supporters, what do they have left?
Zhana: It is very important to acknowledge that police legitimacy is crucial to state power. And that support is waning in this moment. A recent nationwide poll suggests that close to half of all American adults now consider police violence to be a serious problem. About 6 out of 10 Americans acknowledge that police use deadly force against a black person more so than a white person. The same poll shows that in 2015 at the height of the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore that 3 out of ten people believed the police to be a problem. This waning support for police power is remarkable and an important development. I think we have to see this loss of power in relationship to the state’s response to the pandemic that has caused such horrific deaths and unleashed all sorts of state violence into the lives of ordinary people, especially poor people of color. And by state here I mean not only Trump (although he was a big part of it) but all state officials who have shown time and time that their concerns are with the profit motive not our lives. What’s the point of making racism a public health crisis if this is how American elites handle health? We are today faced with a growing legitimacy crisis made evident by the state’s inability to contain police brutality and the COVID-19 outbreak.
Liberal reforms have hit real limits. In a recent piece Jarrod and I wrote we argued that in Minneapolis the failure of liberal reform was hard to ignore. Minneapolis received federal funds to reform its department which was widely resisted by the police rank and file. In the wake of yet another police murder, young people were fed up and burned the precinct down. The militant actions of black youth truly changed the game and helped to give expression to abolitionist principles that are being debated today. These young people were not part of any existing BLM organization and that’s important to keep in mind. The expressions of street militancy we have seen have not been organized by any one organization.
The first wave of protests (2014 cycle) revealed a tension within Black Lives Matter organizations between on the one hand the liberal wing which advocated mainly for police reform including demanding body cameras, implicit bias training, diversifying the police force and a small grouping that tried to link police reform to wider redistribution of resources in black communities. Five years later many of the liberal reforms have either not been taken seriously enough or have been implemented and proved to be a failure. Today, the smaller and radical BLM groupings have successfully shut down the demands for liberal reforms to policing and put forth a demand to defund the police which acknowledges a relationship between policing and growing working class immiseration.
Mike: On the “Defund the Police” issue. The intention from the rank and file of the protest movement is honorable…strip police forces’ bloated budgets so that they are less equipped to do nasty things to us, either in their regular day-to-day duties or when we protest. Close attention needs to be paid to governance’s response to this demand. Many cities are under pressure to make concessions here. All will pay loud lip service to it, whether they actually do anything concrete about it or not.
There are dangers and pitfalls lurking in this terrain. We have to be aware of what constitutes a significant shift versus a snow job. Notably, it places the initiative squarely in the hands of those who control the money; Congress, Governors, Mayors, Comptrollers, City Councils, etcetera. If police budgets are going to be cut, only to see those funds allocated to equally miserable city or government agencies that are part of the problem, then little has been gained and it is nothing more than a public relations victory for those who get away with it. We need to watch out for De Blasio on this one. This kind of smoke and mirrors boondoggle is right up his alley.
Here is a comparison about how noble intentions can become co-opted and meaningless. In the 1980s, the US student divestment movement against their various colleges’ portfolio investments in corporations that did business with apartheid South Africa grew rapidly. Many young people were initially radicalized as a result of these campaigns. The targets were not just the university BODs, but the multinational corporations themselves. Some of the demands had some teeth, some were pitiful (e.g. promises made that no money would be lost by divestiture). The problem was that all of this did very little to change the flow of capital into and out of South Africa. The corporations themselves were ahead of the game. Citibank did not call in its loans to the South African government because of protests here, but because the unrest in South Africa, fueled by the regime’s intransigence, was making the whole shebang a risky investment. Other big and powerful companies soon followed suit. This was the play made by international capital to rein in the whites-only government and to seek a negotiated settlement. And they got their way. The rule of capital is firmly entrenched in South Africa today. The students’ demands and actions, although seemingly righteous, had very little to do with the end result.
This is what can happen when the bean counters are pulling the strings. We might pay later on down the road if we underestimate their duplicity now. The “Defund the Police” call will be better served with a “whatever you do, it won’t be enough” caveat. We should dictate the terms, not them.
Jarrod: I agree Mike. The challenge is to push the defund demand as hard as possible, without letting it get taken over by folks who would be satisfied with a slightly more equitable balance of public funding. Seeing some fairly odious politicians and non-profits latch on to the demand should be a red flag that this is already underway.
Zhana: There are certainly many lessons to learn from the disinvestment campaign in South Africa, Mike. We are already seeing Black Lives Matter being co-opted by such corporations in a way we did not see in 2015-2016 wave. On the heels of the current protest movement, every major corporation has sent an email affirming that black lives matter as a way to possibly deflect accusations of institutional racism and to win over black and white consumers. I think at this point all major corporations besides Starbucks (who has banned its employees from wearing any black lives matter paraphernalia) behind the protest movement. Nike has already put an ad featuring its famous swoosh sign with the phrase: “just don’t do it.” The most outrageous ad thus far was Reebok who claimed to not care about whether anyone bought their shoes in this moment of indignation and anger as long as they empathized with people and took “a walk in their shoes.” No word of course who makes the sneakers, the sales representative who is paid very little to sell these overpriced shoes and the white CEOs that profit.
As everyone will want to get a piece of Black Lives Matter to prove how they are not racist, we can imagine defunding being narrowly reduced to a small disinvestment campaign–for instance a small dollar amount being taken out of police budgets and inserted into some after school program. But I would wager and say that defunding is an important demand because the COVID-19 pandemic will launch a new wave of austerity struggles. Everyday people will now be able to see that the same politicians who painted BLM signs in major streets across America will now spearhead the biggest austerity onslaught we have ever seen and will dismantle every public good that we have left. In NYC, De Blasio for instance is facing a 9 billion dollar revenue deficit and has already begun to cut social services and public sector jobs. But the police budgets will be difficult to touch without a fight and this can create really important opportunities for deepening of struggles.
Jarrod: One of the most significant facts of the present rebellion is that the US ruling class is breaking ranks in a very public way, led of course by Donald Trump. The machine-bred Democrats, especially in major cities with large black populations, have decades of counter-insurgency experience to draw upon as they attempt to co-opt the rebellion. Lori Lightfoot and Bill de Blasio may have an impossible job trying to mediate the interests of their police and the working-class people of color they brutalize, but they also have intricate networks of soft power, including so-called community leaders in the non-profit sector and the various local churches, who make this job a whole lot easier. And on a basic level, they understand the dynamics of urban rebellion much better than the law and order hawks, who see cops being ordered to stand down and imagine the cops are surrendering a position of strength. The opposite is true! Cops standing down is a barometer of the movement’s strength, actual and potential. In Trump’s macho fantasy, the NYPD could simply “dominate” a protest of 10,000 people and the rebellion would end. In reality, such a crackdown would push liberals and even moderates into the arms of the radicals, and we’d be on the threshold of a pre-revolutionary situation. The beauty of the present loggerheads between Trump and these local Democrats is he’s basically forcing them to defend the rebellion more than they would have to anyway, as his scorched-earth approach doesn’t leave much room for splitting the difference. Simultaneously, the police themselves, having essentially carved out a class fragment of their own, are approaching open rebellion. They even doxxed Mayor de Blasio’s daughter! As long as these clowns can’t fall in line, there will be a lot of space open for radicals that would not exist otherwise. Long may it last!
Zhana: Apparently not all Democrats have received this message. Sleepy Joe Biden, has publicly stood against defunding (the one thing that unites him with Bernie Sanders). Recently, he has publicly vowed that as president he will give police departments more funding to institute reforms, including millions of dollars for the same old tired strategies of police reform including community policing.
Kamala Harris on the other hand, a more devious Democrat and former top cop has agreed that police reform needs to happen and that defunding should be seriously engaged with. She seems more attuned to the usual counterinsurgency tactics of local Democratic Party machines than Biden. And if she receives the VP nomination, we all know she will be running things, not sleepy Joe.
Mike: I would suggest that a must read for anybody who wants to further understand the carrot and the stick policy of the ruling class during times of insurgency is a very recent essay by Matthew Lyons in the publication Three Way Fight.
John: In light of all this, I’d like to argue that, if we want to develop an effective strategy to defeat the efforts of various mainstream liberal and “progressive” forces (within and outside the Democratic Party) to control and domesticate the current mobilizations, we need to pay attention to what they are up to but we also need to concentrate on what those who imagine themselves to be acting from the future should be doing.
We should insist that we want a new world! Not a somewhat improved version of this world! For the moment, let’s call it socialism. In 1954, two relatively moderate American socialists wrote something that I think turned out to be quite inspirational–“Socialism is the name of our desire!” They may very well have meant that it was a long time off but, still, the “name of our desire” is not such a bad way of saying something important. What is such a desire but a vision of a new society? Such a vision is best expressed in a language of inspiration. Over hundreds of years, the vision of a new society has been named: “Jerusalem” by the poet William Blake, “a free association” or a “union of free individuals” by Karl Marx, a “Gemeinwesen” (or community) by Frederick Engels, a “universal republic” by the Paris Communards, a “beloved community” by the American Civil Rights activists, or a “good life” by CLR James.
What’s really important is the need to develop organizational forms (perhaps think about SNCC in the 1960s as a starting place) that can be real alternatives to the forms of activity engaged in by non-profit membership organizations (such as Make the Road New York, the Restaurant Opportunity Center and the Laundry Workers Center here in New York) and electoral campaigns. We need organizations that can enable individuals to become directly involved in organizational decision-making; promote extensive participation in self-education and, most importantly, make people feel like they’re getting somewhere in the development of their own personalities and interests. Put simply, we need to build organizations that don’t humiliate, exhaust and drive people away.
I’d tentatively argue that autonomous zones, such as the one established in Seattle, are not as important as they might appear since they all but inevitably limit participation to individuals who have lots of time and can live with lots of uncertainty. I acknowledge that there will be different starting points—the rage of the most impoverished and degraded; the good intentions of those in better circumstances. All of those groups are susceptible to different types of political interference by those interested in thwarting the development of a movement.
Zhana: I think the defund demand is leading to really important conversations about the role of welfare state institutions. It seems to me that in this logic of replacing the bloated penal arm of the state with more welfare programs (a version of more schools less jails), there is no structural understanding of the role that police play to maintain social order, more specifically the role that police play to maintain and reproduce the color line. I am sure there are some that want to scale down police power in favor of more welfare offices or kinder police officers that treat black and brown kids like how white suburban kids are treated. I do think that kicking police out of schools is an important first step and I was really happy to see that becoming a reality in some places like Oakland for instance. And this should continue to be a fight that teachers unions should also get behind. But replacing policing with social workers and guidance counselors will not change the fact that schools like all American institutions reproduce white supremacy and stark economic divides. Also unlike in the past (for a brief period anyway), schools today no longer reproduce middle class futures. And this makes our moment very unique from that of the 1960s. I would wager that many of the youth we see protesting, black and brown youth and white youth too are not interested in this middle class pipedream. They face a future of high student debt, ecological disasters etc. This pandemic revealed stark race and class divides in American life and we can’t return back to normal. What was ‘normal’ sucked anyways and is why we are here in the first place. Our role is to engage with those young people who could care less about voting between the lesser of two evils but instead make tik tok videos explaining communism. I have never been so hopeful about youth and I guess we have to ask ourselves what lessons do we want to share with them?
John: It might be time to revisit the lesson of the late 1960s. A few years ago, Loren Goldner and I synthesized our views about the echoes of the 60s in an Insurgent Notes editorial:
… small groups do not shape consciousness, events do. Events for the 1960’s were the later years of the southern civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the radicalization of black people after the civil rights movement hit a wall, and the rank-and-file and wildcat upsurge in the U.S. working class. By the late 1960’s, some many thousands of young people coming out of the New Left and the Black Liberation Movement had declared for revolution, and many joined groups organizing for it. It did not end well, for reasons that we cannot do justice to here. For the most part, the emerging revolutionary movement was dominated by either Stalinist/Maoist/Trotskyist sects or by groups well on the way to embracing an all-purpose, and hardly anti-capitalist, “progressive” politics. A not insignificant part of the black left turned towards nationalism. And a small part of what might be considered the middle-class white left was drawn into the substitution of terrorist violence for politics. Little of consequence is left of all of it although, to be fair, Sanders’ current vision has more than a little in common with the above-cited progressive politics.
Socialism came to be understood as a reformed capitalism—a society more equal and more solicitous of human needs but not fundamentally a different kind of human community. At the same time, this notion was accompanied by a growing conviction that any explicit articulations of radical views would not be met favorably by ordinary workers, especially ordinary white workers—which, in turn, led to a hesitation in confronting workplace practices that advantaged white workers.
This assemblage of notions, combined with appreciation for the folk songs of people like Pete Seeger and the “progressive” politics of the handful of unions still led by CP-influenced folks, produced a “left common sense” that saturated the emerging left scene outside the campuses,
Then, there was a slow drift backward into liberalism, electoralism and lesser evilism. Eventually, it culminated in the Clinton debacle of 2016. Spearheaded by Bill Clinton, the Democrats, with many “progressive” supporters, had become Republicanism with a new face.
Many thought that redemption would come through Obama. But the reality of his rule should have been clear from the start. Truth be known, it was to some. The results of hope and change was a bizarre health care system, the further enrichment of the rich, and steadily worsening conditions of life for workers and the poor—manifested in shortened life spans, an opioid crisis, and renewed police violence.
Somehow, we have to learn something from all this.