You can hear a sulking refrain from some corners of the internet lately, usually from armchair revolutionaries, celebrity leftists, or just the “extremely online”: the militant phase of the 2020 uprising against police terror is over—liberal reformers have successfully coopted it. The refrain comes tinged with defeat and a sense that things are already done. After all, the summer began with burning police cars and precincts, with people commandeering anything from goods to hotels to hospitals, and with insurrectionaries driving cops from whole swaths of cities. In response to a society founded on and daily fueled by white violence and exploitation, multiracial, working class crews across AmeriKKKa finally made good on the old protest standard: “Stand up, fight back!” We’d finally get justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black people lynched by the state. But that revolutionary energy is spent.
Or so the refrain goes.
It’s partly true. After the initial wave of attacks against the status quo, liberal politicians, non-profiteers, social media influencers, and career “activists” tried to stifle the popular uprising, derail it, or simply milk it for whatever they could. Where there were molotovs, mayors now paint “Black Lives Matter” on the parkway. Elaborate pathways to police “reform” have replaced calls for police abolition. The feverish media coverage has died down. And before anyone can start clashing with the cops, self-proclaimed protest leaders with megaphones siphon people into “peaceful” marches on the other side of town, leaving behind a conveniently small crowd for the cops to kettle. After all, effective counter-revolution involves more than just jackboots and night raids.
But I think the knowing pronouncements about the uprising’s death are worse than exaggerated—they’re a self-fulfilling prophecy that risks killing off the very thing they lament as already gone.
Never mind that revolutionary scenes still erupt across the country, albeit spread more unevenly than when the rebellion started (my own guess is that from now on a handful of cities like Portland are entering into a phase of more or less constant revolt, while most places return to something like normal). Rebels in Atlanta attacked another police station on July 5th, and the people of Philadelphia momentarily seized and reopened Hahnemann hospital, only recently shuttered by the capitalist vulture Joel Freedman in order to flip the real estate into luxury condos.
Never mind, too, that the movement now faces escalating violence and repression, which should tell us something about how dangerous we still are. If toppling statues is merely “symbolic,” as many argue, then there’s nothing symbolic about the state responding by plastering news outlets with “Wanted” posters of protesters and threatening them with federal charges. Likewise, fascists—both cops and civilians—have escalated their car attacks on protesters, killing Summer Taylor and injuring many others. To my lights, this kind of repression doesn’t show an insurrection winding down but instead indexes movement power: as we tragically learned at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 with Heather Heyer’s murder, fascist violence escalates in response to our success. The fash hate us most when we really are the “strong, united, interracial crew” that turned out in Charlottesville.
This is to say that there’s still a lot of radicalism, both on the streets and off, even if corporate media doesn’t cover it. Good old-fashioned consciousness-raising doesn’t grab headlines, and it’s easy to overlook just how revolutionary mundane actions like mutual aid and community-building really are. All of these things let us get to work on a new society while we’re still stuck in the old one. The real problem with bemoaning the apparent de-radicalization of the uprising isn’t that it neglects what’s really going down, though. The problem is that it misunderstands how revolutionary time ticks by.
Apropos of Hard Crackers’s “chronicles of everyday life”: I think that revolutions, despite appearing to be frenetic rushes, are mostly periods where people put in the inglorious daily work of movement building, punctuated by high drama and action. Maybe. Granted, I certainly can’t speak from experience. But I suspect the online Left leans too much on the quotation, usually attributed to Lenin, that “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” While 2020 certainly makes part of this ring true, it’s still the case that, statistically speaking, most of the time nothing momentous happens at all. I won’t say revolution is boring—again, I wouldn’t really know, and at heart I’m still an angsty anarchist teen who believes that rebellion should be fun.
But I do suspect that there’s a lot of waiting and a lot that doesn’t look particularly revolutionary. After all, the nineteenth century abolition movement’s failed non-violent campaign lasted roughly twenty years, followed by a decade-long militant phase (including Bleeding Kansas and the Harpers Ferry raid) before civil war officially broke out. And then it was still another two years before enslaved people’s general strike forced the Union to enlist Black men as soldiers, finally turning a sectional conflict into an “abolition war,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it. The tempo of abolition was uneven, and from inside the struggle it was hard to discern where the movement was at any given point. The day after Virginia hanged Old John Brown, radicals didn’t know that they were still years out from a war on slavery or that the enslaved would be the ones to win it. That’s what happens when you’re still living within history, of course, but it’s also just how history itself unfolds: moving pieces all in conflict, the outcome ultimately contingent on where those pieces fall. Hence why most predictions are worthless.
We don’t need to turn to history, though, because everyday life tells us how uneven revolutionary time can be. Now, I don’t write from personal experience, of course—I wouldn’t be involved with such things myself. I’ve just been led to believe that some of these racist statues can take hours to pull down. That’s a lot of inglorious time and effort to produce those hype video clips of Columbus or Robert E. Lee or whatever D-list white supremacist getting toppled. Sometimes you have to grind them down, and for those on the ropes (I imagine) it might be grinding too. You might not feel like you’re making progress. All the while police are nearby threatening you with beatings, chemical weapons, and arrest. But those statues wouldn’t fall otherwise (at least not without turning to other methods, as the comrades at Popular Mechanicshave shown), to say nothing of having to put in the time planning the actions in the first place.
Even the more obviously “insurrectionary” tactics can’t always feel revolutionary in the moment. What does it mean to be on the barricades if not to wait? It’s the kind of thing where nothing happens—until it does. But proportionally, the police siege with gas, sprays, and clubs will take up less time than just hanging out. However tense or embattled it must feel on the barricade, you’re still waiting, which might explain the difficulty in keeping your numbers up when holding the line. Still, I imagine those late night watches are ideal times for shooting the shit with newfound comrades, strategizing about how to defend the autonomous zone, speculating about life after the revolution, or remembering with righteous rage what you’re fighting for. It means, too, having to build something that will hold up against whatever comes next, or keeping watch while your comrades have to throw down several blocks away.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the “true” work of revolution is always boring or bureaucratic—the cool, inspiring action really, really matters. The Battle of the 3rd Precinct that burned down a police station and kicked off this revolt did more to advance the struggle than decades of wonkish electoral wrangling ever could. Instead it’s that the tempo of revolution is uneven. There might be days or more when it feels like you’re just killing time, all the while building power by way of political education, mutual aid, and true community organizing. But to declare the movement’s radicalism dead now risks killing these revolutionary times we live in by tamping down what’s still there, even if unintentionally.
My guess is that revolution will be a long haul, a process, and it probably won’t always feel the same way when we’re still living in it. How could it when the kind of rebellion we’ve witnessed demands so much from us, and Black people have already given so much? How can you constantly maintain that kind of tension? And if the armchair revolutionaries are right and the counter-revolution really is winning the day, then we need to push back and escalate, not disengage and lament. This isn’t a music scene that we can just ditch when it’s gone mainstream. The revolution’s everyday life includes the waiting and the mundane work and the shifting fortunes no less than the fireworks from the precinct roof.