The Baltimore uprising showed that direct action can force concessions from the state. What is still lacking is a coherent strategy for radical change.
By Ben Reynolds
Jun 12, 2015
On April 19, Freddie Gray died of severe spinal injuries in a trauma center in Baltimore. One week earlier, Gray had been arrested by officers from the Baltimore Police Department after he “made eye contact” with a police officer and ran.
A video of the incident shows the police dragging Gray’s limp body to a waiting van while he screamed in pain. The 25-year-old was given a “rough ride” to the police station — a practice in which arrestees are deliberately abused by making them slam them against the walls of a speeding van.
Protests flared in the wake of Gray’s death, and clashes between protesters and police erupted following the heavy-handed police response. Thousands filled the streets, and some protesters torched and smashed police cars.
The city government instated a curfew and called in the National Guard to “restore order.” The Baltimore uprising was the most intense unrest the city had witnessed since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
A vision of the future
The uprising sent shock waves through the United States and caught the imagination of the oppressed across the world. In the US, the event was intensely polarizing. White moderates wrung their hands about a burned CVS and a looted payday loan store while media outlets and politicians peddled racist tropes and chastised protesters for their defiance.
The Baltimore Sun suggested “praying for peace,” in essence praying for state violence to continue unopposed. On the other hand, Ta-Nahesi Coates — a liberal New York Times columnist — defended the uprising in an article titled “Nonviolence as Compliance.”
Reactions at the popular level were similarly intense. Heroic images of high school students expelling the police from their neighborhoods inspired solidarity protests in cities across the nation. In New York, a frightened police force charged demonstrators, beating and arresting over a hundred protesters, including journalists and children.
The expressions of solidarity were not limited to the United States. The beating of an Ethiopian soldier in Israel prompted massive protests in Tel Aviv, where demonstrators reportedly chanted “Baltimore is here!”
The Baltimore uprising evoked these reactions because it was the essential symbol of our era’s struggle: a battle between the most oppressed sections of society and agents of the state defending white supremacy and capitalism.
It is no accident that the most intense struggles in the past year have emerged in cities like Ferguson, Oakland and Baltimore, which have been devastated by de-industrialization and the prison-industrial complex. These sites are not echoes of a dying past but a vision of the future of the entire working class — a carceral society designed to police an increasingly superfluous labor force.
Black Americans were the first population to suffer from the permanent replacement of labor by virtue of their position at the bottom of America’s white supremacist hierarchy. This “select” status was not preserved for long. For the past four decades the gains from production have been appropriated completely by the owners of capital, while the so-called “middle class” is increasingly indebted and impoverished.
Economists estimate that around 47% of presently existing jobs can be automated over the next two decades. This is hardly good news for the youth of the developed world, a massive proportion of whom already cannot find solid employment. The high school students in Baltimore who smashed and torched cop cars have simply recognized that they have no future under the present system.
A viable strategy for meaningful change
For all of its heroic symbolism, however, the uprising has left us wondering: “What now?”
We have learned that the police can be outflanked and outmaneuvered by teenagers armed with rocks. We have learned that direct action is the only reliable way to force concessions from the state.
But we still have no coherent strategy to dismantle a social system that allows the wholesale murder, imprisonment and oppression of people of color and working people. We can block bridges and highways, but we cannot yet expel the police entirely from our communities.
We still have no strategy to replace capitalism with a system that values humanity over commodities. We have become aware of our strength, but we have yet to develop the means to use it to its full potential.
Marches never deliver changes on their own. An uprising like the one in Baltimore can force the state to make token reforms, but business-as-usual often returns as soon as the flames die down. This problem is by no means unique to the United States.
In Bosnia, for instance, massive protests in 2014 resulted in state buildings being burned, but the corrupt government remains in power. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 mobilized millions of people, but failed to dismantle both the deep state and Egypt’s capitalist economy. Egypt is once again subject to a military dictatorship.
The primary problem facing today’s radical activists is how to turn anger and frustration in the street into a more permanent expression of popular power. Our task is not to institutionalize or “channel” popular rage into manageable outlets, but to amplify its impact by creating a durable radical political base. We must constitute a sustained challenge to the authority of the state. We cannot effect systemic change in our society if we fail to build an alternative power structure.
This is important to think about now because it is obvious that the current upswing in the cycle of struggle will not subside any time soon. There is a long summer ahead of us, and the state will continue to murder and imprison innocent people with virtual impunity.
The underlying causes of widespread unrest — institutionalized racism, economic instability and growing inequality — cannot be solved by the present system because they are fundamental pillars of contemporary capitalism. An increasingly large portion of the population will necessarily be radicalized by these pressures. Whether they turn to the radical left or the ultra-nationalist and fascist right will depend on our ability to offer a viable strategy to deliver meaningful changes in the structure of society.
Rojava sets the example…
How can we create the fundamental change we so desperately need? We need a superior strategy to the failed strategies of the past; we need a means to turn an uprising into a revolution.
History offers a few successful examples of popular organizing we can draw from. During the French Revolution, the popular assemblies of the Paris sections formed a radical base that pushed the developing revolution forward. The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw deliberative popular bodies known as “soviets” overthrow the provisional government in the name of bread and peace.
These kinds of systems — based upon deliberative councils and assemblies — frequently appear in any period of unrest or upheaval, and have recently emerged in Argentina, Spain, and elsewhere.
In the present, the Kurdish movement in Turkey and Syria employs a developed version of this system known as “democratic confederalism.” Face-to-face neighborhood assemblies form the base of political decision-making, while successive councils operate at the district, city and regional levels. The councils and assemblies deliberate upon all of the issues facing the community and attempt to organize the means to effect necessary changes.
In Turkey, where state repression is intense and unceasing, these popular councils still organize effectively and are a locus of radical democratic politics. In Rojava (northern Syria), these councils form an autonomous political system for the peoples of the region.
Rojava has notably eliminated taxes, rebuilt an economy based on cooperatives and developed a multifaceted radical feminist program. There are contradictions and flaws in both systems, but these strategies have proven far more effective in the brief period following their adoption in 2005 than anything mustered by the Western left.
That Rojava has survived three years of civil war, an international embargo and constant sieges is a testament to the strength of its grassroots assemblies.
… and the rest will follow
Radical organizations in the United States and the rest of the developed world should learn from these strategies. We can start by organizing neighborhood assemblies in working-class communities where we already have a strong presence. These assemblies can meet to allow face-to-face discussions of the issues affecting the community, from racism and police violence to evictions, gentrification and exploitation in the workplace.
The assemblies should be aimed at identifying ways for the community to address its own problems. For example, the assemblies could coordinate working groups to block evictions, monitor police and intervene if they step over red lines, and organize tenants’ unions. Agitation from organizers and the successes of other assemblies could be used to inspire more communities to form their own assemblies.
These neighborhood assemblies can then form networks with one another, creating councils for the purpose of coordination and joint decision-making. Because they are the most immediate and democratic level of political association, power should be situated first and foremost in the neighborhood assemblies.
Assemblies should be able to abstain from collective decisions with which they disagree. These confederal networks will thus allow neighborhoods to maintain their autonomy while facilitating cooperation on issues of common concern. While we can establish some ground rules for council organization, including a strict adherence to participatory democratic principles and the decentralization of authority, we should allow the rules governing the system to evolve organically from its day-to-day operations.
One benefit of this confederal system is that there are no limits to the geographic reach of the councils. Higher councils can be organized at the district, city, regional, national and even international levels, all while maintaining a democratic system that maximizes the self-determination of communities and individuals. Such a system would allow us to balance the absolute necessity of international solidarity and cooperation with an approach that guards against authoritarianism.
The culmination of this strategy would be the creation of a dual-power system, where a network of popular democratic assemblies and councils vies for power with an oligarchic and authoritarian state. As neither structure could ultimately abide the usurpation of its power by the other, this contradiction would necessarily end either with the suppression of the popular assemblies or the collapse of the state.
The council system should be non-sectarian and completely open to the participation of all parties willing to abide by its democratic principles. The vast majority of people do not care about centuries-old disputes between obscure leftist sects. They care about exploitation, debt, unemployment, police violence, the degradation of their environment and the future they will leave to their children.
The councils would allow different parties to work together on these issues, sharing ideas and manpower while maintaining their independence and permitting a wide range of tactics and strategies. We can thus forge a “united left” without an impossible a priori agreement on all political principles.
It is time to stop thinking about the revolution in hypothetical terms and start building a revolutionary alternative now. The world has been in a state of permanent political and economic crisis for seven long years. Millions have taken to the streets, forged new connections and alliances, and organized new initiatives in their communities.
Our actions thus far, however, have not delivered the type of revolutionary changes we so desperately need. Environmental degradation has continued unopposed, the rich have appropriated an even greater proportion of the world’s wealth, states continue to murder and imprison millions, unemployment remains intolerably high, and working people are suffocating under the burden of massive debts and low wages.
We do not have the luxury of waiting for change. We must consciously make an effort to build the revolution we need now. All power to the councils, and long live the revolution!
Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums. Follow him on Twitter at@bpreynolds01.