Demonstrators hold up their arms during a protest sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 29, 2020 in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty
When an already suffering, dispossessed, angry population pleads for justice and receives instead more repression and disrespect, things have a tendency to explode.
In the eighteenth century, France’s King Louis XVI threatened to use the army to subdue unrest among diverse groups angry about his proposed land tax. This response backfired. Combined with widespread discontent and a famine, protests quickly went beyond anger at the tax and combusted into the French Revolution of 1789. Within a few years, the flames of Revolution swept away the Bourbon monarchy, and its king died on the guillotine.
In early 1917, the Russian tsar called in the army to quell protests of women and striking factory workers demanding bread, but this only inflamed hungry protesters and encouraged revolt across the country. By the end of 1918, Tsar Nicholas II was executed at the hands of the new Soviet government.
The last major US general strike hit Oakland in 1946 after police bussed in scabs to break a department store workers’ picket. Amid high unemployment and inflation, Oakland truck drivers and streetcar operators, who were incensed by the state-sponsored strikebreaking, helped spread the strike throughout the city.
When living conditions are bad enough for enough people, the government’s response to protesters’ reasonable demands, however local or limited those demands are, can cause enormous and unexpected outrage — outrage that then fuels far wider protests for far more radical demands. This is exactly what we have seen in the streets all across the United States since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.
Even before Floyd’s murder, millions of workers were suffering under the worst pandemic in a century. The police continued to kill black people with impunity. The super rich got ever richer: America’s billionaires piled up an additional $434 billion just since the pandemic started, bringing their total wealth to over $3.3 trillion — more than the wealth of the bottom 60 percent of Americans combined. Our immigration system continued to be characterized by endless horrors. In retrospect, it should have been no surprise that rage simmering just beneath the surface over all of those issues and more has exploded once it was given a catalyst, in the form of a video of a blatant police murder by a white cop against an unarmed black man.
After ten days of protests in over a hundred cities, protesters’ demands have escalated. Those demands rightfully include an end to racist and militarized policing. We must also demand a worker-centered response to the Covid-19 health and economic crisis which is killing thousands. All these crises are connected to the crushing economic injustice of the social order that police are tasked with defending. To win, we must take that social order head on.
Defund the Police and Invest in Our Lives
At first, outrage focused on indicting George Floyd’s murderer, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and his three accomplices. Chauvin was eventually charged with third-degree murder, which would mean that prosecutors believe Chauvin did not “intend” to kill Floyd despite the fact that Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and Floyd repeatedly choked out the words “I can’t breathe.” That changed with yesterday’s announcement that Chauvin would be charged with second-degree murder and the three other officers would also face charges. Yet it’s clear that Chauvin should actually be charged with first-degree murder. And recent, similar police murders have still gone unpunished: Breonna Taylor’s killers in the Louisville police department, who broke into the twenty-six-year-old health care worker’s home and shot her eight times.
Floyd is one of countless unarmed black Americans murdered in cold blood by police over the last decade. Some of these murders, especially when they are captured on cell phone videos and go viral, have incited nationwide protests. But the scale of the protests and the horrific degree of police repression against protesters since last week has led to more ambitious demands — most importantly, the demand to drastically reduce the bloated police budgets that funnel enormous amounts of resources to police brutality and incarceration rather than meeting human needs.
Oakland, where I live, spends 41 percent of its budget on policing while, even before coronavirus, thousands sleep on the street, public schools are criminally underfunded, and brown and black children in poor neighborhoods have lead poisoning rates worse than Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, the police have been involved in countless killings and scandals, including participating in a multi-agency sex trafficking ring involving minors.
Over the last fifty years, American cities have seen major budget cuts, unions have been decimated, workers have lost jobs and affordable housing, our essential infrastructure has crumbled, poverty and homelessness has skyrocketed. But city and state governments, with federal support, have turned to policing and prisons to violently control unemployed and poor people — especially black and brown people but whites, too — instead of providing jobs and resources to bring them out of poverty.
Most cities now have an expensive and militarized police force that brutalizes poor people with impunity. Add to that the apparent right-wing radicalization of police across the country — who parrott Fox News conspiracy theories and think they are fighting a war against an armed left-wing militia — and we get the current reign of police terror in response to peaceful protests.
While police are targeting black protesters with far more violence, their violence against white protesters, journalists, and random bystanders is a reminder, for whites who think the issue doesn’t affect them, of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s warning: “Far and away, African Americans suffer most from the blunt force trauma of the American criminal justice system, but the pervasive character of law-and-order politics means that whites get caught up in its web as well.”
So it’s good to see the demand in countless protest signs everywhere to “defund the police.” Cutting police budgets will actually reduce police power in the streets and in politics, unlike liberal procedural tweaks like the new #8Can’tWait campaign being promoted by DeRay McKesson, Oprah, and other celebrities.
The demand to defund is also a call to decriminalize poverty and reinvest our society’s resources in humane and socially useful goods and services like schools, housing, health care, transportation, and renewable energy infrastructure. As the military and police mobilize a near nationwide shutdown with massive staging facilities and untold billions in equipment, viral comparisons of to nurses wearing trash bags make clear that our society has the material capacity, just not the political will, to deal with a pandemic in a compassionate and effective way.
The demand to defund the police and refund other services has the potential to unify a broader movement at this crucial moment. Activists fighting for all sorts of economic demands can clearly see how their success hinges on the success of the movement against racist police violence. Just this sort of unity at a national scale will be necessary to build on the energy from Bernie Sanders’s two campaigns and a resuscitated labor movement in order to wage a united fight against police fascism and our government’s inhumane COVID–19 response.
We should also be calling to tax the rich, especially billionaires like Jeff Bezos who has made $34 billion since March. Redistribution from the rich and the police to essential public goods is especially important given the looming budgetary crisis caused by the coronavirus recession. Activists can take up this demand by researching how much of their city’s budget is spent on policing (including for police brutality lawsuits — Chicago spent $113 million on such lawsuits in 2018 alone) and supporting other public-sector unions in demanding that recession-driven cuts be taken out of the police budget, not much-needed social services.
End the Curfews and Take Back the Streets
Bloated police budgets are always a poison for American cities. But the recent spate of curfews, which police are using to clear the streets of vandals and peaceful protesters alike, should also be opposed vigorously. The Left has learned, as Alex Vitale put it, “No true progressive movement can flourish in a police state.”
In total, tens of millions of Americans are now under curfew for the first time in decades. While police and public officials from both parties claim these curfews are in the interest of preventing violence and property destruction, the main instigators of violence are very clearly the police themselves. By ceding our cities’ streets to violent police and white vigilantes, politicians are not only throwing away our freedom to engage in public protest, but sanctioning unconstitutional terror and repression in the name of “law and order.” These curfews highlight the frightening extreme right-wing or even pro-fascist current in the United States, including cops raising the Thin Blue Line flag and President Trump himself.
Still, the United States is not at this moment descending into actual fascism, and despite the brutality in the streets, much is happening that is actually quite heartening.
For one thing, the protests have been remarkably multiracial, something that has not always been the case in protest movements. Second, the fact that a majority of Americans support the ongoing protests is comforting. A majority even say protesters’ burning down the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct was justified. This continues the trend from Black Lives Matter protests five years ago: major protests in response to police killings won over a majority of the public to protesters’ perspective that racism and police violence are major problems.
Still, all is not well — not just with the actions of police in the streets, but also with Democratic mayors and governors who legitimize police terror with their hemming and hawing about individual responsibility and “outside agitators.”
That is why it is heartening that protesters from Oakland to New York are not hesitating to demand an end to police curfews, even risking violence and arrest to defy them.
Finally, activists are right to call for the resignation of not only Trump, but all “liberal” Democratic mayors and other public officials who have allowed police to use curfews as a pretense to brutalize peaceful protests. Democrats have allowed extreme and unconstitutional repression to become the acceptable bipartisan “center” of US politics; we have to change that.
Worker-Centered COVID-19 Response and Recovery
Recent police killings and crackdowns come on top of the cruel inaction and profiteering that define our country’s response to coronavirus. With 100,000 dead and 30 million out of work — and with black Americans drastically overrepresented among both groups — billionaires are using the crisis to plunder workers, neighborhoods, and the public sector. George Floyd himself was unemployed due to the pandemic and looking for work in Minneapolis when he was accused of forgery.
Chris Brooks writes in Labor Notes that employers are lobbying for a deadly reopening of the economy because they stand to profit enormously. Our government has not set up the systems needed for a safe reopening, like testing and contact tracing and a massive increase in spending on healthcare and other services. But billionaires are already pushing governments to “lower taxes and to gut services despite the glaring evidence, revealed by the pandemic, that we need more government, not less.” Their principle is,“Recovery for me, poverty for thee.”
For black Americans during the pandemic, poverty and racism have combined horrifically. “Black mortality from COVID-19 is over 3.5 times higher than it is for whites because of poverty, pollution, lack of health insurance, crowded housing and transportation,” Brooks writes in the Call, “and the fact that such a high percentage of essential workers are people of color. One out of every 2,000 black Americans has died from this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, David Sirota explains that at the same time NYPD are brutalizing protesters, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo “granted health care executives legal immunity for their profit-maximizing decisions that may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of people in nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic.”
The United States is long overdue for a serious and worker-centered response to the pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused. The health and economic impacts are far worse in the United States due to the extreme austerity — except for ballooning police and military budgets — of the last fifty years. Protesters have to demand we reverse that.
Fighting to Win
While we might not be heading for a 1789-style revolution, activists are staying in the streets in the face of escalating violence and demanding solutions to the deep crises workers face. History teaches us that events can move at breakneck speed in such times. It also teaches us that we can win.
Even if street protests wane in the coming weeks, none of these demands will become irrelevant anytime soon. In order to keep momentum, activists will have to keep the focus on clear demands like defunding the police. We need to build broad, multiracial, democratic organizations that can anchor this movement for the long haul while innovating protest tactics that can work at scale during social distancing.
Left union activists should organize with their coworkers in calling for the labor movement to champion protesters’ demands, and workers should take direct action to support protests wherever possible. As Paul Heideman writes, “Significantly weakening the police will require a tremendous amount of social power,” and organized workers carrying out persistent “nonviolent coercion against capital and the state” are essential for a left movement to build this power.
Transit and food workers have already struck in multiple cities to stymy the police crackdown, and solidarity strikes that are not directly related to police or protests could still bolster the movement and apply pressure to capitalists and politicians to make concessions. Police unions should, at minimum, be kicked out of joint labor councils and isolated from the rest of the labor movement.
Left-wing elected officials should be pushed to speak out in support of the movement while introducing legislation channeling movement demands. Incredibly, this demand is already being pushed in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Oakland. Democrats who side with the police or take their campaign contributions should be isolated.
Socialists also have a duty, to paraphrase Mike Davis’s recent call to action, to ensure that the base of activists demobilized after the Sanders campaign is reactivated to fight to reclaim our streets from violent police and for a worker-centered coronavirus response. “We need to show them that there is a campaign—apart from the November elections—that calls for thousands of dedicated organizers and volunteers.” There is an opportunity to “to put real fire back into the hearth of solidarity” right now, and we must seize it.
While we were not ready for this upheaval, the Left has to support its growth and consolidation. Justice and democracy depend on it.