Hundreds of thousands marched in hundreds of cities across the US on the weekend in the largest demonstrations since the racist police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. Worldwide, there were also protests in hundreds of cities involving hundreds of thousands of youth and workers, demonstrating against racism and police violence, both locally and in solidarity with the mass movement in the US.
The ruling class, having realised repression cannot stop the movement, has shifted gear somewhat towards damage limitation and using the carrot rather than the stick.
In the United States alone, the powerful mass protest movement that has been going on for two weeks, far from weakening, has actually got stronger. Over 1,000 cities and towns across the country have now seen protests and marches. The largest demonstrations to take place on Saturday and Sunday were in some of the country’s largest urban centres, with tens of thousands marching in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington. – all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the movement has spread even to small towns in the South, places generally regarded as conservative or even backward. The New York Times reported the mood, on Petal, Mississippi, a small town of 10,000 inhabitants, where hundreds have been protesting after the callous twitter comments of the local Mayor, Mr Marx (!!), who said he “didn’t see anything unreasonable” in the video showing George Floyd choked to death by Minneapolis police officer Chauvin.
Petal is just one example, according to the Times:
“It has been similar in other smaller communities across the country, including in Georgia, Alabama, Montana and North Dakota, reflecting the depths to which Mr. Floyd’s death has resonated and the overflowing reservoir of exasperation it has tapped into. In some towns, people are organizing or attending demonstrations for the first time.”
All opinion polls show overwhelming support for the movement. One of the latest, conducted by Washington Post-Schar between 2-7 June, showed a massive 74 percent support for the protests, including 54 percent of Republicans. There is also widespread opposition to Trump’s handling of the protests, with 61 percent saying they disapprove, including 47 percent that they “strongly disapprove”.
These huge demonstrations took place after 10 days of brutal police repression, curfews, the National Guard on the streets, tear gas, police officers driving their cars straight into crowds and in some cases shooting more innocents dead. None of that stopped youth and workers – black, white, Latino, Asian, Arab – from coming out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands.
Damage limitation by the ruling class
Faced with this unprecedented show of defiance, the US ruling class has been forced to back off from the more open forms of repression and is now attempting to defuse the movement, engaging in an exercise of damage limitation and trying to offer concessions to prevent the uprising from escalating even further.
In many cities, the curfew has been lifted, the National Guard is progressively being withdrawn and even Trump, while still making all sorts of inflammatory statements, is no longer talking of using the Army against the people.
This does not mean that the repression is over. There were still many incidents of police brutality, including the use of tear gas against peaceful demonstrators in Seattle, but what is clear is that the ruling class has realised repression was not working and in fact was having a counterproductive effect. They decided it was time to rein in their attack dogs.
The Democratic Party, which rules many of the most important urban centres with police departments notorious for killing and harassing black people, including Minneapolis, has now mobilised to try to contain and defuse the movement. The Washington Post carried a report about “organizers who stepped in to bring discipline to the rallies, working behind the scenes with the Democratic National Committee. Among the events [they] helped to schedule was a Thursday march from Farragut Square to the White House and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was attended by DNC Chairman Tom Perez.” The largely spontaneous nature of the movement and the lack of any clear leadership allowed the Democratic Party to step in – yet again attempting to keep discontent within channels that are safe for capitalism.
We have seen the disgusting, cynical images of the House Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, taking the knee, while their party had been at the forefront of brutal repression against the protesters in New York, to give one example.
In a postmodern twist, politicians who never said a word about systemic racism and violence in law enforcement, including many who condemned the “violence” of protesters, now queue up to carry out “gestures” and take advantage of photo opportunities: kneeling down, painting slogans on the tarmac and removing statues lest they are toppled by protesters. Big corporations have been branding themselves as anti-racist in an attempt to cash in on the movement. Even the police cynically take the knee in front of the protesters, just before unleashing tear gas on them.
Several police departments and states have now banned “choke holds”. Similar legislation has been proposed by House Democrats. Of course, none of this would have happened had it not been for the mass uprising against police violence. They are trying to appease the movement with symbolic gestures and crumbs. George Floyd was choked to death, but in the last week alone, two Latino youth were gunned down. Erik Salgado from Oakland was shot 40 times by California Highway Patrol next to his pregnant wife. Sean Monterossa from San Francisco was shot five times by Vallejo PD while on his knees, unarmed, with his hands above his waist.
Eteng Ettah, a community organiser with Black Youth Project 100 quoted in the Washington Post delivered a clear verdict on the attempts by politicians to introduce “policing reforms”: “Folks aren’t interested in reform anymore. The system is beyond reform. Everything that’s included is just a Band-Aid. A different training here or a different protocol there will not be enough to stop the police violence in the city.”
He is absolutely right and we know because this is exactly what happened after the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The level of concessions that the ruling class is prepared to offer to a given movement is directly proportional to the strength of the movement. The fact that a majority of Minneapolis council members have pledged to “defund and dismantle” the Police Department is a testament to the power of the uprising in the city where it started. The capitalist establishment has realised that promises of piecemeal reform will no longer have any impact on the protesters, who made their feelings clear when they burned down the third precinct.
Even more than that. The protesters in Minneapolis not only burned down one of the police precincts, but they also started building neighbourhood defence committees and patrols, in most cases armed, to provide local protection, instead of the hated police. The Washington Post reported:
“Across Minneapolis, community-organized citizen patrols have sprung up in recent weeks as confidence in the Minneapolis Police Department has plummeted.”
The article describes the situation in North Minneapolis, where “the local chapter of the NAACP has begun to try to do just that: Create a community alternative to police with armed citizen patrols. They call their group the Minnesota Freedom Riders, a reference to the civil rights activists who rode buses through the segregated South in 1961.” Dozens have joined the group and most of them are armed: “They checked in with a woman holding a clipboard, who gathered their contact information, asked how many were in their parties, and noted whether they were armed. Almost all of them said they were.” After signing up they were given instructions and education on their roles and tasks.
Minneapolis NAACP President Leslie Redmond who coordinated this initiative told them:
“Too often, when black people are trying to do the right thing and fight, we are left defenseless, and America has shown us time and time again that they’re not coming to our protection, so we’ve got to protect ourselves.”
Redmond explained how she let the Minneapolis Police Chief and the National Guard know about the citizen patrols they have set up. “She wasn’t asking them for permission, she insists; she just wanted to let them know: “We are activating our community.” These are extraordinary developments, taking place in the most advanced capitalist nation on Earth, and reveal a massive leap in consciousness under the hammer blows of events.
“Defunding the police” has become one of the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement this time, but the slogan can mean different things to different people. To the protesters, it clearly means that they think the problem is not one of a few bad apples, nor one which can be solved with measures of “control” and “accountability”. The slogan points towards the need to do away, root and branch, with an organisation that is rightly seen as inherently racist and violent, not to be trusted with defending citizens’ lives and property. This is potentially a revolutionary conclusion. The police is a component part of the capitalist state: armed bodies of men and women in defence of private property. The fact that their legitimacy has been eroded to the point where a mass movement has put forward demands - although they are still undeveloped - calling for it to be disbanded, is extremely significant.
But when the Democrats in the Minneapolis city council say they are pledging themselves to defunding the police, in reality they are playing with words. When the mayor was confronted point blank by the protesters he refused to support their demand. What they really mean is something along the lines of “establishing a commission, lasting a few years, to study how best to conduct policing”. While Minneapolis councilman Jeremiah Ellison, tweeted “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.,” Minneapolis city council president, Lisa Bender was more careful in her choice of words: “Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”
Council member Philp Cunningham also offered a “clarification” aimed at lowering people’s expectations: “Clarification: We did not vote to disband the police yesterday. A super majority of the City Council formally announced support for beginning the process of doing so to build new systems of public safety. That distinction matters because a plan has to be put into place first.” So, no disbanding of the police. Crucially, he added: “Creating the plan to build new systems of public safety is THE critical component of getting this right. We have to work alongside our amazing Police Chief Rondo and our community to build these new systems and plan to transition to them” (my emphasis).
Creating the plan to build new systems of public safety is THE critical component of getting this right. We have to work alongside our amazing Police Chief Rondo and our community to build these new systems and plan to transition to them. 2/— Phillipe Cunningham (@CunninghamMPLS) June 8, 2020
So, we start from a headline grabbing announcement of “disbanding the police department” … and we end up with “working alongside” the existing head of police in order to create a new police department under another name. This is a textbook example of what is known as whitewashing, giving something a coat of white paint, while maintaining the old rotten structure underneath.
They hope that, once the masses are off the streets and the movement quiets down, everything will be forgotten. At best, if there is enough sustained pressure, they might substantially cut down the attributions of the Police Department, thus reducing its budget, give a few of its functions to other bodies and maintain a core police service, perhaps under a different name.
Even the idea of actually doing away with the current Police Department is going to be extremely complicated to carry out for the council. The PD is extremely powerful and will not go without a fight – one that Democrats in the council are neither prepared nor willing to undertake. Others are already publicly putting distance between themselves and the “defund the police” slogan, including Democratic candidate-to-be Joe Biden.
Of course, the capitalists, the media and the so-called experts will tell us, in all detail, how it is not possible to disband the police. “Crime would go up” cries the Wall Street Journal. “LAW AND ORDER” thunders Mr. Trump on twitter. Here they are trying to tap into the genuine fears of ordinary people, who are fully aware that petty crime exists and threatens them on a daily basis. In fact, the community patrols that have been set up in the neighbourhoods are an indication that ordinary people feel the need for some kind of protection. The point is that they no longer trust the police.
Disbanding/defunding the police: what does it mean?
Is it possible to disband the police? The police are a crucial part of the capitalist state. As long as there is a society divided into classes, a ruling class that is a minority and a working class that is a majority but excluded from the political and economic power, a police force in some form or another will always exist. This does not mean that we should defend the existence of the police. Quite the opposite! What it means is that we should draw all the necessary conclusions from the situation. If we want to abolish the police, we need to abolish class society.
The neighbourhood defence patrols in Minneapolis show what would be possible. A big majority of the crimes that take place in a capitalist society are the result of the existence of an enormous gulf between the poor and the rich; the conditions of deprivation to which poor neighbourhoods are subject; the racism against blacks, Latinos and other minorities. The majority of these could be eradicated if everyone had access to a decent job, good quality education, decent housing, healthcare and a fair pension. The rest could be dealt with by citizen defence patrols funded by the public, elected and accountable and controlled by neighbourhood assemblies.
But the capitalist system cannot guarantee these things (jobs, housing, education, healthcare). For that to happen, the wealth of the handful of billionaires who control the bulk of the economy should be expropriated and run by working people through a democratic plan of production to satisfy the needs of the majority. These are the real implications of the demand for the abolition of the police and the only way in which a force which is under the control of working people themselves could ever be established. And that requires a revolution.
The movement we are witnessing in the United States is not yet a revolution, but there is no doubt that it has revolutionary implications. That is why the ruling class is so worried and will try, by all means at their disposal – the stick of repression, but also with the carrot of concessions – to put an end to it, to smooth over its more radical edges, to push it down safe channels of council committees and presidential elections.
The labour movement is the force that can not only provide the necessary organisational muscle for the potential development of neighbourhood defence patrols, but also has the power to stop production and hit the billionaires where it hurts. There have been small instances of trade union participation in the movement, with transport workers refusing to collaborate with the police in Minneapolis and New York, with the backing of their union.
On the day of George Floyd’s funeral in Houston, there was another instance. Longshore workers in all ports across the US, West Coast, East Coast and the Gulf, stopped labour for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time Floyd was under Chauvin’s knee, in solidarity with the victims of “systemic racism and police terror”. That is a small, symbolic action, but a very significant one. Now the ILWU will be going on strike for eight hours in 29 different ports on the West Coast on Juneteenth, the 19 June holiday celebrating the Emancipation Declaration in 1865.
The strike has been called “to demand an end to white supremacy, an end to police terror, and an end to the plans to privatise the port of Oakland – which would take away essential jobs for working-class African Americans in the Bay Area”, says Clarence Thomas, the former secretary treasurer of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10. This is an example to follow and as Thomas says: “we’re calling on unions across the country to join us in this action on Juneteenth. It’s time. Labor must begin to take a lead in the fight against racist police terror.” Juneteenth can and should become a focal point of organised labour actions as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The way in which the movement has also spread internationally is very significant. It reveals several things. One is the fact that, in all countries, without exception, racism and police violence are a problem to one degree or another. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the capitalist state has the monopoly of violence on behalf of the ruling class. The movement around the world is therefore not just in solidarity with George Floyd and the struggle in the US. It is also a movement bringing out the issues of police violence and racism in each one of the countries where it is developing.
Even more than that. As in the US, the explosive nature of the movement, with demonstrations of tens of thousands taking place in conditions of lockdown, reveals a deep-seated mood of anger and discontent, which goes beyond the immediate issue of the racist police killing of George Floyd.
It is connected to the way the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the real face of the capitalist system, the way in which human lives come second to the endless pursuit of profit on the part of a parasitical minority. If you have money you can get tested, if you don’t you can’t. There is no money for PPE for healthcare workers but there is money for police riot gear. You should stay at home to prevent contagion, but if you are a worker you must go to work to keep your bosses’ profits flowing.
It is also connected to the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the onset of yet another economic recession, with tens of millions losing their jobs, tens of millions seeing their incomes reduced and tens of millions fearing for their futures.
All of this has created a very volatile mood, which is now spilling onto the streets.
In the same way that we have seen mass movements for women’s rights and against violence, for equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, there is a generation of youth who are instinctively rebelling against the oppressive norms and affronts of a system in crisis, which does not offer them any prospects for the future. Increasingly, this generation is winning over a majority of working people to their side.
The worldwide movement we are witnessing is just a harbinger of what is to come. The fact that it started with an uprising in Minneapolis, in the heart of the world’s imperialist superpower, is also a source of inspiration for workers and youth around the world. Yes, the US has one of the most reactionary presidents in the world, but it also has a vibrant, angry and defiant movement led by the youth, with the most oppressed layers of the black population at the forefront: a movement which forced Trump into a bunker in panic, a movement that burned down a police station, a movement that has defied police repression.
The task of Marxists is to actively and energetically participate in the movement, as we are already doing: “clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results” of the movement and within it to “bring to the front, as the leading question [...], the property question”, as Marx and Engels advised in the pages of the Communist Manifesto.