All across the globe, U.S. imperialism blows its horn, proclaiming to be the ultimate representative of a democratic society blessed by the rule of law, free speech and economic opportunity. It’s hard to know how many people still believe this, certainly not those who have suffered under U.S. military occupations and invasions or the arrogant demands of the U.S. State Department and banks. But perhaps there were still a few on May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd, a Black worker in Minneapolis, was murdered by the police over $20.
Everything that has happened since that fateful day has shown the world the real face of U.S. “democracy.” Those charged with upholding the law are the criminals; free speech has to be defended in the streets; and economic opportunity has been thoroughly hijacked by an elite, well-educated professional class that serves a white-supremacist class system run by billionaires openly or behind the scenes.
Something had to change
The spark that lit the powder keg was the casual, confident way in which Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, suffocated Floyd in front of onlookers while the unarmed man pleaded for his life.
The fact that this attitude is routine from coast to coast in many poor and working-class communities, but especially in Black neighborhoods, spread the flames from Minneapolis to the whole country. And local cops aren’t the only ones with this attitude. It is standard for a racist police establishment and its agents in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) along the borders, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which spies on Middle Eastern Americans, and the country’s other 17,983 local, state and federal police agencies.
On May 25, 2020, Floyd’s murder was the last straw. Black Lives Matter had been formed after the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Those were followed by the murders of Freddie Gray in 2015 and Breonna Taylor and Manuel Ellis in 2020. All were Black. There were protests too, over their deaths and others, but nothing fundamental changed. Until a 17-year-old woman stood her ground and videotaped Floyd calling to his mother and crying “I can’t breathe” — the same appeal uttered by Eric Garner in New York City.
By May 27, protests proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” had spread across the country and President Trump loudly considered using military force in Minneapolis. But the public (and at least a few generals past and present) were not in the mood for Trump to muzzle the First Amendment.
Anger and frustration spread like wildfire
Instead of winding down, the demonstrations got larger and larger after May 27. What had started out as local protests became a Black-led national conversation over structural racism and race; the high rate of death for Blacks in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; the failure of a privatized healthcare system to meet the needs of the poor; possible methods of community control over the police, like independent, elected civilian review boards with paid staff, special prosecutors and the power to investigate charges of police corruption or violence; and defunding the police or abolishing them entirely.
Blacks in every walk of life began to reveal their feelings of alienation, fear, exhaustion, anger, and isolation in a society which for 400 years has lynched and imprisoned them, denied them basic human rights to good education and housing, and failed to acknowledge the price they have paid in blood, sweat, tears, and enslaved or low-waged labor to make this country rich.
Crucially, many whites and other people of color listened sympathetically, in a break with the racial divisions that are so central to the power of the U.S. ruling class. They joined the marches and protests. What had begun as a predominantly Black protest grew into a great, multiracial rebellion against oppressive local police forces and an uncaring, unprofessional, lying federal government and its narcissistic president. Amid the tear gas, pepper balls and flash-bang grenades the slogan “Black lives matter!” rang out over and over again. What also seemed present in the way so many shouted the slogan was the feeling that when Black lives mattered, the lives of other oppressed and exploited people would matter too. The sense that fundamental change is necessary in all aspects of society grew.
A brewing political crisis
Widespread social tensions were already rising before Floyd’s murder — for many reasons, recent and longstanding. Among them was the president’s racist abuse of immigrants, his public approval of the extreme right wing, and his open hostility to advocates of civil rights.
A growing sector of the electorate views the president and the way U.S. “democracy” functions with mounting skepticism. Attacks on Black voting rights have become a national scandal. Racists and rapists have been defended as “loyal Americans” and “very good people” by the president. Congress is in a permanent deadlock. More than 2.2 million men and women are in prison, many of them Black. And government corruption is a pandemic of its own, as in the case of Alexander Acosta, Trump’s friend and former Secretary of Labor, who resigned in disgrace over a plea deal he made with pedophile billionaire and financier Jeffery Epstein.
There were plenty of other reasons to be disillusioned. Chief among them is that U.S. democracy is essentially reduced to presidential elections every four years in which voters get to choose between two, and only two, guardian parties of the status quo.
Young voters experienced the limits of bourgeois democracy strongly around the campaign of Bernie Sanders for president. They saw how the Democratic Party power brokers pushed Sanders out of the running and replaced him with Joe Biden, a colorless, lifelong politician whose main claim to fame was being President Obama’s vice president. They fill the streets today in solidarity with Black youth who are leading a radical challenge to the customary operation of politics in imperialism’s center.
Faced with the masses in the street, the Democrats and Republicans are holding on to power while hoping that making a few very weak reforms to policing will send everyone home. If it doesn’t, there is the threat of sending in heavily armed, active-duty military to keep the peace. Whiffs of a crackdown emanate regularly from the White House.
A faltering economy underlies everything
The groundwork for this expanding U.S. rebellion has been laid by the structural crisis of capitalism. Since 1971, there has been a falling rate of growth in the capitalist centers, as well as a deepening climate crisis and an enormous growth in capitalist profiteering and rising unemployment.
These scourges have hit the U.S. working class hard, especially the Black community. Because of centuries of racism, Blacks rank highest among the unemployed, suffer the poorest health, and have the least resources to face an economic downturn. Black women are in the toughest spot of all. Facing both rampant race and sex discrimination, they are at the bottom of every group in income. At the same time, they receive no meaningful assistance from a hostile government that views them as freeloaders.
Still Trump insists that things have been great for workers in general, and Blacks specifically, under his administration. In fact, there has been a slow and steady erosion of gains made in the 1960s for all workers. The enormous wealth gap in the U.S. between the billionaires and the millions of homeless people (many of them workers who are Black, or unemployed, or both) speaks for itself.
Wall Street and the Covid-19 pandemic
Toward the second half of 2019, U.S. economists began to talk about a coming economic slowdown or recession. However, Wall Street was still raking in the dough. Between February 12 and 19, 2020, the stock market reached an all-time high, only to fall a few days later in the largest decline since 2008. It dropped sharply again in early March due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the oil price war between Russia and OPEC. Globally stocks fell 25-30 percent as unemployment in the U.S. skyrocketed.
U.S. society was on edge. Almost 37 million people had filed for unemployment by mid-May, wiping out the job gains since the 2008 recession. The healthcare system was in a real crisis and the death tally ran every day, morning to evening, on the news. Additionally, the pension system was threatened by Wall Street instability, and many wondered if they would ever find work again.
Adding to the economic crisis was daily evidence of the political crisis in Washington, D.C.
The pandemic revealed Trump at his worst — completely unprepared and uninterested in leading the country in dealing with a real crisis. His dangerous, unscientific advice at daily press conferences proved again he is completely incompetent. As usual, he was full of threats and empty promises. He didn’t even pretend to be the president of everyone. The slogan “we’re all in this together” rang hollow amidst the shortages of personal protective equipment for medical and other essential workers — compounded by the federal government’s failure to mount a national plan to combat the spread of Covid-19.
To wear or not to wear a mask became politicized to the point that far-right populists, stirred up by right-wing media and political groups, staged rallies at state capitol buildings openly carrying handguns and semi-automatic weapons, demanding that business be opened again despite the pandemic.
All these factors lit the blaze that continues to burn across the country, especially as police killings persist and it became known that two Black men, found hanging from trees in Southern California, have been classified as suicides rather than investigated as possible lynchings.
Seattle: case study in a fluid movement
Protests in Seattle, Washington, have been among some of the strongest. The major north-south freeway that stretches from Mexico to Canada is regularly closed to traffic by demonstrators since the Black Lives Matter explosion. The city and surrounding towns are the site of dozens of protests, at times almost daily.
At the first peaceful demonstrations, Seattle police responded with an extremely heavy hand, prompting the city council to ban the use of chokeholds and pepper spray. A federal judge followed up by instituting a ban until Sept. 30 on the use of flash-bang grenades, pepper spray and CS gas (a chemical weapon widely used by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War).
Protesters’ anger at the police focused on the East Precinct station on Capitol Hill, a historically gay neighborhood. The police eventually withdrew from the station and an alternative community that came to be known as Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) was set up on the streets, in a six-block radius that included a park where many people camped out. Protesters kept the police at bay and held regular meetings to discuss policy.
The leadership of CHOP has been both ill-defined and changing over time. The mostly youthful population of CHOP is a mix of races and political leanings, among them radicals like Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, anarchists, independent Black organizers, representatives of Black business, and many of Seattle’s homeless people. Regular open discussions take place, but there has been no agreed-upon end goal, although a long list of common demands includes cutting the police budget by half; redirecting that money to social needs, particularly in the Black community; and dropping charges against everyone who has been arrested during the protests.
Given CHOP’s lack of accountable leadership and the growing irritation of the community surrounding it, the future of this utopian occupation has been hard to imagine, despite the passion and commitment of many of its members. As of this writing, it seems possible that the end is near. Self-appointed representatives negotiating with city officials had already ceded some of CHOP’s territory by the time the area became the scene of five shootings, two of them deadly, over nine days beginning on June 20. As many people began leaving voluntarily following the gun violence, the mayor announced her intention to retake control of the area and reinstall the police in precinct headquarters. The end came on July 1. After another shooting that killed a 16-year-old boy and wounded a 14-year-old, the police moved in, arrested the remaining 20 CHOP defenders and promised to reopen the police precinct.
Meanwhile, in more hopeful news from Seattle, one of the public discussions held in the community centered on a collaborative effort to kick the Seattle police union out of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council. Initiators of the action included Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), a socialist bloc in the council, and the Freedom Socialist Party. The resolution passed with 55 percent of the vote, the first such protest action across the country. A righteous act, a long time in coming.
Since the vote in the labor council, OWLS led a multi-union, multi-racial protest in support of Black public employees who face entrenched racism at the county transportation service. Their slogan “Black workers’ lives matter” places the struggle against racism where it can be won—in the working class.
The picture in Seattle, like in other cities, shows both the strengths and weaknesses of a spontaneous mass uprising, as well as the key role that the labor movement can play in bringing focus, definition, and the weight of its hundreds of thousands of organized workers to the struggle.
A struggle echoing around the world
When the most oppressed people in the U.S. rise up within the most violent and heavily armed country in the world, oppressed people join the fight and make it their own.
Just as during the 1960s Black civil rights struggle, marginalized people are taking the stage in their own countries. They are protesting both in solidarity with U.S. Blacks and to make demands for justice and an end to police violence and structural racism on their own accounts.
To name a few countries: protests have erupted in the United Kingdom, Syria, Brazil, Spain, France, Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, and Australia, while the super-oppressed Dalits are protesting the caste system in India.
Police reform: is it possible?
The Black Lives Matter mobilization began as a single-issue struggle within the confines of capitalist reform — to end police brutality. But it is growing beyond that into a multi-issue movement raising demands that have to do with every part of life. These include, among many other issues, good public schools, free education through college, the right of prisoners to vote, reinstatement of affirmative action, and an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. But the movement has yet to identify U.S. capitalism as the link connecting structural racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc., at home and in the world.
It may be possible to “Defund the police,” if what is meant is cutting police budgets and getting some of the money allocated to social services. It may be possible to win a modest level of community control of cops through independent, elected civilian review boards. Perhaps Congress can be pressured to pass a national prohibition on chokeholds at this time due to Floyd’s murder. (Rules like this have been instituted at the local level in the past and then ignored.) Approval could conceivably be won for cutting back the amount of surplus military equipment sent to local police forces under several federal programs (one currently has a requirement to use it at least once a year to keep it!). So could the establishment of a national database of abusive officers and an end to qualified immunity, a doctrine that prevents police from being held liable in certain cases of brutality.
But the strong enforcement of these reforms, should they somehow be passed, is hard to imagine under the current political and economic system, which is failing to meet people’s basic needs. The reality is instability and rebellion growing here and around the world, and the basic function of the police as capitalism’s front line against the masses.
A repressive apparatus is absolutely essential to maintain capitalist order and the rule of an infinitesimal ruling class over the long-suffering, working-class majority of all races and conditions. The threat to the ruling capitalist class is too great to dismantle the police power of the state.
A fundamental, international fight
Today there is talk of “reimagining policing,” but whatever oppressed people can imagine in the way of keeping communities safe, one has to realize community safety is not the purpose of policing under this system.
Capitalist policing is about protecting property, expanding markets and keeping the ultra-rich safe — everywhere and in every country. And if that means jailing millions of people and killing others to maintain a compliant, cheap workforce, so be it.
Capitalism and cops go hand in hand based on the unequal distribution of wealth, which creates scarcity for much of the world’s population, and the relentless competition inherent in the profit system.
The ultimate international police force is the U.S. military, whose job is to maintain stability and high profits around the world. This fact places the U.S. Black struggle against abuse by law enforcement on the world agenda.
Today’s struggle is revolutionary and international. We cannot end the militarization of the U.S. police without ending the U.S. militarization of the world. We can’t end institutionalized racism without replacing capitalism — a system which arose on the wealth created by an Indigenous land grab and the enslavement of Black labor. We can and must fight for survival reforms, but they will always be transitory and under constant attack until the day the international working class is in the driver’s seat.
The Black Lives Matter struggle in 2020 is hastening that day.
Curb cop violence with an independent, elected civilian review board
Slash police budgets and redirect to social needs
Disarm the cops and recall their military hardware
Expel police unions from the AFL-CIO
Free all Black Lives Matter protesters
For a United Front to defend Black lives
End racism and all forms of oppression through socialist revolution