The police stared as the crowd grew, just a few blocks away from Philadelphia’s City Hall. The protest organizers explained that Black Lives Matter included fighting for Black trans and Black queer lives. As we gathered at the intersection, one of the cops snapped pictures of us.
We marched through the streets, alternating between chants and calling out the police. Some people rushed past us and traffic slowed. The cops formed a line, trailing after us silently, like a shadow.
As we marched past City Hall we passed families looking on, mostly Black, many of whom were waiting for the bus. Sweat glistened off their foreheads with bags of groceries at their feet, as they chanted with us. Parents and their children pumped their fists.
Since Minneapolis, protests against policing have spread across the country. According to the New York Times, the number of people involved in the recent BLM protests have surpassed any other social movement in generations, with over 20 million participating.
The topic of defunding the police (a short-term abolitionist goal) is now included in the “mainstream” news cycle and has shaped discussions on policy.
“I hope the protests move us toward dismantling the carceral state,” said Brittany Battle, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wake Forest University, who’s been active in the protests. “I think we are having national dialogues now that just 6 months ago would have been unimaginable. So yes, I think the protests are being more and more effective.”
Given the historic nature of these protests and their persistence in the face of right-wing terror, as evidenced in the uprisings in Kenosha over the police murder of Jacob Blake, it is critical to gather lessons from them. These lessons can guide our struggles against capitalism, especially in an age of neoliberal crisis.
The following reflections emerge from the writings of Black and Brown scholars of capitalism, and insights from Black comrades, including those who’ve participated in the recent protests.
Rebellions / “riots”
The moment that people poured into the streets to demand justice for the murder of George Floyd, the police responded with violence.
Jamel Love, a grad worker at Rutgers University whose research focuses on Black marginalization, stated:
At a protest I attended in South Bronx, the police were large in number, significantly outnumbering us and we observed that they cornered us and created the conditions where we would not be able to leave the protest site before citywide curfew was enforced, which resulted in a great deal of police aggression, hitting, and objects being thrown.
Tyriese James Holloway, a teacher in Philadelphia and an organizer, shared the following regarding a local protest:
During the actual protest, everything seemed rather ordinary and peaceful. There wasn’t a thing out of place. However, as we crossed JFK Blvd, I got a Signal message that there were police near the Art Museum. I was on my bike at the time telling attending protesters the message and to be careful. We leaked onto the highway protesting peacefully, and as we were going under the overpass, a large “boom” shook the crowd. People started to scatter like flies. I remember telling the crowd to stay calm as I was heading towards a gaping hole in the rectangle of the crowd. I look around and I see a Black brother showing off his scar to his friends saying that he got hit with a rubber bullet. He seemed rather calm about it. Then, my eyes started to feel the ghastly presence of tear gas in the air. I have never been tear-gassed before, but I’ve compared it to the Holy Ghost—when it’s there, your body has no choice but to prepare for seizure.
The violent response of police has ironically elevated the topic of defunding law enforcement into policy discussions at the state and local level. It also has galvanized more people into organizing around the goal of defunding.
In cities like New York, there have been liberal politicians of color claiming that defunding would lead to more harm for communities of color and that such campaigns to defund the police are the efforts of white progressives imposing their values over communities of color.
As scholars like James Foreman Jr. have astutely argued, what to do about policing has always been a complex issue. It is true that not everyone who is Black or Brown or even negatively affected by law enforcement are all on the side of wanting less cops.
Justin Zimmerman, a PhD student at Northwestern who studies Black political participation, explained:
The police are an institution that most Black folks dislike but are uneasy fully getting rid of for fear of compromising public safety. I don’t know many people that want to abolish the police, but there is deep distrust of police with an emphasis of using the police only as a last resort.
That being said, regardless of one’s point of view or the ways in which certain legislators wield racial identity as a means of preventing the rest of us from developing a healthier and robust concept of public safety, the reality is that having more police does not correlate with safety and crime reduction. A range of experts, including Black and Brown scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis, among others, have made it known for years now that the police and prisons do not exist to care for people, especially people from historically oppressed groups. Furthermore, defunding is the shifting of resources from policing into services that people need, including mental health resources.
But the brutality of the police toward the people they are supposed to “protect and serve” is not an accident. It is a product of their role in capitalist society. Overall, the police’s role has always been to “manage” historically oppressed populations, whose liberation would disrupt the social order produced by capitalism, especially during times of economic and political “crisis”. Brittany Battle explains:
The system is working exactly as it was designed to work. The original law enforcement were slave patrols. Slave codes and vigilante laws allowed all white people to police the movements of any Black person. This white supremacist origin of the current system means that it cannot be reformed. The carceral state must be dismantled.
Our country is now mired in another economic and political crisis, this time produced from forty years of neoliberal mayhem, which has led to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a corporate elite.
As neoliberal policies have gutted worker rights and bourgeois democracy, neoliberal policymakers have sought to develop a constituency that would support them. This constituency includes the middle class and law enforcement. Like in most capitalist countries across the globe, segments of the middle class are at the vanguard of right-wing politics. This is a result of how the middle class was formed, with private banks lending cheap credit for mainly European Americans to buy homes and open businesses in all-white suburban communities. Neoliberal policy-makers preserve the material advantages that many in the middle class have, such as allowing predominantly white suburban communities to prevent the construction of low-income housing near them.
Members of law enforcement are part of this middle-class constituency. Police budgets have risen and compared to other public sector workers, police officers still have access to a version of the “American Dream,” owning a home and retiring with a pension.
Therefore, the first lesson is that due to material incentives, institutions serving the neoliberal social order, especially the police, will not willingly give up their power. The police do not care about crime. They care about protecting their power under the existing social order, which means having the right to abuse and harass and kill those of us who are economically and racially oppressed.
This leads into the second lesson: that protests and actions that undermine the legitimacy of the status quo, such as undermining the “sanctity” of private property or protests targeting all legislators regardless of party affiliation, are more likely to shift politics. The society we live in is shaped to fit the needs and interest of capital, from policies protecting private property rights to the media depicting “entrepreneurs” as exemplars of the American Dream. Those in power expect people to “responsibly” voice their concerns by voting.
Therefore, the acts of looting that have taken place, the tearing down of statues without permission, the burning down of police precincts, and the daily protests challenging the empty rhetoric of neoliberal Democrats, are pushing beyond the “comfort levels” of those complicit in the neoliberal order.
“The protests are symbolic of a volcanic eruption and people are becoming angrier, more passionate, and more determined to force change instead of waiting for local leaders or some political savior to emerge in the Democratic party,” Love said.
This is critical to remember as liberal leaders and community leaders promote the idea that changes to policing (among other structural problems) can be resolved by voting into power left-leaning legislators. Figures like Barack Obama among others imply that voting supersedes protest as the real tool for change.
History, however, reveals to us that protests that go beyond electoral politics generate the momentum and opportunity for systemic change, even when “sympathetic” legislators are in Congress. We saw this during the height of labor struggles during the New Deal, when Democratic Party politicians themselves were still hesitant in addressing labor issues until workers occupied factories and led strikes.
This was also seen during the modern civil rights movements of the 1950s to the early 1970s. Legislators who claimed to care about civil rights failed to follow through with their promises. It took sit-ins and confrontations with the police in the Jim Crow South to finally force Congress to act. Similarly, it took civil unrest in the 1960s to generate more investment in neighborhoods by Great Society Democrats who otherwise would have preferred to take their time dealing with societal inequities in a way that would have left the underlying inequalities untouched.
Sustaining rebellions at the ground level doesn’t negate the importance of channeling rage, frustration, and defiance into institutional organizing such as recruiting people into tenant unions and worker committees. Yet, the protests are why we’ve been seeing cities and towns moving forward with plans to defund the police. They must continue and grow.
Race and class
The next lesson is that the experience of racial discrimination can serve as a gateway toward a broader critique of our neoliberal/capitalist order. Despite some seeing identity politics as an obstacle toward forming radical class politics and others denying the ways in which identity politics can be appropriated to preserve neoliberalism, one’s experience as a historically racially oppressed group in the U.S. can be critical in developing a systemic critique of our economic and political institutions.
“I identify with revolutionary socialism, and without a doubt my racial and gendered identity plays a role with my politics,” Holloway explained, “It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone would become a socialist independent of either.”
In the U.S., race has played a decisive role in shaping the demographics of the country’s working class. In an effort to sustain bourgeois democracy, in which capitalism can be reformed but never replaced, the major landowners and aspiring capitalists, from the beginning of the country’s “founding,” have created coalitions with segments of the “white” working class. Extreme forms of exploitation and oppression that capitalists need, such as enslavement and the snatching away of lands, were imposed on groups racialized as “Black” and Indigenous and later on populations colonized in the former territories of Mexico and Asian migrants.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was political momentum in addressing the economic legacy of U.S. capitalism. However, this potential was squandered, due to a combination of factors, including the inability of revolutionary left and mainstream labor groups to unify against the resurgent right-wing.
Today, a large segment of Black, Latinx, and a growing number of Asians remain at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. Any chance at social mobility for these groups have become nearly impossible, with many either forced into long periods of unemployment or working in unsafe and/or low-wage jobs. Overall, many Black Americans and others who are “non-white” are more likely to experience the blunt force of neoliberal capitalism, including being vulnerable to attack by those invested in preserving the neoliberal social order, including the police and white vigilantes. As policies that would address the economic legacy of white supremacy have been dismissed, the police and white vigilantes have played a significant role in managing “unrest” produced by neoliberalism. This “management of unrest” has often meant the targeting and harassment of Black and Brown peoples. Love explained:
I feel that for many Black and non-Black people alike, either knowing someone or having experienced police brutality, violence, excessive force, and misconduct have disillusioned our attitudes around the police’s stated purpose to protect and serve. We see that it does not protect and serve us, it’s there to protect and serve others from the threat of us, no matter how non-existent. The police serve as the most interpersonal contact with the racial state authority apparatus and negative interactions drive the politics of many people I strongly believe.
The harassment and violence endured at the hands of law enforcement and by white vigilantes is a jarring experience for many, one that can spur the process of disillusionment with the “American Dream”. Battle stated:
These protests are happening because Black people have had enough of watching folks who look like us murdered by state violence on video. The current movement is entirely a response to capitalism and white supremacy. The U.S. was built on the foundation of capitalism and white supremacy and these forces remain active in maintaining the oppression of Black people.
This is not to suggest that every Black or Brown person is a Marxist or a radical the moment they gather enough experiences coded as “racial discrimination” and prejudice. However, like in the late 1960s and early 1970s, revolutionary left organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords recognized that people in their communities were experiencing the worst types of abuse under capitalism due to their racial positions. Thus, they knew they could step in and provide more context to people in their communities, who at the very least understood that life was unfair.
Today, groups racialized as Black have been on the frontline of neoliberal decay. Covid-19 has laid bare the cruelty of our neoliberal institutions, with no policies put forth providing healthcare, housing and food so people can actually live and feel safe from the virus. Holloway elaborated:
I think that these protests are happening because people are in a situation where they cannot escape themselves or their situation. We know that the deceased has and will receive their stimulus check months before the living. As Avatar the Last Airbender was hitting Netflix, America saw the atavistic killing of George Floyd, which looked like Eric Gardner, which mirrored the thousands of anti-Black lynchings since the foundation of America. It’s hard to say that a nation can be ignorant and moral at the same time, but a large amount of people had to be honest with what they had in their bank accounts and their values with limited distractions; which during a “shelter in place” order during the midst of a pandemic, it provided a controlled environment to show the failings of a “Great Social Experiment”.
With the economy “opening up” while a growing number of people are without a stable source of income, there will be more people seeking to express their rage and frustration. Anticipating this, it is critical to focus now on how we move ahead in achieving justice and what role the rebellions can play in that effort.
First and foremost, the rebellions in the streets must continue, even as the rage and frustration are channeled into community organizations, lobbying groups, and labor unions. As elaborated earlier, political opportunity for short-term reforms to take place institutionally will depend on the continuation of protests and rebellions. Battle explained:
We cannot let up. We cannot take our foot off the gas in this moment. We have to stay in the streets as long as possible to keep these issues at the forefront. And while these issues are at the forefront of national conversations, then we need to get to work at the local and state level to push the agenda of dismantling the carceral state. This means calling for defunding local police departments, removing police from school systems (K-12 and higher ed), pouring thoughtful resources into our most marginalized communities, drastically reducing the jail and prison population. These are mostly localized decisions that require us making our voices heard in the places we are.
The rebellions are also a clarion call for historically oppressed groups. As Fanon once noted, the masses develop confidence in themselves when directly confronting their oppressors together. “Enlightened by violence, the people’s consciousness rebels against any pacification,” Fanon stated.
In an era in which Black communities remain gutted, Mexican and Central American migrants are detained in concentration camps, an increase in anti-Asian violence, and an increase in despair among working people generally, rebellions become the space in which people can relate to one another. “It’s a big deal that so many people from so many walks of life are unified in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter,” Zimmerman stated.
Black socialist and communist leaders, thinkers and movements understood that no single racial or ethnic group has the numbers or economic power to win against the forces of capital. Either they will be isolated by those benefiting from the status quo, including liberal politicians, or will be violently crushed.
For many Latinx people today, law enforcement, whether as local police or ICE, is a burden. Asians too, in particular regions of the country, experience profiling by law enforcement. Many Black, Latinx and Asian Americans now share deteriorating living and working conditions. Still, one cannot belittle the skepticism among Black organizers and activists. Holloway shared:
Outside of political arenas, I don’t feel that most white comrades know how to hold intimate spaces with black people without their guilt and my distrust being a barrier and we live different lives and I think that many are too comfortable with that. In my personal life, I can confidently say that I have very few white people who I consider close to me. I’m always pacing back and forth with the idea of my participation in multiracial organizing, as it is often against my instincts, and I’m more afraid of, that it is a resigned acceptance of the integrationist present. I also feel that I’m betraying Fred Hampton’s advice about black organizing with white comrades too, as a structural inevitability and I think about the Black Communist sharecroppers in the 30’s frustration with working with white comrades and the marginalization that they went through.
The national DSA and its various chapters should serve as spaces where people from different backgrounds from the community and from other organizations invested in defunding and abolishing the police can meet and hash out their differences. At our Central Jersey DSA chapter, we hold weekly abolish the police Zoom meetings where people, regardless of whether or not they’re officially members, can attend and discuss and organize from.
Our chapter believes that as socialists, we must play an active role in the rebellions, which has ranged from endorsing and providing material support for protests organized by community organizations and activists who have been doing this work for years, to recruiting more people to the cause. As others in DSA have argued in the pages of Tempest, we must be clearly helping the rebellions. Often (and this is something that our chapter has done when organizing around tenants’ rights, workers’ rights and immigration) it necessitates coalition work with other organizations. We are not interested in recruiting people to the DSA or reinventing the wheel when dealing with a critical issue. Instead, we want to win power for workers and for Black and Brown people and doing that means organizing with more and more people beyond our chapter.
Without dealing head-on with issues of anti-Blackness and other forms of discrimination, tensions could rupture between groups, providing opportunity for “reformists” to co-opt the protests. Love explained:
I see the protest being likely to be co-opted by liberal/reformist elites and commodified in excess by corporations seeking social and cultural capital from expressing solidarity for company gain and favorable profit margins.
We must do what many Black socialists and communists and radicals have done throughout history, which is to stare into the abyss of our current moment and not revert to “romanticized” answers to our problems. The stakes are too high.
“For me, this movement is life or death,” Battle stated.
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University and a writer and organizer. You can find his work at outlets like Protean Magazine, CounterPunch, and Reappropriate.