There is a photo of a nurse from a demonstration going around the internet holding a sign that reads: “We fought Covid, now we will fight the police”. This captures what is happening in the United States today. Race and class are central in this anti-racist rebellion. There have been demonstrations in all major cities and even small towns with no history of protests, even in the south in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and many other cities and states.
Curfews have been imposed and been defied as thousands have taken to the street. There is a feeling that we cannot go back, and overnight what used to be the demands only of the radical left have become mainstream, with demands such as ‘Defund the Police’ and ‘Abolish the police’.
Politicians, Democrats mostly, are rushing to catch up with the movement with promises of reform. For example, the mayor of New York City declared he will cut back the funding for New York Police Department, a demand from the left which has been around since the early 1990s. In just weeks the movement has managed to wring major concessions. In Minneapolis, the City Council has voted to abolish the police altogether because it cannot be reformed.
Of course, in the absence of revolutionary upheaval this is highly unlikely to happen, but it’s a testament to the force and power of the movement that is has even been officially acknowledged as an issue. In mid June, immigrants awaiting deportation at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in El Paso, held a hunger strike in solidarity with George Floyd.
It was a tremendous act of solidarity and show of internationalism that pointed to the links that can be made with the immigrant rights movement and anti-ICE campaign.
To understand the rebellion now, we have to look at the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted under the Barrack Obama Democrat administration, as well as at its deeper roots in the struggles of the civil rights era and protests of the 1960s and 1970s.
The struggles of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the revolutionary organisations of Drum (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and the Black Panther Party are a rich heritage for today’s struggles to draw on. The BLM movement evolved from 2013, kicked off by an unwillingness of the Obama administration to address racist police murders. In 2013 the murderer of Trayvon Martin was acquitted. Shortly after the racist cops who murdered Eric Garner and Michael Brown also walked free.
BLM exploded in the US. There were huge demonstrations all over the country, with some in New York of more than 50,000 people. Protests in Europe followed. The current anti-racist rebellion has a deeper political radicalisation than those protests, heightened by the pandemic and its consequences, and being more insurrectionary and confrontational than before.
Police stations have been burned and stormed. In early June, in Seattle in the Capitol Hill area, protestors took over a police precinct and the police were forced to abandon it. It is now called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, with the socialist councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, leading the march there. She has since introduced legislation to keep the area under community control.
Organised labour has been present on the demonstrations from the start with statements of solidarity from the nurses’, the postal workers’ and the flight attendants’ unions. Recently in Washington DC, members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades picketed the AFL-CIO building in solidarity with BLM and to protest against the union confederation’s rejection of union calls to exclude police unions. The ruling class in the United States is very worried about these developments.
Trump, in an attempt to split the BLM movement, has declared Antifa a terrorist organisation. Antifa is in fact a loose network of anti-fascist activists rather than an organization, and Trump’s efforts have so far been unsuccessful.
More dangerous are Trump’s efforts to rally his far-right support against the antiracist movement, his latest gambit being to strengthen legislation against immigration. His strategy is clearly not acceptable to all elements of the US ruling class, and a split has opened up as leading figures in the military denounce the president’s threat to deploy the army across the country.
There have also been splits at the base of the military with some national guardsmen refusing to be deployed against protestors. Regardless of what the generals say, Trump is still very dangerous because he emboldens the far-right and fascists. We have already seen far-right Trump supporters and fascists attacking demonstrations and driving their cars into BLM protests; a tactic that has already led to the death of one protester.
It is important to keep in mind that this rebellion is coming amid the pandemic, where local and federal government inaction and total lack of strategy or commitment of resources has caused the spread of Covid-19 to go uncontrolled and unmonitored, making the US by far the most affected by the virus. There were no tests to be seen in New York City at the height of the pandemic. Nor did nurses have Personal Protective Equipment. There were no testing kits or test and trace strategy until very late in the crisis, and these are still far from effective.
The impact of the pandemic has a marked class nature. Looking at where the virus took its greatest toll in New York City, it is clear it was in the working-class areas of Queens and the Bronx. These are areas that house mostly poor working-class and Latino communities, many of whom are undocumented and thus did not qualify for the $1,200 stimulus the government set aside. They were not able to stay at home but needed to continue working.
Many were also essential workers that kept the city running during this crisis. Governor Andrew Cuomo has sought to present himself as some kind of hero. This is false. He acted far too late and largely in response to the teachers’ union which forced the governor and the mayor to shut down the schools. Outrageously, at the height of the pandemic, Cuomo passed an austerity package cutting Medicaid, the program that people with serious health problems and poorer people rely on.
This combination of elements – anger from the lack of response to Covid-19, the skyrocketing unemployment rate now averaging around 20 percent, and the 1930s-like economic crisis – all these fueled the rebellion focused on anti-racism. The defeat of the Democrat presidential nominee Bernie Sanders’ campaign, also angered millions looking to Sanders’ left version of social democracy for solutions. The political importance of this should not be underestimated.
Because of his defeat many will have turned to the protests movements as an alternative way of expressing their frustrations.
The presence of unions and workers in this rebellion can ensure its longevity and its deepening. Already, postal workers have marched in Minneapolis from the very beginning under the banner “postal workers demand justice for George Floyd”. Bus workers in New York and Minneapolis have refused to transfer protestors arrested at the protests. Dock workers in California have voted to shut down 29 West Coast ports as a show solidarity with the rebellion, and teachers’ unions across the country have kicked the police out of the classrooms.
Socialists have a very real role to play, pointing out how the rebellion can serve as the start of an increasingly radical movement that can shake capitalism, and the racism at its core, to its very foundations.
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