The latest wave of Black Lives Matter is one of the most powerful and dynamic anti-racist uprisings in modern history. In the first part of a path-breaking analysis movement participant and sociologist Michael Billeaux makes provisional notes on the unfolding struggle.
The new uprisings in the United States have focused a huge amount of practical activist activity, and rightly. Committing any sort of claims about them to writing, however, feels almost preposterous.
These preliminary sketches of the new movement from a minor participant are intended only as a starting point for an analysis.
Causes and Antecedents
The new movement is not ‘spontaneous’ – these things are never quite that. It is true that the protest waves lack centralized organization, although they are often connected in some way to local social movement organizations from one city to the next. It is true that when they will occur is nearly impossible to predict, but that is less a matter of spontaneity and better understood as being “only a matter of time.” Where the rulers of American society maintain conditions of poverty and insecurity under a regime of extraordinary violence and pervasive threat of force, revolts do not come out of nowhere; they are bound to happen. When masses force their way into politics as they have in recent weeks, they only reveal the warfare barely hidden at the heart of the system.
The rate of incarceration is an index of the US states’ dependence on routine coercion. Over 2 million people are locked up in American prisons and jails, at a rate of 655 per 100,000 – over five times the rate in the UK, and the highest in the world.1 Another 4.5 million are under the formal surveillance of the carceral system, on probation or parole. Police killings have acted as the trigger for the uprisings this year, as well as those that took place from 2014-16. In the period from 2013-2019, police killed nearly 7700 people, over a thousand annually.2 Some 2000 of these were Black – over 25% of the total, representing a massive overproportion (about 13% of the total US population is Black).
So much for “fundamental” causes. More immediately, the nature of the current uprisings – their size and distribution – are impossible to understand without seeing them as a continuation of 2014-16, now generally referred to as the Black Lives Matter protest movement.3 The clearest indication of the importance of this fact is the observation that in many of the hundreds of cities where they are calling for justice for George Floyd, there were already movements calling for justice for someone else the local police had murdered. In Madison, Wisconsin where I live, Officer Matthew Kenny killed Black teenager Tony Robinson in 2015, provoking a massive surge in protests and demonstrations. Tony’s name is ringing out through the streets again; along with the demand for Kenny, who is still employed by the Madison Police Department, to be fired. The same is true in dozens of cities – Milwaukee cries out again for Dontre Hamilton. In Louisville, whose uprising was the first to follow that in Minneapolis, the people had already been demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, murdered in her home by police in March, when the uprisings came at the end of May. And, of course, in Minneapolis, the people still remember Philando Castile, murdered in 2016 – they fought for him then, and they are fighting for him again. All of these murders, and many more, had triggered local movements for justice that created or expanded networks of movement activists and sympathizers.4 Some names you hear again no matter what city you are in: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice.
Features of the mobilizations and repression
‘Diversity of tactics.’ There have been many well-meaning attempts to distance the protest movement from ‘riots’ and ‘violence,’ terms that in this discourse usually refer to damaged commercial property. Many took care to make clear distinctions between the good, legitimate protesters, with real anger rooted in real grievances, on the one hand; and bad, fake protesters, who were taking advantage of the situation to get away with shoplifting, push a political agenda (maybe anarchism, maybe race war), or just have a little fun. In some iterations of this narrative, rioting is ipso facto evidence of police provocateurs. Leftists engaged in this sort of Good Protester/Bad Protester discourse are irresponsible; dividing the uprising and isolating the ‘bad’ protesters justifies repression, which will certainly be aimed not simply at rioting but at the central demands of the movement. Besides which, it is a poor description of the facts of the matter. It’s true: police have been filmed breaking windows to create the appearance of more widespread rioting; it is conceivable that some looters felt excited by the prospect of free stuff, regardless of whatever else they felt about the issues; one must assume that, if one were so inclined to look, it is possible to find white anarchists at demonstrations in New York City who do not live there. But looting and property destruction are most certainly organic elements of the uprising. So, too, are non-disruptive solidarity demonstrations that will never make a national headline, often taking place in small towns that have not seen a demonstration of any sort, for any cause, in years. So, too, are the direct, organized confrontations with police forces, in which demonstrators resolve to hold public space in violation of curfews. As in the earlier Black Lives Matter protest movement, there are actions in which demonstrators block traffic, either with their bodies or – in a tactic reflecting adaptation in the face of a pandemic – with a caravan of vehicles brandishing flags and slogans. In some cities, there is a flourishing of public protest art on the plywood used to board up storefront windows – held up by the press as a peaceful “alternative” to the riots, as if it were not the presence of the riots that explains the presence of the plywood. And, of course, a flurry of sympathetic propaganda floods social media, both as a result of organized hashtag campaigns and as a result of the totally decentralized support for the uprisings. Whatever else the uprising is, it is wildly popular – hundreds of localities have participated in some way or another every single day since it began, and at least hundreds of thousands of people have taken part.
Police impunity. There has been a national police riot, and organized rejection of civilian control by police departments, especially in the major cities but extending down to smaller ones. Municipal governments have largely been either unwilling or unable to regulate the behavior of the police. This is no wonder – if one were to judge on the basis of municipal operations budgets, American cities would often appear to be nothing but police departments with auxiliary services attached. Police maintain their own revenue streams through more or less wanton seizure of money and property of “suspects.” Many cities rely heavily on the police for revenues through the imposition of fines and court fees, providing cities a fiscal incentive to not ask too many questions. Police have been known to pressure challenging city aldermen by refusing to respond to calls in their wards and other such tactics – as aldermen in Minneapolis have recently reported. The relative independence of police departments is demonstrated daily in the violence police enact on protesters, including “peaceful” ones, and even uninvolved bystanders. Some footage of this behavior is compiled here. There have been reports of police destroying storefront windows in an attempt to create the illusion of more widespread disorder, destroying water supplies meant for demonstrations, and seizing cloth masks sent through the post meant to help protesters reduce the spread of COVID-19. In many instances, police have deliberately attacked journalists and legal observers. In the heat of the uprising, a precious few of the worst offenders have been fired; otherwise, the police have been on the loose.
Vigilante Elements. There is some vigilante violence against the uprisings. It should not be overstated, but it is worth mentioning. To the extent that there have been vigilante provocateurs meant to incite demonstrators to vandalize property and so on, this is much less significant than the undisguised attempts to repress the demonstrations. In places, police have tacitly or actively supported the vigilantes, most notably in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, and more recently in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Sometimes the weapon of choice for the vigilantes is bats, as if encouraging a melee; other times they come armed with guns, essentially looking to role play as military police, providing a stoic defense force to defend the town from an invading antifa horde. The extreme-right “Boogaloo movement,” a loose network of neckbearded 4Chan and Reddit chuds hoping (or simply theatrically alluding) to lay the groundwork for a second Civil War (AKA, the “Boogaloo”), have made an appearance at some demonstrations. Some “lone wolf” activity has also been reported, such as the man armed with a hunting bow, shooting arrows at demonstrators in Salt Lake City, Utah, before getting a (mercifully restrained) beating, and another man armed with a chainsaw in McAllen, Texas. In at least one instance, the state has organized its own irregular forces to repress protests: in Washington, DC, men were observed dressed in riot gear without any badges or identifying insignia, who when questioned refused to identify themselves. Journalists have since determined that they were from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, an agency under the aegis of the Department of Justice. One could assume that this uprising is generally demoralizing and demobilizing for these elements; but a hard core of them may become more violent.
Retreat, or new phase of repression? Presently, especially after the demonstrations on 6 June , police in many cities seem to be holding back. Some suggest that this reflects a declining radicalism in the movement – that is, the police are holding back because they are not being driven to violence by the radicalism of the demonstrations. This does not strike me as an adequate explanation. In some cases the 6 June Day of Action mobilizations were much larger and coherent (in the literal sense of the march physically holding together) than previous ones, and police may have held off on the basis simply of calculating that they would not be able to contain crowds of that size. Some departments may be realizing that violent repression was actually giving momentum to the demonstrators, or finally acting on that realization. There are some reports that police morale is plummeting, and police are resigning at higher rates than before – this may also have reduced their appetite for carnage. This is all uneven and subject to change rapidly. As of 9 June , demonstrators in Seattle – after an intensification of repression in the preceding days, both by police and vigilante elements – had established an autonomous zone, complete with the evacuation of a police precinct. That makes two precincts down.
The COVID Factor
Economic crisis. In the last week, with the uprising against police brutality rightly dominating the headlines and the interest of the left, it is easy to forget that there is still that other little plague in America. The most pertinent effect of the pandemic here is the economic crisis. Unlike the urban rebellions of the 1960s, which occurred under conditions of economic expansion and rising expectations and to which the current moment is sometimes casually compared, the present uprisings take place under conditions of mass unemployment, economic contraction, and no end in sight.5 The economy has simply hemorrhaged jobs: nearly 43 million people had filed for unemployment insurance in the ten weeks before George Floyd’s murder. The official unemployment rate is 15% – compared to the Great Recession’s peak of 10% – and is almost certainly at least 20%, and may come to meet or exceed the Great Depression peak of 25%, if it hasn’t already. There is no need to go into the details here. The point is this: the pandemic presented a clear choice to the state, one that it had to make out in the open: force ‘the market’ to make a sacrifice so that working people may live safely, in ways consistent with public health; or sacrifice working people on the altar of Mammon, for the good of the market. In broad daylight, they chose the latter. The lesson for working people: no one is coming to save you.
Racist austerity revealed. This lesson was soon to be elaborated: no one is coming to save you, but we still might come to kill you. As with all uprisings, the explanation for the uprising cannot be reduced to its trigger. If the motivations behind this uprising were limited to its trigger, it would likely already be over. Derek Chauvin and the three other officers who murdered George Floyd were immediately fired from the Minneapolis Police Department – even that is a rare consequence for committing murder while wearing a badge. But they have now also all been detained and charged with murder, or aiding and abetting murder; rarer still. But the people are motivated by a much more general set of grievances that cannot be contained by the deliverance to justice of George Floyd’s killers but take aim at the racist austerity project exposed first by COVID and crystallzed by George Floyd’s lynching. The emerging demand of the uprisings to cut public funding for police departments, or even zero-out their budgets and dissolve them altogether, suggests a rejection of the fundamental principles of the neoliberal project, defined as it is by elite efforts, on the one hand, to eliminate or reduce as far as possible public institutions that distribute resources to working class people, thereby reducing our abject dependence on labor market earnings; and on the other by an expansion of coercive state apparatuses to manage the ensuing disorder. George Floyd’s murder took place against the backdrop of the state’s remarkable abandonment of working people. These conditions have begun to seriously clarify the linkages between inescapable, grinding poverty, insecurity, and inequality; the choices elites make that produce these; and the violence police commit to maintain them.
The fact that uprisings do not ‘stick to the point is part of the reason, that attempts to blame the vandalism or police confrontations on ‘white anarchists’ or Antifa, etc, fell flat.6 While it is undeniable that the ongoing oppression of Black people in particular is at the root of these uprisings, who today, with the general collapse of employment and the failure of the state to protect people in a major public health crisis, can deny that the young white people in the streets have genuine grievances of their own? At risk of simplification, the separateness of ‘class issues’ versus ‘race issues’ here is not a feature of real experience, but an artifact of discourse; it does not so much define the uprising as it defines those who talk about the uprising.7 It is worth noting that, prior to George Floyd’s uprising, there was already an uptick in strikes, stoppages, and other job actions pushing demands related to the pandemic – paid time off, the right to work from home, hazard pay, enhanced safety measures, production and provision of PPE, and so on.8
The crisis in the medical system. The protesters have been relatively disciplined about wearing masks at the demonstrations. Still, the infections have already been increasing owing to the decision by state and local governments to ‘reopen’ in the weeks before the protests began, and we should anticipate that widespread demonstrations will entail a further spread of COVID, especially in circumstances where police repression has made safer practices virtually impossible. This will bring to the foreground once again the crisis of the American medical system in particular, in terms of the massive stress that the pandemic will bring to bear on a set of for-profit institutions that are incapable of producing or obtaining the necessary supply of PPE, respirators, personnel, and hospital beds. It will also deepen the more general systemic crisis whereby the imperative to continue accumulating profits becomes incompatible with the good health of the working population. Rapid increases in the rate of infections will reemphasize the necessity of reducing or halting various categories of economic activity. The strange combination of acute labor shortages in ‘essential’ industries and massive layoffs throughout other sectors will remain. It is possible, at the risk of wishful thinking, that the uprising will have the effect of an increased confidence, raised expectations, and greater agitation among working class people; and that these will add fuel to the workers’ activity that had already been emerging in response to COVID.
The move to ‘reopen.’ It already seems like a distant memory that the major news of protests and popular mobilizations in the US were about the ‘reopen’ demonstrations of the Right. These were, as was noted at the time, largely ‘astroturfed’ – built not mainly through grassroots networks but top-down, well-funded efforts by highly ideological members of the capitalist class. Nevertheless, the total failure on the part of the government to offer serious relief in the COVID crisis gave the ‘reopen’ demand some prima facie legitimacy. As long as the ruling class continues to offer the Sophie’s choice of assuredly starving at home or potentially getting sick at work, the right can capitalize on the issue.
Public funding crisis. Consistent with the general thrust of neoliberalism as a political project, city and state funding toward such functions as education, public health, housing, and so on, has been cut over the past decades while police department funding has been untouched or increased. The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic will entail sharp fiscal crises for states and cities; the question of competition for dwindling resources between police departments and everything else will be sharply posed. Strict economic calculation would recommend unions representing employees in all other city services to use this window of opportunity to try seize back as much funding from the police department as possible.
1 Data from World Prison Brief.
2 These data were collected by the Mapping Police Violence project, mappingpoliceviolence.org.
3 As of yet there is no proper name designating the 2020 iteration of urban revolts and demonstrations linked to police killings of Black people. If I were to venture a guess as to why this is, I would say it is a reflection, at least in part, of the almost totally decentralized organization of the institutions of policing in America, leading also to decentralized movements targeting those institutions. I would also suggest that something seems off about simply applying the “Black Lives Matter” appellation again, even though the slogan is still ubiquitous.
4 It is difficult to convey how long this list carries on — not just of those killed by police, but of those whose killings by police actually provoked organized community response in the last six years.
6 An even more important reason is that just about everywhere the crowd has been multiracial, no matter what it was doing.
7 There is nothing inherently wrong here; for instance, in order to think and talk sensibly about the relationship of racial oppression to class structure, an analytic distinction must of course be made between the concepts “race” and “class”. But a hard insistence on the fundamental irreducibility of each to the other — and the notion that the protests really are, or ought to be, about one or the other — is charlatan punditry with the function, intentional or not, of narrowing the legitimate scope of demands in such a way as to make them more palatable to liberals nervous about class issues or whites nervous about race issues.