In the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police, a series of rebellions unfolded around the USA, ultimately spreading, in one form or another, to other parts of the planet. These “risings” have led to the inevitable question of what is next? But also, why now?
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of globalafricanworker.com, a past president of TransAfrica Forum, and a long-time leftist trade unionist. This article was first published by the Fondation Gabriel Péri and is reprinted with permission.
The George Floyd murder came at the intersection of several major developments, if not contradictions: COVID-19 crisis; economic collapse; several lynchings of African Americans; the incendiary role of Donald Trump; and an environmental crisis. Much like events in 1919 in the USA when there was the fusion of the misnamed Spanish Flu, a post-war depression, pogroms against African Americans, the Seattle General Strike, and repression of radicals, it was not a matter of one event that set things off but one event operating as the spark in a room filled with “gas”.
The first spark, however, was the COVID-19 crisis and the manner in which the Trump administration failed to address it, first denying its severity, later ignoring the need for national coordination, and finally treating the issue as having been largely resolved when it became clear that people of colour were disproportionately affected by the virus. Covid-19 triggered an underlying economic crisis that had been brewing for years. A combination of overproduction of goods and overaccumulation of capital, along with massive financial speculation, has led to great economic instability. This has been compounded by growing income and wealth inequality across the planet. Neoliberal capital can simply not help itself. Even when its representatives identify wealth and income polarization as a source of instability, they are incapable of doing anything about it.
A further spark was a series of what can only be described as lynchings of African Americans leading to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. But it is important to note here that lynchings are not reserved for African Americans. The First Nations—Native Americans—have disproportionately suffered at the hands of the police. Puerto Rico, a colony of the USA, has suffered near genocidal treatment at the hands of the Trump administration since the Hurricane Maria disaster. The list goes on and on. The lives and histories of the racially oppressed continue to lack in any importance—they do not matter—for much of white America.
Donald Trump has compounded all our problems by not even pretending to care about the pleas of the oppressed. Rather, he has grudgingly acknowledged some of the worst atrocities only to proceed to blame “Antifa”, the loose alignment of left-wing anti-fascists and anarchists, as the alleged chief provocateurs behind looting during the rebellions, despite the clear evidence that (1) they were not, and (2) that right-wing forces were actively trying to lay the foundation for a racial civil war in the USA. Trump continues to throw kerosene on heated embers, after which he proclaims the existence of a crisis that he will resolve!
Surrounding all of this is the encroaching and expanding environmental catastrophe which, among other things, contributed to the Covid-19 crisis—and will continue to contribute towards such pandemics—by destroying the habitat for various species, forcing them together, and leading to the crossover of illnesses. As such, the situation was overdetermined and while ignited by the Floyd murder, was not caused the Floyd murder.
The current situation also illustrates the clarification of trends within the political Right. Trump leads an alliance of Republican proponents of neoliberalism and a right-wing populist movement (the latter having a secular and religi0us element). This alliance has created major conflicts for the ruling power bloc that recognize in the right-wing populist movement the thrust of irrationalism and the potential destruction of global alliances built since World War 2. Trump has played to the right-wing populist movement, including the neo-fascist element, excusing away their behavior, e.g., after the Charlottesville, Virginia march of the fascist, or, more recently, focusing on the alleged danger from the “Antifa” formations and completely and totally ignoring the neo-fascist provocateurs who entered in the recent rebellions with the intent of igniting the racial civil war, referenced earlier.
It is also worth noting that Trump has not even gone through the pretence of appealing for justice and national unity. He has inflamed the passions of his right-wing supporters and is now back on the campaign trail, Covid-19 be damned..
A final two notes on the explosion. In the USA, the protests have been surprisingly multi-racial. Although led by African Americans, the rebellions have mobilized other demographics, in some cases raising complicated political questions for the movement regarding how to understand the larger issue of racist and national oppression and the specific means in which that plays out against individually racially oppressed populations. A tendency towards ethno-nationalism, if not corrected, will weaken the prospects for any sort of strategic unity against white supremacist national oppression.
Finally, these explosions have gone global. At first it appeared that demonstrations, whether in occupied Palestine, Paris, or London, were only in solidarity with developments in the USA. Upon closer inspection it because clear that these demonstrations were espousing both statements of solidarity but also highlighting issues of inequality, police abuse, and various forms of racist and national oppression in the sites of these rallies. In some respects, one can argue that we are seeing the outlines of a twenty-first century “International”.
Where can this movement go? Resistance under capitalism is inevitable. It is also unpredictable. One never knows when there will be a social explosion, but one knows that there will be a social explosion. In the face of spontaneous eruptions and in the absence of organization there are multiple possibilities.
The demands arising out of these rebellions focus primarily on law enforcement, though contained in the rebellions is something deeper. Demands which include “Defund the Police,” and/or “Abolish the Police” speak to a refusal to accept the traditional miniscule reforms that have been offered in the past, e.g., sensitivity trainings for police. Instead, these demands, in their essence, are calling into question the role of an element of the repressive apparatus of the state. Because this is a very broad movement with no central leadership, the demands can be summarized broadly as a call for a mass rethinking and restricting of police including but not limited to cutbacks in police funding; stripping the police of many of their responsibilities; a de-militarizing of the police; and the development of community responses to social ills. Quite ironically, these demands against the police do not necessarily imply an anti-capitalist analysis on the part of those articulating said demands.
These demands, though, are not in their essence restricted to matters of the police. These are truly demands around democracy. These are demands against the growing inequality and the objectively genocidal course that neoliberalism pursues. And these are demands for equity and the repairing of the damage done by over 500 years of racist and national oppression.
In the face of these multiple crises, the trade union movement has been in a state of relative paralysis for quite some time, especially since the rise of Trump and the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. Some unions, e.g., UNITE HERE, have been devastated by the loss of membership that resulted from the economic collapse brought on by Covid-19. No union has successfully led a united response to the Covid-19/economic crises, although nurses unions have played a major role in drawing attention to the scale of the crises. As the rebellions unfolded in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, segments of the trade union movement have responded with generally supportive statements in favour of the protesters, raising the issue of white supremacy, and condemning police violence. Internally, such statements have also triggered some pushback by more conservative union members and especially in the context of direct criticisms of police violence The contradictions have been exacerbated by increasing demands to expel police unions from the national AFL-CIO and from national unions, e.g., American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
Some discussions have unfolded within the ranks of the left wing of the labour movement about how to respond to this crisis. There is as yet no overarching consensus. This is related to the larger question of a weak and fragmented national Left. Aöthough the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) is, by far, the largest leftist group (numbering about 60,000), it is more like a federation than a cohesive national organization, with distinct factions and an uneven strategy. They and other forces on the left have tried to offer various levels of support to the protesters including political support, and technical support. Of course, members of these various organizations have been in the streets in large numbers, but there is, as yet, no one or two organizations that can claim to be leading this movement.
There is a danger that if there is no cohesion of Left/progressive forces as an outcome of these rebellions, the political Right will seize on the eventual decline of the movements as an opportunity for a counterattack. An analogy might be the aftermath of the 1919 worker insurgencies in Italy, which were followed by the rise of fascism.
Thus, there are two levels of immediate response that are desperately needed, in addition to a broad united front approach aimed at defeating Donald Trump in the November election. First, there is a need for a broad people’s anti-repression coalition that responds to the current moment with opposition to any further discussion of the deployment of troops, a demand for the de-militarization and restructuring of law enforcement, justice for the victims of lynchings (whether lynchings carried out by the police or by others), and anti-austerity. Such a coalition needs to be built by new and old organizations, forces arising now and those who have been in place, asserting demands against the State for immediate change. The anti-austerity demand is not a throwaway. Austerity has been the increasing direction of the Republicans in response to the economic collapse and it is a contributing factor to the anger and frustration that brought people into the streets. We must break with austerity in order to advance.
The second level that needs attention is, once again, the need for the strengthening and unification of the conscious socialist Left. The post-Floyd rebellions have demonstrated that there are large numbers of people from within our potential base that are part of what can be called a mass, left-wing, radical movement. These people are largely non-ideological but are seeking fundamental changes in the system. Whether they expect fundamental change immediately is secondary to their fury and impatience with centrist Democratic politicians and rhetoric who all too frequently suggest that we can only take baby-steps in the direction of justice.
Given the base for mass left radicalism, the organized, though disparate socialist Left must find a means to cohere so that we can have an impact on the creation of a people’s anti-repression coalition or other such initiatives. The scale of the challenges facing us in a moment such as this one demand an unprecedented level of organization on the part of the socialist Left, yet it is far from clear that the socialist Left is prepared to embark on that journey.
The answers do not reside in fate but rather in the actions that the socialist Left chooses to advance or avoid.