George Floyd murder: a movement erupts
Jack Gerson |Amandla 70|June 2020
On May 25 George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police, pinned to the ground and strangled, a knee on his neck, for nearly nine minutes. It was a public lynching by the cop Derek Chauvin, aided by three other cops. The following day, Minneapolis cops attacked a mass protest of this murder with tear gas and plastic-coated bullets. Within a few days, demonstrations spread across the country.
In city after city, the same scene played out: in New York, cops kettled and beat protesters with clubs several nights running. In Asheville North Carolina, cops destroyed a medic station. In Louisville, police responded to mass protests against George Floyd’s murder and the March 13 murder of Breanna Taylor by firing live ammunition into a crowd, killing a bystander.
The cops met protests against police violence with even more police violence. This backfired: the protests grew into enormous multiracial outpourings, many organised and led by young people. Attempts to divide the “majority of peaceful protesters” from the “violent elements led by antifa” have thus far failed as well – protesters and the public saw for themselves that the cops have been the main perpetrators of violence. When Donald Trump demanded that local officials “dominate” protesters through repressive force and put thousands of security forces on the streets of Washington DC (Secret Service, Bureau of Prisons, National Guard) and threatened to bring in the U.S. Army, rebellion brewed in the ranks. This resulted in Trump’s open rebuke by the most prominent retired generals and admirals (including James Mattis, John Kelly, Mike Mullen, Colin Powell) and even public pushback from his hitherto obsequious Defense Secretary, Mark Esper. Trump withdrew the National Guard.
Protests have spread to most big cities and to many small ones, and around the world. The explosiveness of this movement has already resulted in acts that would have been inconceivable two weeks ago, including:
- The Los Angeles mayor announced plans to reduce the city’s police budget by over $100 million and reallocate $250 million dollars to “invest in jobs, in education, and healing” in communities of color.
- The New York mayor announced plans to reduce the city’s police budget and to implement reforms to the NYPD.
- The Minneapolis City Council voted its intent to disband the city’s police department and develop an “alternative model of community-led safety.”
- Congressional Democrats introduced legislation to facilitate prosecuting cops for misconduct.
These rapid concessions show the uncertainty and fear running through the U.S. ruling class. But much more fundamental change is needed.
History of oppression
If George Floyd’s murder was the lit match that touched off this explosion, and if four years of naked racist slurs and scapegoating by Trump was the kerosene, then the long simmering anger of black people at their treatment and conditions (and the knowledge of those conditions, if unspoken and suppressed, by many white people) was the fuel. Centuries of brutal kidnapping, rape, murder, enslavement, oppression and exploitation – Jim Crow laws, lynchings, mobs burning black communities to the ground. segregation and exclusion of black people from all but low paying, menial labor.
Slavery was formally ended after the Civil War by the 13th Amendment, but with a loophole exempting felons serving a prison sentence. Today, although black males are not much more than 5% of the population, they comprise more than 40% of the prison system – a system that houses one out of every four of the world’s prisoners. Prison labor is slave labor, and the threat of slavery is used to intimidate the black community. The “school to prison pipeline” carries a steady stream of young people of colour to the prisons.
The U.S. spends $32,000 annually per prisoner, but only $12,000 per student. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that “separate but equal” schools weren’t equal and are illegal, but 65 years later de facto segregation and inequality in U.S. schools is greater than ever. Schools in the black and brown communities are underfunded, lack resources, are in need of repair, and are more crowded than schools in the wealthier parts of town.
Thirty percent of black people have lost the right to vote, largely because of criminalisation (felony convictions often mean loss of voting rights). Donald Trump and his allies are taking this further, hinting at postponing the fall elections.
Unemployment and poverty have always been worse for blacks than for whites. The pandemic has made it more so. Unemployment in the U.S. is officially 16%, but the real figure is more than 25%. The mortality rate from Covid-19 for blacks is more than double that for whites. The infection rates for blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans are much higher than for whites, and they have less access to quality health care needed to recover. Because few black and brown families have an emergency fund to cover expenses, they are forced to work in jobs that put them at high risk of contracting the virus. “It’s either Covid is killing us or the economy is killing us,” said a young black woman to Time magazine.
The cops are there to enforce these conditions, to keep black and brown people at the bottom. They act like an occupying army in the black community, and beneath the murders lies the daily grinding degradation of black people,- and especially of young black people. This wasn’t just one bad cop. Murder by cop has gone on for generations. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be killed by cops than are whites. The cops are there to protect property, wealth, and the wealthy – to protect the haves from the have-nots, by any means necessary.
|Workers against police violence The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), by a unanimous vote of the presidents of all locals, will shut down all West Coast ports on June 19th, in solidarity with the movement against police violence. June 19th – “Juneteenth”- is a day of special significance to African Americans: on June 19, 1865 Texas accepted the Emancipation Proclamation, the last state to do so, formally ending slavery in the U.S.|
Changing these conditions will require sweeping reorganisation of society. Priorities are upside down. Defunding police and putting more money into essential services is a step, but only a small one. The proposed cuts are relatively small, and the amount of money to be transferred to essential services almost negligible compared to the needs. Disbanding the Minneapolis police, and community-based policing open a promising discussion, but on their own will hit up against the imperative to protect property and the affluent.
But there are voices calling for more, including:
- Strong measures for holding the police accountable;
- Demilitarisation of the cops: confiscate the tanks, the armored personnel carriers, the bazookas, the military helicopters, the Star Wars uniforms, and the snooping surveillance devices that were provided to urban police forces by the Bush and Obama administrations;
- Massive reduction in funding for the entire security state apparatus -the cops, the prisons, the military, with the money going preferentially to low income communities and for housing, health care, schools and other vital needs;
- End to mass incarceration: end the criminalisation of young black and brown people. Shut down the school to prison pipeline. Free all political prisoners.
- End to the deportation of undocumented immigrants:dismantle the vicious U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program.
- Organising community patrols
No diversion into party politics
The ruling class will attempt to divide and coopt the movement, using the vast resources at its disposal. With the presidential elections now less than five months away, a concerted attempt has begun to channel the movement into campaigning for Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates, under the imperative of getting rid of Donald Trump. They will try to get protesters to spend less time on the streets and more time phone-banking and door-knocking for candidates. We should not underestimate this strategy. It’s worked in the past, and repeatedly. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, there were two years of Black Lives Matter protests and major ghetto uprisings in the St. Louis and Baltimore areas. That energy was effectively diverted into the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Bad as Trump and the Republicans are, the Democrats have been complicit from their inception in constructing, enforcing, and sustaining the racist, exploitative, and oppressive U.S. system at home and around the world.
But this movement feels like like a force that can hurdle barriers. It’s as though the protests of the sixties have been compressed into a few weeks: mass non-violent protests, widespread sympathy for the goals of stopping police violence, ending racism, and establishing true equality; and an emerging wing ready to employ militant self-defense against the cops. It’s a movement in large part organised and led by young people asserting their disgust with the racist system and their entitlement to a decent future in a better world.
Jack Gerson is a writer, retired teacher and trade unionist who has fought for the revolutionary transformation of society since the movements of the 1960s