Lewis Barnes |Amandla 70 | June 2020
The recent rebellions against police murder of black people in the United States have shaken every level of society. On May 25th, four Minneapolis policemen converged on George Floyd in his car, after he was accused of using a fraudulent $20 bill in a store where he had just bought cigarettes. After he stepped out of his car and was handcuffed, Floyd was thrown to the ground near a police vehicle. In a now infamous act, policeman Derek Chauvin strangled George Floyd with his knee on his neck until he lost consciousness. While coldly gazing into Floyd’s face Chauvin strangled him for eight minutes and thirty-six seconds. Recording the confrontation on their cell phones, passers-by protested the brutality of the police, pointing out that Floyd was unresponsive. The other three policemen surrounded Chauvin, protecting him as he mercilessly choked the life from George Floyd.
At the time of his murder, the raw nerve of state violence had already been inflamed by two other equally tragic incidents. On March 13th, Breonna Taylor was shot dead by police, who forced their way into her apartment looking for someone who was already in police custody. On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when he was murdered by a retired cop who claimed that he mistook Arbery for a burglar.There wasn’t widespread protest over the Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery murders primarily because of the social distancing guidelines in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, despite social distancing guidelines, people have risen up to say “enough is enough”.
Since the first protest in Minneapolis on May 26th, there have been rapidly proliferating demonstrations throughout the country and around the world. In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated for prosecution of the police and vigilantes responsible for the deaths. In a very unexpected and unprecedented way, these protests have crossed class, race and geographic lines. From small rural majority white towns to large cities like New York and Philadelphia, demonstrations small and large have been organised generally without any coordination or unified program.
These dynamics speak both to the relative lack of grassroots political organisation in the United States and also to the possibility for a powerful national movement against white supremacy, if those activists can become organised. While the horrific brutality of the series of racist murders has been the focus of the demonstrations, there are much deeper failures of the racial capitalist project in the United States that also produced these protests. Many people have noted that the widespread mobilisation of state resources to curb demonstrations was sorely missing in response to the outbreak of Covid-19. The deaths of tens of thousands of people by coronavirus are not treated as an emergency, but tens of thousands of people demanding justice are.
Black people fare worse with Covid-19
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the inadequacy of the United States healthcare industry and the racial disparities inherent in the capitalist system. This pandemic has been just as deadly as the epidemic of state violence and legalised lynching that is as old as the United States itself. The death rate for black people is more than double that of white people, and while black people are 13% of the population they make up 25% of coronavirus deaths. In Washington DC black people are 44% of the population and 76% of coronavirus deaths. Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Alabama and Georgia, all contain similarly large over representations of black people in coronavirus death statistics. Because of the lack of widely available free testing there are no reliable numbers for cases by race or ethnicity, and the more than 10 million undocumented people are largely unaccounted for.
The capitalist media explains the differentials in death rate by pointing to prevalence of pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease in black and working class communities. However, these are all diseases of poverty caused by environmental factors, as well as lack of access to healthcare and resources to maintain good health. Unequal access to clean water, unpolluted air, healthy food, physical activity and rest is a terribly consistent reality for people in working class and poor neighbourhoods. It is these failures of the public health system in the United States which made the death rate differential possible.
For the hardest hit communities, in addition to thousands of deaths, Covid-19 has meant widespread unemployment, mounting bills and huge economic insecurity. No state government has passed meaningful rent relief, and the national unemployment rate stands at over 15%. That rate is certainly higher for people of colour, and black people in particular. For workers who still have jobs there is no alternative; they must work for a paycheck that may also be a death sentence.
The economic inequality of the US capitalist system has been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. In the context of this naked oppression, the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, were the spark that ignited the dry fuel of economic suffering.
Reforms are not enough
In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who murdered teenager Trayvon Martin. The subsequent popular uprising in Ferguson in response to the murder of Mike Brown rapidly brought the epidemic of police violence into the foreground of US politics.
Obama helped water down Black Lives Matter’s demand to end the war on black America into reforms such as police body cameras, “community policing”, sensitivity training and promotion of police of colour. These reforms have done nothing to dent the number of people killed by the police. By increasing police budgets, they have only made the poverty at the root of social problems in black and working class communities harder to solve.
The images, slogans, policy platforms and leaders that emerged in the Black Lives Matter movement inspire much of the current protests, but the size, number, militancy and geographic diversity of the current protests are greater than in 2013.
For three long years, oppressed people in the United States have watched President Trump give voice to white supremacy. From his support for white supremacists in Charlottesville to his attempt to ban travel from Muslim majority countries, the people of the United States have challenged his fascism in the streets. His potential re-election in November casts an ominous shadow over the current moment.
Trump patent idiocy and corruption in response to the coronavirus pandemic has been deadly. He has been responsible for confused and contradictory messaging about the danger of the pandemic’ With the help of Congress, he has funnelled millions of dollars into large corporations in the name of “small business relief”. When right wing protesters armed with automatic rifles gathered at many state capitol buildings in opposition to social distancing guidelines, they received support via Twitter from Trump and unarmed police, who did not arrest anyone.
Divide and rule
In an effort to demonise Trump, the liberal wing of the mainstream media has hypocritically supported the current Black Lives Matter protests. While amplifying some messages of the protesters, they have also consistently distinguished between the “good protesters” and “bad protesters”, to divide and weaken the movement.
The vast majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful and have not resulted in any property damage. Despite this, the emphasis on protests that have resulted in property damage has been overwhelming. And there is mounting evidence that police have instigated and perpetrated property damage to demonise protesters. In Minneapolis, an incognito policeman was filmed breaking the windows of the first building to be vandalised. In Boston, police were filmed breaking the windows of their own cars.
The “bad protesters” have also been seized upon by Trump and the right wing of the mainstream media in an effort to totally discredit the protests themselves. Trump has called on state and local governments to “dominate” protesters and pushed to mobilize the US military in response to demonstrations.
A desperate empire
On June 8th, the Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle their police department, something probably thought impossible only two weeks ago. This year has illustrated more clearly than ever that the political establishment cannot solve the epidemic of legal and extra-legal lynching of black people in the United States. Efforts to defund and dismantle police departments are the only rational response to this reality. These rapid developments are all happening as the coronavirus crisis and the Trump presidency magnify the racism and state violence inherent in racial capitalism.
The compounding crises we see around us are a harbinger of the future, where capitalist monstrosities are increasingly violent and destructive. As the fate of the US empire becomes more desperate, resistance and repression will explode in tragic and surprising ways. The pattern of the resurgent movement shows that the courage and determination of people to fight for a better future will continue, and that the legacy of the murder of George Floyd will be the intensification of resistance to racist oppression in the United States and around the world.
Lewis Barnes is an activist educator in the United States and a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.