Lessons Of The Rebellion: #BlackLivesMatter And Beyond
Above photo: Sally Kohn/Twitter.
The experiences of the George Floyd Rebellion continue to provide invaluable lessons for the coming period. As November quickly approaches and the nation faces a possible constitutional crisis, now is a crucial time to remember the power of popular resistance.
We are still in the midst of an unprecedented national uprising against state violence and white supremacy. Tens of millions of people have flooded into the streets of America, demanding systemic change through sustained mass protest and bold disruptive action. In doing so, the George Floyd Rebellion has exercised real transformative power, capturing public consciousness and uniting diverse social movements around a radical vision of racial justice, abolition and self-determination.
In recent months, the left has mobilized thousands of people in marches and direct actions, held contested space, and faced off with police, federal agents and far right paramilitaries. From government forces, we have faced tear gas, physical assault, arrest, surveillance, and infiltration. From the far right: threats, intimidation, car attacks and shootings. Within our own ranks, we have navigated personal conflict, as well as disagreements over tactics, strategy and politics. Through success and failure, these experiences continue to highlight key lessons which can inform our practice as we carry these struggles forward into the coming period. These lessons include the power of mass action, the catalyzing energy of a transformative vision, the importance of strategy and organization, as well as the need for effective movement self-defense.
The power of mass action
If recent events have proved anything, it’s the unstoppable power of direct action on a mass scale. More than any other single factor, it is the sheer scale of sustained disruption which has made this rebellion impossible to ignore. This power flows directly from a combination of the movement’s unprecedented size and people’s willingness to disrupt the routine functioning of economic and political institutions.
In its first weeks, the uprising was so big, so bold, and so relentless, that local governments were literally overwhelmed, quickly reaching the logistical limits of their ability to “maintain order”. In many cities, thousands of people laid siege to local police precincts, night after night, forcing city councils to the negotiating table, and some police departments into retreat. In Seattle, police were forced to abandon their own precinct, leading to the temporary creation of an autonomous zone and the city’s commitment to defunding the police by 50%. In Minneapolis, a police station was burned to the ground, and the city council committed to disbanding its police force all together.
Real transformation happens when masses of people directly intervene in their world, leveraging the power of their own action. This is the opposite of relying on lawyers or politicians to solve our problems. By refusing to place faith in the system, and instead taking matters into our own collective hands, this movement has taken the first step towards liberation. Direct action is our greatest weapon. If we give it up, we give up our power.
Unity in diversity
Our ability to unite a broad alliance of forces against a common enemy is crucial. The existence of diverse coalitions has been a major asset to struggles to defund and disband local police departments. But unity does not mean everyone does the same thing. Our coalitions must allow room for a diversity of tactics towards a shared goal. While strategic debate is essential to a healthy movement, we must remain steadfast in our refusal to throw our own allies under the bus. That means refusing to villainize anarchists and anti-fascists, and rejecting the “good protester vs bad protestor” game altogether. Solidarity makes us all safer and our movement stronger.
In this rebellion, we have witnessed a qualitative shift from earlier calls for “reform” and “accountability”, towards transformational demands of “abolition” and “self-determination”. The difference is far from trivial. It represents a widespread rejection of the prevailing system and a courageous commitment to its undoing. Fed up with decades of failed reforms in the face of relentless violence and impunity, people are increasingly realizing that Black lives will never matter to the police – that the entire system of American policing and mass incarceration is inherently racist, violent and oppressive.
In this view, freedom and justice for people of color requires no less than the total dismantling of such a system, and a fundamental reimagining of community safety. This revolutionary spirit is the very soul of the rebellion, promising to keep us from returning to business as usual. We must fight to keep it alive, in our hearts, our words and our actions. There’s nothing more inspiring than a world worth fighting for.
The threat of co-optation
The Liberal establishment has tried desperately to co-opt #BlackLivesMatter by redirecting popular outrage away from the movement’s transformative potential, back into the narrow and acceptable channels of reform which leave existing power structures intact. We see this time and again in the proliferation of government-sanctioned street murals, publicity stunts, and corporate blackwashing. Powerful institutions have been quick to brand themselves as “anti-racist”, using empty words and images as a replacement for structural change.
As always, these tactics are a sign that our movement is a position of power, threatening the stability of existing institutions. In such moments, if we maintain steadfast in our commitments, we are in a position to force fundamental changes. If, instead, they succeed in pacifying resistance and convincing enough people that they are “on our side”, the opportunity for transformation is lost, and the establishment regains the power it once risked losing. Our only defense against co-optation is to remain fiercely independent from established institutions and committed to our principles.
While the rebellion undeniably grew out of a spontaneous outburst of social rage, its ultimate success depends on our ability to organize. That means creating and maintaining lasting structures which can sustain momentum and channel energy in a strategic direction. These structures include everything from meetings and assemblies to affinity groups, unions, mobilizing networks, political organizations and coalitions. To build a movement, we need accessible and effective vehicles for collective discussion, decision-making, support and participation. In the absence of organization we’ve seen the damaging impacts of burnout, infighting, disruption and directionlessness. On the other hand, we’ve seen sustained momentum and measurable success in cities like Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle, where grassroots coalitions and informal networks have organized themselves around concrete demands to defund and disband local police departments.
Successful movements set goals and choose actions which achieve those goals. They make demands and back them up. They plan and adapt. Strategy requires us to act consciously and intentionally, consistently asking ourselves, “Does this action help us achieve our goals? Does it strengthen our movement?”. Without strategy, our activism is reduced to symbolic moralism, short-sighted reactivity and aimless confrontation. This leaves movements vulnerable and ineffective.
While daily demonstrations have helped capture the nation’s attention, in the absence of strategy, repetitive actions have eventually led to a dwindling of energy and participation. If we are united around the common vision of defunding and disbanding the police, we have to ask ourselves how we can leverage our power in the interests of those goals. If we believe freedom is possible, then we owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to act with the intentional means of achieving it.
The escalating threats posed by far-right militias, white supremacists, vigilante violence and state repression, have presented serious new challenges for our movement. It’s high time we take seriously the need for effective self-defense. The police are not there to protect us (especially not those fighting to abolish them). We have no choice but to organize the means to defend ourselves from harm.
The rebellion has faced a wide range of physical attacks from both the state and the far right. In the face of police brutality and riot munitions, activists have shown an impressive resilience and adaptability with the use of creative tactics and protective gear. In the face of arrest and prosecution, community bail funds and volunteer legal support have been critical. Threats from the far right have been more unpredictable and more deadly. In the face of intimidation, car attacks, and shootings, activists have protected each other with bike brigades, car brigades, street medics and de-escalators. While armed community self-defense may be necessary under desperate circumstances, such tactics can easily make matters worse. Extreme caution must be taken to prevent further escalation of already-dangerous situations.
Trusting relationships and networks of community care are as important here as any tactic. There can be no such thing as community self-defense if there is no community. Different threats may require different tactics, but ultimately our greatest defense is our unity, our solidarity, and our trust in each other. There’s nothing safer than knowing your comrades and your community have your back.
Sometimes the best way to defend ourselves is to know when to fight and when not to. This requires an honest appraisal of our own strengths and weaknesses, as well as that of our enemies. It means keeping our “eyes on the prize”, avoiding un-strategic confrontations and de-escalating violence whenever possible. We have to choose our tactics carefully, asking ourselves, “Does this tactic make us safer? Is it worth the risk?”.
The physical and legal threats we face are also influenced by the overall political strength of our movement. If isolated and villainized, we are vulnerable to physical attack and legal prosecution. When our movement is visible and broadly supported, we are safer and stronger. Clashes with our enemies should never overshadow the political content of our struggle. Effective self-defense is not just about protecting ourselves from potential harm – it’s about refusing to allow the forces of repression to intimidate us into inaction. It’s about empowering ourselves to go on fighting. It’s about realizing the transformative potential of our movement.
Now is a critical time for popular movements to understand their own power. As we face the emerging threats and opportunities of the coming period, we should apply the lessons of the rebellion to act decisively and take full strategic advantage of this historic moment.
Arthur Pye is a writer and community organizer based in the Salish Sea. Follow him on Twitter at @PyesOnThePrize.