People’s Strike: An Open Letter To All Forces Fighting For Our Lives
“…we say many things about the changing aspects of our lives.We say that since change is inevitable, we should direct the change rather than simply continue to go through the change.” –Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, Delta Man
The extrajudicial killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis has sparked a worldwide rebellion and unprecedented solidarity and public support in defense of Black lives and the need for radical transformation. The names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, also recently murdered by police and white supremacist vigilantes are on the lips of millions in the streets in every city and many smaller towns in the USA, and around the world. Led by young black women and men, the uprising is the largest and most militant in decades. The upheaval was triggered by police violence, but it is also a response to an intensifying economic, health, social and political crisis. Bold, sustained action by millions of people is shaking the props of power and forcing promises of reform. We’ve seen promises made and betrayed before. The real path to radical transformation is anything but easy and automatic. But now is the time to build on the expressions of militancy and solidarity and to transform them into a force that can win and build a new world.
Change is upon us. The confluence of crises brings us to an historic crossroads. We are confronting an ongoing pandemic the likes of which we haven’t experienced since 1919 – 1920; joblessness and economic depression unparalleled since the 1930’s; and an uprising rooted in confronting a neo-fascist government, white supremacy and the deadly dimensions of American apartheid that is now surpassing the rebellion of April 1968 initiated in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The combination of these factors means that we are without question facing a combination of challenges unparalleled in this country since the Civil War. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. We are living, learning, and struggling. This we know: things cannot, and should not, return to the way they were before the start of the global pandemic and the shutdown of the world economy. Why?
The “normal” world roiled by this pandemic is deeply unequal, inequitable, exploitative, extractive, and repressive. It is deeply fractured around capitalist colonialism, racial oppression, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion. It is this real world dystopia that has led to the needless death of more than 115,000 people in the United States of COVID-19, with at least 25,00 new infections daily. The vast majority of the infected and dead are Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. In the midst of the pandemic, it is this dystopian world that right-wing Republicans and neoliberal Democrats are determined to force-march us all back into against our will. Rather than following the proven best public health practices and developing a scientific, medically determined response to the pandemic, they are putting profits over people in order to save the capitalist system. As a result, they are treating working people like disposable objects by forcing millions of people to risk their lives working in life threatening conditions. If they were serious about truly saving lives, they would alter the socio-economic system to address the needs of the moment. But this was never on offer.
Treating people like disposable objects however is nothing new. As the experience of Black people in the United States clearly indicates, this disregard for human life is standard practice and procedure for this system. Enslaved Africans and their descendants, who built the concentrated wealth of this empire, have been disposable since the colonization of the Americas, the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the subjugation of chattel slavery. They became the “free labor” for the “free land” stolen through genocide of the indigenous peoples. But, capitalism has never stopped there. The few who benefit from this system have always treated working class people, of all races and nationalities, with various forms of ill intent and disregard. Examples abound. Think of the 600 medical workers, more than half of whom are people of color, who have died so far in the Pandemic because a for-profit hospital system refused to invest in their protection. Consider the countless numbers of miners who have died of black lung disease and tunnel explosions. Or the millions of migrant farm workers who labor in pesticide drenched fields. Or the untold number of factory workers and urban dwellers displaced by automation and globalization.
There are powerful and clearly defined forces that are doing all they can to shape the future in their own interests and on their own terms. They include multinational corporations, financial institutions, and the political parties who serve their interests. Unfortunately, at this crucial moment, the working class and oppressed peoples in the United States are not organized as a concentrated counter force operating in our own interests. As a result we lack the ability to wield political power.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t have the capacity to shape the future. Far from it. Through our labor, paid and unpaid, and other social relationships and contributions, we, the working class, are fundamental to the functioning of this society. Without us, nothing could move, nothing would work, nobody would eat, and no profits would be made. We have witnessed the potential of this power through the course of this pandemic. People across the United States and the world have engaged in strikes and shutdowns for hazard pay and to protect themselves from life threatening working conditions, as governments hedged and delayed on shutting down, sacrificing thousands of lives. We have seen it in the moments when workers and communities have insisted on producing what is most needed to protect human life. We have seen it in mutual aid efforts in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the country, where millions of people are feeding, clothing, and housing each other and those in need in their community based on the principles of reciprocity and solidarity. This mutual aid movement demonstrates how the democratic self-management of our collective labor can benefit us, rather than the owners of capital.
This multifaceted crisis has also made it clear that the fractures and divisions in our society are deep, and the contest between competing and contrasting ideas and political forces is accelerating. This is a good thing. It’s good because it means that the systems of oppression that structure our society and our lives – capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and imperialism – are being exposed for what they are, a barrier to the full individual and collective possibilities of humanity. The type of collective experience and exposure that we have gained over the past three months opens political space in which we can operate and which we can harness to confront these oppressive systems head on and defeat them.
To do so, we must embrace and engage this transformative moment with everything we’ve got. The COVID-19 pandemic, makes clear that our so-called leaders and the money interests that employ them are indifferent to the mass deaths of Black people who are most impacted by the virus. They are calloused to the deaths of 80,000 + people over 65 from COVID-19. They care nothing for frontline workers, for immigrants and prisoners, for the millions burdened with even more unpaid care work as thousands have become ill, or died. We have seen that instead of support and treatment, instead of prevention and planning, COVID-19 distancing measures have been used to further criminalize, assault and prosecute Black people, Indigenous people and migrants. We must further expose the links between the extrajudicial killing of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples by police state violence and forcing working people back to work under murderous conditions. These acts serve the same fundamental purpose, sustaining the capitalist system and perpetuating the interwoven hierarchical systems of social control that enable its dominance over life on our precious planet.
Rebellion is not revolution. The radical transformation that we need will require many millions of people organized and actively engaged to forge a new path, one that changes the relations of power in society. Only then can we create a sustainable future. But, to get there we still have to fully reveal the real face of the enemy–its violence, disguises and seductions. The Floyd rebellion has forced the system to bare some of its teeth. But, the full force of its terror has yet to be unleashed.
This crisis has put a planet-sized spotlight on the fraud, the lie of American democratic superiority. Billions have seen with their own eyes how US power has rained disease and death and police abuse on the people inside the United States, a domesticated version of what they’ve been inflicting on the Global South for decades. The crisis of the system, revealed in both the pandemic and mounting police murders of Black and Brown people, has driven growing, popular democratic protests, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.
The pandemic has accelerated the global crisis of capitalism, and every capitalist power is scrambling to seize a dominant and sustainable position in the midst of the tectonic shifts occurring. As a result, the governments and corporations of the world are going to be executing a number of frantic experiments in the coming days, weeks, months, and years to try and save the system and restore some order to it that will enable the dominant forces to regain control. Some of these options will be centered on making a limited number of concessions to the democratic mass movements, others will seek to obliterate these movements and impose even greater austerity and terror.
Inside the United States, one tendency seeks to fulfill the reformist promises propagated by the perpetrators of the myth of American democracy. They push for “reforms” of the police, health care, housing, education, and other institutions by tinkering, fighting for symbolic gestures and tactical concessions that leave the power structure in tact. Then there are those of us who have learned from hard experience that the only reforms the American government has shown it is willing to make are cosmetic, designed to pacify peoples’ righteous indignation. We believe that we must recognize, expose and take on the beast – the capitalist profiteering system – to put an end to it once and for all.
The neo-liberal consensus among the money interests and both political parties is coming apart. And the “great recession”, austerity, increased exploitation and upsurge in state repression are undermining the acceptance and legitimacy of this strategy among masses of people. This rejection is reflected in the fact that so many people recognize the need for a movement to defend Black life and in the growing popular support for socialism, at least as a vaguely defined concept. This does not mean that austerity and escalating repression will not remain the substance of their program in the midst of this crisis. In fact, they will double down, while attempting to win the acceptance from the mass of people. It would be naïve to think that they won’t attempt to enforce our compliance through direct violence and repression – through deployment of police, the National Guard and other military forces and even private militias.
The political parties of the establishment will attack or try to narrow the vision of the mass movement. They will try to limit the scope of the revolutionary possibilities and potentialities of the current and future moments. They will reassert the myths of “democratic” reform and capitalist correction that only reinforce the perpetuation of the system. In addition to the stick, the liberal operatives of the state have been able to offer some carrots of reform with increasing effect and impact over the course of the of the Floyd rebellion.
The international dimension of the current political and economic crisis is a major factor driving the carnage we are experiencing. The competitive imperative of capitalism is driving capitalists (corporations, banks, etc.) and the imperialist nation-states to ramp up the struggle over market share and profits. This is the central factor compelling governments and businesses to pursue the dangerous and utterly irresponsible openings we are seeing around the world. It is also driving a type of closure. The United States and several so-called western countries have closed their borders, limiting the movement of various populations deemed to be “risks” because of their national origin and race. The right has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to advance their racist, xenophobic politics. As we’ve seen too many times in history, it is easy for settler-colonial and European political forces to whip up xenophobic “unity” against a declared enemy. This is often framed in the fallacious claim that “whether rich or poor, capitalist or worker, oppressed person of color or white supremacist we are all in this together.” It’s a particularly dangerous pitch when it is used to stir up nationalistic support for moves, including threats of war, against rival states – as is now the case with China.
When they try to divide the movement, we must struggle to unite it. Voices on all sides are attempting to divide the movement between “good” and “bad” protesters, between “peaceful” marchers and those engaged in “violence” and property destruction. Protestors are called “outside agitators” to drive a wedge between supporters and the Black people most affected by police violence. This message is being broadcast loudly, by forces of the far right, as well as liberals and even among some on the left. It takes many forms, often boosting scattershot efforts by organized fascist forces from the state or right wing militias to infiltrate or discredit the movement in the streets. This narrative serves the interests of capital, reinforcing the divisions it has long imposed and unequally rewarded.
We must be clear that this is a movement to defend people, not property. We affirm the unprecedented level of support for this movement that for the first time in history goes well beyond that of Black people living in the United States and the already-organized left. We have to build on that support and transform it into concrete solidarity with the same scope. The movement as it stands is a good start; a multiracial mass uprising with an infusion of young new Black leaders, militants and organizers at the forefront.
The far right is not the only danger to this movement. We have seen in recent years as well as in historic struggles, that militant rebellion for Black liberation can be diverted off the streets and other organizing spaces into toothless reforms. It can be channeled into recuperation and self-advancement by individuals and instruments of the ruling class, in the form of NGO advocacy, purely symbolic forms of representation, Party politics, legalistic court battles, and attempts at bureaucratic solutions to fundamental contradictions. All this in an effort to sidetrack and absorb the revolutionary energy of the people.
This time, we must be vigilant and aware of these processes as they begin, and, instead of accepting “leadership” from any who present themselves, develop, build and support our own, in the form of democratic, broad, accountable and sustainable Black and working class organization.
We call on all forces fighting for our lives: We call on the organized left, unions and other workers’ organizations, tenant organizations, those fighting for Indigenous and Black self-determination, Latinx organizations, immigrants-rights and anti-racist forces, feminist, queer and LGBTQ organizations, ecosocialist formations and more, who stand for broad solidarity against the far-right and the ruling class. We call on all to take up the task this moment and movement has given us. We call on these forces for solidarity to:
Join the movement in the streets by following the lead and level of militancy of the Black and Brown youth leading the struggle on the ground. Help elevate the transformative demands being raised and raise the fundamental demands of the People’s Strike. Build relationships with other principled forces and individuals who are also showing up. Whatever tactics you engage in, resist attempts to divide and conquer and narratives of good/bad protesters and tactics.
We must publicly resist and condemn not only divisive narratives, but repression of the movement in all its forms, from direct assault and attack, prosecution, punitive bureaucratic delays by courts and police, targeted attacks on immigrants and other vulnerable groups, vigilante and far-right violence, curfews, and any tactics by authorities to impose apartheid-like restrictions on geographic movement between Black and working class neighborhoods and the centers of commerce and/or white affluence.
Strike, launch sickouts, slowdowns, walkouts in union and non-union workplaces. Do it as international or local unions, as union caucuses and as cross-sectoral labor organizations. We should build on the solidarity already shown by Transit Workers in many cities; in defense of Black Lives we must first refuse to aid and abet the police. We can fight to remove police officers from all union formations, and to organize in work places around the principle highlighted by street protest–against criminalization and humiliation of all workers on the job, against the targeting and scapegoating of Black workers, against racist disparities in hiring, pay, work assignment and opportunity.
We should organize to feed and protect protesters with whatever is needed: hand sanitizer and masks, first aid, legal aid and bail money, with housing and shelter in moments of crackdown, but also food and clothing. We should build and extend ongoing efforts that take up not just the needs of protesters, but those of the unhoused, the unemployed and others suffering in the midst of pandemic and economic meltdown.
Spontaneous popular assemblies have already begun to take place in a number of cities where the uprising is ongoing; these can be a space of deliberation of strategizing tactics and relationship building. Popular education can take place in many forums. They should include movement history, skill sharing and more.
We can prepare for the immediate future of the uprising and for what comes after by consolidating our existing organizations, or by forming new ones. We need to provide political space for new radicals, organizers and militants to recover, reflect and regroup. We should build united fronts of solidarity between and among old and new organizations wherever we can.
We invite all forces who are defending Black lives and fighting to forge a radically different future to join us in discussion, strategy and planning for all this and more, and to commit to planning monthly coordinated actions as we enter a new period of intensifying struggle. We are offering a platform for promoting your already ongoing efforts to organize tenants, workers, mutual aid and anti-austerity, anti-imperialist forces and for connecting with many more organizations who share these aims in the struggle for liberation, and a society built on new foundations.