Above photo: Thousands gathered in New York’s Times Square for a demonstration organized by Black Lives Matter Greater New York on June 6, 2020. Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/Lightrocket via Getty Images.
Our movements built lasting power.
Even as 2020 took turns for the worst, the seeds of justice and liberation extended their roots.
For decades to come, 2020 will be remembered for the failures of politicians and capitalism. In a selfish bid to “save the economy” and rally his base ahead of the election, President Trump and his allies spread disinformation about COVID-19 and threw common-sense public health measures into the meatgrinder of partisan politics. Predictably, the United States became one of the world’s worst hot spots for COVID-19, exposing every crack and fault line in society. As of this writing, the death toll is nearing 300,000. To say that the Trump administration failed to flatten the curve is a gross understatement.
Meanwhile, Congress has failed to provide pandemic relief for months, even as millions of children go hungry and families struggle to afford even basic expenses. Just this week, lawmakers compromised on legislation containing massive handouts for the rich and stimulus payments that won’t even cover one month’s rent for most people. But even that meager, last-ditch effort is now threatened by Trump’s latest theatrics. In a last-minute flip-flop, Trump suggested he would not sign legislation without larger stimulus checks and other changes opposed by his own party, putting the relief bill in peril ahead of crucial deadlines.
The failures, however, stretch back much farther than the tumultuous Trump era. Systemic racism has been entrenched in the U.S. for centuries, leaving communities of color particularly vulnerable to the pain of the pandemic and a shattered economy. For decades, politicians have failed to address the racism endemic in health care, policing and a criminal legal system built on mass incarceration. The Truthout series “Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19” examines the oppressive systems behind the pandemic’s disparate impacts.
Popular anger finally exploded in 2020 in the form of widespread and sustained protests for racial justice, forcing white Americans to reckon with their privilege and the face of stark inequality.
Indeed, 2020 must be remembered for Black Lives Matter: for the neighbors who put on their masks and showed up for one another, for the revolts against state violence, and the mutual aid that blossomed even in an era of social distancing. We will soon put 2020 behind us, but the power built by our movements this year will continue to grow. There was far too much organizing in 2020 to fit into one article, but here’s a snapshot of activism that defined a year when everything changed.
Abolish the Police
On May 25, Minneapolis police officers arrested and murdered George Floyd. As author and academic Terry Anne Scott wrote in August, the word “murder” fails to convey the extraordinary cruelty of a killing that occurred on a busy street corner. Like the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed by vigilantes in February while jogging in Georgia, and Elijah McClain, who was put in a chokehold and killed by police in Colorado last year, Scott wrote that the murder of George Floyd felt like a lynching to many Black people.
Floyd’s death at the hands of police sparked a sustained uprising in Minneapolis. Across the city, murals and graffiti broadcast words that would change the national conversation forever: Black Lives Matter. Abolish the Police.
Protests quickly spread from Minneapolis to the rest of the nation and echoed across the world. In Louisville, Kentucky, activists were already demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police during a botched drug raid. Millions of people marched through the summer demanding that police be defunded and abolished altogether, chanting the names of the dead. And there were many: Police killed at least 164 Black people in the first eight months of 2020. The broad movement for Black Lives became a target for Trump and the right, but activists pushed back to defend their communities from white supremacists and Trump’s threats of paramilitary invasion.
As protesters took to the streets, the long-running movement to abolish policing and the caging of human beings in jails and prisons gained national attention. Activists made clear that “abolish the police” is not a metaphor or a call for reform. As Garrett Felber wrote in July, police reform has never prevented murders by police. In fact, popular criminal legal reforms are often an extension of carceral violence. Abolition is about building a safer, healthier world through healing and the reallocation of resources; it’s a step toward ending white supremacy and capitalism. Truthout launched a series in 2020, “The Road to Abolition,” to connect the dots, explore how economic justice can reduce violence, and amplify the Black feminists and other visionaries working to build this world every day.
While the mainstream media focused much of its attention on property destruction and clashes with police during the revolts of 2020, activists everywhere harnessed the collective power of the protest movement to better their communities. Mutual aid flourished during the uprising in Minneapolis, for example, where Truthout reported on street corners and empty shops that transformed into free markets, and a hotel taken over by houseless activists and their allies.
Rooted in anarchist thinking and a longtime practice among leftists of all stripes, mutual aid became a household term in 2020 as the capitalist system proved incapable of responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Across the country, people organized mutual aid groups to deliver food and supplies to people who could not leave their homes during the pandemic. As historic wildfires threatened communities across the U.S. West, Black Lives Matter activists in Portland shifted gears, temporarily halting protests to focus on mutual aid. As the pandemic hit new peaks this month, Brant Rosen explored mutual aid within the Hannukah tradition, urging readers to resist COVID by caring for each other. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview with Chris Steele, there is a long history of mutual aid in the U.S. and across the world — and it is key to our survival.
Pandemic Solidarity With Incarcerated People
The pandemic further exposed the painful and dangerous conditions inside jails and prisons, where the number of cases recently surpassed 250,000 in prisons and immigration jails alone. Across the country in 2020, activists both inside and outside prisons demanded that officials release as many people as possible — if not everyone — under the banner of #FreeThemAll. In November, Ella Fassler reported that prisoners staged over 100 protests and rebellions nationwide as the virus spread quickly behind bars, just as doctors, health professionals and incarcerated people had warned. To reveal the crisis within houses of incarceration, Truthout published accounts directly from incarcerated people and their family members.
Social distancing is impossible in jails and prisons, and authorities have increasingly responded to the pandemic by putting people in solitary confinement, which is considered a form of torture. However, the movement to free incarcerated people was buoyed by Black Lives Matter in 2020 and people are working to decarcerate jails and prisons nationwide. Right now, mothers in Illinois are organizing to free their children from prison and protect them from COVID. In Alabama, prisoners are preparing for a New Year’s strike on all prison labor, which “amounts to slavery,” according to the organizers. Lawsuits and the sheer reality of the pandemic have already forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other jailers to release people at risk from COVID.
There was already a housing crisis before COVID — and then the pandemic put millions of people out of work. With Congress failing to provide the economic aid that people need, grassroots organizers are taking matters into their own hands. Since the early days of the pandemic, housing justice activists and local tenant unions have effectively resisted evictions and fought to cancel rent payments to landlords. While there is a long history of rent strikes in the U.S., they have become a “widespread response to brutal economic pressure,” as David Bacon recently reported. Rent strikes involving thousands of people broke out in cities across the country in 2020, revealing the sheer power that renters have in numbers and laying the groundwork for future organizing.