Above photo: Joe Piette, Flickr.
Over the last two years, more Americans were killed by police than Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan over the last 18 years. More Americans were killed by police in the last three years than people were killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Combine this with a devastating economic crisis and pandemic, and it is easy to understand why a tipping point has been reached, as the accumulated rage and humiliation of centuries spills over onto the streets.
Earlier this year, in the 2020 draft Perspectives for the Coming American Revolution, we wrote the following:
“2008 profoundly transformed the consciousness of billions. The most serious strategists of capital understand and fear this. The Edelman Trust Barometer polled people in 28 major countries and found that 56% of the population believes that ‘capitalism today does more harm than good to the world’ – including 47% of Americans.
“And the Maplecroft Global Political Risk Outlook concluded that throughout 2019, 47 countries had ‘witnessed a significant uptick in protests, which intensified during the last quarter.’ This represents fully 25% of all the countries in the world. ‘[The] resulting disruption to business, national economies, and investment worldwide has totaled in the billions of US dollars.’ With a new world economic crisis on the horizon or already unfolding, we can expect even more generalized discontent in 2020 and beyond. And the waves of revolution sweeping Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe itself have an unavoidable impact on the US.”
This perspective has now been borne out to a T. In the 10 days since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the US has been rocked from top to bottom by a mass movement of unprecedented proportions. The movement has been elemental and organic, surging resiliently in the face of brutal repression and even more police killings. Over 200 cities have declared curfews and over 20,000 National Guards have been deployed in 28 states.
Establishment on the defensive
The nationwide movement, which has reached every corner of the country – from the major urban centres to small, sleepy conservative towns – has put the establishment on the defensive. They have now been forced to make some concessions – charging the other three officers involved in the murder and upgrading the charge against Chauvin – and have even carted out ex-president Barack Obama to try to calm the situation.
But the current president has only poured petrol on the fire, declaring, with a Bible in hand: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” This, after peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas and truncheons to make space for his photo op.
Police repression however, has been unable to cow the movement. In Louisville, Kentucky, the police shot dead another unarmed black man, David McAtee. The cops alleged that they were “returning fire” from the crowd but it was later revealed that the officers involved had turned off their body cams and that their story is at odds with eyewitnesses. It was murder. Again.
Over 9,000 people have been arrested, the majority of them simply for demonstrating. In city after city, protesters have defied the curfews. In L.A. and Seattle, the crowds are chanting: “I don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear?”
Everything Trump does is refracted through the prism of the November presidential election. Threatening to use the military was an attempt at playing the “law-and-order card,” to puff himself up as “strong”, while painting the Democrats as “soft” in the face of “rioting thugs.”
But the game he is playing is very dangerous. Deploying the military would be a high-stakes gamble that could mark a point of no return. What would happen if the protesters didn’t back down? What if the troops refused to fire on crowds of men, women, and children? If they did open fire, how many people could they kill before millions more joined the movement, the military fractures along class lines, and every US embassy in the world goes up in flames?
There have already been incidents (real or staged) of fraternisation between police officers and the crowds. In a widely circulated video, a black youth addresses black cops telling them that, without their uniforms, the rich and their own bosses despise them. In another video, an officer is seen breaking into tears and being replaced on the line after being berated by a black girl begging him to “take the knee!”
The first sign of an impending revolution is divisions in the ruling class, which can no longer rule in the old way. The economic carrots of the postwar boom have withered and the usual repressive sticks are losing their effectiveness, leaving the capitalists and their political representatives bewildered and at each other’s throats.
We’ve seen many examples of this, especially since 2016. But the present, particularly explosive convergence of factors has blown those divisions wide open.
The deployment of the military – not the National Guard but the actual Army – under the Insurrection Act of 1807 could massively backfire. A two-bit businessman and scam artist with no military experience, Trump seems to think the armed forces are like a tap you can just turn on and off at will, a threat that will be obeyed and feared without question. But the serious strategists in the Pentagon know that once they play the “send in the troops” card – they are literally out of cards.
The US military is essentially the only institution of capitalist rule that still has a high approval rating. It is made up mostly of people’s brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, children, etc., and is seen as a heroic defender of “American liberty.” But if it is used against the civilian population – a population that takes its “liberty from tyranny” especially seriously – then all bets are off. It would be akin to declaring war on the US population – a war they would not be guaranteed to win without permanently undermining their ability to maintain their rule.
An Editorial in the Wall Street Journal put it in this way:
“We think this would be a mistake, though Mr. Trump has the authority… In the current moment, the sight of troops on US streets would be more likely to inflame than calm… US soldiers are trained for combat against a foreign enemy, not for riot control against Americans. The risk of mistakes would be high, and Mr. Trump would be blamed for any bloodshed from civilian clashes with troops …”
They are afraid, not only of “mistakes,” but of the impact civilian killings by active duty military would have on public opinion. They are also afraid of the consequences of sending soldiers – a majority of whom are economic conscripts with a large proportion of blacks and Latinos – to fight unarmed protesters marching against racist police killings.
There have been reports by veterans’ organisations that some active duty soldiers and National Guards are opposed to being deployed in these circumstances. A Guardsman who serves as a medic in an infantry line company is quoted as saying: “I can’t do it. Even looking at my uniform is making me feel sick that I’m associated with this, especially after [the National Guard unit] shot that man who owned that barbecue shop [in Louisville, Kentucky]. I live in Pennsylvania. I live with the history of Kent State. I’m not being a part of that.” The Military Times has also reported on the developing mood of discontent among troops who may be used against protesters.
Splits at the top
Deploying the military could also provoke a deep constitutional crisis, with an open split in the state apparatus over the legality of invoking the Insurrection Act. This is why, from the moment Trump threatened to bring the Army into the streets, there has been a powerful pushback from sections of the capitalist state. Not because they are less callous or more democratic than Trump, but rather because they fear that such an action, rather than crush the movement and bring the situation “under control,” could have the opposite effect. They fear undermining the US Constitution even further than it already has been, as it is the legal bulwark for capitalist rule in the country.
An article on CNN reported that there was opposition in the Pentagon to the deployment of troops: “Defense officials tell CNN there was deep and growing discomfort among some in the Pentagon even before President Donald Trump announced Monday that he is ready to deploy the military to enforce order inside the United States.”
Trump’s former Defense Secretary “Mad Dog” Mattis also intervened, with an article in The Atlantic in which he described Trump as a “threat to the Constitution” and in effect called for him to be removed: “We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens”. Again, this is an unprecedented move. A retired Marine general and former Secretary of Defense calling for the president to be removed!
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Admiral Mike Mullen, added his voice to those rejecting the use of the Army. He did so with a more-or-less veiled call for soldiers to disobey orders: “I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief.”
John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general, a former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, and former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under Obama, wrote that Trump’s recent actions and threats “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.” Let us not forget that one of the reasons the American Revolution was fought in the first place was to protest the tyranny of having regular troops stationed in American cities.
And although Trump and his rabid sycophants blame “leftist extremists” for the chaos and have moved to classify “Antifa” as a domestic terrorist organisation, the FBI has concluded that there is no evidence of an organised “Antifa” movement – though they have arrested far-right extremists for bomb plots.
All of this pressure led to yet another unprecedented move, again revealing the depth of the splits in the ruling class. The present Defense Secretary, Mark T. Esper, went public on Wednesday with his opposition to the invocation of the Insurrection Act, openly contradicting the president. This is a highly significant incident, which shows that the capitalist state has certain mechanisms to control even the most maverick president. But before the day was over, there was yet another twist to the story.
The Washington Post reported that, while the Army was making plans to send home active-duty soldiers who had been deployed to Washington, D.C., “the plan was reversed on Wednesday after a meeting at the White House involving Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.”
There is an almighty struggle tearing apart the pinnacle of the ruling class and its state apparatus, which happens every time and in every place a mass movement of such proportions emerges. There are those who think concessions should be made in order to appease the movement, while others demand an iron fist be used. The former argue that repression will only lead to an escalation of the movement. The latter say that showing softness is what will escalate the movement. At this point in the development of the protests, both are wrong and both are correct.
We should not underestimate the scope, breadth, and depth of the mass movement that has developed over the last two weeks. This is not just any country. This is the most powerful imperialist country the earth has ever seen, a country whose ruling class has terrorized much of the world and much of its population for centuries.
Contradictions come to the surface
The movement is the result of the accumulation of several factors. For one, it builds on the experience of the original wave of the Black Lives Matter movement and the realisation that nothing fundamental has changed. To that we must add the experience of the 2011 Occupy movement, inspired by the Arab Spring and the Wisconsin uprising. There is also the experience of the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns, which radicalised a whole layer of people, above all the youth, putting socialism firmly on the agenda. The inevitable conclusion many have drawn from Sanders’ betrayal is that the electoral field is blocked, thus pushing them onto the streets.
Then there is the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has revealed the real nature of the capitalist system, in which profits come before human lives—over 100,000 lives so far, to be precise. And to top it all off, there is the deepest recession US capitalism has ever seen, throwing tens of millions into unemployment in the span of just a few short weeks.
The young generation, which is the driving force of the movement, became politically conscious in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and the bail out of the banks. Their entire life experience has been marked by crisis, uncertainty, and the lack of any perspective for a better future. They have nothing to lose. At the present time they have no alternative. This unbridled anger is what gives the current movement its boundless energy in the face of brutal repression.
In this, the US uprising has many points in common with the October 2019 uprisings in Chile, Catalonia, Lebanon, etc. The 2008 capitalist crisis generation is at the forefront of the revolts that are spreading like wildfire across the world, which started even before the COVID-19 pandemic and are only going to intensify in the next period.
But it is not only the youth that is questioning the system. They can count on the sympathy of a majority of the population, including a large percentage of Republican voters. A Morning Consult poll conducted on May 31–June 1 showed that “54% of US adults – including 69% of Democrats, 49% of independents and 39% of Republicans – support the ongoing protests in response to the death of George Floyd, and other black Americans.”
Even more astounding, a separate poll published by Newsweek found that a majority of Americans – 54% – “believe that burning down a Minneapolis police precinct building following the death of George Floyd was justified”!
At present, the largely spontaneous character of the movement and its lack of a national leadership, program, or strategy is its strength, as this makes it far more difficult for the Democrats and liberals to co-opt it. But at a certain point, this lack of clarity and focus will inevitably be transformed into a debilitating and potentially fatal weakness.
Of course, any movement of this size which lasts more than a few days, starts to push forward its own natural leadership. There are reports of neighbourhood committees being set up in poor, Black and Latino areas, starting in Minneapolis, the epicentre of the movement. In the face of the threat from the police, looters, and far-right militias, people have started to organise to defend themselves, and in some cases, with arms in hand.
A dramatic report from Minneapolis describes the situation: “I need y’all to know that my neighbors and I were out until we couldn’t function. Some folks all night long so that others of us could get some rest. I really need to make it clear that the police and national guard did NOT keep our neighborhood safe – we did. Police did not respond to two cars crashing into a barricade – we did. The police did not prevent several people from breaking into the bank, the auto mall, the repair shop –we did. The police did not chase white nationalists and out of town folks off our block – we did. Police did not check on vulnerable neighbors and help keep them safe at home – we did. The national guard did not clean up our street, bring food to where it was needed, or relocate vulnerable folks to hotels – we did. So do not credit anyone’s safety to the increased militarized presence in Minneapolis. Not [governor] Walz, [Mayor] Frey, pigs, or guard. Credit needs to go to the neighbors and community members looking out for one another. It’s imperfect and tense, but it’s better than what we had before.”
This is the way forward. The generalisation of democratic neighborhood committees would not only ensure the self-defence of the people in working-class areas, but also provide the movement with a democratic and accountable structure. The committees that already exist in embryonic form in different parts of Minneapolis should link up through a network of elected and recallable delegates. The Minneapolis Federation of Labor should mobilise its members and commit every last ounce of its resources towards facilitating the linking up of these committees across the Twin Cities metro area and beyond.
Neither Trump, nor Biden, but workers’ power!
The organised violence and power of the state needs to be met with the might of the organised labor movement. The statements and actions of transit workers in several cities, who have declared they will not provide material support to police in their efforts to round up protesters is just an inkling of that power.
Protesters outside the White House forced the president into a bunker and the lights of that symbol of capitalist power were switched off for fear of attracting the attention of the demonstrators. The mobilised and organised working class can paralyse the whole of the country – and switch the entire system off.
Over the last few months, over 220 wildcat strikes and walkouts have broken out to protest pay, safety, and working conditions during the pandemic. In most cases, these have been led by unorganised layers of the class. This is the power that needs to be harnessed for this movement to go forward. The youth must turn towards the workers, who already sympathise with the movement, and organised labor must break its unholy alliance with the strike-and protest-breaking Democrats and throw itself wholeheartedly into the struggle. Just imagine what would happen if tens of millions of organised and unorganised workers withheld their labour in an all-out general strike, starting in Minneapolis, and spreading nationally!
But the hard truth is the following: if the movement doesn’t get organised and channel its energy into bringing about fundamental change, the raging river will eventually ebb back into its banks – even if the course of the river has been changed forever. This is the tragic lesson of the last 100-plus years, repeated over and over as the masses rise up spontaneously without a leadership prepared in advance and ready to go to the end in fighting to overthrow capitalism.
It took the burning down of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis to force the filing of charges against Chauvin. 10 days of sustained mass action across the country were required to force the state to bring charges against the other three police responsible for George Floyd’s murder. These token concessions are to be celebrated, but they are far from enough. The moment the masses are off the streets, the state will backtrack and prepare for their acquittal, or at best, lenient sentences.
The movement has already gone far beyond the murder of George Floyd. The whole system is guilty. The movement is questioning the whole of the racist capitalist system that killed yet another black man merely because of the color of his skin. His callous murder ended up being the historical accident that unleashed the pent-up necessity. As his six-year-old daughter, Gianna, put it: “Daddy changed the world.”
We must raise the slogan of bringing down Trump. However, this necessarily means discussing who is going to replace him. Our aim isn’t to replace him with Mike Pence or Joe Biden. The mayors and governors in the cities and states where poor people are killed by racist cops are, in the main, Democrats. The mayors and governors in cities and states where the police and the National Guard have used brutal repression against protesters are, in the main, Democrats. Biden suggested that if he came to power he could bring change to policing, by, for example, training police “to shoot in the leg rather than the heart.” What else is needed to prove that there is no fundamental difference between the two parties of the capitalist establishment? That there is no such thing as a “lesser evil”?
What is needed is a mass, working-class, socialist party, organically connected to organized labor and the broader working class. Such a tool is needed to harness the energy and anger of the youth, to focus it on bringing down the entire crisis-ridden, racist capitalist system. We also need a cadre of professional revolutionaries, steeped in Marxist theory and tempered in the struggles of our class, to infuse the future mass party with intransigent class-independence and the long view of history.
This heroic movement is an inspiration for the entire world. After all, if these events can happen in the “belly of the beast,” they can happen anywhere!
What we are witnessing is not yet the Third American Revolution. But these are undoubtedly the opening shots of a revolutionary epoch, one that will end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” In short, the very fate of humanity is at stake if we are to survive the combined catastrophes of climate change, coronavirus and capitalism. The writing is on the wall for this system and its defenders. The only way to “flatten the curve” of the capitalist disease is to get organized to eradicate it altogether in the next historical period.
- To fight killer cops, fight capitalism!
- For working-class unity – an injury to one is an injury to all!
- Build democratically elected and accountable neighborhood self-defence committees everywhere!
- Organised labor must join the movement, facilitate the linking up of neighborhood committees, call a general strike, and bring the country to a halt!
- Down with Trump, the Republicans, and the Democrats! For a mass working-class socialist party and a workers’ government!