Last night saw the great mythology of the United States—of free expression, compromise, and democracy—come crashing down in fire, smoke, pepper spray, curfews, and police abuse. It became clear beyond any doubt that the only thing holding the American government in place is violence, of the police and military. In nine states and territories the national guard were called, and curfews were announced in 25 cities in 16 states. Across the country, from Huntsville, Alabama, to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to New York City, to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and beyond, protesters facing desperate economic conditions and ineffectual government raised their voices in unprecedented ways, and defended themselves from police aggression, looted stores, and generally lashed out.
Many pundits, like CNN’s Don Lemon, couldn’t believe their eyes. They couldn’t understand where the American national project had failed. Just five years ago, Barack Obama was president, civility, though taxed by republican extremism, was the political sentiment of the day. From their position in cushy urban apartments or suburban mansions, the upper-class political talking-heads of america thought that everything was on the right track. The working class of this country has known for several decades that this has not been the case.
Life in Post Cold-War America
That some lives are more important than others has been a universal american truth, from the genocide of native americans, to the exploitation of black slave labor to build the country, to profiteering off immigrant labor while stoking nativism. It is woven integrally into the fabric of the country. The vast palaces of the rich, the vaunted “middle class lifestyle,” and all those things many Americans think separates them from the rest of the world, was built by hyper-exploitation at home and murderous imperialism and colonialism abroad. The murder and exploitation of immigrants and people of color is a matter of American historical record.
Yet, in the wake of Reaganomics, the New-Deal era mythos of an American nation made strong by its differences and compassion, placed over the simple truth of American brutality, began to erode even for “middle-class” whites. For several decades, the American government has rather openly murdered its own people, shipped jobs overseas, and committed widely documented atrocities condemned not only by the left but several bourgeois international bodies. The different value of life has become pervasive in nearly every aspect of our lives as workers in 2020, and is present at every interaction we have with state institutions. Police shake hands with women’s marchers, predominantly white, and rip children away from immigrant mothers. “Our” troops are to be supported, until they come back from imperialist war dealing with trauma. Some workers are full-time and have benefits, others, doing the exact same work, are part-time and face bankruptcy from minor health issues. White-collar jobs baloon, while blue-collar jobs disappear. We have all seen so many unarmed black people killed we can’t remember all their names and stories. Even reactionaries like Rush Limbaugh who are the first to defend police officers had a hard time defending Derek Chauvin. All this, in the backdrop of a pandemic in which national leaders have gaged re-opening strategies on how many lives they can trade for stock gains.
“No, the growing, popular understanding that the lives of those of color and working class people are worth less than stock options has been a bipartisan creation.”
Importantly, this has been a bipartisan effort. We cannot blame this open disdain for the lives of workers and people of color on Trump or even Reagan. Bill Clinton’s deregulation of derivatives was responsible for the 2008 collapse that saw millions lose their home, while Wall Street was bailed out (by Obama). Obama deported over 2 million immigrants, killed thousands of innocent civilians in the middle east with drones, and did little to curb the neo-liberal ruination of rural america and police brutality against African-Americans. It was Obama who resigned the patriot act, and enabled the executive branch to detain “terrorists” indefinitely without charge, a policy Donald Trump is now trying to weaponize against “antifa.” It was Obama who punished working class people with extra taxes if they didn’t buy a healthcare plan with a $10,000 deductible. It was Democratic mayors in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and more, that unleashed the brutality of their police departments on the people the last few days, issued curfews, and refused to hold the cops accountable. It was Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Chicago that called protesters “criminals” and arrested over 1000 after trapping them downtown. It was Amy Klobuchar that failed to prosecute the murderer of George Floyd.
No, the growing, popular understanding that the lives of those of color and working class people are worth less than stock options has been a bipartisan creation. This is why the Don Lemons of the world can’t believe their eyes—democratic party leaders and moderates around the country have spent the last few decades creating this anger that is now only beginning to manifest itself, faced with an old enemy: the law and order right.
The “Law and Order” Threat
As workers, we have to be students of previous struggles for civil rights and reform in the United States. In 1968, when riots rocked the country, Richard Nixon responded by crafting a presidential campaign for “law and order,” to “return to normal,” ironically similar to Biden’s current platform. But it is Trump who is positioning himself as this candidate in the last few days, fantasizing about shooting looters, designating antifa has a terrorist organization, and attacking “trouble-makers” in Washington, DC. It worked spectacularly for Nixon, who won the election easily, despite flagrant racist George Wallace cutting into republican territory and getting 13% of the vote.
“There is a strong fascist-leaning undercurrent in this country, that will defend white supremacy at any cost to basic democratic rights.”
Two years later, in 1970, over 60% of Americans per a gallup poll at the time supported the killing of innocent students at Kent State, one who was simply walking to class. Fred Hampton was murdered that year in cold blood, and the Black Panthers were destroyed by FBI infiltration and COINTELPRO-intensified infighting. There is a strong fascist-leaning undercurrent in this country, that will defend white supremacy at any cost to basic bourgeois rights. They will with one breath fly a Gadsden flag, and with another defend police pepper-balling people sitting on their own porch. Last time, this law and order current was successful, and disintegrated the popular movement.
When the power of the people rises, as it did in the late-1960s, these forces in America, empowered by their president, will strike against the people’s movements with lethal force. We have seen already that American fascist movements have moved to “defend businesses” and stop looting, positioning themselves not as open Nazis, but as simple Americans who crave a return to the normalcy of “law and order.” We must prepare to fight them by any means.
Once Again, for Working Democracy
But history is not a circle, though it should inform our struggles and lines of dialogue. In 1964, Malcolm X argued in his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” that civil rights activists should use the ballot if authentically useful, and fight for a useful ballot if it wasn’t. In an election of two sexual abusers, with 40 million unemployed, facing environmental disaster and disease, the people of the United States, from Fayetteville to New York City, have started this process. In so doing, the workers of this country have shown their immense power, bringing entire cities to a halt, as martyred IWW activist Joe Hill knew they could.
“What all of us have been fighting for across the country, at grave risk, is a society in which all human life is valued equally—one in which all people’s voices are heard equally, where murderers go to prison, where people are bailed out before banks. For this, we have been beaten, tear-gassed, and shot with all sorts of ammunition.”
We are in the early stages of that process, and movements and ideological trends rise and fall in hours on the streets in cities across the country, and the power of the people is often raw and disorganized, as Frank Chapman, chair of the NAARPR, said of the lessons of the Chicago action on May 30th. The popular movement, as it continues, will have to contend with anarchic and reckless individualist violence. It must not alienate itself from the working class and communities of color, or seem as foreign invaders in neighborhoods and movements, a situation the 60s anti-war movement often found itself in. It must clearly identify itself as working class, for working class interests, and clearly identify its enemies. The movement must target its militancy against police installations and exploitative establishments, and bring a political message against white supremacy and for workers rights to their workplaces and any place of contact with fellow workers—union halls, sports clubs, music scenes, the classroom, etc.
What all of us have been fighting for across the country, at grave risk, is a society in which all human life is valued equally—one in which all people’s voices are heard equally, where murderers go to prison, where people are bailed out before banks. For this, we have been beaten, tear-gassed, and shot with all sorts of ammunition. But we know, despite what democratic mayors and police superintendents say, that we are fighting for a true, working democracy in which police are controlled by community assemblies, white supremacy is actively rooted out and suppressed, and our democratic choices aren’t between two senile criminals. The price we have paid already has been steep, with journalists wounded, blinded, and thousands of activists beaten, maced, tear-gassed, arrested, shot at, and even killed—and the price will continue to grow. But we pay it with the weight of past liberation struggles in this country on our shoulders, and a hopeful heart for a fundamental remaking of American society towards a working democracy.
Categories: U.S. News