No need to recount those awful images. Everybody saw them. They instantly became a powerful symbol that resonated all over the world: “We’ll keep our knee on your neck until you die”, they seemed to say. It soon appeared that many felt that knee pressure on their necks: The pressure of disrespect and discrimination; the pressure of being robbed of a future; the pressure of brutal repression and control. For the second time, the desperate cry of a man being murdered by the police for having transgressed the rules of commerce, was taken over by thousands: “I can’t breathe!!!”
But now the cry is much louder, resounding in seven hundred American cities and around the world. Its symbolism too is powerfully resonating. “We can’t breathe” is a particular apt slogan for today.
We can’t breathe because you stoke hate and violence, racism, nationalism and xenophobia to divide us so you can rule;
We can’t breathe because you take away our means to make a decent living and our hopes for the future while you make the rich ever richer;
We can’t breathe because you poison our environment, as you destroy life on earth for your profits;
We can’t breathe because you facilitate pandemics, and then lock us up and send the lowest paid amongst us, more often than not black or brown men and women, to work in dangerous conditions;
We can’t breathe because, while exalting freedom, your state is an octopus extending its arms into all aspects of life; you spy on us, your police are armies, trained to harass, hunt and kill and most of all, to intimidate us, to keep us small;
We can’t breathe because while you claim to be devoted to justice, you sweat injustice from every pore. The more your system sinks in crisis, the more corruption, oppression, exploitation, hate, discrimination and violence it engenders.
What this worldwide cry is saying, even if most of those shouting it may not be conscious of it, is this: capitalism, you’re suffocating us.
Except for a backwater mayor in Mississippi, who saw nothing wrong in the murder, the entire ruling class quickly and unanimously condemned it. Even hard-line supporters of the police were ‘horrified’,‘appalled’, ‘disgusted’, ‘sickened’, ‘outraged’, etc. “He’s not one of us!”, they wanted to assure us, “Look, we got him behind bars!” And indeed, never before was a killer cop fired and arrested so quickly. That we thank in no small part to the ubiquity of smartphones. If it hadn’t been filmed, this murder would only have been a local tragedy. A mere statistic. American police kill on average about 1,100 persons each year, the majority black and brown. George Floyd was not the first black man killed by Derek Chauvin. Nor was the way in which the cop killed exceptional; his choking ‘technique’ is used by cops all over the world.
The ruling class did not want to throw oil on the fire, but the fire spread anyway. The movement erupted like a volcano, unpredicted by the political seismologists. The police were mobilized to contain it. There are 700,000 police officers in the US. In recent decades they have been heavily equipped with military hardware and training. Initially, they held back. It didn’t seem smart to try to quench a movement triggered by police violence with more police violence. But as tensions rose, the restraint often gave way to brutal forms of crowd control. Countless protesters were beaten, a few even killed with live ammunition. Tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets were used in copious amounts. The owners of the companies that produce this stuff must have watched it with glee.
Sometimes we saw police officers lay down their batons and march with the protesters, raise their fist or ‘take a knee’ in solidarity. Don’t be fooled by this. There will come a time when some policemen will refuse orders and join the struggle, but this is not what is happening now. While these ‘good cops’ appeased the demonstrators, their colleagues were standing behind a corner, armed to the teeth, ready to crack some skulls.
The police was not enough: the national guard was mobilized in 32 states, four regular army divisions were put on standby, and all sorts of other enforcers like ICE, the DEA and the riot police of the Federal Bureau of Prisons were thrown into the battle. The military police were called to help defend the White House. Curfews were imposed (not very successfully). Still, the protest demonstrations swelled, and the looting increased.
The ruling class again was unanimous in its condemnation of the looting but its attitude to it varied. For the right, it was an opportunity to change the narrative: the murder of George Floyd became a side story, the real story now was nothing less than “a battle between civilisation and barbarism”, as Tucker Carlson, a talking head on Fox News put it. An iron fist is what is needed. The hater-in-chief in the White House, when he escaped from his bunker, joined in, threatening to deploy the army, to unleash “vicious dogs”, declaring Antifa a terrorist organization (Antifa, if it were an organization, should return the favor and declare his government a terrorist organization), exhorting the local authorities to dominate the streets, clearing a path with tear gas to wave a Bible in front of a church, and so on. Clearly he hopes to be re-elected as the law-and-order candidate, the unwavering, implacable strongman we need in this time of rising anxiety and chaos.
For the left (to use this term very broadly), the protest against the murder of George Floyd remained the main story. Most mainstream media and politicians made a sharp distinction between ‘the peaceful protesters’ and ‘the violent fringe elements’. Branding the latter as evil outsiders, professional troublemakers, leeches on the movement, they all exhorted the protesters to stay away from them and seek change through peaceful means, like voting and praying. But the second most popular slogan of the movement is “No justice, no peace!” How can the movement be peaceful and refuse peace at the same time? By ‘peaceful’ the Democrats and others mean harmless for capitalism, respectful of its rules. They want us to believe a better, more humane capitalism is achievable if we vote for them. They turn reality on its head: capitalist society is not inhumane because of bad cops and bad politicians, the latter are the product of a system that is inhumane at its core.
As for the looting, some context is needed. Capitalism is based on looting. From its very beginning until now it has looted human labor and the earth’s resources relentlessly for the sake of accumulating profit. Just recently, its stimulus program showered hundreds of billions of dollars on the owners of capital at the expense of everyone else. It has kept its knee on the necks of African Americans in particular, first through slavery, then through Jim Crow terror and in our time through mass incarceration. Let’s keep things in proportion.
So we shed no tears when we see the police station of the killer cops of Minneapolis go up in flames, when the windows of the bank of America and Manhattan Chase are shattered, when police are pelted and patrol cars are burned, when big chains like Target (with a name like that, they asked for it) who underpay their workers and overcharge their customers are plundered, when kids who barely make enough to survive gleefully empty luxury stores that cater to the rich. They deserve what they get.
But there’s also the senseless violence, such as the attacks on small groceries, restaurants, barber shops etc, many owned by black people or immigrants who sometimes, when defending their stores, were beaten and even shot to death. There is no excuse for that. They victimize the innocent. In poor neighborhoods of Minneapolis, the only places selling food were destroyed. With the bus service halted, the people there now live in a food desert.
Who are these looters?
Many are young people unemployed or earning a miserable wage, who grab the chance to get things for free, even things they never could save enough to buy. They are school kids, enjoying a giddying moment of freedom. They are people who take food, shoes, clothes and of course, toilet paper, because they need them or can sell them to survive.
Then there are the professional criminals, seeing an opportunity for windfall profit. They come well-organized in teams, with crowbars, bolt cutters and guns, loading up vans while enforcers deal with any resistance. Sometimes they compete over looting territory with other gangs.
Further, there are misguided anti-capitalists who romanticize violence and ruin for ruin’s sake, believing it will undermine the system. In practice, they are hard to distinguish from the white supremacists who long for a race war and want Trump re-elected and believe that chaos will contribute to both ends. The white men who drove through Atlanta’s poor neighborhoods giving bricks to teenagers could be either. Who were the people in Davenport driving around shooting, killing a protester? Rarely are they identified as did happen in the case of a twitter account named ANTIFA_US that tweeted: “ALERT Tonight’s the night, Comrades Tonight we say “F**k The City” and we move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours #BlacklivesMaters #F**kAmerica.” It was retweeted by many rightwingers including Donald Trump jr. who called it proof his father was right to call Antifa a terrorist organization before it was revealed that it was a fake account set up by white racists.
Initially, the police often seemed to take a hands off approach to the looting. It concentrated its efforts on confronting the demonstrations. Police officers were observed in their cars, doing nothing, while looting was going on under their eyes. We can only speculate on their motives. Were they scared (not unreasonably), waiting for backup that didn’t come? Were they angry for being scapegoated for everything? Did they want the looting to occur in the hope that it would discredit the movement? Or show “the people with a stake in society” (to borrow another expression of Tucker Carlson) how badly they are needed?
Increasingly, protesters began to resist the looting and wanton acts of destruction because they saw them as senseless and taking attention away from their cause.
But that cause is vague. Obviously, in this case, everybody agrees that the killer cops must be punished, and the authorities gladly will sacrifice them, if that calms the mood. They also concede that the police need better training, although in practice that will likely mean making them more aware of how they come across when they’re being filmed. They increased the charges against the main culprit and leveled charges against his accomplices. What more do you want?, they seem to be asking. But still, the protests are swelling.
What do we want? We’re not sure. More than this. Freedom. Respect. Liberation of worries of how to survive. Continuing the joy of being together, black, white and brown, believing in and fighting for our common future. That’s what we want, to be together, to fight together. Don’t tell us to go back inside, to go back to normal, to vote and pray.
But being together carries risks today. We witness an unprecedented contingency: an explosive spread of social discontent and an explosive spread of a pandemic at the same time. The pandemic played a role in the events. On the one hand it fanned the protest in different ways. The disproportionately high number of Covid-19 victims among black and brown people fed the anger. It put the spotlight on the grievous underfunding of healthcare in poor urban areas, on the unhealthy living conditions there and on the fact that many essential workers were forced to work without adequate protection. It’s no coincidence that in New York for instance, the richest borough (Manhattan) has the lowest number of Covid-deaths per capita and the poorest borough (the Bronx) the highest. Another factor is the relative emptiness of the streets, which makes it easier for the protesters to occupy them (and for the looters to do their thing). Then there was the urge of many people, especially the young, after months of relative confinement, to be out in the streets, to end their isolation and be with others. For many, the joy of fighting together is an exhilarating experience which they will not forget.
Social distance practices went through the window. How could it have been otherwise? Still, the fear of infection keeps many away from the protest, especially older people. The vast majority of the participants are under 35. Most wear masks but are very close together. Especially when they get arrested and locked up in overcrowded jails, as thousands have. Then there’s the tear gas, so abundantly sprayed: it can damage the lungs and make people more vulnerable to the virus.
Health experts warned that a second wave of infections is likely, already before the present upheaval began, because several states started to ‘re-open’ the economy with imprudent haste in their eagerness to get the profit-machine running again. That is the main reason why infections will increase again, because the risk is the greatest in indoor spaces. But when this second wave materializes, no doubt Trump will blame it on the protesters.
The street protests will end. Will that mean a return to normal?
At least, the participants in this global movement will take some valuable lessons home.
One is a lesson of empowerment. They learned that by fighting together, they can put the state on the defensive and focus everybody’s attention on their cause. A new generation has discovered the power and joy of collective struggle. And it won’t be derailed by racial division. There has probably never been a social mass movement in US history that is as diverse in its racial composition. And it did not let itself be captured by organizations and leaders speaking in its name, although the “Black Lives Matter” Network, which has chapters in many cities and has received funding from some big companies, plays a big role in organizing many marches. Most of the action is spontaneous and fluid. There is no fixed set of demands, the goal posts are moveable. But so far, they have not moved beyond the aim of ending police mistreatment of racial minorities. In recent days, demands to “defund the police” and even to “abolish the police”, have grown louder.
Some politicians, like the mayors of New York and Los Angeles, have expressed sympathy for the defunding campaign but what they mean by it is that a modest amount of city funds would be shifted from the police budget to some social programs. Given the size of police budgets in the US ($115 billion in 2017, according to the Urban Institute; the budget of the NYPD alone , $ 6 billion, is larger than that of the World Health Organization)) that would not change much at all. The demand to abolish the police is interesting because it encourages us to try to imagine a different social order. What would a world without police look like? MPD150, a Minneapolis-based group which promotes this demand, explains that it would be a step by step process “strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.” But it does not make sense to want to abolish the police without wanting to abolish capitalism as well. The problem with this and other radical sounding plans such as the Green New Deal or open borders is that they are at once too timid and utopian. By themselves, they solve nothing and they are also impossible to realize within capitalism. We too want to abolish the police, have open borders, and production that does not pollute. But these are not optional parts of capitalist society that can be lopped of. We have to take the bull by the horns.
This movement is a big step forward but there is still a long road ahead of us. Many illusions will have to be shed. Those who expect that, as a result of this movement, the police will become nice, the poor will be treated with respect, and racial discrimination will end, are in for a rude awakening. Of course, a lot of respect will be paid to the idea that black lives matter. Most major US corporations have posted messages claiming they’re devoted to it. Scores of politicians have ‘taken a knee’ in support of it. But in reality, lives only matter in capitalism to the degree they are useful for the accumulation of value. Many millions in this world are not, and their lives don’t matter very much. That won’t change. Capitalism always has used racism and xenophobia to cut off the poorest part of the working class from the rest. That will not change either.
The normal we are returning to after this movement is a world of pain and misery. Capitalism makes it impossible to use the human creative powers directly for human needs. Generally speaking, needs are only met if it is profitable to do so. But that profit mechanism is in trouble. Capitalism is in crisis and will remain in crisis after the present pandemic has ended. The normal that awaits us is a world of soup kitchens, evictions, anxiety and depression, of high unemployment while social wealth gravitates from the working class to the rich and governments prepare for war.
Crimes of poverty will increase. Remember why the two men whose last words are now so famous were arrested. Eric Garner was accused of selling loose cigarettes (stealing tax money from the state) and George Floyd of paying in a grocery store with a counterfeit 20 dollar bill (a sacrilege). Crimes of poverty. They died because they were poor and black.
Social unrest will increase. Class contradictions will become more glaring.
And the police will be the police. Despite the reforms that now may be implemented, the laws that may be concocted, the confederate statues that may be taken down, the police will do what it has to do, protect the capitalist law and order. That’s what it is for. Itt will be violent, and it will be brutal.
What we hope that will happen, after this movement ends, is that many refuse to return to normal.
That the fighting spirit survives the mass demonstrations.
What we hope is that the understanding grows that racial discrimination, poverty and police brutality will only end when capitalism ends.
What we hope is that the struggle will spread from the streets to the working places. Only then will it gain the power to change the world.
What we hope is that the sheer absurdity of the world will agitate the imagination to the point where we are compelled to ask a collective question: what does the world we want to live in and leave behind look like?