As I write this, it has been eight days since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off non-stop, and growing, demonstrations of anger throughout the United States and abroad. Surprisingly many city and state officials, and even some police chiefs, have endeavored to moderate the growing movement by expressing disapproval of Floyd’s murder. But the police in general, unable to learn from history, have as so often before accelerated the movement by their brutal response. They have little choice, incarnating as they do the domestic face of Max Weber’s maxim that the state is defined by its claim to a monopoly of violence. Their governmental masters face a more difficult quandary, as their legitimacy depends on combining some supposed regard for ideas like justice and equity with the use of force to maintain public order. Hence the rather narrow range of responses, from Trump’s threat to unleash “very vicious dogs” and his call to the nation’s governors to “dominate” the protestors or “look like a bunch of jerks” to Biden’s compassionate-liberal advice to the police to “shoot ‘em in the leg, not the heart.” The strategy of moderation, allowing the protests to burn themselves out, or the strategy of terror, using violence and legal persecution to crush them, have the same goal: the restoration of business as usual. But we were far from business as usual to begin with.
No one expected this week’s uprising, though George Floyd’s murder was no anomaly. All spring, COVID-19 has, quite naturally, been the focus of attention. A week ago the big issue roiling the media and government apparatuses was the push to get the American economy up and running, despite the threat this poses to human life and welfare. But beneath the surface, Marx’s “old mole”—the forces of social disruption that are a natural product of the status quo—was working its way out into the open.
In the years since Occupy focused attention on the mutually exclusive interests of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality has become not only a “problem” of concern to sociologists and economists but an unbearable lived reality for the army of workers who serve the needs of the re-urbanized wealthy, not to mention the millions toiling precariously in the hinterland outside of America’s global cities. COVID-19 both threw that inequality into deadly relief and illuminated the stupidity, incompetence, and cupidity of the rulers of society. At the same time, the shut-down of the economy, intended to mitigate the effects of the virus but now morphing into a depression of gigantic proportions, showed us all that a society dominated by the needs of capital accumulation is incapable of dealing with a genuine social emergency. This was already obvious to anyone aware of the accelerating movement towards climate catastrophe, or indeed to anyone taking a moment to contemplate the destructiveness of normal, everyday life, with its stress, bad food, pollution, and industrial accidents. But the medical emergency focused our attention on it, forcing people to act in response. People discovered powers they might not have been aware of: hundreds of strikes by workers of all sorts demonstrated a refusal to accept passively their employers’ disregard for their welfare; people all over the United States organized to help feed their communities. There was already talk—and some action—about rent strikes, putting a positive spin on the inability of people without jobs to pay the ever more exorbitant prices demanded for housing.
It is widely expected that landlords and banks will begin to crack down, nationwide, in coming weeks. Will the police segue from gassing, beating, and shooting racial-justice protestors to enforcing eviction notices on the tens of millions whose continuing unemployment makes it impossible to pay rent, or to buy food? What of the teachers, medical personnel, and city and state workers now being fired because there is no money to pay them, the newly minted trillions having been spent to ease the path of corporations already flush from tax cuts? While white supremacy is its initiating cause, the movement now in the streets is already wider in its participants and grievances than the analogous uprisings of the past. A friend who lives in Minneapolis wrote me to say that on some occasions a majority of the demonstrators have been white. Likely many of them understand that racism is a problem for which White people must take responsibility and action, but also their own discontents clearly vibrate in sympathy with the anger of their Black fellow-citizens. In New York yesterday doctors and other medical workers, recipients of weekly street tributes from grateful survivors of the emergency, used the occasion instead to express support for those contesting the police. Trump spoke truly when he told the governors, “It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse.”
The United States has joined a long list of nations with people in rebellion these days against their rulers, from Lebanon and Algeria to Bulgaria and France. Each place is different, and in each place the insults that finally drive people to rebellion are various, but these are differences within a common system. In Paris yesterday 40,000 people, inspired by the American demonstrations, marched to protest French police brutality against Africans, Arabs, and other people of color and immigrants, but this was the continuation of a struggle that has taken many forms over recent decades, from opposition to degradation of the schools to the Yellow Vests’ protest against the social destruction of the French hinterland to the fight to preserve pensions the government is seeking to cut. In the US, larger and less centralized economically and administratively than France, the connections between disparate movements can be harder to see. But the recent teacher strikes in various states are responses to the same underlying condition as housing occupation actions in Los Angeles and the Bay Area—or the refusal, this week, of bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York to transport people arrested by the police to jail.
The current wave of protests may well subside, thanks to a combination of armed repression and some mollifying gestures—a cop or two may even be sent to jail, at least for a while. Attempts will be made to use the protests to drum up interest in an election that ever fewer people seem to care is around the corner. But just as the economic collapse occasioned by the coronavirus only revealed the deep systematic weakness of contemporary capitalism, the movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd is a major step towards the epochal rebellion that the current crisis of humanity calls for.
June 3, 2020