By Martin Suchanek and Jaqueline Katharina Singh
George Floyd was murdered in a brutal and cowardly fashion by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on a public street in front of bystanders on the morning of May 25th. One of them videoed the whole event and now millions worldwide have seen it. It has triggered weeks of mass demonstrations not just in the USA but around the world, demanding an end to state-sanctioned murder and to the impunity granted to the killers.
His death was no isolated incident. Since January 2015, 5,338 people have been killed by police. African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of victims. Their share of those killed is 23.5 per cent, in absolute numbers 1,252 people, while their share of the population is only 13 per cent. This corresponds to 29 deaths per million people in this population group. By way of comparison, in the white population there are only twelve deaths per million people. Black men are three times more likely to be shot by police than white men, and black women are twice as likely to be shot by police as white women. These figures alone illustrate the systemic character of US racism, especially from the state and repressive apparatus.
Millions of African-Americans are systematically oppressed every day – and have been for 400 years. Over the centuries, this has taken different forms, beginning with chattel slavery, then after Emancipation by the so-called Jim Crow system in the former Confederacy, that is deprivation of voting rights, of legal equality and institutional racial segregation. Even those who moved north in search of jobs and to escape Jim Crow still faced pogroms and later ghettoisation there. Although this was partly dismantled as a result of the mass mobilisations of the 1960s civil rights movement, much of that baleful legacy remains, not least because the civil rights movement leadership sold the movement short for a strategic bloc with the Democrats and a junior role in the US ruling class.
The criminalisation of youth and young people in particular has been a central axis of racist oppression for decades, as Michelle Alexander demonstrates in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow. She shows that criminalisation of youth and young men by the police, courts and the US prison system are central institutions for the reproduction of racism, legitimised by, for example, the so-called war on drugs. Black people are sentenced to prison 14 times as often as white people.
Even the penalties for drug possession are to a certain extent tailored to the criminalisation of youth. For example, in some states, the penalty for possession of even small amounts of soft drugs, for example, five grams of cannabis, is up to five years in prison.
The targeted criminalisation of blacks makes a decisive contribution to the fact that the USA is the country with the highest number of prisoners in the world (2,121,600 as of May 2020). The proportion of black or Hispanic prisoners is about three times as high as that of white prisoners.
Being a convicted felon or ex-convict is tantamount to exclusion and marginalisation from civic life; in a number of states it means long or even lifetime disenfranchisement.
African-Americans represent an above-average portion of the poorly paid, over-exploited strata of the working class. They make up a larger part of the unemployed and the working poor, that is, those who earn barely enough to survive. Households of black families have on average one-tenth of the assets or reserves of white families.
Whereas one third of all Americans have a college degree, for black people the figure is only 23 per cent. They are exposed to far greater health risks because they are often excluded from health insurance. Thus, their risk of dying from the coronavirus is far greater than that faced by the white population. Of the more than 100,000 corona deaths, about 70 per cent are African Americans. The New Jim Crow System reproduces a literally deadly oppression for hundreds of thousands.
It also explains why all the campaigns to reform the police have come to nothing, because the real purpose of the police, and also the judiciary, the prisons and so on, is not only to reproduce the capitalist conditions in general, but also a central element of racist oppression. Hence the deep-seated racism in the police and security apparatus, which is also promoted by incentives, for example, bonuses and surcharges for large numbers of arrests of black potential criminals. A white cop does not have to fear punishment; only about one per cent of all killings by US police ever lead to an indictment.
Hence also the recent rearmament of the US police, which in practice amounts to a militarisation of several parts of it. It is no wonder that many police units are a playground for right-wing radicals, fanatical Trump supporters and advocates of the ideology of White Supremacy, such as the president of the Minneapolis police union. In general, this so-called ‘police union’ is nothing more than a lobby group for racism and oppression – it must be driven out of the US trade union movement.
So the murder of George Floyd was not an isolated incident, he was one of thousands, of millions, of victims of a system. But, this time, it proved to be the final straw. In reaction to this murder, a mass movement developed not just in Minneapolis, but throughout the whole USA with demonstrations, blockades and riots, a real rebellion.
As with all great historical movements, and that is what today’s movement in the USA is, it is not really possible to determine who exactly triggered it, which particular spark ignited the fire, turned the experience of oppression into outrage, turned resistance into a mass movement. Certainly, the example and the activists of BLM played a role in initiating many actions, but the mass response was genuinely spontaneous.
Undoubtedly, ongoing social deprivation and the effects of the coronavirus in generating mass unemployment and the threat of impoverishment played an essential role. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus in the USA, 41 million people have been officially registered as unemployed, on top of an estimated 7.5 million unregistered unemployed. Unemployment is estimated to be around 20 per cent in May 2020 (official figures will not be published until later in June). Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by this development, but of course this affects the working class as a whole on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In any case, we can safely say that the systemic crisis of capitalism itself was a trigger for protest.
Secondly, a mass movement has also emerged in recent years, in many respects following on from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including its left wing such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. It was born in reaction to the murder of blacks by US police starting with angry protests in response to the acquittal of a vigilante for the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, then the killing of Michael Brown Jnr by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, which led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although many spokespersons of this heterogeneous movement can be considered politically left-liberals, reformists or radical-democrats, it also arose out of deep dissatisfaction with oft-promised reforms and also with some of the black representatives in the US who were integrated into the Democratic Party. The, at best, sobering, experiences and disappointed reform hopes under Obama formed an important starting point.
With the election of Trump, the open racism of the leading representatives of US imperialism has intensified, taking on directly provocative forms such as in Charlottesville in 2017, when the 32-year old anti-fascist Heather Heyer was killed by a right-winger and 19 others were seriously injured. Trump and a fraction of US big capital, the petty bourgeoisie and the backward, reactionary white workers he represents, put an end to the democratic façade of the racist state apparatus.
Important for understanding the current movement, however, is that, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, a heterogeneous and loose mass movement emerged, which not only denounced deep institutionalised racism, but also gave the oppressed an expression, a voice, nationwide, as a means of self-empowerment, increasing their own self-confidence.
It is therefore far too short-sighted to see the current mass movement merely as an expression of desperation and social needs. That is not to deny, of course, that there are many desperate people with their backs to the wall as a result of unemployment and the pandemic that continues to rage. But in recent years, a connection and awareness of collective oppression and cohesion has also emerged, which finds a common expression in the slogan “Black Lives Matter”.
Everyone counts, no victim of the cops must be forgotten. This standing up for one’s own dignity, this form of self-empowerment, is closely linked to a movement. Only in this way can the oppressed constitute themselves as subjects, as social forces, as actors. Although we are dealing with a rebellion that has many spontaneous traits, it is one that ties in with the struggles and experiences of recent years, and also represents their continuation, including the lesson that it is important to build a mass force, a movement. This is what is expressed in the rebellion of the past weeks.
After the murder of George Floyd, it spread like wildfire, not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but all over the country. In almost all the big cities there were mass demonstrations, occupations, confrontations with the police, the storming of police stations and also looting.
We should be aware, however, that, according to all credible reports, the latter is only a minor aspect, and some of it may certainly be the work of provocateurs. But we also know that in such rebellions, uprisings or outbursts of the oppressed, the looting of markets or shops occurs again and again. We have no reason to condemn them here or to wish for a ‘peaceful’ rebellion without such actions. This will never happen in real life. Rather, we should respond indignantly to the feigned indignation of the establishment, or by right wing or “democratic” pseudo-supporters, and remember Bertolt Brecht’s famous question; “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” Or, in terms of the USA: what is petty theft to meet daily needs compared to the looting and exploitation of US wage earners by supermarket owners, bankers, CEOs, financiers and hedge fund speculators like Trump?
But, to return to the movement; it is overwhelmingly a political act of resistance. It spread rapidly and has lasted for weeks despite massive repression, curfews in dozens of cities, despite the deployment of the National Guard by several governors, despite the arrest of thousands of protesters. The movement includes hundreds of thousands in hundreds of cities and towns; it includes not just the black community but people from all ethnic groups, including many young people, but it has also evoked a great deal of sympathy from the working class.
Trump and the Right are trying to defame the movement as a conspiracy by Antifa, demonised as affluent white kids paid for by George Soros. This absurd antisemitic slander betrays what Trump is really frightened of, and not without reason: that the present movement could link up with the majority of the US working class and drive right wing populists, white supremacists and outright fascists, off the streets. And this possibility exists.
Antifa is not a group but a decentralised movement of youth who are prepared to physically confront and deny “free speech”, that is, intimidation, by the far right. The idea that they are “terrorists” is yet another proof of Trump’s own sympathy for the far right and his willingness to use them as the cadres of his own movement.
During the coronavirus danger and because of the economic crisis, it is not only the petty bourgeoisie and right wingers who have taken to the streets, demonstrating for the freedom to ruin their own and other people’s health. There has also been a considerable wave of strikes and actions in the health care system, often against the irresponsible policy of prematurely lifting the lockdown or against the lack of resources for health care. People of colour played an important role among these working class struggles.
No less important is the solidarity from grassroots trade unionists and ‘locals’ (union branches) that immediately showed solidarity with the movement. For example, bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York refused to transport police units or those arrested on demonstrations. Since then, many more unions have sided with the protesters, nailing the lie that the so-called white working class are predominantly racist and Trump supporters. These examples of worker solidarity show that many wage earners understand the importance of, and support the movement.
Important groups on the US left like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the magazine/website Jacobin have expressed solidarity and published statements that deserve support in many ways. They have rejected demands to condemn “violence” by demonstrators resisting attacks by the police or the National Guard, or to distance ourselves from the “looters” as a transparent manoeuvre to divide the movement. Many activists from the DSA, the wider US left, as well as our comrades from Workers Power US, are taking part in the demonstrations.
The wave of international solidarity shows that millions realise that the mass movement in the USA, the rebellion, is not only fighting for a cause that demands unconditional support, but that it has the potential to be a game-changer in the USA: a beacon for an anti-racist, left-wing, class-struggle alternative to the right-wing and Trump.
The significance of the movement lies precisely in the fact that it represents a left-wing escalation of the crisis in the country and that, conversely, it is the crisis of US capitalism that opens up the chance for the liberation struggle of the racist oppressed and the working class to unite.
The main elements of the current crisis in the USA illustrate the political challenges and tasks facing the movement, the working class and revolutionary socialists:
The US economy and the world economy are in a deep economic and public health crisis. The US economy is shrinking massively, even bourgeois experts are predicting a decline in GDP of five per cent or more by the end of 2020; more than 40 million have been made unemployed, more than 100,000 have died from the pandemic, a second wave is threatening. Internationally, the US is threatened with falling behind China economically. Apart from saving its own capital by giving billions in handouts and aggressive nationalism, there is no plan. Trump’s protectionism and trade wars with China and Europe and his prolonging of the chaos of the pandemic can only deepen the recession.
The ruling class itself is divided. Trump represents only a minority wing of US capital, based on the most parasitic and reactionary forces, an increasingly aggressive petty-bourgeois movement, on parts of the police apparatus and on backward white supremacists, which may well develop from a right-wing populist into a fascist movement. This fraction is trying to expand its own powers in a dictatorial direction. Racism is an essential link in his followers’ strategy of escalation and suppression of the present movement; it is the central means of rallying declassed and demoralised workers and the petty bourgeoisie behind an ultra-conservative economic policy and an aggressive foreign policy.
The Trump wing is opposed by a larger part of capital, which thinks he goes ‘too far’, but which has no clear or coherent programme of its own, putting its hopes in Biden and the Democrats for lack of an alternative rather than from conviction.
The institutions of the state apparatus are also divided. Trump, for example, wants to use the military, while the US Army’s General Staff wants to avoid the final resort of using the army against its own people. In addition, the white petty bourgeoisie itself is moving further to the right, losing confidence in the old party leadership and also in the institutions of US imperialism.
It is not only the economy of the USA and the health system that finds itself in a deep crisis of legitimacy, but also the “democracy” of the ruling class. In short, the rulers can no longer rule as they did before, even if it is unclear what alternative they will adopt; a more brutal repression or a regime of social conciliation.
The immediate danger is that, faced with massive repression by Trump, the liberal leadership of the BLM movement, in alliance with the Democrats, will try to demobilise the movement from above, diverting it into the dead-end of police ‘reform’ from above.
Although further escalation by the state would not solve the fundamental problems of US imperialism, it could shift the balance of power in its favour in the short term and also during the elections, and thus cannot be discounted. However, in conditions of a growing mass movement and hegemonic antiracist narrative in society, such an attempt at violent repression would be likely to create a revolutionary situation, and is therefore a course of action that many Republicans would want to avoid. Repression generally succeeds when used in the final stages of a movement that has failed to win major gains and becomes divided and weak.
While the objective circumstances, above all, the split in the ruling class and the crisis of “Democracy”, are characteristic of a revolutionary situation, the lack of a revolutionary leadership means that, taken as a whole, this is what Trotsky described as a pre-revolutionary situation. Whether it develops into a revolutionary situation cannot be determined in advance, that will be decided by class struggle and depends to a large extent on the development of the rebellion in the coming weeks and months. In principle, however, it can only be solved in a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary way.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the mass actions in the whole USA make it clear that, against the background of the deepest economic, social and institutional crisis, a movement is forming which can be an alternative not only to Trump and the Republicans but also to the Democratic Party.
It is therefore important to strengthen the movement itself and connect it with the working class. To do this, it needs a programme of action and organs of struggle; against police repression and institutional racism; against mass unemployment and the economic crisis; for the creation of healthcare resources and measures to prevent a further spike in the pandemic. The key demands are:
Against state repression
Release of all prisoners, lifting of curfews, withdrawal of the police and National Guard from the residential areas of the oppressed, no deployment of the army!
Justice for all victims of police repression
Racist killer cops to be brought to justice before juries that truly reflect the communities that suffer their racism. Even if the four cops responsible for his murder are charged and convicted, justice for so many victims of the police cannot be left to the bourgeois, racist courts. Rather, all these cases must be brought before popular tribunals elected by the oppressed and the working class.
Trade union solidarity
Building on the example of the transport workers, we must resist the crackdown on the movement and the threat of any military deployment, by preparing the ground for a political mass strike, up to and including a general strike. We must demand this pledge from the individual unions like the teachers (NEA), service workers (SEIU), auto workers (UAW) Teamsters, as well as the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations. Nor must we forget the huge numbers of workers in the so-called gig economy, many of whom have organised through workers’ centres, the Fight for $15 and ad hoc organisers of unofficial strikes in warehouses and Walmart stores.
The call for mass strike action and/or occupations must be spread across the entire working class, and its implementation prepared. Whilst support must be demanded from the leaderships of the big unions, we cannot rely on them and should not wait for them to start action.
Form committees of action
In order to organise the movement and lead it, action committees are needed in all neighbourhoods, elected at mass meetings, responsible to them and recallable by them. The same is needed at the enterprise level, especially for the preparation and conduct of strikes. Delegates from local, state and national levels should come together to give the struggle a leadership.
Black and working class self-defence
Against the threat of repression, we need self-defence units of all the racially oppressed and the exploited and these must be democratically controlled by the movement and its organisations. We support all demands, such as “defunding” or “disbanding”, that obstruct the ability of the police to repress the working class and the oppressed, while recognising that, as a central element of the state, it can only be totally removed by the overthrow of that state.
For workers’ control
Against crisis and pandemic, an immediate programme is needed, for the continuation of vital work and the reorganisation of work according to health needs, and a democratic plan under workers’ control must be developed and implemented.
Make the rich pay for their crisis
Instead of state handouts to the big corporations, banks and financial funds, we need their expropriation; we need free health care for all, the distribution of work to all, a minimum wage that secures existence and a minimum income at this level for all unemployed, students, sick and pensioners.
Fight for a workers’ government
Such a programme, including a political general strike against any crack-down by Trump or state governors, would necessarily raise the question of who rules, who should hold the power. The pre-revolutionary potential points to the need for a revolutionary solution, the seizure of power by a workers’ government based on the organs of power and struggle of such a general strike.
Whether, and at what pace, such a development would take place, or whether the movement could be suppressed, or at least temporarily reintegrated, by the politicians of the Democratic party, depends essentially on two factors.
First, the class struggle itself, and the strategy chosen by various forces, including the bourgeoisie. It is quite possible, for example, that larger parts of US capital are trying to get rid of Trump, whether in the elections or before, because they themselves have to bear the inevitable risks of his policy. They could try to pacify the movement by making concessions and also by integrating bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces from it.
Second, and this is the decisive factor for us, it depends on whether the US working class in this situation comes closer to solving its own leadership crisis, whether it succeeds in building a workers’ party that is a real alternative to Republicans and the Democrats, a party that aims not just to democratise or reform to improve the US state, but to smash it as an instrument of rule and repression for the capitalist class and replace it with a council state of the workers and oppressed.
The major obstacle in the way of this development is the fact that the working class remains tied to the second, more liberal but utterly capitalist, party of the bourgeoisie and so too are ‘democratic socialists’ like Bernie Sanders and the ‘Squad’, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. The same is also true of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) which has a half-in, half-out, policy with the excuse that electoral “realism” justifies the above figures supporting a right wing Democrat like Joe Biden as a “lesser evil”. In the more militant new labour organisations and the union locals of teachers, transport workers etc., there is a growing mood of opposition to the subservience of the big federations, AFL-CIO and Change to Win, to the Democrats.
The present crisis shows the burning need for a party of class struggle, an anti-racist, indeed a revolutionary, party. Mass antiracist and anti-capitalist forces exist and are growing in the US today but, to achieve victory, they need to find the right goal and effective tactics, in short, the right strategy. Only such a party can show the way to victory in these struggles.
The left-wing development of the DSA, the rebellion, the workers’ struggles and the openly anti-racist appearance of grassroots structures in the unions show that there is the potential for such a party today. It must therefore be seized now, in the coming period. Such a party may well not be fully revolutionary from the beginning, but revolutionaries must fight within it from the beginning to form a revolutionary wing within its ranks, to stand up for a programme of action and try to win the majority for a socialist revolution in the USA.