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Burning and Looting: A New Rebellion or a Reactionary Conspiracy?

As uprisings spread across the United States, there has been a lot of discussion about property destruction and militant resistance to the police. Are these tactics a legitimate expression of the struggle, or are they a product of undercover action by police provocateurs, white supremacists, or outside agitators?

Coco Smyth

June 7, 2020
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As uprisings spread across the United States, there has been a lot of discussion about property destruction and militant resistance to the police. Are these tactics a legitimate expression of the struggle, or are they a product of undercover action by police provocateurs, white supremacists, or outside agitators?

A defining characteristic of any period of upheaval is the wide proliferation of rumors, misinformation, propaganda, competing narratives, and nuggets of truth, all mixed together. This has been the case since the racist murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, and the consequent nationwide mass demonstrations and uprisings in dozens of cities. Why is such confusion ubiquitous today? It is because of a crack that has formed in the hegemony of bourgeois ideas. In normal periods, as Karl Marx famously stated, “the ruling ideas in any given epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.” In periods of mass discontent, however, these ruling ideas are questioned, and the sources that disseminate the ideas of the ruling class, such as the media and the state, scramble to reclaim sole ownership of the people’s minds.

Many ideas are swirling in the ether today, waiting to implant themselves and restore society to its equilibrium. On the one hand, we see the law-and-order racism of the Right, embodied by Donald Trump’s call to embolden the repression of the police through the slogan “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” While, uncharacteristically, much of the Republican Party has expressed outrage at Floyd’s murder, they are still calling for the blood of protesters on the streets. More recently, Trump has declared “antifa” a terrorist organization and vowed to send in the military if he believes state and local authorities cannot repress the demonstrations brutally enough.

Then we also have the ideas of the liberal wing of the ruling class, expressed in forums like the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and by Democratic Party politicians. Here we see a different narrative: the protests are legitimate, and they derive from the continuing racism in U.S. society and the lack of accountability of police. But we do find one thing in common between these two ruling-class narratives: the demonization of “rioters” and “looters.” The Democratic Party and the web of individuals, NGOs, and organizations linked to it have established a sharp distinction between the “legitimate” peaceful protests, and the “illegitimate” violent protests and “riots.”

Militant Struggle and Police Action

Navigating down to the streets, we see a complicated web of competing ideas shaping the character of the movement. To untangle this web, it’s worthwhile to examine one theme which has repeatedly become a fixation of movement rumors: police provocateurs.

Since the first day of the rebellion in Minneapolis, dozens of stories of police agents inciting violence and property destruction have proliferated on social media and in activist circles. The most famous of these is the video of a lone white man calmly breaking the windows of an AutoZone in broad daylight while other, primarily Black, protesters yell at him to stop. Other stories include the video of Boston police breaking the windows of a police van, claims of police leaving piles of bricks out to encourage protesters to throw them and get entrapped, among many, many others. There are dozens of videos and stories circulating of these claims of undercover police action. The conclusion of many genuine supporters and participants of this movement (and many a liberal public figure) is that all the property destruction caused by protesters in the past week was a product of police provocateurs, or at the very least incited by them.

Some of these stories of undercover police violence are undoubtedly true. There is a long history in the United States of police infiltrating left organizations and protests to subvert, discredit, or entrap real participants in organizations and movements. The most notable of these campaigns was the years-long program of COINTELPRO, which surveilled and undermined Black radical and socialist organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. The impetus for these undercover police actions is to discredit movements among layers of people sympathetic to them who are not yet participants, to break up organizations before they can pose a real threat to the U.S. state, and to harass, arrest, and sometimes murder those who could become effective leaders of mass movements. It is easy to see how, from the state’s point of view, sending in undercover cops to damage property and incite riots during the huge upheaval after Floyd’s murder could prove attractive: it gives them justification to violently repress protesters and thus turn the sympathy of the people away from the movement.

We should, however, reject the argument that so often naturally flows from this fixation with undercover police action: that all instances of attacks against the police, property destruction, burnings, and lootings are attributable directly or indirectly to police provocateurs. The reality is that the vitality of this movement derives directly from the militancy of its participants. And this militancy is no accident — we’ve seen decades of mass incarceration, racist police murders, Far Right vigilante terror, and repression. In the immediate past, we’ve seen a pandemic and an utterly bungled response by the government, millions of workers laid off, and brazen racism and violence by the police. Each of these processes have had a disproportionate impact on Black people.

A fixation on undercover action also obscures more important factors that are both producing this uprising and giving us a sense of how to relate to it. In every instance, the proximate cause of this set of riots has been police violence against protesters. Police across the country have not hesitated to unleash all the tools at their disposal to intimidate and antagonize legal protests. Pepper spray, mace, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other “crowd-control measures” have been employed liberally across the country to deal with this set of mass demonstrations. It speaks to the consciousness of this moment that the response by tens of thousands of protesters hasn’t been flight but fight. Responding to ubiquitous police violence, protesters have engaged in mass self-defense, challenging the power and authority of the state’s apparatus of repressive power. While undercover provocation has certainly occurred, the main provocation has been the racist brutality of this society and “legitimate” police action, and the main participants in militant resistance have been genuine protesters, and particularly Black youth. The state is not pulling the strings of the movement’s mass militancy, nor would it want to.

An Open Conspiracy

So if the uprisings haven’t been a product of undercover officers, white anarchists, or outside agitators, but are instead organic expressions of popular outrage against racist police brutality, why is this notion so widespread, even among participants in this movement?

First and foremost, this belief emanates from a concerted campaign by the Democratic Party and the section of capitalist class that backs it to break up and co-opt this movement. The political and media arms of the Democratic Party have quickly built a narrative explaining the dynamics of this mass uprising in a manner that has the fundamental aim of breaking militants away from their wider base of support. The linchpin of this narrative is that there are two separate groups of protesters: nonviolent and violent. The former are legitimate protesters while the latter are “outside agitators,” “antifa,” “anarchists,” “opportunistic criminals,” or even “white supremacists” (!). This narrative has materially aided by the institution of curfews in dozens of cities, a tactic to both dissuade protesters from keeping the streets in the evening, but also to sharpen the divide between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” protesters. Night protesters, by virtue of even being out, are breaking laws and are subject to arrest and repression. The state hopes these night protesters can be smeared and discredited, breaking up the movement through artificial means. In this context, we can better understand Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s declaration that “we have reason to believe that bad actors continue to infiltrate the rightful protests of George Floyd’s murder, which is why we are extending the curfew by one day.” This is an attempt to wedge the movement.

This logic has been adopted wholeheartedly among Democratic Party officials, including the much-lauded loyal opposition represented by “the Squad” and the various democratic socialists in the party. Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, while offering sympathy and understanding to those outraged by Floyd’s murder, also argued that “there are people who exploited the pain that communities are feeling and ignite violence” and claimed the arrival of the National Guard made many community members feel better. Her endorsement of the curfew falls in line with the larger Democratic Party strategy.

This coordinated strategy of splitting the movement and blunting its radical edge is not just an establishment effort from above; it also finds sympathy from below within the movement itself. The Democratic Party has used the specter of violent protest to delegitimize both real and perceived militant action for decades. Given the hegemony of this wing of the establishment over potential radicals in stable periods, these liberal conceptions are generally hegemonic too among newly radicalizing people. A striking illustration of this trend occurred in Washington, DC, when a couple of protesters detained a man cracking up a sidewalk and handed him over to police. The more common reflections of the liberal strategy on the ground include protesters who have cozied up to police, organizers arguing for the protests to respect curfew, speeches denouncing the “violence” of some protesters, and the omnipresent discussion of outside agitators and conspiratorial elements underlying the confrontational tactics of some protesters.

But this reluctance to defend militant resistance is not just a result of bourgeois ideas. It also intersects with some genuine considerations for the health of our struggles. In more calm periods, militant resistance can alienate a section of the potential support base of movements and invite repression the movement is not prepared for. When the system and its ideas maintain legitimacy, radical confrontations with the police and property destruction can easily be written off as childish adventurism. But there is a difference between a couple of people throwing bricks through windows at a demonstration with a hundred people, and tens of thousands of people fighting against the police and burning cop cars and police stations. The former is an understandable but premature demonstration of resistance — the latter is a rebellion, the significance of which cannot be understated.

A Rehearsal for Revolution

We should understand these uprisings not only as organic expressions of self-defense and rage against police murder and immediate police violence against protestors, but also as a vital process worthy of unconditional defense. A whole generation is learning the lessons of the class struggle on the streets today. There’s no quicker way to realize the nature of state power than to have a billy club hit over your head, pepper spray in your eyes, tear gas in your lungs, and a rubber bullet in your chest. In this uprising, we have seen with sharp clarity the role of the police as an apparatus of state repression, and as the line of defense for capitalist property and profit. The lines have been clearly drawn by the state and the working class on the streets, but perhaps just as significantly, this struggle has already begun to motivate action in the workplaces. Bus drivers in a number of cities have refused to transport cops or arrested protesters, schools have ripped up their deals with police, and restaurant workers have refused to provide food for the police. The explosion of street action and growing class consciousness in the workplace is combining to produce a degree of momentum unseen in the U.S. for a long time. The deepening of this connection is vital not only to the success of the movement to secure justice for Floyd, but to the rebuilding of revolutionary working class politics capable of challenging the whole structure of oppression and exploitation. This escalation of struggle has demonstrated the necessity of a revolutionary party — one which can unify the growing layer of radicals and unite every manifestation of struggle against exploitation and oppression into a weapon capable of striking down the ruling class and its state.

These uprisings confirm an essential reality about the United States: the struggle for Black liberation is the wheel by which the entire class struggle turns. From the revolts of enslaved people, to African Americans struggling for self-liberation during the Civil War, to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Black people have initiated every period of working-class advance in U.S. history. As the most oppressed and exploited group in the United States, Black people have undertaken a struggle that has taken on the most militant character. The super-exploitation of Black labor and the fundamental role of anti-Black racism in the breaking up of multiracial working-class solidarity and consequently in maintaining capitalism makes the Black struggle for liberation central to any advance for the working class as a whole. Without actively combating police terror, institutional racism, and the reactionary prejudices inculcated in the white working class by the bourgeoisie, a successful struggle for socialism is impossible. Thus, it is our duty as socialists to offer active unconditional support to struggles for Black liberation, both as an independent struggle against oppression and as a fundamental piece of the battle against class exploitation.

Today, Black youth have picked up the torch of our class again, and they are leading us in the struggle against the capitalists and their racist system. We refuse to denounce the militancy and radicalism displayed in this cause. In fact, we welcome it, for these types of mass struggle are the only road to liberation. Minneapolis and all the cities that have followed its example in struggle are showing how we can win justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. But their methods also show us a way to defeat racism and the system that thrives off it. As the old world is lit up in flames, we are learning how a new world can rise out of its ashes.

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Coco Smyth

Coco is an organizer with Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists

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