Vladimir Lenin is once supposed to have said, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” The events following the murder of George Floyd prove the dictum. Floyd was murdered on May 25, and less than a month later, the world looks completely different. The cops who killed Floyd were fired, and Derek Chauvin, who had his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, was charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers, Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao, were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Floyd’s murder happens in the broader context of the murders Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Rayshard Brooks. Within the first 10 days after Floyd’s murders, protests spread from Minneapolis to cities around the country and internationally, to Germany, England, and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, it has also inspired state and reactionary responses. This rebellion has quickly gone to phase 2 — the heavy stick of the state.
The Carrot and the Stick
The protests are going on during a period of economic and social crisis, exacerbated by a global pandemic and fueling — and being fueled by — a historic decline of U.S. global hegemony. The crisis is marked by a collapse in confidence in traditional institutions of power in the United States, and growing approval of “socialism,” especially by young people and people of color. It is yet to be seen how much the capitulation of Bernie Sanders’s campaign and his endorsement of Biden has affected people’s political consciousness, but it is likely a significant factor. It has at a minimum prompted reflection on the political expediency of inside-outside and similar strategies. When the old rules and traditional institutions of a society can no longer deliver stability amid crisis, the ruling class is prone to rely on naked violence from the state and “stormtrooper”-like elements.
In the face of crisis, the capitalist class maintains power by using a combination of “carrots” and “sticks,” reform and repression. The exact ratio depends on the ruling class’s ability to contain the crisis at particular moments. The stick is often used during a crisis of legitimacy, in which the ruling class feels itself under existential threat. The reforms are meant to placate the most moderate wings of the movements. They are also an ideological tool to convince a movement that the system is “reformable,” which means that more confrontational approaches to politics are not needed. The stick, on the other hand, is meant to serve both an ideological and coercive goal — to show what happens when individuals and movements verge outside of acceptable boundaries.
A good example of these tactics is found in response to the unrest in the 1960s. In response to the challenges against what Martin Luther King called the “three evils” (racism, poverty, and war), the state combined repressive initiatives like the Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) and LBJ’s Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act with reforms like the War on Poverty and initiatives that supported “Black capitalism” and Black elected leadership. In his book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen argues that the ruling class was terrified by the mass movements and promoted the ideas of “Black capitalism” and community development programs to redirect current and potential radicals into safe channels. By contrast, Cointelpro was the stick — surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting organizations deemed subversive.
As the U.S. economy shifted toward neoliberalism, the carrot has been significantly impoverished, consisting now mainly of favorable media attention, foundation funding, and positions within nonprofits. “Black capitalism,” embodied in the 1960s slogan “Black Faces in High Places” — now called “trickle-down social justice” — was promoted as a way of integrating a section of Black Americans into mainstream society. These “representational demands” were placed in contrast to the revolutionary aims of the Black Left like the Black Panther Party.
Under neoliberalism, nonprofits have also proliferated, existing within a set of relationships that link political parties and the state, donor foundations and educational institutions, leftist movements and capitalist enterprises. Because this arrangement involves class collaboration instead of class conflict, nonprofits are ripe for co-optation. The number of nonprofits in the United States has risen from 3,000 in 1960 to more than 1.5 million in 2016. Individuals and charities typically fund the bulk of these organizations, alongside philanthropic foundations redistributing a micro-percentage of the wealth accumulated by the 1 percent.
Funding from the 1 percent and nonprofits’ needs for funding have helped the financial backers direct and moderate organizations and movements. In her essay “The Price of Civil Rights,” Megan Francis shows how the NAACP’s early civil rights litigation agenda was redirected from a focus on white-supremacist violence and lynching during the crucial Red Summer of 1919 and redirected toward education and integration. The author discusses a phenomenon called “movement capture,” which she describes as “the process by which private funders use their influence in an effort to shape the agenda of vulnerable civil rights organizations.”
The usual co-option will unlikely hold in the face of the current level of social instability, anger, and scale of the protests. As Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman point out in the Washington Post, protests are even spreading to conservative towns in rural and suburban America. They have likely occurred in more places and in greater numbers than even the Women’s Marches of 2017. The twin crises of the pandemic and economic downturn have the potential to incite protests beyond even what occurred after the 2007–8 economic crisis. Currently, just 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. The burning of the 3rd Precinct police station in Minneapolis is more popular than Biden and Trump. Though May’s unemployment figures may look positive due to “cooking the books,” the unemployment rate is the worst since World War II, with some estimating that 42 percent of recent layoffs could become permanent job losses.
Political and economic crises spur mass action and sometimes even revolution, but they also provoke state reaction and counterrevolution. At the same time, fascism, a political movement that uses brute force to eliminate workers’ organizations and liberal democracy, unfolds in a way corresponding to the crisis that creates the conditions for it. The intense state reaction to the current rebellion, alongside the political violence and increased organization of the Far Right, should be cause for concern. Fascists seek to use the mass anger of a crisis situation like the one we now face — a crisis that under the right circumstances can lead to mass class action — and divert it through appeals to racism, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories.
During the 1960s, the Far Right grew substantially, waiting in reserve for when things got out of hand. It is important to remember that the massive civil rights movement was accompanied by the rise of far-right groups like the Minutemen, the KKK, and the John Birch Society. The latter had in 1966 an estimated 80,000 members, operating with a revenue of $5 million. According to Eckard Toy in The Right Side of the 1960s, the John Birch Society’s inaugural meeting included among its luminaries President Eisenhower’s first commissioner of Internal Revenue, a former personal aide of General Douglas MacArthur, two past presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers, a banker, and a University of Illinois professor and rich businessmen. These far-right groups and others aimed to figure out how to mobilize the white working class in the interest of a reactionary and violently oppressive racial order. This goal subsequently became central to the remaking of the Republican Party, reaching its apotheosis in the current presidency.
Protests by heavily armed conservative activists against the Covid-19 lockdowns suggest what can be expected if traditional state means of controlling the working class fail. The protests included an array of explicitly far-right groups, including the Proud Boys and militia groups like the Boogaloos. The majority of the attendees were small-business owners but also disgruntled workers upset by the economic devastation due to the pandemic and lockdown.
The Michigan Freedom Fund, cohost of one such rally, received more than $500,000 from the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, which includes among its luminaries the far-right businessman and mercenary-supplier Erik Prince. It was also assisted by Fox News, which ran favorable coverage, and President Trump, who used Twitter to mobilize his base around the protest.
Scenes reminiscent of Ferguson have appeared throughout the country as states have deployed the National Guard and militarized police to enforce curfew orders and protect private property. So far, the National Guard has been activated in 15 states and Washington, DC, and 40 cities have imposed curfews. While police in militarized gear like tactical uniforms and utilizing armored personnel carriers were seen in previous events like Occupy and the Ferguson Protests, the Blackhawk helicopter at a DC protest on June 1 and a Predator droneat a protest in Minneapolis, are emblematic of the escalation in state repression. Equally threatening, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty soldiers if governors do not themselves violently crackdown on the protests.
Such a deployment would be the first since the 1992 Rodney King riots and the 1967 riots in Detroit. From January 1965 to October 1971, guard units were used in 260 disturbances, whereas from 1945 to 1965 they were used to handle 88 disturbances. Ironically, the Kerner Commission, which produced a presidential study of the riots of the 1960s, determined that instead of calming communities, the National Guard (as well as inadequate housing, high unemployment, and voter suppression, and racial discrimination) contributed to the years of rioting. The death of David McAtee calls into question their effectiveness in restoring “law and order” currently.
Even before the current protests, Trump and the DOJ were looking for more ways to indefinitely detain people in order to curb the protests. Importantly, Trump and Attorney General William Barr used the DOJ to help whip up the far-right and “angry middle class” protests against social distancing policies. The DOJ’s actions under Trump makes it harder for it to serve the same role as it did in response to rebellion under Obama with Eric Garner. This is because Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, severely restricted prosecutors’ ability to seek consent decrees and court-enforced agreements.
Simultaneously, Trump has again invoked the threat of “Antifa” and “anarchists,” promising on May 31 that “the United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” Terrorist organizations, not ideology, are typically designated by the secretary of state, and once selected, they become illegal to join. Even if Trump and the security apparatus of the state do not have the constitutional authority to designate Antifa a terrorist group, there are several essential considerations. Simply threatening to label Antifa a terrorist group may signal to law enforcement that they are expected to investigate and aggressively single out one section of protesters.
The threat could inspire the creation of a category such as “Black Identity Extremist (BIE),” which was cooked up after the Ferguson Protest. Then, it was used to justify assessments or informal investigations by the FBI, subjecting protesters to physical surveillance, informants, and other means. By singling out “anarchists” and “outside agitators,” the state can likely pursue harsh charges against one section of protesters and follow up with others.
In response to inauguration protests led by DisruptJ20, an umbrella coalition of groups, 234 people, including activists, journalists, medics, and legal observers, were arrested and charged with felonies, including inciting to riot, assaulting a police officer, and conspiracy to riot, all of which carry long prison sentences. The case of Ferguson activist and live streamer Michael Avery, who was arrested by the FBI for a social media, post is worrying. They claim that he encouraged looting in Minneapolis. Such an incident, unfortunately, will not be isolated.
Relying on police and the coercive state to subdue movements is complicated. As the degree of conflict intensifies, and the police assume a greater role in repressing demonstrations, strikes, and other forms of resistance, pressure may grow among law enforcement officers to break with the state. During times of mass action and reaction, law enforcement’s everyday functions and legitimacy are called into question, and police experience broad public hostility. This development is embodied by recent calls to “Defund the Police” as a means of curtailing departments’ coercive power. Protests tend to cause splits, as seen in the wave of Black police associations created across the country to deal with racism during the civil rights era. It has also inspired police organizations to react to crisis conditions by using trade union tactics to advocate benefits or defenses against cuts. Repression is not automatic. All these reactions by the police challenge the ordinary functioning of class rule and create another reason for the state to rely on an auxiliary of far-right militants.
The “Anarchist Threat”
Within the first couple of days of the George Floyd protest in the San Francisco Bay Area, “calls to action” were posted online, some of which could easily be attributed to right-wing trolls. The “calls” have no political content and typically call for looting. These likely fake posts created local hysteria that has whipped up the right-wing reaction, up to and including armed citizen patrols, and contributed to a wave of curfews and other restrictions on freedom of movement for activists.
Across the country, news articles have detailed the violent reactions in this environment of hysteria. Only recently, a multiracial family of four visiting Forks, Washington, was confronted by cars full of people, some with semiautomatic weapons, spouting allegations that they were Antifa. There have also been social media posts alleging buses full of Antifa protesters coming to local areas. These posts are tailored to even rural counties throughout the country. These social media posts seems to be in line with a white-supremacist strategy called accelerationism, which says that supremacists should foster polarization to “accelerate” its destruction of the current political order.
Aside from the provocations launched through fake accounts, genuine anger has led to looting. This has led to renewed conversations on the Left about tactics. The article “In Defense of Looting,” published by the New Inquiry during a wave of “riot shaming” in the Ferguson Uprising, makes some very good points. Importantly, it shows that the distinction between violent and nonviolent protesters stems from a long-standing discourse about Black criminality and ignores that, historically, change has not come through nonviolence. The author correctly points out that the attention produced by property destruction reflects the primacy of private property for the rich. In this context, the author questions the often-repeated attack that “protesters are burning down their communities”:
Although you might hang out in it, how can a chain convenience store or corporate restaurant earnestly be part of anyone’s neighborhood? The same white liberals who inveigh against corporations for destroying local communities are aghast when rioters take their critique to its actual material conclusion.
But what is the usefulness of looting as a tactic? The article says that “it represents a material way … to help the community by providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor.” This could be true at an individual level, but when we talk about a capitalist system and a state that serves the ruling class, we are talking about a question of power.
Spontaneous action like looting and rioting can help disrupt business as usual. Relying on spontaneous action, however, doesn’t get past pressuring those in power to alleviate the issue. Spontaneous action may get the ruling class to pay attention. It does not answer tactical questions like how to turn a temporary rebellion into a movement by bringing in new people. Riots bring increased attention to immediate grievances, which means funding for nonprofits, career opportunities, media appearances, and VIP visits; but by failing to address the root causes of the crisis, it results in a worsening condition for Black people.
At many protests, voting has been a major theme. In November, there will be elections for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and, most notably, the presidency. Joe Biden likely hopes that this uprising can be captured to bring much-needed enthusiasm to his campaign. The election might be why demands like “Dismantle/Defund the Police” have gained popularity among some elected Democrats, at least in word.
If this election cycle is anything like 2016, the Democratic Party will be cautious not to offer concrete proposals, as was recommended in a memo to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. We must also be realistic and understand that no single election decides questions of power, and that the threat of fascism is not a short-term problem. The Democratic Party’s identity as a capitalist party, albeit one based in the labor and other social movements, means that it can not offer radical solutions willingly.
The risk of fascism highlights the need for a multiracial working-class movement. Though legal support, countersurveillance, and physical defense are important, it is essential to transform the current rebellion into a movement. The economic and social crisis can be exploited to grow the ranks of the Far Right, but it can also be used to build the workers’ movement. The Left can do more than demand the conviction of the four officers who murdered George Floyd. It can and must lay out a program that will address the root causes of the current crisis.
In Our Flag Stays Red (1948), Phil Piratin, an MP for the Communist Party of Great Britain, describes how the party used its tenant associations and trade union work in the 1930s and 1940s to undercut inroads by the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in his borough of Stephaney, London. The BUF, led by former Labor MP Osward Mosley, held meetings throughout the country and was making advances into working-class communities. The party organized unemployed workers in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement and did work to strengthen the trade union movement. As well, the party famously organized counterdemonstrations like the one that led to the Battle of Cable Street on October 4, 1936.
The CP deduced that the BUF’s anti-Semitic propaganda struck a chord among some workers, but especially in areas of East London where people were living in miserable conditions and facing unemployment and low pay. The party organized demonstrations like the famous “Battle on Cable Street” that used direct action to limit the spread of the BUF and show that it could be defeated. They also organized in working-class areas where the BUF was creating a base. In the midst of its tenant organizing, the CP discovered that one of its families were members of the BUF. Piratin wrote,
I discovered that in both cases they were members of the BUF and obviously wanted no truck with us. The other was prepared to listen. We pointed out to them, so far as we could judge … that the bailiffs had the law on their side and the only thing to do was to prevent the bailiffs gaining access. This might mean a fight, but we convinced them that it would be worth while. … We called a meeting of as many tenants as possible in one of the rooms, put to them our proposals, and they agreed to make the fight. As a result of this solidarity the other family the next morning decided to take part. Meanwhile, in conversation, we asked this member of the BUF about to be evicted what the fascists had done for him. He said that he had raised the matter, but they had no intention of doing anything. This was a very valuable piece of information to be used by us in disillusioning many of the BUF supporters.
What this historical example shows is that we can undercut the basis of fascism before it forms by appealing to economic interests. This would be much easier if we had an actual left political party and left leadership in this country that could expose the limitations of right-wing populism and fascism. Unfortunately, in its absence we are left with milquetoast Democrats who dress in kente cloth and put forth Band-Aid reforms.
This historical example does not mean that socialists should reduce the unique oppression of the Black working class into a “secondary contradiction.” The anti-Blackness of capitalism is the skeleton key to unlocking all the contradictions of this system for ordinary working people. It exposes the role of the police and state violence in maintaining capital’s domination of society, it exposes how race and class determine who will die from the Covid-19 pandemic, and it exposes the primacy of property in our society.
This period brings profound opportunities and dangers. The crises that define this period have created openings for the Left to grow and challenge the legitimacy of traditional institutions of power and capitalism itself. Already a majority of Americans support the protests, and white Americans’ favorable perceptions of the police have dropped by 10 points to 61 percent. This is particularly noteworthy because “riots” in the United States typically cause pro-police beliefs to rise. But we must also be attuned to, and weave into our tactics, the unique conditions that exist today for the emergence of a fascist movement.