When Weeks Become Decades: Riots and Rebellions

When Weeks Become Decades: Riots and Rebellions

Almost all progressive change in the United States of America has occurred because of periods of explosive unrest. This is contrary to the view common in American schools that victories against racism, sexual oppression, homophobia and exploitation were the result of the slow accumulation of tiny reforms and the changing of minds in the ones and twos. The abolition of slavery only occurred after the General Strike of the Slaves, when Black people fled, sabotaged or burned down their plantations, and later bolstered the flagging Union cause as soldiers. The modern Labor movement was inaugurated with titanic struggles like the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, half-strike half-insurrection, which lasted 69 days and had to be put down by the National Guard. The explosions continued into the 20th century, where the modern LBGTQ movement began with a number of riots and sit-ins, among them the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966 and the Stonewall Inn Uprising in 1969. There is not a single struggle against oppression and exploitation in the US that isn’t peppered with periods of unrest and rebellion, and many that were borne out of it.

Riots are a sociological phenomenon, and cannot be planned or declared. It may already have been shot down the memory hole, but many who were on social media may recall that during the first week of rebellion in Minneapolis there was a lot of internet sleuthing on whether or not the person who ‘started’ the fires during the protests was a police agent provocateur. People poured over video and photos trying to identify this culprit, while missing the broader picture: nobody can start a riot when a crowd is not interested in rioting. A person may break windows or start a fire, but a person cannot compel a recalcitrant group of people to join them, rather, that mass of people will convince that person to stop, or distance themselves from them. Shortly after all the internet sleuthing, the Third Precinct went up in flames, and then there were riots and uprisings in hundreds of cities. The argument was then moot, but was to re-emerge in a couple weeks in Atlanta, where the same attitude potentially helped implicate police shooting-victim Rayshard Brooks’s girlfriend Natalie White.

The covid-19 health crisis, the economic crisis, and the continuing crisis of racist police murders combined to make the rebellions overdetermined. Donald Trump’s criminal incompetence and malign neglect has exacerbated what could have been a manageable outbreak, leading to more than a hundred thousand deaths and a health crisis that will continue indefinitely. The mishandling of covid-19 has also meant that a long-awaited economic crisis was guaranteed, leading to tens of millions unemployed and economic chaos, bankruptcies and defaults. This, when pared with the ever-present struggle against police (and vigilante) murder of Black and Brown Americans. The first protests of the covid-19 era did not occur in Minneapolis but in Georgia, to protest the racist vigilante killing of Ahmed Arbery. The combination of these factors made explosive protest inevitable.

The protests on May 30th and June 1st weren’t just riots but edged towards insurrection. The storming and destruction of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis had a profound motivational effect on people. I had been following the protests on social media with some attention, but when we saw word that a police station was being occupied by protesters we threw on the livestream and my entire household stayed up all night watch the structure burn. The police aura of invincibility had been punctured, and young people everywhere, who had been languishing cooped up during the quarantine, were given license to go out and protest. In Chicago at least, the May 30th protest had an air of celebration and triumph, where tens of thousands of protesters along with hundreds of protest cars swamped the downtown Loop area, completely congesting the business district and frustrating police attempts to corral or control the crowd. This was the first time in my life that it felt like crowds of people weren’t just confident to confront the police, but were actively seeking engagements with the cops and driving them away from position to position. Everywhere I looked there was graffiti reading ‘ACAB’ ‘BLM’ and ‘Fuck 12,’ for a several hour period the city was in the hands of the protesters, not the elected, formal government.

This ‘insurrectionary’ period lasted several days, but through a combination of exhaustion and repression, spent itself. In Chicago at least, the Mayor responded by raising the bridges to the Loop, attempting to isolate and trap the rebellion in the business district. For several days afterwards however, looting and property destruction continued in the surrounding neighborhoods, before petering out. The police responded with utmost brutality, viciously beating, macing and tear gassing crowds around the country. The first week of June was consumed with images of outrageous police violence against the protesters. For a period the images of police violence further galvanized the movement, driving more and more people out to protest the violence at the protests against violence. A number of people were killed by police during these protests, including David McAtee, a Black BBQ restaurant owner, shot by Kentucky National Guardsmen, and Sara Grossman, a white Jewish college student who was suffocated to death by tear gas. The municipal, state, and federal governments were alarmed at the shocking challenge to their authority, and responded with the most severe repression (and in some places, small concessions). In the first week of national protest, more than 11,000 people were arrested. 

Militant protest continues in localized efforts. Several weeks after the national wave of rebellion receded (though protest continued in every major city), Atlanta was rocked by an uprising protesting the murder of Rayshard Brooks. As I write this, Portland continues to be in rebellion, as unmarked federal agents have been deployed and has galvanized local opinion towards the protest, bringing more and more people out. There were attempts at establishing ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’, cop-free zones of self-government, beginning in Seattle with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Everywhere the movement is groping for creative strategies to fight state violence as running street battles with the police become more difficult or impossible as the mass character of the early days of the protests grows smaller. There is still, however, an enormous amount of passive support for the movement, as GoFundMe’s to support protesters swell in response to police abuses.

The Democrats have tried their best to deliver next to nothing in response to the protests. While Trump and the Republicans control the Federal Government, the Democrats are in power in nearly every major urban center in America. In response to the organic and hegemonic demand to ‘Defund the Police’ (as clear a demand as possible), the Democrats have responded with symbolic pandering and obstruction. In places where the movement has been at its most militant, in Minneapolis and Seattle for example, local government has made tentative plans to massively draw down police budgets. In other places, such as Chicago, the local government has been unwilling to concede anything. An up-to-date listing of the various reforms won during this period, many of them quite substantial, can be found here.

The Left has been caught mostly flat-footed in response to the rebellions. The American Radical Left, going through a rebirth in the last 5 or so years, and shedding off the fetters of microsect politics and beginning to garner some self-confidence, was completely unprepared for the rebellions. While the vast majority of socialists and radicals have been participants in these rebellions, there has been an inchoate and disorganized response by the organized sections of the Left. This has meant that new organizations have been created out of necessity from these rebellions, such as groups like the Black Abolitionist Network. The Democratic Socialists of America, of which I am a member, while absolutely sympathetic to the rebellions, has not known how to interact with them in a mutually reinforcing way, and is only now putting together campaigns and working groups to support the movement. It is understandable that the DSA, which was revitalized through electoral campaigns that have a predictable rhythm and are firmly within the bounds of bourgeois legality, would have to go through an adjustment period to learn how to merge with the rebellion. Socialists will have to get comfortable operating outside bourgeois legality, as Ramsin Canon put it in his prophetic ‘Outlaw Country’:

Danger awaits. Socialists are looking at an outlaw political horizon, in the Robin Hood sense. Socialists by no choice of their own are facing becoming economic outlaws, racial outlaws, political outlaws who have to commit themselves to challenging not just the obvious adversaries in capital and right wing paramilitaries but a vast strata of the political elite and even segments of the working class that enjoy a relative social power that for the time being insulates them from worst depravities of catastrophe.

This is because deteriorating conditions for the working class won’t happen in a vacuum. As the conditions worsen, the ruling class will use their state power to more acutely constrict the ability of the working class to organize and advocate for itself. This includes further militarizing our cities, impairing the rights to assemble and to vote, and outright criminalizing the statutory rights to organize.

– To conclude, Riots and Rebellions are not something separate from the Socialist Movement, but it’s lifeblood. They are not mere social phenomena that we must profess solidarity with but the engines of social change and revolution. They are not, as some more right-wing socialists will say, regrettable but unavoidable tragedies that pull the socialist movement back. They are, in our time, the first steps of a young working class in experiencing self-government and dignity. They are the first shot across the bow of unimpeachable state power. The current movement is ebbing, but it leaves behind tens of thousands of participants who have witnessed the police as what they are – armed thugs who are nonetheless vulnerable. It is our duty to organize these folks and prepare them for whats coming. The crisis of police violence has not ended. The crisis of covid-19 has not ended. The economic crisis is only beginning. The foreclosure and eviction courts are re-opening. The ‘superdole’ unemployment payments are ending. We will have to prepare ourselves to protect our people from eviction. I say with confidence further rebellions are on the horizon. We have to prepare to make these ones all the more successful, powerful, and permanent.