We are finally nearing the end of 2020. The largest uprising in US history lasted from approximately June — August. During this three month period, we witnessed a multi-racial, anti-racist movement rise up and protest the police on a near-daily basis. It unleashed the masses in a way that this country hasn’t seen since the 1960s.
The protests changed the protesters, it steeled them. It couldn’t be any other way. The protests were fearless and relentless. They had to be because the protests were against the biggest armed gang in the country: the police. Not only were the protesters risking police violence, but they were also risking infection of COVID-19. The determination to take these risks in order to fight for anti-racism transformed many of the protesters into militants.
This is fundamental to understanding the impact of the uprising on the consciousness of the masses and to update our understanding of what they will, and will not, politically put up with.
In spite of how monumental this uprising was, many people act like it is already a thing of the past. A curious episode that came and went, leaving no meaningful impact and nothing worth studying. For many political people, the uprising doesn’t factor into their calculations of what to do and what not to do, of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
2020 brought back the masses. Now that they’ve had a taste of action, they will look for opportunities to engage the world during the lulls of action and for openings to retake the streets. We need to study the uprising to figure out how to harness it the next time around, as well as to factor the way it transformed people into our calculations of what new horizons are now possible.
The city budget vote and political calculus
Some people treat the uprising as a curiosity that is already long gone. There are at least four people that definitely wrote it off: progressive alders Sue Sadlowski Garza, Michael D. Rodriguez, Maria Hadden, Andre Vasquez.
These four alders had come to power through the support of organizations like United Working Families and the Democratic Socialists of America. They were politicians that had been elected through the volunteer hours and donations of working class people that trusted these alders to represent working class interests. They were politicians that had direct connections to the various left-wing organizations whose members were beaten and arrested for three months, members that honestly and completely absorbed the slogan “silence = violence”. Organizations that told the politicians exactly how they expected them to vote.
Rather than listen to these battle-tested organizers and take into consideration the radicalization of their members, these four alders fell backward into the political formulas from before the uprising. They thought to themselves:
“The city council is always a rubber stamp for the Chicago mayor. There will be a few militant, left-wing alders that stick to their principles and vote against an anti-Black, anti-working class city budget. But the rest will vote for it. So in that case, why not vote for the budget in order to stay in the mayor’s good graces? No one ever speaks up when politicians vote against their constituency, but Lori Lightfoot is a petty and vengeful mayor. ”
That was their calculus. It was the calculus of 2019 and any year before this one.
The mayor will make them pay for voting against her + the masses won’t speak up for voting against them = vote with the mayor.
To their shock, the budget vote actually ended up being the closest in a generation: 29–21. As it turned out, these four alders could have deadlocked the budget. If they had been pro-active, they could have even helped win more alders over to the “no” vote and fully defeated the mayor. There was egg on their faces because of the fact that they could have made history if only they had not scabbed on the left-wing alders that helped create the opening for this historic vote.
Immediately, Chicago’s DSA put out a statement condemning Andre Vasquez. The Chicago Afro Socialist and Socialists of Color Caucus put out a statement regarding all four progressive alders. After that, a group of activists that organized for Maria Hadden to get her elected also put out a statement condemning her vote. Other organizations may have put out statements, but these are ones I am aware of. There may be more on the way…
The reality is that the people that canvassed for these alders through the brutal Chicago winter, were the same hardened people that were involved in the uprising. There was no way these organizers, that had sacrificed so much in so many different ways, were going to settle for this betrayal of the demands of the left-wing organizations.
Instead of having trained and obedient organizers that take political misrepresentation stoically, they were vocally expressing their anger at the public betrayal of their explicit demands to vote “no”. Suddenly, the four alders that fell back on the political calculus from before the uprising found their names being dragged through the mud for their miscalculation.
The new calculus — learn by doing
This is the new calculus. This is the new world of the engaged masses.
The mayor will make them pay for voting against her + the masses will protest for voting against them and I need them to win re-election = vote with the masses.
That means that this is the time to build our skills and traditions of accountability. There is no time to wait. Our political culture has rotted without accountability, which is why the masses have disengaged from politics for so long. Why be engaged if all the politicians are liars that always promise one thing on the campaign trail, but then break every promise, or water them all down, once they’re in office?
But if we wait for the perfect approach to accountability, if we wait for the fully formed plan before trying to implement anything: then we never will. We have to be willing to experiment and make mistakes. We have to be willing to accidentally be too harsh. It’s better that we make those kinds of mistakes and fix them rather than make the catastrophic mistake of staying on the path of uncomfortable silence and gradual disillusion as the people we help elect, publicly betray us.
In an era of the masses being mobilized, this will be important to remember so that we can build their confidence in our organizations, confidence in their own ability to change the world, confidence to build even larger struggles, and the confidence to build a party of our own.
The masses are mobilized and we need to dream bigger precisely because they are willing to fearlessly and relentlessly throw themselves into the struggle. They are broadening the collective horizon and we need to see it and embrace it.