The police killed George Floyd last Monday. His last words were “I can’t breathe”—the same words spoken by Eric Garner before he was killed by police in 2014. That phrase, an iconic slogan of Black Lives Matter, has served as a constant reminder that black Americans’ fight for dignity and freedom is also a struggle for survival in a hostile country.
Black Lives Matter generated some reforms; it marked a shift in the tone of both liberal and radical political language in the United States; it forged a new generation of freedom fighters; it generated pained frustration with the resilience of white supremacy. The killing and brutality continued.
And then—months into a pandemic, still growing, that killed black people at a far higher rate than white, during which poor and working class and unemployed people experienced the lethal contempt of the U.S. elite—the police killed George Floyd. What followed was a rebellion.
In recent years, many leftists in the United States have insisted that anti-racism be at the heart of their political work. For the rest, the current uprising must serve as a recalibration. It is long past time to leave behind a half-decade of tired “class vs. race” debates. Unwavering solidarity with and participation in this struggle for black freedom is a moral and political imperative—with the potential to transform the landscape of American radicalism.
The left often likes to point to Occupy Wall Street as the origin point of a new American radicalism. Occupy focused the mind on economic inequality and the stubborn power of finance after the crash. It reflected disappointment in the liberalism of the Obama era. Its ideas lived on, after the encampments disappeared.
From those who lived through it, there were other lessons. The occupations did not, in fact, just disappear. They were cleared by force. What are my lingering memories of Occupy Wall Street about? The brutality of the police.
By the cunning of history, the diffuse opposition to state and corporate power that fueled Occupy fed into the social democratic politics of the Sanders campaigns. The campaigns became a container for a variety of social struggles; racial justice, criminal-legal reform, and an end to mass incarceration were on the agenda, but they were adjuncts to the central concerns familiar from the stump speeches: corporate power, economic inequality, the cruelty of the U.S. healthcare system. Those of us who pushed back against the Great Man Theory of Bernie’s socialist movement would refer to Black Lives Matter as one of a number of important social tributaries—including those for migrant and indigenous justice, and new currents in feminist and LGTBQ+ politics—that had contributed to a broad, populist left political project. In the battle against the rest of the Democratic Party, however, many became zealous opponents of a new racial liberalism. Too many leftists vehemently counterposed socialist universalism against a new culture of wokeness—a culture exploited opportunistically by corporate Democrats but that also represented a genuine and heartfelt response to the edifice of white supremacy.
Sanders lost a second time, long ago it now feels, as the pandemic spread. Socialists wondered what political organizing would look like under isolated social conditions and a dispiriting national political scene. The first, boldest, most brilliant answer to that question was a reminder that the organized left did not hold the answer at all. In Minneapolis, black people began an uprising. They marched. They burned down a police station. And across the country, with little coordination, people responded. Today, black liberation is the central struggle in American life.
The multiracial character of the protest currents puts lie to the idea that a bleached “universalism” was the necessary, sensible glue for American radical politics. We have come to a moment in which a black-led uprising against state violence is radicalizing the politics of anti-privilege, with unimaginably broad popular support.
These developments have made tangible a point in the historiography of neoliberalism that had previously remained obscure: alongside the rise in inequality, the legalized corruption, the growing power of capital over labor, and—most crucially—the withdrawal of the open and generous hand of public provision came the hardening and expansion of the closed fist of state power. The expansion and militarization of policing and incarceration, in some ways of recent origin, are also deeply interwoven with the longer and varied history of the exploitation, marginalization, and dispossession of—and social cruelty toward—black people on this continent. Neoliberalism is a variety of capitalism, but all capitalism in the United States is racial capitalism.
The people in the streets demand justice. The clearest implication of that, at the moment, is to defund police departments. This isn’t a call for austerity, but for redistribution of resources: away from cops and toward mental health services, homeless support, healthcare, education, economic investment, and more. There is logic to this framework beyond shifting money from one pool to another; it’s about the radical reconfiguration of an entire paradigm of political and social power. Support for the development of better social conditions undermines the stated goal of police budgets—to protect all of us from violent harm. (The fact that we have undergone decades of decline in violent crime while police budgets keep growing shows how far we have moved from this original justification.) And the austerity that we have long faced, that we will face again soon unless we fight against it, will be executed at the point of violent state power. Very few expect the elimination of policing overnight, but budget cuts to reduce departments’ capacity to harm and sense of impunity are within reach. And there is no time to waste in developing and funding alternative models to the horrifically broken criminal-legal system.
Right now, there isn’t any clear intermediary between the streets and political power. Whatever electoral inroads the left has made in recent years remain small in the scope of American governance, and the response from some celebrated leaders has been a disappointment. Where Democratic leaders are not presiding over brutal clampdowns, many seem to be trailing a mile behind the march, reading graffiti and sifting through broken glass for signs of the gentlest path forward.
Already, there are signs that sustained direct action is breaking apart the law-and-order consensus. But it is a mistake to try to rapidly domesticate the current political situation. For anyone with an eye on a radical political horizon, the immediate objective is clear: support and participate in demonstrations as long as it is possible to sustain them; resist the calls for normalcy and healing; pay close attention to the motion of the moment, rather than forcing it prematurely into a mold.
There is not just the movement, however, but the countermovement. The Trump-led Republican Party may only have minority support, but that minority includes the police themselves. Especially in large cities, police departments operate with quasi-autonomy. They are emboldened by political support from the White House, along with liberal governors and mayors ready to surrender to a grim notion of “necessity.”
It often seems that there’s very little that Trump cares about deeply that isn’t mutable in the face of the next distraction that resonates with his base. If that is true, urban “unrest” is a major exception. Trump’s identity was forged by the crises of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, all seen from the vantage of a rich developer. His unrepentant hatred for the Central Park Five is a case in point; he bought full-page newspaper ads supporting their execution in 1989 and refused to back down after DNA evidence completely exonerated them. Under his rhetorical lead, and with their livelihood and esprit de corps under assault, police departments are seemingly determining their rules of engagement on the fly—extensive beatings and use of tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets and much more, but also other ominous moves like covering their badge numbers with black bands. It seems inevitable that more people will end up injured, blinded, and dead. If the police are not stopped by an opposing political force, their capacity to act as an independent force for American fascism will only grow stronger.
The movement has made the intolerable conditions for black Americans everyone’s problem, but what it asks for many still claim is impossible. Between the intolerable and the impossible, something has to give: in the direction of bold public action that progressive politics has not been capable of generating in decades; toward continued brave rebelliousness; toward repression; toward some combination of the three.
Whatever happens, the current moment lays out a new, necessary direction for left politics going forward: not just to support the development of public institutions that can expand human flourishing and avert ecological catastrophe, but to radically roll back the repressive state apparatus. The new agenda must be a different kind of universalism. Black liberation, first and foremost and in and for itself, is also the road to the liberation of all.
Nick Serpe is a senior editor at Dissent.