We are in the middle of the most powerful upsurge of nationwide urban rebellions since the 1960s. This rebellion is a long time coming. While the future is uncertain, it is clear that a tremendous force was unlocked by the demonstrators who faced off against the police in every major American city this weekend. The nation has followed the example of those in Minneapolis who took a militant stand for justice for George Floyd.
The scope of this rebellion is far greater than a single case, however. It is a rebellion against enslavement, against Jim Crow apartheid, against an omnipresent mass incarceration system that brutalizes and cages Black people to this day. Racism in America is not simply a matter of disparity in impact or a psychological bias, it is the literal “bodies of armed men” that make up the capitalist state today: mass incarceration in a sprawling prison system, imperialist violence overseas, and the police project of systematic lynching.
The history of this country is a gruesome legacy of violence against Black people. But today we are witnessing the return of the greatest struggle in American history: the struggle for Black dignity and freedom. Every major rebellion in this country was sparked by and flowed through the channels of the Black liberation struggle. From Watts in ’65, to LA in ’92, to Ferguson, Baltimore, and the movement here in Chicago after the murder of Laquan McDonald, a rage has been swelling, waiting for the twin crises of global pandemic and economic collapse to burst forth once more.
While racism is at the core of this uprising, this revitalized movement is about much more: the chaos of capitalism in crisis, the absolute callousness of elected officials toward the long-running desperate conditions of working people, the foreclosure of a future for our planet, and the rapidly spreading realization over the last several months that there are no means within this system to secure a livable, fulfilling existence and the safety of loved ones. You cannot send millions of essential Black and brown workers out to their deaths every day in a global pandemic, offer no support, and then continue to brutalize and murder them. If the pandemic and coming economic depression robbed us all of a future, this rebellion is the beginning of our collective struggle to take it back.
Rebellions Make Their Own Legitimacy
History teaches a simple truth: riots get results. Mass uprisings deserve to be both defended and expanded; they are at the core of the socialist project. The rapidity with which change can come when regular people enter the stage of history and passionately disrupt a world of oppression and racist violence is a cause for celebration. When masses of ordinary people take politics into their own hands through their own activity, social change is not a slow progression accomplished by adherence to narrow bread-and-butter demands and abstract universalism. Rebellions show that mass politics is not the sole domain of the legal electoral cycle or routine contract bargaining. History moves in jarring leaps of struggle, and this weekend, history truly took flight.
Downtown Chicago—at once a playground for the rich and headquarters of big business as well as the workplace of a multiracial working class—is covered today in graffiti proclaiming Black Lives Matter. Statues of colonial masters and civic leaders are beautified with “ACAB” and “FUCK 12.” This is what mass politics looks like. It is the names of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, and Rekia Boyd chalked on every corner of the city. It is the youth who defy the authority of the state and shut down Chicago’s Loop. It is the burning cop car, the captured precinct, the looted store. The bridges are up, the streets are blockaded because the city’s ruling class fears the emphatic and multitudinous No of social protest echoing in America’s heartland city.
From the mouths of Donald Trump and Democratic Party mayors and governors across the country we now hear the same narrative: “outside agitators” are to blame for these protests. This is a conscious attempt to delegitimize longstanding discontent and demonize solidarity. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
Anyone standing with the oppressed should champion the legitimacy of rebellions and the agency of the people resisting in the streets, intoning the names of the dead. We do so because all other paths to change have been closed, and so we break open a new one, finding our way out of the dark night of the present by light of flickering flame.
The Meaning of the Rebellion
This weekend’s nationwide rebellion is a turning point for the class struggle in this country. Hopes for the slow transformation of the Democratic Party and faith in routine, strike-free collective bargaining now appear a distant memory, relics of another period.
This rebellion has done more in days for working-class confidence, combativity, and self-assertion than years of sanctioned votes and permitted marches, as necessary as these may have been. The labor movement of Minneapolis, with teachers in the lead, has rallied behind the movement. Minneapolis schools have proposed severing ties with the police department and the University of Minnesota has ended ties with the MPD. Transit workers in Minneapolis, New York, and Chicago have refused to transport protesters to jail for the police, effectively declaring a political strike.
However swift the gains in consciousness, we know that the reaction will be fierce. Already on Saturday night and Sunday, police were unhinged in their brutality. In Chicago, the mayor imposed a curfew without notice and lifted bridges critical to leaving the city center, before cops arrested an estimated 1,000 protesters trapped downtown. The mayor also called in the National Guard. This swift mobilization of state repression stands in stunning contrast to the lumbering pace of the COVID-19 response, and the full extent is just beginning to be unveiled. They did not stockpile PPE but they have the teargas at the ready.
Trump at his most reactionary will rage and the far right will be eager to take up the task. There have been some reports that police infiltrators and right wingers have attempted to provoke some of the property destruction, and certainly we should guard our movements against right-wing provocation. We must be prepared and vigilant. We should also be wary of the symmetry between claiming the police provoked the militancy of the protests and the state and polite society’s narrative of the outside agitator.
Seize the Future
Socialism—antiracist, feminist, and revolutionary—offers the only path out of these crises. But this solution is not automatic and the socialist left, as it stands, is not prepared. This is not the first time that socialists have been caught unprepared by an elemental social upsurge. The task ahead is to use this moment to politically strengthen the working-class movement.
The iron is white hot and ready to be struck. Now is the time to form organizations that can expand the rebellions and protect our side from repression. Mass organizations of the class capable of taking action will be needed to contend for power against a capitalist state intent on brutal racist violence. Our future must be built, and that depends on how we prepare for what is to come.
Preparation means understanding what we are up against and what it will take to overcome it. Social crisis is not going away, and it is not something small reforms or incremental legislation will fix. The racist capitalist system itself is the crisis. The political project of the United States of America is racism, oppression, and capitalist disaster. For the vast majority of us paving a path out of this nightmare, the immediate steps are clear: defund and abolish the police. Police abolition, in turn, will require ever greater rebellions, the defunding of billionaires, and the abolition of America as we know it.
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