Rebellion and repression: capitalism’s long hot summer begins

Jun 2, 2020


Trump declared last night from the White House that he would “end the riots” with a national military mobilization to “dominate the streets” and that “if a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary,” he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Minutes before he spoke, just a few hundred feet away outside, officers on horseback dispersed a peaceful protest with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. The crowd was chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” with their arms pointing in the air, when the police riot began. Members of our organization were on the front line and sustained injuries from the stun grenades and bullets. Many protesters were arrested. Black Hawk helicopters buzzed over the marches in show-of-force operations. The helicopters kick up huge amounts of wind and dust, paralyzing people below, a tactic of the U.S. imperialist operations in Iraq and Somalia now migrating back home.

Without a doubt, this marks a major turn towards a more open police state. The righteous rebellions against racism that have rapidly overtaken the country now face a difficult challenge. Trump intends to use brute force, and is threatening to drown that movement in blood. In the same speech, he invoked the defense of “second amendment rights” — which can only be read as a rallying cry for the armed far-right. Earlier this week, he said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The Democratic mayors are playing along, declaring curfews that start as early as 6 p.m. to shut down the movement.

Trump has declared war on this new people’s movement. It is couched in the language of stopping “far-left extremists” and “rioters” — who Attorney General Barr promises will be charged as “domestic terrorists.” But this is classic scapegoating; in fact, it is a declaration of war meant to suppress and quell the whole movement.

This fascistic turn to militarily suppress protest and the exercise of free speech must be combated. The protests must continue. To stop now would be to embolden Trump’s militarism and the far-right. The bravery and collective willpower to march on, shown in the streets of D.C., Louisville, Philadelphia, and so many other cities tonight, will not be easily broken.

Trump’s military crackdown may yet backfire. Even the corporate media that generally supports the curfews have condemned the extraordinary use of force to clear the area next to the White House, which was designed to create a photo opportunity for him to talk tough, Bible in hand, in front of St. John’s Chapel. The bishop of that same Chapel called the police operation and Trump’s use of her church as a backdrop an “outrage.”

But as we continue to struggle, now under more severe threats of repression, it is crucial to understand how events that have transpired in the last five days got us here.

The most essential element of developing a strategy is to distinguish friends from enemies. The last week has shown that the movement has many fake friends who have laid the groundwork for Trump’s announcement.

Fake friends and real enemies

The capitalist ruling class is a sophisticated force, with many different instruments and tools. It was thrown wildly off balance and onto the defensive with the growing nationwide uprising, and was unable to contain the uprisings through traditional methods of repression and co-optation.

Perhaps if the officers had been arrested quickly, these methods would have worked, but without the arrests and charges against the killer cops — which was the most basic demand of the uprisings — the movement grew and grew. The lip service of solidarity from the Democratic politicians was not enough. The firing of the four cops in Minneapolis was not enough. The pleas to “let the legal system do its work” enraged people further, and the third-degree charge for Derek Chauvin was an insult.

And so the movement continued to spread. Unable to contain this rebellion, the corporate media and political establishment of both parties worked to change the narrative. The primary strategy was to focus on the “outside agitators.” With lightning speed, the liberal and conservative factions of the ruling class united around this talking point. From the “progressive” Democratic mayors up to Donald Trump himself, all have characterized the movement as “hijacked” by violent extremists, especially scapegoating anarchists and the far-left.

Now Donald Trump calls for law enforcement’s “total domination” of the streets, and brags of attacks against D.C. protests the likes of which “the District has never seen before.”

But it is the liberal bourgeoisie — the Democratic mayors and governors and congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi — who have facilitated Trump’s latest attacks. They invented and propagated all of the political justifications that Trump and Attorney General Barr needed. They, not the White House, imposed unjust curfews that now lay the basis for the mass arrests of people exercising their free-speech rights. The curfews strengthen the police state and normalize police violence, which will be focused on the new wave of anti-racist rebellion. These same Democratic politicians did absolutely nothing against the heavily armed, nearly all-white right-wing “reopen” protests, which took place at the height of the pandemic and which were in direct violation of the lockdown.

That this Democratic establishment touts itself as the anti-Trump “resistance” is a complete joke. In truth, it has long been the velvet glove over the iron fist of state repression.

Nor can anyone pass over that so many rebellions are taking place in urban areas governed entirely by the Democratic Party. This is the main reason the Democratic Party is unable to present a political leadership that will satisfy the anti-racist movement — this movement is objectively rebelling against them as much as Trump! It is in the cities that Democrats govern where the recent police killings have taken place, where killings have gone on for decades without any justice, where gentrification has expelled Black people from their historic neighborhoods, and where budget cuts have hollowed out health services and education. No amount of rhetoric can cover up that record.

Barack Obama published an essay lecturing protesters on how to make “real change,” with more “specific demands for criminal justice” and electoral efforts. But how can anyone take this advice seriously? His own administration made no “real change” over eight years of rampant police killings and mass incarceration — despite the massive Black Lives Matter movement and uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore.

So when Trump complains about the “weakness” of the Democratic politicians against the movement, he voices the sentiments of many within the corporate and financial establishment who see that the Democrats’ typical containment strategies are not working. At this stage, with the movement so widespread, with the feeling of rebellion capturing the minds and hearts of millions, only first-degree murder charges for all the killer cops as well as the cessation of new police killings could potentially get people to go home and out of the streets. And the state refuses to concede this basic demand. So outright repression is their alternative.

Most other governments around the world, even capitalist ones, would be preparing some sort of reform package in the face of over 75 militant rebellions in every urban center. Officials would be resigning, fired, or criminally charged. Not in the capitalist United States — whose ruling class stands out not only for its level of viciousness, militarism and racism but also its extraordinary hubris. Even though the United States has all the material resources to enact widespread social and economic programs to improve the economic conditions of the working class, and to redress the grievances of Black people, it simply refuses to budge.

They’ve offered nothing but more police violence.

Never a pristine revolution

Revolutions are messy. They don’t emerge out of normalcy but out of crisis. They are made amid a swirling pace of events, the confusion of contradictory information, the breakdown of order, the reshuffling of political allegiances, and the unleashing of new social forces who feel their power for the first time. Many different sides each try to put their imprint onto the larger convulsion, adopting new rhetoric and tactics, striking new alliances, deploying their agents of subterfuge and deception, all to steer things in the direction they want.

This is how revolutions look in the real world. Anyone who expects a revolutionary movement to emerge fully formed, and for the process to unfold with just two sides, cleanly differentiated —where the good guys all line up one side and all the bad guys on the other and then battle it out until one wins — has adopted a cartoonish view of politics.

The art of revolutionary politics is to try and stay ahead of events, to anticipate what is coming, to discern out of this commotion and confusion what is most essential, to identify our side’s strong points and concentrate them on the state’s weak points, and to understand our enemy and prepare ourselves for its counter-attacks. No movement can go from victory to victory; it can only grow strong by withstanding the state.

First and foremost, the uprising has allowed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly poor and working-class young people, to feel their own collective strength for the first time. The simultaneous release of all the pent up frustration and anger immediately outstripped the capacity of the state. That expanded their feeling of confidence; the power of standing, marching, and taking action together against demands to go home; the solidarity of supporting one another as comrades in the face of armed repression; the inspiration of feeling the courage of the person next to you; the exhilaration of seeing the police, the bullies, finally in retreat. All this widened the horizons of the protests and made people more determined to fight, and to demand more. Many people’s consciousness about the character of the state has been transformed in less than a week through their own participation.

While we unite with this movement, with all its contradictions and roughness around the edges, it is not sufficient to merge with the spontaneous movement.

On the political front, we must combat the portrayal of the movement as divided into the two images of the “good protester” and the “bad protester.” This has invited repression and the arrest of the “bad protesters” so as to push back the movement as a whole. This narrative serves to distract from the underlying social issues that produced this outpouring of anger. It works to deflect from the ruling class’s own responsibility for the epidemic of police murder. And it serves to deny that the militancy of the uprisings is rooted in the accumulated experiences of oppression, especially concentrated against Black people.

Is there infiltration of this movement? Yes. The police and federal authorities themselves have undoubtedly sent an untold number of agents into the streets, posing as protesters, to facilitate repression and sow division in the movement. We know this from our own experience in the last few days and the historical experience of all powerful social movements in the United States. Of course, there are anarchist and other political forces who are entering the protests with a particular focus on property destruction. As we said, revolutionary processes are messy. But the notion that the movement has been “hijacked” is totally wrong.

This rhetoric of “hijacking” itself serves to create confusion and suspicion about what is going on in the streets. It is meant to invoke cynicism in the motivations of those in the streets, to create fear that sinister forces are at work. They are trying to tell those in the street that the amazing, almost sublime, feeling of unity and power they are experiencing is not genuine, is at the service of some dark or foreign agenda that you can’t see. And if you aren’t in the streets yourself, you are being taught to fear the movement.

But the crucial task is to draw in wider layers of poor and working people to unite with the uprisings against racism — and to recognize this as a movement for the whole working class. We are only a few days in, but the current moment appears as an embryonic revolutionary crisis. It may be seen in retrospect as the dress rehearsal for an even larger one.

Deep causes of the current crisis

It is not unusual in a revolutionary process that the masses of people would start with simple demands — in this case, justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the victims of racist and police terror. Basic accountability. The same things that anyone else would be immediately arrested for, these cops should be arrested for. But without the demand being met, the class struggle itself dynamically accelerates the pace of events and the state of consciousness, and the struggle quickly grows to take on society’s most fundamental and unresolvable crises.

There are, after all, multiple crises converging. There is the COVID-19 public health crisis, which the government utterly failed to stem or even respond to humanely and competently. There is the overwhelming economic crisis — with 40 million now unemployed, 16 million jobs expected to be permanently eliminated, and a wave of evictions around the corner. During this massive economic destruction and three months of pandemic, the assets of the billionaires gained $434 billion. And then thirdly, there is the ongoing crisis of the serial assassination of Black people in America — the rate of which stayed constant from 2019 to 2020 despite the lockdown.

All this creates a crisis of legitimacy for the capitalist state and the Trump government. The political system is in shambles. Very few people believe in it. The election itself is hardly talked about. The lockdown put a lid on the pot but also turned up the temperature; the water has now boiled over. The capitalist government’s traditional methods for resolving grievances aren’t working.

Socialists need our own independent assessment of what stage we are in and what is most needed now. In our August 2019 Party Congress, the PSL set out its strategic vision for the coming period, predicating our organizing on the “actuality of revolution” — that is the eventuality of tumultuous and explosive times to come. We emphasized that in addition to the nonstop oppressive feature of U.S. capitalism — such as poverty and white supremacy — the system was on a collision course with regards to the climate, job destruction, and war that would open up such possibilities. Instead, there has been a global pandemic but the result has been the same.

A big part of our task is to be fully engaged with the masses in rebellion right now. No one group can even pretend to lead such a mass movement that has exploded overnight. All revolutionary processes release the raw energy that has been long suppressed — and so we are seeing the manifestations of generalized mass anger, the destitute sectors who are utilizing this moment to take that which they have been deprived of, the young people who are coming of age in a society that offers them no future. The “looting” and “violence” pales in comparison to the looting of the capitalist class and violence delivered daily by its state.

These aspects of the rebellion must not be the fixation of socialists, although we must tactically navigate these dynamics to both solidarize ourselves with the organic leaders of the uprising and avoid the clutches of the state. The fundamental thing that is transpiring is that youth from all backgrounds are marching together. The crowds are overwhelmingly poor and working class, as well as containing large numbers of proletarianized people of middle class origin whose futures are far less secure than that of their parents.

Our conviction is that to make a revolution you have to build a revolutionary organization that stands shoulder to shoulder with those in struggle. We do not discourage militancy but look to the example of so many others before us who channeled that militancy and combativeness into disciplined organizations. To the emerging generation of revolutionaries who are looking to build this type of organization, we offer our experiences building the PSL and our lessons from studying other revolutions.

While we join the struggle in the streets, we demand an end to the qualified immunity for police officers, which allows so many to kill with impunity. We demand a cancellation of rents and mortgages for the duration of the pandemic — make the banks pay. We demand an end to all evictions and foreclosures. We demand a 100 percent guarantee of people’s salaries for all those made unemployed. We demand a dismantling of the current racist policing system, mass incarceration, and institutions of America. This is the program we will fight for, and with which we believe a broad section of the working class can be drawn into this movement.

Dress rehearsals can lead to larger revolutions only if the lessons are learned. The U.S. military studies closely its victories as well as its defeats. It learns as it fights, and works to prepare itself for the next battles. The same responsibility falls on those of us who dream and fight for a new system.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...