by Jeff Mackler, published on Socialist Action, June 14, 2020
For three weeks now, in 2,000 cities and towns across the country, unprecedented, massive, multi-racial, daily mobilizations against the ingrained institutional racism that permeates every aspect U.S. society have exploded in scope and intensity.
In Washington, D.C., the world witnessed the spectacle of united Black, white and Latinx working people, youth and clergy being brutally attacked by clubbing police, the National Guard, and low-flying helicopters, ordered by the Pentagon to intimidate and scatter protestors with a maneuver called a “show of force.”
The peaceful demonstrators, including an array of the nation’s corporate media reporters bearing witness, were subjected to concussion explosives and noxious gases aimed at clearing a path for the posturing, chin up egomaniac President Trump to walk across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a one-minute, now widely condemned photo op, where he brandished an upside-down bible. Trump was accompanied by an entourage of top military and civilian officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, who soon after went to great lengths to disassociate themselves from the president’s militaristic rhetoric. As if to imply that his threats to bring “law and order” were akin to a declaration of martial law, Trump designated Gen. Milley, the nation’s top military official, “in charge” of the response to the protests.
And all this in the context of the looming specter of the deadly dangerous COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of 117,000 people to date and infected two million more. Just one month ago, workers’ consciousness was rising based on a fully justified skepticism of ruling class demands to prematurely abandon the necessary shelter-at-home strictures and return to work to bolster capitalist profits. After working people saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, the nearly instant nationwide movement’s dramatic transition from quarantining against COVID-19 to risk-filled, often close-quartered mass street protests, has strikingly demonstrated the best traditions of American working class radicalism. Everything that was impossible, unimaginable, unthinkable, inconceivable yesterday is on the order of the day today.
Top generals challenge Trump
The public schism wherein the top leadership of the most powerful military on earth denounced President Trump’s call to arms to put down the ever-widening and overwhelmingly peaceful rebellious protests, is equally unprecedented. The same generals who dramatically broke with the racist bigot President Trump have never hesitated to rain down death and destruction, if not genocidal wars, on poor and oppressed nations in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Asia and indeed, around the world. But sending in troops to beat back the uniting and highly visible anti-racist millions in the streets today is quite another matter.
Trump had amassed 1,600 active-duty soldiers on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., presumably ready for action. Days later he was compelled to send them back to their bases, claiming that the threatening protests has subsided, when in fact their size and breadth had dramatically increased.
Gen. Milley made his disassociation from Trump absolutely clear when wrote a message to all top military commanders stating that “every member of the armed forces swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” which “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” Forty percent of the U.S. armed forces are people of color. No doubt the general was dead set against bringing thousands of multi-racial working class U.S. troops, all victims of the economic draft, to fight against their civilian counterparts, who are demanding Black Lives Matter and “No Justice, No Peace!” louder than ever.
Former Defense Secretary and retired Marine Corps General James Mattis similarly offered a withering denunciation of Trump’s photo op two-block march from the heavily barricaded White House to Lafayette Square’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. Hours earlier the fearful bragging bigot Trump and his family had to be hastily escorted by his security forces to the White House’s underground bunkers lest the unarmed peaceful protestors outside break through the might of all of Washington’s repressive forces to capture the frightened coward, who ordered the lights turned off before he descended. The prevaricating president later told the media that he was merely “inspecting” the bunker.
The next day, Washington, D.C.’s Black mayor, Muriel Bowser, ordered that the street leading directly to the White House be painted in huge block letters, “Black Lives Matter.” Bowser got the funds for this instant project from the city’s mural painting budget. Not impressed with by this act from a Democratic mayor who has enacted massive increases in the police budget and routinely supports cops against the victims of police brutality, protesters painted “Defund The Police” next to it in the same yellow letters.
Said General Mattis, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.” Nicknamed “Mad Dog” Mattis, the war hawk general, who was Secretary of Defense for Trump’s first two years in office and previously attacked Trump for ordering the withdrawal of some U.S. troops from Syria, added, “Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who marched to St. John’s along with Trump, later falsely claimed that he didn’t know where they were going. Esper similarly broke with Trump stating that, “The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort…We are not in one of those situations now.” The New York Times summed-up ruling class sentiment as “Active-duty military troops should not be sent to control the wave of protests in American cities, at least for now.” At least for now!
Admiral Sandy Winnefeld joined the growing chorus of military dissent stating, “We are at the most dangerous time for civil-military relations I’ve seen in my lifetime.” Winnefeld, a retired former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Times. “It is especially important to reserve the use of federal forces for only the most dire circumstances that actually threaten the survival of the nation. Our senior-most military leaders need to ensure that their political chain of command understands these things.”
What could Winnefeld have meant by these remarks other than to imply that the nation’s top generals should ignore any Trump orders to deploy Pentagon forces to crush peaceful protestors? The risk to be perceived – that is, a fraternization between the masses in the streets and the masses of soldiers and National Guard forces sent to crush them – defined the duty to be obeyed. The potential of thousands of multi-racial troops “taking the knee” along with their civilian counterparts, these commanders calculated, for now at least, was not to be risked. They cautioned RETREAT!
Pentagon fears National Guard/US Military radicalization
Pentagon officials noted that the military is trained in using lethal power against foreign adversaries, not in law enforcement. One commentator noted, “What is appropriate in Fallujah is not in Farragut Square,” the latter a reference to Washington’s D.C.’s bustling shopping district a few blocks from the White House. In Fallujah, Iraq, U.S. troops, accompanied by unchallenged U.S. air power, leveled the city and slaughtered its inhabitants.
Esper and the other top Pentagon officials are fearful that the military would be seen as participating in an unprecedented nationwide move toward martial law. With notes of rebellious sentiments in the air, these equivocating generals implied that there are no limits to the repressive forces that U.S. capitalism might unleash to safeguard their predatory system, but not now.
For the first time in a lifetime, however, a glimmer of the forces that are an absolute necessity in challenging and defeating capitalist control and repression in all its myriad forms has appeared. In the streets, facing off against local and state police power backed by a hesitant National Guard, we are witnessing a generation of youthful, multi-racial working class fighters, bristling with hatred of racist injustice.
The Washington, D.C. National Guard was far from unanimous in using mass force against the peaceful demonstrators. An insightful account in Politico, based on interviews with 10 Guard members on the scene, not only refuted Trump’s assertion of violent protestors but indicated political support and kinship with the protestors.
“A Washington, D.C. National Guardsman,” according to Politico, “said he was worried that a lot of the goodwill that the Guard has built up with local Washingtonians because of their coronavirus response and annual Fourth of July celebrations was in jeopardy. Within the span of 30 to 40 minutes, all of that washed away because of political stuff,” he said.”
Torrie Osterholm, the D.C. National Guard’s director of psychological health reported,
“The Guardsmen were ill-prepared for the hate directed at them by the protesters, which was reminiscent of the anti-military sentiment during the Vietnam War. The shift from being viewed as heroes during the coronavirus pandemic to villains suppressing citizens’ right to protest happened overnight,” she said.
Politico continued with an account of a soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity,
“‘As a military officer, what I saw was more or less really fucked up.’ The official line from the White House that the protesters had turned violent, he said, is false.”
“We have a lot of National Guardsmen who are struggling with this, because unlike in combat when you have an enemy, these are our neighbors, our friends, our family,” another Guard officer stated.
More than 60 percent of Washington, D.C. National Guards are people of color. One Guard soldier told The New York Times that
“he and some fellow troops were so ashamed in taking part against the protests that they have kept it from family members.”
Politico’s account records similar sentiments in cities across the country. The massive and rising anti-racist and anti-repression mood that today manifests itself everywhere, has undoubtedly permeated the consciousness of the National Guard and, without doubt, rank-and-file soldiers, many of whom joined the armed forces in a vain effort to escape the increasingly hopeless prospects before them only to find themselves confronted with the prospect of going to battle with their own people, that is, the most oppressed communities as well as working class America.
Similarly motivated by capitalism’s repeated incapacity to effectively deal with one crisis after another – real unemployment-underemployment rates of close to 50 percent, the COVID-19 pandemic, the impending global warming-climate catastrophe, endless imperialist wars across the globe, mass evictions and foreclosures, increasing levels of poverty and hunger, multi-trillion dollar bailouts for the super rich and ever-declining health care – American workers are questioning capitalist prerogatives as never before.
Mass support for anti-racist protests
A new Monmouth University poll indicated that 76 percent of Americans – including 71 percent of white people – called U.S. racism “a big problem.” That’s a 26-percentage-point spike since 2015. Fifty-seven percent of Americans said demonstrators’ anger was fully justified, and another 21 percent called it somewhat justified. Among respondents age 35 and under in a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African-Americans, nine out of ten did not trust the police to treat people of all races equally – higher than in any other age group.
On June 8, CNN reported that their survey showed an unprecedented 84 percent of the population supported the mass protests against police brutality and repression.
Similarly, Trump’s repeated allegations that the protestors were essentially “looters, anarchists, antifa [short for anti-fascists] and violent outside agitators” have been roundly rejected by ever-increasing majorities. Even the corporate media has felt compelled to largely refrain from characterizing the protests as anything other than expressions of mass outrage against deep social inequities. Trumps spurious charge that their protests were largely the actions of disaffected and violent looters have been discarded with contempt. “Black people in the U.S., as well as Latinx, Native Americans and immigrants have been enslaved, exploited and looted for centuries and to this day” has become the pointed reply. The Black Lives Matter spokesperson at George Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial meeting blithely stated, and to cheers of approval, “White people have been looting Africa and African-Americans for centuries. Pay-back is long over-due.” No one winced.
There has been little condemnation of the handfuls of desperate and outraged individuals who break storefront windows; nor has there been condemnation of those who massed to burn to the ground the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis.
Indeed, face to face in the Oval Office with his boss Donald Trump, during a heated discussion over whether to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy federal troops into the streets, General Milley, according to The New York Times, “argued that the scattered fires and looting in some places were dwarfed by peaceful protests.”
Milley’s remarks notwithstanding, documents recently obtained by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that the Pentagon has planned its response to possible future acts of mass rebellion led by members of “Generation Z,” which could be expected to meet with the full force of U.S. military repression. Greenwald’s revelation pointed to a Pentagon war game, called the “2018 Joint Land, Air and Sea Strategic Special Program (JLASS),” which offered a scenario in which members of “Generation Z, driven by malaise and discontent, launch a Zbellion in America in the mid-2020s.” No doubt, today’s “Gen Zbellion” is not driven by anything resembling “malaise” but by everything indicating mass hatred at the horrors inflicted on working people in the course of capitalism’s ongoing degeneration.
Minneapolis City Council pledges Police Department abolition
That the impossible can appear as the order of the day briefly appeared, then disappeared before the nation when nine members – a claimed veto-proof majority – of the Minneapolis City Council announced before an assembled crowd of 500 on Sunday, June 7 their intention to dismantle the city’s police department. The city’s present system, they stated, could not be reformed. Citing the city’s own figures, they had the facts to prove it.
A 2018 report stated, “About 20 percent of Minneapolis’s population of 430,000 is Black. But when the police get physical – with kicks, neck holds, punches, shoves, takedowns, Mace, Tasers or other forms of muscle — nearly 60 percent of the time the person subject to that force is Black.” About 63 percent of those shot and killed by police in Minneapolis between 2000 and 2017 – 19 people – were Black, while only 17 percent – or 5 people – were white.
Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman reported on a recent protest outside the home of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Protest leader Kandace Montgomery asked the mayor: “Jacob Frey, we have a yes-or-no question for you: Yes or no, will you commit to defunding Minneapolis Police Department?” Echoed by the crowd of protesters, Montgomery told the mayor “We don’t want no more police. It’s that clear. We don’t want people with guns toting around in our community, shooting us down. Do you have an answer? It is a yes or a no. Will you defund the Minneapolis Police Department?”
When Mayor Frey said no, Montgomery responded: “All right, fine! You’re wasting our time! Get the [bleep] out of here! Get the [bleep] out!” The crowd of thousands chanted “Go home Jacob, go home! Go home Jacob, go home!” followed by “Shame!” as the humiliated mayor left, walking slowly through the crowd.
Goodman interviewed Minneapolis city council person, Jeremiah Ellison, son of the state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former congressman who has also been Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee.Despite Jeremiah Ellison’s “veto proof” city council majority over Mayor Frey’s anticipated veto, he made clear that neither he nor his council associates had any intention of defunding or abolishing the city’s police department. The equivocating Democratic Party politician stated,
“We’re going to engage the community for a year to develop a new system of public safety. You’ve got to understand, the police department has been around for 150 years. At least the Minneapolis Police Department has been around for over 150 years. And police departments all around the country have been around a lot longer than that. I think that we owe it to the city of Minneapolis, to our residents, to develop a plan that moves forward intelligently, that moves forward in a way that works.”
Democrats and Republicans seek “police reforms”
Meanwhile, a group of Minneapolis residents, one armed, began their own patrols of the Black community, likely as a symbolic gesture of future intentions. Absent organized mass forces in the communities of the oppressed today, demands for Black and Brown Control of Black and Brown Communities, as opposed to the present white racist cop control, remain in the earliest stages of discussion and debate. Increasingly, we are hearing important demands aimed at sharpening this discussion, including the three D’s: “Disarm, Defund and Disband the Police.”
In past years, often following public and videotaped police murders of unarmed Black people, Democratic Party establishment politicians, in tandem with corporate-funded NGOs, have moved to orchestrate a well-planned series of paper concessions to assuage community outrage. These always include retaining the basic institutions of racist police violence intact while introducing a number of “reforms” including the election or appointment of “more sensitive” Black police chiefs.
The “wash, rinse, repeat cycle”
This ritual window dressing was aptly described by Jody David Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California who studies racial justice and who estimates that the current widespread outrage over economic and racial injustices may give the new movement a greater durability.
“There was a wash, rinse, repeat cycle, a standard script,” said David Armour, “Convene a commission, hold some hearings, have community members vent and testify, and here come some policymakers saying, ‘Here’s a fix.’” The result, he said: “Look where we are.”
This “wash, rinse, repeat cycle” is in full operation today, with the posturing “veto-proof” Democrats on the Minneapolis City Council planning on a yearlong “discussion with the community” before taking any action, while their congressional counterparts rush to introduce a myriad of police reform legislation “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” With Trump’s polls numbers in free fall – 10 to 12 percent in nearly every category – not be outdone, Congressional Republicans are drafting their own “reform package.”
Democrat Joseph Biden, took to the airwaves decrying some police violence and likewise calling for “reform” while his campaign spokesman Andrew Bates, according to the June 9 NYT, made clear that “Mr. Biden was opposed to cutting police funding and believed that more spending was necessary to help improve law enforcement and community policing.” The following day, Biden wrote an op-ed in USA Today calling for an additional $300 million for the police, no doubt in the name of “reform.” The previous week the posturing Biden, ever in search of a campaign gimmick, asserted that if elected president, he would immediately set up a “national police oversight commission.” There is no end to capitalist politicians’ bluster, bluff and bullshit! These aside, the end product, as their system degenerates, is more repression.
The “wash, rinse, repeat cycle” has no objective other than to defuse the present mass outrage against the system of institutionalized racist force and violence that pervades every police department in the country. Whether the media savvy mayors of New York and Los Angeles today promise to cut police spending or their Democratic Party partners in Washington whistle another tune, the result is the same. Capitalism, and especially a capitalism in dire crisis, requires ever-deepening repressive infringements on basic democratic rights and civil liberties, whether with regard to outright police violence, or voting restrictions, or all pervasive government spying or prohibitions on the right to march and rally, not to mention the “right” to conduct endless overt and covert wars against the poor and oppressed nations of the world.
Here, we note the present restrictive laws on the books in virtually every city in the nation that severely limit or prohibit marches and rallies. In the face of today’s mass protests, they have gone largely, if not totally unenforced. Experienced organizers are well aware of the myriad laws in every city fundamentally restricting the right to peaceful assembly – the laws requiring large fees and permits, the laws requiring protestors to stand behind police barricades or to submit to cement wall enclosures, the laws allowing police to charge for their “monitoring services” and the laws restricting large parts of cities from any protests at all. The announced curfews imposed across the country have been largely ignored and eventually withdrawn as ineffective. Increasingly, many of those arrested – and there have been thousands to date – have been released, with officials pledging that curfew violation charges would be dropped. Mass trials, not to mention punishment of anti-racist activists, is a spectacle that the more “intelligent” elements among the ruling rich want to avoid, at least for now.
The NYT struck a note of caution concerning the present impasse faced by the elite. “Because the protests are not only about the death of Mr. Floyd but a broader system of racial inequality, officials cannot simply defuse concerns by pressing charges against police officers, as they did in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.”
“And the next day!”
One recent afternoon in Washington, D.C., one person among hundreds of demonstrators shouted that they would all be coming back the following day. Another person added, “and the next day.” The phrase caught fire, and the crowd started chanting, “And the next day! And the next day!”
Today’s unprecedented mobilizations began with the police murder of George Floyd. But their depth and staying power is equally a reflection of the mass anger and frustration stemming from all the insults to one’s being that capitalism has inflicted on working class America, and especially the nation’s Black, Brown and Native American communities. There is outrage on the job front, with millions relegated to low wage, “gig economy” jobs, if they have a job at all. There is outrage against the racist “school-to-prison” pipeline and mass racist incarceration, against the Blue plague of police oppression and the plague of racist discrimination, against the impending global warming climate catastrophe, against the endless wars against working people at home and abroad, and against the system of capitalist exploitation more generally.
Today, we hear voices raised louder than ever proclaiming “No Justice, No Peace” and “Black Lives Matter” and “They Say Cut Back; We Say Fightback!” They will soon be joined by voices also demanding “Unions Now! Organize the Unorganized!” And not too far away, we will hear “Break with the Two-Party Capitalist Duopoly! For Workers Power!” as working people struggle for a fighting labor party based on powerful and democratic trade unions in alliance with all the oppressed and exploited! Yesterday’s impossible, unthinkable, unimaginable idea of building a world of justice and freedom for all is on the agenda today! Join us! Join Socialist Action!
*Featured Image: Protesters march on 16th Street NW in Washington, D.C. towards the White House on Saturday, June 6. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo)
Jeff Mackler is the national secretary of Socialist Action. He is also Socialist Action’s candidate for U.S. President in the 2020 elections and he was the Socialist Action candidate for President in 2016. Mackler founded Northern California Climate Mobilization, is a longtime teacher and union activist with the American Federation of Teachers in Hayward, California and is director of theMobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.