I can't breathe (Gary Coronado : LA Times)
Protesters in Los Angeles (Gary Coronado / LA Times)

By JOHN LESLIE and MICHAEL SCHREIBER

Saturday, May 30, marked the fifth night of protests in U.S. cities sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops. Demonstrations have taken place in over U.S. 140 cities and are steadily spreading to every region of the country—and even internationally, with a demonstration of thousands in London’s Trafalgar Square and 1500 in Berlin. The scale and character of the protests echoes the rebellions of the 1960s—beginning with the Black community uprising in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965 and culminating in events following the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968.

George Floyd
George Floyd.

Although the murder of George Floyd precipitated the protests, the roots of the demonstrators’ anger goes much deeper. It reflects the effects of many years of racism and brutality by police, acting in the service of the capitalist ruling class, against the Black community. “We’re sick of it. The cops are out of control,” protester Olga Hall told the Associated Press in Washington, D.C. “They’re wild. There’s just been too many dead boys.”

In many cities, police have reacted with a heavy hand—attacking non-violent demonstrators, spraying them with tear gas and mace, and even shooting them with “non-lethal” rubber bullets. About 1700 people have been arrested nationwide, including 500 in Los Angeles, as fires burned across the city. The National Guard has been activated in 13 states so far, and U.S. Army Military Police have been deployed to Minneapolis. Some cities have invoked nighttime curfews on residents. In spite of the curfew, however, protests continued in Minneapolis.

Members of the press have been targeted. One reporter lost an eye after a cop shot her in the face with a rubber bullet. A CNN crew was arrested early Friday morning while broadcasting live near the site of the burning police station. A Louisville, Ky., news reporter was shot with pepper balls on Friday night by a cop. In Phoenix, the police department issued guidelines stating that reporters would be subject to arrest if they remained in an area after police issued a dispersal order, although the chief of police later apologized.

In several locations, police have attacked medical workers who were administering aid to demonstrators. A medic in Minneapolis posted the following account in an email: “While I was there I witnessed some very horrific things. It was nothing short of a war zone. One man was hit in the head with a flash grenade that blew out his eardrum and knocked him unconscious. Later that day I grouped up with a team of volunteer first aid providers and medics to better provide and care for anyone injured during the protest. One of the volunteers, a licensed medical professional, told me that she was maced while providing care in the field to a downed civilian, despite announcing that she is a medic and sitting on a curb, wearing a nurse uniform and nonviolent in every way … yet she was still attacked by police. …

“We had to set up a medical area with a sign stating that anyone could receive medical care or first aid at that location in the well lit alleyway and were completely separate from the protests happening in the street. We were in the middle of treating a woman when the police attacked us. They fired rubber bullets at us, hitting one of the volunteers twice, and maced us despite the shouts that we were medical volunteers and providing first aid. They chased us down the alleyway and into a parking garage where we hid behind a car for 20 minutes as they rode up and down the road in front of where we were located. They found us though and eventually drove us out of there too which is when we left. They had taken our medical equipment and gear and driven us away from where we were needed most. …

“The police are out of control! This is why the protests are happening! Attacking medics is a crime. We were not violent. We were not in their faces. We were not harassing them or taunting them in any way and weren’t doing anything wrong but they still opened fire on us and treated us like less than human.”

In some cities, cars and buildings have been trashed and set on fire, and looting is taking place. While we don’t call for or endorse property destruction, we cannot condemn the actions of an oppressed people when they fight their oppressor. There is evidence that some of the property destruction in Minneapolis may have been done by police or far-right provocateurs. Far-right discussion boards are filled with posts urging racists to break windows and burn buildings. At least some of the arrested in Minneapolis are linked to white nationalist groups. In Detroit, a protester was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Trump and Attorney General William Barr have helped to egg on the police violence while also energizing their far-right base. Barr tried to revive the old “outside agitator” theme by blaming “anarchistic and far left extremists using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence.”Trump cartoon

Trump also blamed “ANTIFA-led anarchists” for disruptions, and tweeted on May 31 that he would label Antifa a terrorist organization. Trump initiated a series of rabid statements on the issue on early Friday, when he tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase was originally uttered by the Jim Crow-era Miami police chief, Walter Headley, in 1967.

As protests got underway near the locked-down White House, Trump, who had hunkered down in an underground bunker, goaded the demonstrators by stating that if anyone had tried to breach the fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons I have ever seen.” Trump’s ugly statement brought back the horror of the dogs that slave catchers and prison guards used to employ to hunt escaped Black people in the South.

 Prosecute the cops for murder!

Protesters in some cities chanted: “We want all four of them!” referring to the fact that only one of the cops who held George Floyd down as he was dying has been charged with a crime. Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, has been charged with “third-degree murder,” which typically yields a sentence of 12 ½ years imprisonment if convicted in Minnesota. Many consider the charge to be completely unjust and insufficient for a person who wantonly squeezed the life out of Floyd while disregarding pleas by the victim and numerous bystanders to desist.

The killing of George Floyd, however, was hardly the result of malfeasance by one or a handful of “bad cops.” Data shows that the Minneapolis police department used neck restraints 237 times on people they had apprehended since the beginning of 2015, causing the victims to fall unconscious 44 times. Any one of those victims, especially if they had had contributing health problems, might have died.

Once protests began, the Minneapolis city government, state governor, and police department have steadily escalated the situation, although it is clear that they grasped the potential for the situation to spin out of their control. The Thursday night burning of the 3rd district precinct house and police evacuation of the area reflected the fact that police were running out of tear gas and rubber bullets and were outnumbered by protesters.

It’s encouraging that the protests are multi-racial in character. Latinx people, Black people, and young whites have all mobilized. We have seen some transit workers in Minneapolis refusing to carry arrestees. TWU Local 100 in New York City has also issued a statement calling for their members to refuse to carry arrested persons. Labor statements are very good but not enough; the union members need to be put in motion.

In order to defuse the protests, the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie has tried to shift the narrative. Atlanta’s mayor made a statement invoking Martin Luther King.* CNN wheeled out Andrew Young and other older Black leaders and politicians to invoke King and nonviolence. Many of the cities have Democratic mayors and councils. Yet Obama, in his eight years in office, did nothing to reverse mass incarceration or address racist policing polices like “stop and frisk,” except for making a few sanctimonious statements.

The sources of Black rage

Why is there so much rage? We have experienced decades of the erosion of the gains of the civil rights movement in voting rights and education, mass incarceration, growing income and wealth inequality, lack of access to health care, and the continued lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people.

In fact, police violence against Black and Brown people has continued unabated during the COVID-19 crisis, although the pandemic has impacted Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities disproportionately. Fatality rates for Black and Latinx people are about double the rate for white people. This reflects the fact that generations of institutionalized racism have resulted in higher rates of unemployment and poverty, reduced access to health care, increased exposure to sources of pollution, etc.

The consciousness of Black people, in particular, is formed by their experience of the United States as a racist social formation—from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. It is also important to note that both the Black and Brown populations are highly proletarianized, and subject to special exploitation as low-wage workers—the last hired and the first fired.

We support the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination. This extends to the idea that the struggles of oppressed nationalities have their own independent dynamic that, as Black socialist CLR James said, “intervenes with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation.”

George Breitman, writing in the 1960s in “How a Minority Can Change Society,” said: “what Trotsky could not teach us completely we have now been able to learn from the actual development of the Negro struggle itself right before our own eyes these last two or three years. What we were not advanced enough in the 1930s to accept as theory, we are now able to apprehend as concrete current event. Because the fact is that the Negroes are already a vanguard. They are already out in front of most white workers. They are more radicalized than the white workers. They are more ready to fight and sacrifice and die in order to change this system.”

Accordingly, we are for Black control of the Black community, and point out the need for grassroots united-front political action committees within that community. Get the cops out of the Black community and replace them with elected community defense units!

This week marks a dramatic shift in the status quo. The current uprising reflects a real political, social, and economic crisis. We can expect more such explosions in the coming period. As people chanted at the large Philadelphia demonstration on May 30: “Tear the system down!” We agree: Tear it down, and work to build a new system, based on the striving to fulfill human needs, not profits.

* The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have understood the causes of the destruction in many cities that has followed in the wake of protests against the murder of George Floyd. In response to similar developments in 1967, he said that America “has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the past few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about the tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”

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