We are all Minneapolis
We have been waiting to see what world would begin to emerge from the lockdowns. Now we have some clues.
The tragedy of George Floyd’s death has changed things, let us hope permanently and in important ways.
Spoiler alert: We are winning. The US army have refused to follow Trump’s public order to intervene.
A Break with History
I grew up in the United States. I was part of the movements of the sixties there. Friday and Saturday I wrote my book on climate jobs in a garden shed in England, switching back and forth from Twitter, to write, to Facebook, to write. Usually when I do that I’m stalling. This time my writing was flying because my body was shaking with joy.
Everywhere you look in the photos and videos of the protests and riots, you see black people and white people and Latino people, and lots of people who could be anything. This is a break with history.
The St Louis “race riot” in 1917 and the Tulsa riot in 1921 were pogroms – gangs of whites going into black neighbourhoods to kill. In the Detroit riot in 1943, white people and police fought black people, and 75% of the dead and wounded were black. In the 1960s there were riots in the segregated black areas of cities across the north. These were almost all public reactions to police brutality. And in the 1960s it was no longer white workers against black workers, but it was still the police against black people, and almost all the dead were black.
This time round we are seeing people all mixed up. The black people are usually leading, not in the sense of hogging the microphone, but actually leading, there they are, in front. As far as I can tell, most of the protesters are working class. And young.
People keep saying that white people in the United States need educating about racism. I don’t believe it. I grew up among white people in Texas. There was racism all around me. I spent two years in St Louis recently. In St Louis it feels like everything, not just this thing or that thing, but everything is about race.
The problem is not that white people don’t know. It’s that so many white people choose to be on the wrong side. That is part of what’s changed. The people who rule the US, Republicans and Democrats, really, really don’t like it. So they have started to talk rubbish about riots. Some context is necessary here.
Context: A Global Perspective
A Chilean friend of mine who lives in England was up all Friday night watching the videos from the US, using social media to talk back on forth with her friends in Chile. Since last autumn her friends have been going through months of an uprising on the streets, then the lockdown, and now the uprising is beginning again on the streets. They were riveted by Minneapolis, and kept saying to each other, “They are doing what we are doing. They are just like us.”
In Chile, they had not expected this.
But the similarities of the global response to George Floyd’s murder is another part of what has changed.
What we are seeing in the US is crowds in motion, angry, afraid, determined, seeking justice. This is what we saw last year from Sudan, Lebanon, Hong Kong, India, Iraq and Iran. It was what we saw in the Arab Spring in 2011. In those places we did not think it was odd. When CNN or Al-Jazeera covered those events, no one thought it was odd.
It’s not odd in the US either. Riots happen when crowds assemble in moments of overwhelming feeling, on edge, not sure what they want to do. The police, on edge, stand confronting them, and then the police lash out.
At that point the media call what is happening a riot. Then the media will show videos of cops beating on people who are trying to run away, and they also call that a riot. But it is in fact a police riot.
But sometimes, when feeling runs very high, the crowd seriously try to fight back. And that actually is a riot.
Riots never happen if just a few people in a crowd are looking for a fight. They happen because the majority are scared, but also because they have had enough.
Context: Recent History
What’s happening in the US is not an explosion out of nowhere. One of my friends walked through the protesting crowds in New York Friday night, asking people if it was their first protest. He expected them to say yes. Most of them said no.
According to the academics who count these things, fifteen million US-Americans protested in the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency. The last eight years have seen Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the high school walkouts against guns, the women’s marches, climate strikes and teachers strikes.
These have all been spread out all across the country, sometimes coming in waves like the present protests, sometimes a reaction to a local atrocity. High school students have been central.
None of these events, except the women’s marches, have been centrally organised. None of them are simply spontaneous. They are organised, typically by a few kids on phones or talking in corridors, giving courage to others.
They have also been many hundreds, I think thousands, of cases of resistance to rape and sexual harassment at work. Nancy Lindisfarne and I have been writing a book on the roots of sexual violence, and we have been following all the #MeToo cases we can in the US. Those are usually seen as media events, but in almost all cases there is workplace organization, sometimes in one workplace, sometimes across an industry like Hollywood or women’s gymnastics, sometimes in a university department. They are also almost all confrontations exposing management cover-ups and bullying – confrontations that managers now usually lose.
When people have taken part in one protest it is easier for them to join the next. When they take part in the second, about something else, they begin to generalize about the system.
One result of all this is that there are now many people on the ground who have already played a part locally in organizing a walkout, a march, a protest, a strike or workplace resistance. My guess would be perhaps a million, but who knows? Certainly lots.
Here’s another context. The people on the streets now have lived through Covid. There have been lock-downs in almost all cities in the US. The epidemic in the US, as in many other countries, has been saturated with racism and class.
Black Americans are far more likely to be doing the essential jobs which expose them to the virus. At those jobs, they are more likely to be forced to work without protection. They have had to go to work for fear of losing their job. They have been more likely to lose their jobs, and less likely to be working from home on a computer. They have known they are in danger, and known why they are in danger.
Everything I have just written about black people in the epidemic can be said in the same words about manual workers. The two vectors of discrimination and danger reinforce each other. Tens of millions of Latino and white manual and essential workers have been in danger too.
Unlike European countries, the US has not had any form of wage subsidy for furloughed workers. Out of a workforce of 150 million, 40 million have lost their jobs during the epidemic. Some have got their jobs back, 20 million are currently receiving unemployment pay and an unknown number are out of work but not on benefits. US American workers get their health insurance though their employers, and lose it the day they lose their jobs. Some people may still qualify through a spouse, but many millions of adults, and their children, have joined the 15 million people already without health insurance.
Losing their income means that the majority of renters were not able to pay their rent at the beginning of May. All over the country, hospitals are cutting staff, because they have lost income they depend on from expensive, elective operations. Health workers are furious. Some of the lines for food banks have been 10,000 people long.
Then there is Trump’s management of the virus. Everyone knows deep down that it is the government’s job to protect people. He has put everyone at risk. The US has one of the highest death rates in the world, and is number one in terms of total dead. It is not that he lies, blusters, is madly self-centered. It’s that he does not care.
Things Come Together: Covid-19, Trump and Murder
A lot of nonsense is talked about Trump’s solid base. He has been losing support steadily in the polls. This is especially the case among older white people, until now his most solid supporters, but also now the people most at risk of death from the virus. The number of US-Americans who are partly or fully opposed to the protests is now down to 22%.
Then came the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. In an astonishing, cruel, calculating way. While three other cops watched.
The emotional resonances are manifold. This is in the middle of an epidemic. Everyone has been thinking about death every day. Everyone knows how this disease kills. You can’t breathe. So, yes, this is an uprising against death, for life.
But also, Officer Chauvin stands for Trump. This is an uprising against the man who is killing us for his stock market.
And, yes, this is an uprising against racism. It is led by the people most at risk from the president, the police, the economic system. But others flood in to join them. This is something completely different from having and then giving up white privilege. For one thing, an awful lot of them are Latino. For another, the experience of white working class people in the epidemic has not been privilege. It has been poverty and danger. They rally now to defend a man killed because he was among the people most in danger every day.
Many say that US-Americans need to be schooled about racism. I don’t believe it. I know white people, and they know about it. They may have trouble talking to black people about racism. They may not know the details, they may be defensive, and they may lie to themselves. But deep down, they all know. White people also know they can take sides, for racism, against, or trying to balance in the middle. The virus has pushed millions to take sides on the street.
I cried the night Barack Obama was elected. With joy, and the memory of long struggle and long suffering. I have cried every day for the last week. I am not sad.
Context: The Northern Riots
Another context is the memory of the Northern riots. There were two arms to the African-American movement of the 1960s. One was civil rights, mainly in the South. The participants were mostly working class, the leaders were students and teachers and preachers. The demands were integration and voting rights. The other arm was the riots in the black ghettoes in the cities in the North. All of them were protests against police brutality. The leaders were in working class crowds. All of them started with non-violent protests. There was one week of exceptions. When Martin Luther King was murdered, his people came together and rioted in more than 110 cities across the country.
It was obvious at the time that civil rights and the riots were of equal importance. Together, they forced the change that happened.
On an official level, that memory has been obliterated. When the 1960s are mentioned, it’s all and only about civil rights. There are literally thousands of history books on civil rights. There are six serious book on the riots, and none of them is an oral history based on interviews with participants. (Note to graduate students in history – go for it.) The Northern riots are never mentioned in Black History Month.
But the old people remember. And they have passed that memory down. During the Black Lives Matter protests before Covid, you could see the memory hovering in the background. The police, usually so brutal, were extraordinarily careful during the 'Black Lives Matter!' (BLM) protests not to provoke the young crowds. And the crowds were angry but utterly disciplined, for fear the police would massacre them.
Now, in Minneapolis, after Covid, it’s different. The crowd burned the police station.
But it’s also different in another way. It’s not just that there are Latino and white people among the protesters. Their presence, and the political experience of the last few years, means the protests have a different geography.
In the 1960s the protests against police brutality and the riots were always in black areas of the city. Now the protesters walk anywhere, and they move to the center, to the plazas and squares, to defy the rich, to SoHo in New York, to Beverly Hills and down Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. In DC they are not in the ghetto, they are outside the White House.
Context: The Democratic Party
There are three ways the Democratic Party is important. First, the eruption is much easier because Sanders has just lost the Democratic nomination to Biden. The wave of resistance protests across the US was much larger in the first two years of Trump’s presidency than in the last eighteen months. I would guess that had a lot to do with the candidacies of Sanders, Warren, Yang and some of the others. People in the Democratic machine said don’t rock the boat, don’t alienate older voters, and many people took that to heart. The most important piece of evidence, for me, was that no national feminist organization called for mass protest in Washington over the Kavanaugh nomination.
But now, with “shoot em in the legs” Joe Biden as the candidate, people may vote for him, but they are going to stand up for themselves.
The second context is electoral. The protests are shredding support for Trump. It looks likely they will put Biden into the White House.
The third context is brilliantly evoked by Bob Vulov’s article in McSweeney’s, “I am your progressive mayor, and I think we ought to cut our roving death squads a bit of slack.”
The Democratic Party governors, and the mayors in the big cities, white and black, have presided over racist and brutal police forces for generations. African-American politicians use the language of race and solidarity, but they too back the cops. And for forty years they too have presided over racist mass imprisonment. Two stern prosecutors, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, are two representative faces of the Democratic party, one white, one black.
These protests trap such Democratic politicians. On the one hand, they must back the cops. That is the heart of their whole job in the system. But, on the other, they cannot back the cops, because their people will not have it. So they have tried a bizarre conspiracy fantasy. They said that the protesters were from out of state, and the white protesters were starting all the violence. Then they say that the black protesters wanted non-violence, which is, of course, how black people always are. In one variety of this lie, the violent whites are fascists, in another variety they are antifascist anarchists.
Of course there are agent provocateurs in the crowds. There always are. That’s why we have an old French term for them, now also used for underwear. But also, everywhere, it is the crowd and not the provokers who do most of the fighting. We should not be ashamed when people fight back.
These lies are now being widely ridiculed, but there is still a lot of confusion.
Context: The World
There is another context. Think back to all those Chileans riveted by what is happening in the US, sharing videos and pictures. Last year similar uprisings broke out across the world. They had much in common with what is happening in the US now.
Except for Hong King, the protesters were responding to economic crisis. The solidarity with oppressed groups was striking to the participants in Chile, where the indigenous Mapuche had been fighting for generations. In India the whole uprising was in protest at discrimination against Muslim refugees, in a country where the world view of the governing party centers on racism against Muslims. In Lebanon rejection of the communalism that has divided society for generations was the core of the movement, which was strongest among the despised Shiahs of Tripoli.
In every country, too, the protests were against all existing political parties. As we have learned under Covid in the UK and the US, we are on our own.
In the dictatorships these are movements for democracy. In the democracies, they are movements for far more democracy. The US-American movement fits this mold.
In the months and years to come, we will see new movements all over the world, angry, anti-racist, anti-sexist, very young, mostly working class and eager to strike. They will have contempt for almost all existing politicians.
I have been a climate activist for fifteen years. Covid is both a terrible tragedy and only a taster. And those young, angry, confident movements who trust no established powers are my hope for the future of the planet.
We are Winning
What is happening in the US is only one part of what is happening across the world. The struggles elsewhere have been, and will be, more important. But those Chilean activists were watching the US, in a way that people in the US have not been watching Chile, India or Hong Kong yet. The US is one of the two great powers in the world, and the dominant power culturally and intellectually. What happens in the US radiates across the world.
That’s why it’s important that the protests are winning. In the first three days, it looked like there was a real prospect of far right activists shooting rioters, which did happen in at least three places, or running them over, which happened in more. Since then there has been one small patrol by middle aged white men with baseball bats in the Fishtown neighbourhood in Philadelphia. But the kind of aggressive, far right armed anti-lock-down we were seeing are now nowhere to be found. They simply do not have the support the protesters enjoy and would be humiliated if they looked for a fight. Any armed public protests in city centers would now be met by overwhelming police and military force.
This does not mean there are will not be right wing killings in the months to come.
Frightened and humiliated, Bunker Boy Trump called on the army to put down the protests. That increased the spread and number of the protests, to all 50 states.
To see the balance of forces, look at the video of the protests in Boise, Idaho, and the number of protesters. They are young and overwhelmingly white, because Idaho is overwhelmingly white, and the homeland of the survivalist right.
Yesterday it became clear that the protesters are winning. One sign is that all four cops have been charged. Another is that North Carolina has refused to hold the Republican convention. It is unclear if any other state will be mad enough to hold it.
But the turning point is that the Pentagon has defied Trump. The army is 40% black, Latino and other minorities. If they are told to beat and shoot protesters, the generals cannot know for sure what would happen. The soldiers might carry out orders, and kill. If they did so, the largest wave of revolt since 1865 would break out.
The soldiers might fight each other. Or they might make friends with the protesters. There are already videos of a National Guard unit in Tennessee laying down their shields, and others taking the knee with the protestors. Any of those outcomes would be a catastrophe for the generals.
Yesterday the last Secretary of Defense, Trump’s appointee Mattis, excoriated the President. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are the generals and admirals who head the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The last Chairman of the Joint Chiefs wrote in The Atlantic that he could stay silent no longer. The current Chairman said the military would not be deployed against the people. Every one of the joint chiefs has sent messages to their subordinates saying, very clearly, that the right to assembly and public protest is central to the values of the US-American military. And the current Secretary of Defense, Trump’s appointee Esper, held a press conference yesterday. In a confident and ringing voice, he said that the military would not be deployed.
The journalists say Trump is furious, but he dares not fire Esper now.
The White House is now protected, illegally, by corrections officers from the federal prisons, agents from the customs and border patrol, and part-time soldiers in the Utah National Guard, from almost 3,000 miles away. None of them wear their insignia. That scares the protesters, but it is happening because Attorney General Bill Barr is breaking the law to bring them in. A video from yesterday shows a dizzyingly long line of military police leaving the White House. It is hard to know for sure, but I think they were being withdrawn.
The future is not ours to see. But this round is going to our side, in ways everyone in the world can also see, and they are looking. Many are responding , and the BLM demonstrations are continuing around the world. And further upheavals in the US lie ahead. The number of covid deaths are falling there now, because they are falling in New York, the center of the epidemic. But they are going to rise in the South and in the Midwest, where the lock-downs have been withdrawn. Unemployment, now 40 million, will not remain that high, but it will remain very high indeed. There have been hundreds of wildcat strikes in the last two months. They seem to have gone quiet because of the protests, but they will be back in force.
A friend, a nurse in a public hospital for working class people in Chicago, reported on Monday that 60 nurses in her unit were off, some sick, but many because they could not get in through the protests. The management promised them discounts on Uber rides, but all the Ubers had stopped running.
Accident and emergency was still full of the wounded from the protests at the weekend, mainly with head injuries. Intensive care and the other wards were still full of Covid. All the staff were on edge. A manager told a doctor not to wear an N95 mask, and the doctor started screaming at him, that all this was the fault of you people. The nurses had never seen such a thing before. They had a strong feeling that something big will happen soon, something different from anything they have seen. They don’t know what it will be.
Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He’s @NealeSayles on twitter. An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Public Reading Rooms Website. Reproduced with permission.