Eugene Puryear of The BreakThrough News talks about the protests that are gaining strength in the US, the future of the #DefundThePolice campaigns and the organizing in the coming weeks and months.
Peoples Dispatch: The anti-racism protests currently on in the US after the brutal murder of George Floyd are historic and have come at a time when the future of Resistance post COVID-19 was uncertain. Yet resistance is not only alive but the recent mobilizations in the US are unprecedented and perhaps the biggest in decades. After covering these protests Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, and other cities across the country, what is your sense about the situation on the ground?
Eugene Puryear: This is important to know, especially with what the mainstream American media has been putting out there for worldwide and domestic consumption. Reverend. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots are the language of the unheard and this is basically what I saw on the ground in all these different places, especially in Minneapolis. One of the things that was consistently expressed to me from people on the ground in Minneapolis was a sense of being finally seen and heard. While this may sound strange as Minneapolis, a midwestern US city, is known as sort of a white majority area and a large part of the country does not think that something like this could happen there. But the local people have been highlighting the long history of police violence in the city which has claimed the lives of so many victims. The people have also pointed out that the district attorney has been around for 30 years.
At the memorial set up for George Floyd where people have been gathering, bringing flowers and writing messages, a man told me that most people in the US thought nothing like this could happen here, but now they see the real picture of what things are like for the African American community. I think the community feels a sense of being heard, especially the black working class communities in Minneapolis. This was powerful and even though some of the images of the protests seem chaotic, when we were on the ground in the last couple of weeks, we saw amazing displays of bonhomie and coordinated effort. We were part of a huge march with a car caravan and people joining in on foot, playing music and expressing solidarity. People from different communities were part of this march, including the Native American community, which is sizable in Minneapolis. Minneapolis has a sizable Somali American immigrant community as well. Many white people had also turned out in solidarity and the atmosphere did not seem chaotic at all.
I have seen some cars set on fire and buildings damaged but such incidents were mostly on the edge of the protests and highly exaggerated in the media. I don’t know if there is a strategy to portray it at all, but every single thing was not burning. In fact, you could feel a sense of catharsis – an angry catharsis or a frustrated catharsis – that finally these grievances were being aired and heard. That is what I heard from the mothers of victims of police brutality at a press conference. All of them basically said that without justice people’s anger will boil over. This is the result of what the system has sowed and has been pointed out over many years.
It was very heartfelt and poignant and showed a lot of solidarity. There was also a lot of anger but the bottomline is that the voices of so many people who are marginalized in our society were being heard in a spontaneous way. Those voices are trying to come to the forefront after so many years of being held down.
PD: What do you make of the fact that the police across the States in the US has continued to be brutal and repressive while responding to the protests, which have spread across the country and are for the cause of justice. As per latest numbers, over 10,000 people have been arrested since the protests began. We have also seen instances of extreme cruelty with the police violently beating up people and pushing them to the ground. On the other hand, there have also been reports that the Minneapolis Police Department may itself be in danger of being defunded. Do you think this proposal is likely to gain strength and will lead to substantial change?
EP: I think that this proposal will gain strength but where it goes will be interesting. The demand to defund the police has two elements. What the people on the street are asking for is that we need to start talking about how we move away from policing. But one thing that is not being reported much is the critique that what is happening in the ground is due to systemic causes. I think what a lot of people are realizing in the United States with the growing popularity of socialism and Bernie Sanders is that crimes such rape, assault, murders are caused by factors deeply rooted in the system. We have to start actually addressing those causes so that we need less police. This belief is catching on and it is growing.
Now, under pressure from this, we have seen, for instance, nine council members in Minneapolis say they would pass measures to significantly strip money from the police – which if they do vote on would be veto-proof and therefore pass. We have seen the NYPD say that they are going to start to shift money and it seems like there is now some sort of attempt by the system, recognizing that the police budget is so bloated when the role of the police is dubious at best. When you look at the actual scientific studies of whether or not policing is making a big impact on many of these issues of public safety, it is a mixed bag oftentimes.
They are recognizing that they may just try to trim a lot of this fat and say that they have done this. So it’s going to be an interesting tension I think in the movement itself and will speak very heavily to how this plays out moving forward at a time when now all of the major brands, politicians, everyone one is trying to say that they are on board with this. The battle over the ideological substance of this is very heated right now and is going to have a big impact in terms of how this shapes up. Because the number of people who are defending the police is relatively low and they are mostly hardcore law and order advocates. Even Trump is pretending as if he wants to see some level of change. So even him, given his odious behavior, is recognizing that this is not an issue he can totally be against.
We are definitely seeing the police continue to be brutal. Police unions have continued to push semi-fascist rhetoric. But I think in some ways that seems so untenable – the idea that there’s no change. The course of the struggle will really tell whether there is going to be some sort of cosmetic change or any real and thorough change. But, a lot of people are radicalizing very quickly. I have been surprised by how many people I have talked to – who are supporting Joe Biden and are kind of moderate people but not Bernie Sanders supporters – who are saying that we have to do something drastic because this is a huge problem. So it has really shaken the political scene here.
PD: There have been mass rallies even after days into the protests, with tens of thousands of people collecting. Even in smaller cities and towns with not much history of such protests, the movement is building. What are the possibilities going forward in the next few weeks and is there some kind of organizing taking place?
EP: It seems we are definitely going to continue to see such large mass marches, the energy is definitely there. I have not seen anything approximating this since the lead up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 when there were many large marches. But this is actually bigger than that in my estimation, having been involved in both. And it is also in some ways more significant to have Black Lives Matter rallies in the heart of Klan territory in Texas. I think this is a huge thing. And, to have white people there is itself really indicative that we are going to continue to see that.
Organizing is going on right now at a couple of levels. One is to continue to push and do these large mass marches. In Philadelphia, which I had a chance to visit, there were a hundred thousand people. Another huge rally also recently took place there.
But, I think on a secondary level, people are also looking at how they use non-violent civil disobedience along the lines of the civil rights movement perhaps, to tie up commerce and the streets and basically find ways to just disrupt the status quo. I think most people generally realize that without some level of societal push, it can be difficult to get the establishment to move.
There is sort of a third level as well that is not moving as quickly, but we are seeing some legislative moves and I think there is some organizing at that level. I don’t think there’s a lot of hope in that, but there is also organizing taking place on the ground to try to shape the nature of demands and, referencing to what I earlier said, if there is going to be a push by politicians, to have some accountability to what people on the ground want to see rather than them defining for themselves what defunding the police or other police reforms really mean.
And then in the most general sense, what we are seeing is both – a renewing of the existing organizations, and the creation of new organizations from people who are spontaneously organizing. Also, I think there is huge recognition that racism in America cuts across so many different issues. Some of this is really about COVID-19. For many people, the quarantine, lockdown and the disproportionate death of black people, followed by killings of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and then to see George Floyd, meant that if we don’t rise up against Racism, it’s going to kill us or kill our neighbors and friends, one way or another. So there is a lot of desire to bring issues together. Socialist groups are growing, as well as broad political organizations that deal with three or four different issues. There’s a lot of, as we say in the United States, multi-issue organizing taking place. People are looking to make the connections and not just silo it off. So, it is a very hopeful time. Every organization I have talked to, that is doing any political work, is telling me that one of their biggest challenges right now is just responding to people who are looking to get involved.