The people’s uprising against racism in the United States

Why are there so many people in the United States who understand they have nothing to lose? Why are hundreds of thousands in the streets willing to risk infection and arrests, in order to join the protests?

June 12, 2020 by Claudia De la Cruz, Manolo De Los Santos
A massive rally in Philadelphia demanding justice for George Floyd.

The accumulated frustrations of poor and black communities have overflowed in the form of protests across 200 cities in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken the streets in reaction to four centuries of systemic racism and capitalist exploitation. A protest that began in Minneapolis demanding justice after the murder of George Floyd quickly turned into an uprising. To better understand how and why this took place, we must contextualize this anti-racist uprising.

George Floyd’s assassination in cold blood by the Minneapolis Police Department can only be understood in the context of an ongoing war perpetrated by the United States government, and the ruling class against the working class and communities of color.

We have been a country at war, domestically and internationally.The United States government has been in a prolonged and vicious war against poor people since its inception. The capitalist system of the United States is upheld by oppressive and exploitative systems like racism and white supremacy. It is a class war with racism at its very core!

We must ask ourselves, why are there so many people in the United States who understand they have nothing to lose? Why are hundreds of thousands in the streets willing to risk infection and arrests, in order to join the protests?

Economic factors

In the midst of a global health crisis, and with the COVID-19 death toll in the United States exceeding 100,000, people of color and the poor have been made conscious that we have been living under the threat of death for quite some time.Black people,while only making 13% of the population, disproportionately represent close to 25% of all deaths related to COVID-19, and in some cities, exceed 75%. This is a grim reflection of the underlying socio-economic conditions that exist in this country.

In the last 3 months, the United States government’s failure to provide an adequate response to COVID-19 further exposed its negligence, incompetence, and blatant disregard for the lives of the most vulnerable sectors of society. This current health crisis was in part the result of decades of ransacking funds from the necessary infrastructure and health institutions that provide a social safety net to our communities, in order to fund a war on the poor at home, and abroad.

After 10 weeks of quarantine, over 44.7 million people are left unemployed. At the same time, the assets of US billionaires have grown by $434 billion.​ It is estimated that ​42% of the jobs lost during the pandemic will not be available after this health crisis, which can only mean more desperation and misery imposed on our communities. George Floyd was one of the millions in the ranks of the unemployed during this health crisis, and one of the people struggling to survive.

Before the quarantine was placed into effect in March, there were 140,000 million low income and poor people in the country. ​In the last 50 years, the wealth gap has grown significantly, resulting in the 400 wealthiest people in the US now owning more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the population.

Although the US is the wealthiest country in the world, 2.6 million people die from poverty-related causes every year. In the past decades, programs that alleviate economic disparity and poverty have been defunded or have completely disappeared. The cuts to these anti-poverty programs contrast with the government’s increasing investment in policing and militarization. In 2019, the US government spent over $100 billion dollars in policing, and over $80 billion on incarceration. The current military budget is $721.5billion, and the investment of the government in education, jobs, housing, and other basic services is only $190 billion.

This uprising, like others in the past, comes in a moment of crisis and is a direct response to the previously mentioned conditions. ​In addition to months of lockdown, collective uncertainty, a weakened and privatized health care system, the massive grief of families who lost loved ones to COVID-19, the lack of access to basic tools and equipment for essential workers, the intensified criminalization of poverty and police harassment and brutality to enforce “social distancing,” and ultimately, the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, and all this during a global health crisis – Floyd’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back!

Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has not been any significant recovery. In fact, the US has been facing its largest economic crisis, and before the global health crisis, economists indicated that the US was heading to a recession similar to that of the 1930s. In addition, the ruling class’s inability to respond to the needs of the masses has resulted in a crisis of legitimacy of bourgeois political parties. In this context, it is necessary for the ruling class to assert its power through force.

State repression

What we have been experiencing over the last 15 years, is the intensification of human rights violations against civilians through military attacks at the hands of militarized police. These violations have heightened during the uprising. There are factors that have served to create the conditions for the violent attacks we are currently experiencing.

Militarization and policing: At this moment, we are seeing the brutal use of force by the US ruling class and its government, domestically and internationally. As Trump moves to attack the sovereignty of countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and China, he threatens to invoke the insurrection act of 1807 which would deploy the military to enforce “law and order” in civilian communities.

We must consider that​ the US state has now over 100 years of experience of interventionism and militarization in countries around the world. Strategies and tactics of counterinsurgency that have been utilized to destabilize countries, dismantle revolutionary organizations, and assassinate leaders have become more sophisticated over time. Some of these military tactics are being utilized in US soil, and on civilians.

One example is Kettling, a military technique to encircle or box in people where they can’t retreat or escape. After having boxed people in, extreme force is used to inflict the most harm and debilitate the people-teargas, batons, rubber bullets. The shooting of rubber bullets directly to the face causing people to lose their eyesight is a tactic that has been used in Palestine, Chile, and other parts of the world.

For several decades there has been a developing alliance between intelligence agencies and law enforcement. Since the early 2000s, we have seen the cracking down on communities of color with cross-agency collaborations. For example, the continued  collaborations of ICE  and local law enforcement to carry out massive deportation raids in immigrant communities. In these  cases, the use of surveillance is key.

The state has more tools than ever to identify, track movement, access information and communications, and compile data that may be utilized against organizers and social movement leaders. The US government has utilized various forms of digital surveillance and the collection of data to intimidate, persecute, build legal cases, prosecute, jail, and create divisions within movements like OccupyWallStreet, and the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings of 2014. Since then, there have been more technological advances that have allowed them to create databases  and profiles, and fine-tune face recognition programs. These advances in technology have been sold to the general public as convenient and user-friendly while being used towards imposing hyper surveillance.

State ideological apparatus: In addition to militarization and surveillance, we are experiencing an attempt  from the state and its corporate media to delegitimize the uprising and control it through ideological means.

The narratives being pushed by the corporate media, regardless of their party line, promotes the divide and conquer tactics of the State; specifically, the formulation of the “peaceful” and “violent” protesters, the labeling of ANTIFA groups as terrorists, the focus on “looting” and “delinquent activity,” are all meant to divide public opinion, and create chaos in our communities, while advancing ruling class interests. The continued framing of the rebellions by corporate media and the states’ call for curfews work jointly to justify Trump’s deployment of military forces and increased police brutality in local communities.

Social media platforms have, in some ways, become spaces to shed light on what is happening and in breaking the media blackout around our struggles around the world, and currently, the uprising in the US. In the last decade, social media has in many ways served to amplify the stories of those assassinated by the state, advance campaigns from sectors of our class, and it has been a space for debates, and reach. The connections between Palestinian youth and Ferguson organizers around matters of self-defense against the state was facilitated with organizers’ use of these platforms.

However, social media platforms are owned by the ruling class and cooperate with the state as they see fit. These platforms, despite being useful tools for organizing, have become a terrain for surveillance and the collection of data. Currently, employees of Facebook and Twitter have expressed discontent with their CEOs and their continued work with the state, and inaction in controlling the dissemination of Trump’s ignorant and hateful discourse, and his administration.

State repression, in all of its forms, aims to control and delegitimize dissent, weaken our communities ability to organize, stunt the development of a unified movement, and maintain hegemony.

Gentrification is an important factor to consider in the state’s efforts to weaken communities all across the country. The collaboration between the private sector and its financial market force, with state and local government has resulted in mass displacement and heavy policing. Direct activities from investors looking to do urban development, open space revitalization and construction infrastructure, are only able to do so with the political action of those in state and local power.

Consequently, this accelerated and aggressive process of gentrification has played a part in deteriorating the most basic community relations and its potential for more grassroots and working-class organizations.

In the last five decades, gentrification has, in many ways, disarticulated organizing work and has displaced entire communities who, prior to the rent hikes, the building of corridors and expensive real estate projects, were able to build community and organization where they lived. The process of displacement and gentrification has resulted in the closing of key organizations that once served as meeting and organizing spaces which serviced, and worked in providing a safety net to community members.

The process of gentrification has also created the conditions for the development of laws that lead to the criminalization of public space use, and laws around public assembly  that force people doing organizing work to ask and pay for permits in order to gather in large groups in public spaces. Consequently, the debates in the “public square” that happened in real-time and  that shaped generations in our radical traditions are now very few, if any.

Forces building resistance

Despite the continuous repression from the state, marginalized communities have always organized resistance. The decades of continued slashing of the social safety net for our communities has resulted in organizing efforts that are sectoral, may lack articulation and collective strategy, but have contributed largely to this moment.

Those participating in the current uprising are mostly youth and young adults who are participating in protests and collective actions of this scale for the first time, but who have been shaped by the post Justice4TrayvonMartin era, the Ferguson and Baltimore uprising experiences, and the now, mainstreamed, Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives. For the past two years, there have also been large mobilizations around climate change and environmental justice which have been organized by and have engaged mostly high school students all across the country.

The Bernie Sanders campaign for the 2020 elections, in many ways, sparked the imagination of and mobilized many young people and progressive sectors that have had a part in the response to this moment. Localized organized efforts around issues related to police brutality, mass incarceration, and the closing of jails; the organizing around homelessness and affordable housing, which has continued throughout the months of lockdown with the demand to cancel the rents – all these and many more combined efforts and struggles have influenced the moment we are currently experiencing.

Volunteer-based mutual aid projects, organized across the country to provide food and sanitary supplies to those in vulnerable communities, have played a role in the uprising by providing masks, hand sanitizers, and food to demonstrators. The bus transportation and healthcare unions and workers have expressed solidarity and joined the uprisings. These are two sectors who have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic but have not been guaranteed any physical or economic safety by the state.

There are also many participating who are politically interested,  who have felt the urgency and are moved to be engaged in collective action, but who do not belong to any organization. There are many who will be radicalized by this moment, who are already asking questions about the exploitation and oppression that exist, and who will look to continue to seek answers.

These are the hundreds of thousands of people who have engaged direct confrontation with the state, and in 10 days were able to get the officers in Minnesota involved in the killing of George Floyd fired, all four officers arrested, and ex-officer Chauvin, who put his knee on Floyd’s neck, charged with 2nd-degree murder. The University of Minnesota canceled its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. In Atlanta, the uprising forced chiefs of police to fire two officers for the use of excessive force and charge six officers.

What will happen next? Are these enough gains?

Undoubtedly, this is not enough! We understand that at this moment, our task is to be submerged in struggle and walking side by side with the different sectors of the working class who are part of this uprising, and who will continue to work in building a working-class movement in the US. We must position ourselves to strengthen and/or create organizations of the class, with leaders that have a clear estimate of the current context, who understand the role of the state, and are committed to advance struggles and interests of the class.

We already see how sectors of the ruling class are attempting to position themselves, and bribe sectors of the working class to advance their class interests, utilizing the language of the movement. Obama gave a compelling speech where he advocated police reform, and in that same vein reminded the public “that this country was founded on protest” and referred to the American revolution. The same police officers who are brutalizing the communities in protests in the nights are the same police officers taking a knee in “solidarity” with protestors. Corporations serving the ruling class and its capitalists’ interest are putting forth declarations.

We must be prepared for the sector of philanthropy to place millions of dollars into small grants that will ultimately serve to divide our communities. Communities who have been intentionally placed in a position to compete against each other for such funds. Funds which are often attached to deliverables and demand that organizations shape their narratives according to the wants of the foundations, and not the needs of the people.

History teaches us that here will be the coaptation of community leaders and organizations to serve in the interest of advancing the ruling class agenda. This is the misleadership of our class! It is composed of all races, ethnicities, gender, sexual orientation and class. There will be those who will be seduced by the structures of the elite to connect to the masses in different ways

They will promote framing and narratives around “bettering community- police relations through dialogues,” saying that “the ONLY way to make sure this does not happen again is to get out and vote,” shaming and blaming protestors for the crackdown from the state articulating that “we can only advance through peaceful means.” This is the rhetoric that ultimately has served to distract us, create fragmentation, and weaken the possibilities of a clear and unified movement against the state and its oppressive systems.

Concessions from the state are on the horizon. Some States have been speaking about reducing their budget for policing, and Minnesota’s city council members are advocating for the “disbanding” of the police. These concessions clearly are not meant to disrupt the economic base of the US – capitalism. In fact, historically, concessions have served to disrupt and prevent movement building in the United States.  Corporations  that will not pay living wages or benefits to their workers are currently releasing statements claiming, “Black Lives Matter.” Capitalism is reorganizing itself to maintain dominance in a changing world, and we need to be aware how the state will manufacture and control dissent.

What is to be done?

Principled working class unity across lines of division

In order to advance a revolutionary process in the United States, we must build working class principled unity. Our unity must be one that is based on collective strategy and principles, and with the commitment to advance the struggles of our class.

Polarization will be happening more rapidly in all the sectors, and we will see more clearly the project these sectors are defending and working to advance: the project of the ruling class or the project of the working class. If we understand our enemy, it will be easier to identify  our comrades.

Our positioning will be key to building more organizations of the working class.

We must keep our eyes opened as the ruling class is looking to position themselves. The unity we are to build is not with those whose rhetoric sounds like ours. It must be with those who are working day to day to move the masses away from capitalist logic and towards the future in which the working class has control of its productive power, and the economy.

This moment calls revolutionaries to engage with, and relate to the struggle in ways that strengthen our connection to the communities that are currently in a messy fight against the state, in the defense of life and for structural change.

We must relate to this moment thinking about what happens next,  and with the understanding  that losing this moment places us in a position to lose many of the battles to come. The biggest outcome from this uprising can be that the organizations of our class become stronger, more radicalized and politicized, clearer in their position and strategy, and grow in ranks.

We are moving into a deeper crisis. It is estimated to be worse than that of the 1930s.  This means increased policing and militarization while communities grow ever more desperate for food, employment, health, housing and other basic human needs.

If the organizations and movements in the US do not take this time to strengthen our connection with communities that are being radicalized by this moment, if our efforts are not towards uniting across historical lines of division, if we are unable to provide a container for  folks  looking become active for the long haul, then we are serving the oppressive structures and their agenda to continue to exterminate us.

Unity of our leaders in the frontlines of our working class struggles

This moment can serve to identify the leaders in our communities. Those who have the capacity to organize, convene, mobilize and articulate with clarity what our demands and principles are. It is of grave importance that we walk and work with those leaders in an effort to move them to our side and struggles. Identifying these leaders coming from struggle, developing with them processes of political formation can be key for the next stage of our process.

Cadre development

We have the task of engaging in mass political formation, while simultaneously investing in the development of leaders of organizations of our class who will impact and shape others to become cadre. We need to understand the state and the ruling class, and the ideological, political, and military apparatus that defends, uplifts and promotes their agenda.

We must be in constant reflection of lessons from the past, the forces that operate in our current context and how, and what are our opportunities to advance our working class agenda. Revolutionary theory is the shield and the sword of our movement!

Strategy and coordination

Building a network of revolutionaries that can struggle through questions of unity and  strategy. We must seek unity across historic lines of division and work towards building across state lines, and internationally. This global crisis has taught us the importance of building  national, and international articulations that take unified action in building working-class internationalism as a strategic response to imperialism, and the misery it produces.

In the next few months, we will surely see another eruption. The material conditions are worsening for the majority of people. The state knows this, consequently, they will use all measures of violence and coercion to quell resistance.

Our task is to build in preparation for that moment, understanding that the revolutionary process happens in stages, and uprisings are key moments in history to identify leaders, to build and strengthen organizations of our class that can move us to the next stage in this process.

Claudia De la Cruz and Manolo De los Santos are from the Popular Education Project in the United States