May 30, 2020
The news this week has been nothing short of a punch in the face. As we endured the 12th week of sheltering in place, we all saw the videoed murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis policeman. The eight and half minutes we watched are unforgettable: we will never be able to forget the slow violence of the act; we all felt that we could not breathe by the end of the clip. And to make matters worse, for three days the District Attorney did not bring charges against the killer or his other police accomplices.
Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was also videoed, and also came as a shock. We witnessed white men hunting down and shooting a Black man who was simply jogging through their Georgia neighborhood. And to compound the crime, the police initially ruled the shooting justifiable.
Breonna Taylor’s murder in March was hidden from public view for months. Ms. Taylor was an essential worker, an Emergency Room medical technician on the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19. Louisville police erroneously targeted her apartment for a drug raid, and in their military-style assault of her apartment, Breonna Taylor was shot eight times. Compounding the violence, the Louisville DA initially covered up the murder, and no charges were brought against the police who killed her. “It felt like no one was listening,” her mother said last week. “Like no one cared what happened here…”
Every time I hear of another police killing of a Black man or woman, I immediately think of the NAACP flag that flew over New York City many days in the 1930s: “A man was lynched yesterday” it said. And there can be no mistake about it: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and thousands of other Black men and women, were lynched. They were not murdered because of some personal vendetta or relationship gone bad: they were murdered because they were Black. Their executioners sent an undeniable message to Black America. And this fact was lost on no Black person—or anyone else with compassion for humanity.
In the midst of all the fear and frustration borne out of this pandemic, this violence is almost more than we can take. These lynchings are piled on top of all the systemic violence of the Trump Administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially Trump’s open disregard for the fact that Black and Latinx people are dying at rates three times higher than whites, that the Navajo nation is engulfed with illness, that incarcerated people are too. Or the fact that most of the so-called essential workers who were forced to work at low-paying frontline jobs during the pandemic were Black and brown. (Indeed, a California survey released last week found that 100% of frontline retail workers in California were Latinx or Black.) Or the violence done by 25% unemployment rates with no social safety net to help displaced workers or small businesses. And we have had to endure Trump’s constant use of racist memes to misdirect white people away from his utter incompetence at addressing the pandemic.
For these reasons, the rising tide of protests against police racism comes as no surprise. So many of us have suffered more than we can take. We are weary of this grinding inhumanity, this unrelenting disregard for peoples’ lives, and especially the racism of it all.
The people who took to the streets did so to demand justice. Now. They were not waiting for the Minneapolis DA to investigate George Floyd’s murder: they demanded that the racist cop and his fellow officers be immediately arrested and charged with murder. They were unwilling to accept the coverups of Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings. In each case, it took militant protests in the face of police efforts to snuff out the demonstrations to even hold the killers criminally accountable. And, as people protested, they began to glimpse a larger reality: that they needed to take on the systemic racism revealed by this pandemic as a whole. Over the four nights of protests following George Floy’s murder, the size and militancy of the protests grew. The growing militancy in Minneapolis sparked protests across the nation. On Friday night, May 29, demonstrations were reported in 32 American cities, some with more than ten thousand participants.
“One of the hallmarks of racism is to blame people of color for being angry rather than looking to racism as the problem.”
One of the hallmarks of racism is to blame people of color for being angry rather than looking to racism as the problem. Almost all of the press coverage about this week’s demonstrations is about protestors’ violence rather than the reasons people feel compelled to be violent. This whitewash of the violence of racism and its displacement onto those calling it out is as old as the hills and is to be expected. So is the response of both liberal and right-wing governors and (of course) Trump, which is to mobilize greater and greater military force to quell the protests.
We can ill afford to be pulled into the Establishment’s game of blaming protestors for the violence. We must talk about trauma, we must talk about the human experience of witnessing this moment, and we must denounce the violence of racism that these protests are about.
Many protestors took to the streets because they understand that this pandemic has opened up a new possibility in American history. The pandemic has ruthlessly exposed the America’s inequities. It has also made abundantly clear that forty years of neo-liberal policies have diminished the government’s capacity to address this crisis. A growing number of Americans, especially young people who understand that the future looks grim indeed, are demanding real change. It is notable that the protestors taking to the streets now are mostly young people of all races. While ending police violence is the immediate focus of these protests, it is clear that doing even this requires much more than reforming police departments. A larger demand for social justice is now under way.
I must make a confession: I seriously underestimated Bernie Sanders’ impact on this moment. By promoting the Green New Deal, Sanders (and the Squad) provided millions of people with a vision, indeed a concrete blueprint, to guide the radical restructuring of this nation. And, as Trump’s failures have made Biden a very strong frontrunner for the White House, the pressure is on Biden to move beyond tepid policy tweaks to embracing the need for a radical restructuring of this country. This week’s protests will certainly add to that pressure.
But these protests are only the beginning. Ever since the Covid-19 crisis began, we have seen real organizing by displaced people. We are already seeing a major increase in union organizing drives and labor actions. We are seeing rent strikes spreading across the country. These anti-police violence protests potentially add a major new energy to efforts to organize people to demand real change. It will now be the task for seasoned organizers to harness the protestors’ amazing energy, and to bring them into a disciplined and coordinated movement capable of sustaining itself for a long fight for real change. As the protests grow around the country this week, this moment is calling out for movement building. Whether or not this will happen is a test for every community-based organization in America.
There are many organizations working towards this end, such as the Black Visions Collective, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Reclaim the Block, the Just Georgia Coalition, and the Louisville Community Bail Fund. The scale of these protests will sorely test each of these organization’s capacity to organize people, and financial support s urgently needed.
One thing can be said for sure: we owe it to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor to give it our best shots in this perilous moment pregnant with so many possibilities.