January 6 and America’s Future

On January 6, 2021 the best and worst of race in America were on full display.  Many of us awoke to the news that Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff had both won their Senate races in Georgia through the historic efforts of a powerful multi-racial coalition. And then hours later, we witnessed the President of the United States incite a white riot against the Congress while the joint session to declare Biden and Harris the rightful winners of the 2020 Presidential and Vice-Presidential election was under way.

The Warnock and Ossoff victories were historic for three reasons: first, their wins gave the Democrats complete control over the government of the United States and drove the Party of Trump entirely out of national power; second, their victories demonstrated the crumbling of the Southern Strategy by which the Republican Party had held national power for most of the last sixty years; and third, their victories verified the organizing work undertaken by Fair Fight Georgia and others based on the strategy of continuous multi-racial organizing, community building and leadership development, with a focus on building power in the Black and other minority communities.

In the face of his utter defeat, Trump did the expected: he raged against reality by organizing a campaign to overturn the results of the Presidential election. His ‘inside’ campaign was to use legal means to overturn the election. After he failed to win any of the 60 plus lawsuits he had filed to nullify state elections, and after his efforts to bully state officials in Michigan and Georgia were rebuffed, he turned his attention to nullifying the Electoral College vote in Congress. The Congressional ‘inside’ game was led by Senators Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX) and was joined by 139 of the 211 Republicans in the House of Representatives.  The nullifiers concocted a bizarre set of arguments that had no chance of success to challenge the Electoral College votes. But Trump also had an ‘outside’ strategy: he called on his carefully cultivated army of right-wing activists—white supremacists, militia members, QAnon conspirators— to descend on D.C. to storm Congress during its Joint Session, an operation that had been planned for more than a month. I am not really sure what Trump thought he was doing other than raging, because this campaign had no chance of success. My guess is that he hoped that the Congressional Republicans could somehow stop the validation of the election while a riot outside Congress gave him the pretext to declare martial law.  

But we will never know Trump’s political calculation because things went badly for him and his co-conspirators.  First, even before the Joint Session of Congress met, loyal Trump minions like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and (very late and reluctantly) Mike Pence made it clear that they would have nothing to do with the effort to nullify the election.  But then the rioters desecrated the Capitol and made it clear that the Congressional Republicans’ arguments against the validity of the 2020 election were not just the symbolic protest of sore losers but were part of something quite dark and serious.  After the white rampage left five people dead, the always meager Senate opposition to the election quickly eroded, with 6 of the 14 Senators who had indicated their opposition changing their position. House Republicans (in a House controlled by Democrats) with nothing to lose stuck to their guns—139 out of 211 voted to oppose certifying the election—but they were just going through the motions in a plot that had clearly failed.

Images of rioters waving Trump banners, QAnon signs and Confederate flags rampaging through the Capitol and desecrating the people’s house alarmed people not just in the U.S. but around the world. Even after the riot and the deaths, Trump referred to the people who ransacked the Capitol as “special” and “beautiful”.  The reality of a President who was trying to overturn democracy and prevent the peaceful transition of power was now undeniable to everyone except for his rabid base.

All in all, Trump’s instigation of the assault on the Capitol coupled with the loss of the Senate on the same day was too much for even many of Trump’s minions. One by one, Republican members of Congress who had steadfastly supported Trump for four years appeared on Fox News denouncing not just the riot, but also the President who had clearly instigated it.

So, where are we as the dust settles on this exhausting day?

We are where we have always been—a country struggling to right its racist past and realize its dream of democracy for all. For many, the shock of watching the desecration of Congress was a familiar echo of the shock of many racial crimes: white people burning down Greenwood Tulsa, thousands of lynchings, the massacre of Native peoples, and so many other traumatic episodes of white rage. For many, the failure of the police to defend the Capitol and even the sight of Capitol police helping rioters, was a bitter reminder that police in America will side with white people even while they are committing acts of open sedition against the United States!

But something new did happen on January 6. The party of white supremacy and their fascist-minded leader have finally been driven out of national power. The elections that did this—the Georgia Senate races—were won by a multi-racial coalition led by Black women. Even better, this coalition—and others like it across the United States—sees this historic victory as merely an inflection point, a step towards the reconstruction of the nation. And Trump’s bizarre plan to overturn the elections so badly backfired that a day later he was finally forced to agree to the peaceful transition of power.

For the Republicans, the next year will be challenging. There is a slim chance that the party will finally disavow Trump and try to re-define itself. Perhaps Trump will experience what Joe McCarthy had happen to him after he went after the U.S. military with his Red Scare campaign in 1954. (Don’t forget that Roy Cohen was McCarthy’s lawyer and Trump’s mentor).  But I doubt it. There is a reason 139 House Republicans voted to nullify the election even after the white riot. They understand that in their gerrymandered districts, all they have to offer their constituents is to keep whipping up white rage against the Biden-Harris government. Many state elected officials will continue to make the same calculation. And it is important to remember that even the Republicans who have disavowed Trump have not apologized for the serious crimes they committed against people of color the past four years.

The problem, I think, is that Republicans are caught in a trap of their own making. Ever since the Democrats became the party of civil rights in 1964, the Republicans have defined themselves as the party of white resistance (hence, the Southern Strategy that is now collapsing). As demographics have made whites into a smaller and smaller plurality of the country and successful multiracial coalition building has given voice to a new vision for America, Republicans are finding themselves defined by a cause that is increasingly beleaguered and is becoming increasingly deranged.  Republican politicians would do well to reflect on the words of Winston Churchill (of all people!), who said this about the rising tide of fascism in 1937:

Grim war-gods from remote ages have stalked upon the scene. International good faith; the public law of Europe; the greatest good of the greatest number; the ideal of a fertile, tolerant, progressive, demilitarized, infinitely varied society, is shattered. Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.

Winston Churchill 1937

And yes, the liberal ideal of good faith and the greatest good for the greatest number is today unraveling in America. The middle class is being hollowed out while the rich get richer and the poor are being plunged into deadly crises. Neo-liberal cuts in taxes and government services have harmed most Americans. In this setting, the Republican strategy of trying to harness white rage will almost certainly continue even as their base shrinks and becomes less and less powerful.

So, what can be done, then, about the Republican Party’s grip on the majority of white people? Of course, the Biden Administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress now have the opportunity to show alienated and aggrieved whites (along with everyone else) the benefits of enlightened government. To the extent that the government can deliver on its promises to end the pandemic, to reign in inequality, to produce millions of new green jobs, and to repair the destruction of public health and public education in this country, the ability of demagogues to feed white rage will diminish.

But far more is needed at this moment than the Biden Administration will be able to deliver. What is needed now is nothing less than the historic reconstruction of America, an effort that has now begun for the third time in this nation’s short history. This work won’t be easy—it requires a massive shift in power away from the rich and towards the poor, and it requires whites to finally renounce their privileges and to become humble and to acknowledge the need for reparations for the crimes committed by whites throughout American history.  It requires a new respect for Mother Earth.

But the rewards for doing so will be immense. Already, nearly half of whites in this country believe they are anti-racist. These people need to acknowledge leadership from people of color and join the many on-going efforts to forge multi-racial coalitions to end anti-Black police violence, to abolish mass incarceration, to deliver justice to essential workers, to safeguard women’s reproductive rights, to radically reduce environmental harms, to protecting transgendered people’s rights, to end racial gerrymandering in elections, and so much more. And through all this work, let’s build the capacity of people to care for one another, to find brotherhood and sisterhood with one another, to forge stronger and more inclusive communities with one another. Let us build the beloved community and through this, reconstruct this country at last. This is how we will finally end the era of white rage and render the Donald Trumps of this world irrelevant once and for all.

Georgia on my mind

The Democratic victory in Georgia is historic and its implications go far beyond this election.

What Georgia progressives are doing is no less than the third campaign to reconstruct the South, a task that has been under way since the end of the slavery. The first attempt—from 1866 to 1876—ended when the North made a deal with the former slave owners to let them rule the South again without slavery. The Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror drove Black (and poor white) voters and office holders from power, and a virtually all-white electorate created a white dictatorship—the Jim Crow system—that lasted for more than seventy years. The second reconstruction effort was the civil rights movement of the 1950s -1980s. It sought to end white supremacy by forcing the Federal government to ban legal segregation and then to desegregate schools, jobs and housing as well as to assure people of color the right to vote. This effort was largely stymied in the 1990s and early 2000s by the rise of neo-liberalism, which opened the door to more and more aggressive efforts to re-segregate schools, housing, jobs and suppress minorities’ voting rights. 

And now we are on the cusp of the third effort at reconstruction. This movement has its roots in the popular revolt against neo-liberalism after the 2008 financial crisis.  From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to MeToo, this effort gathered momentum in the South. In Georgia, reconstruction has long focused on voting rights, in large part because Atlanta is one of the centers of the civil rights movement elders—in particular John Lewis. Stacy Abrams’ campaign for Governor of Georgia in 2018 was so powerful that the only way for Georgia to remain Republican was through naked (and quite delegitimizing) acts of Black voter suppression. This movement also gained momentum through the fight to remove Confederate statues, especially after the white terrorist attack on Charlottesville Virginia in 2017.

The New Georgia Project (Stacy Abrams) and Black Votes Matter (LaTosha Brown) kept the momentum going after Abrams’ defeat in 2018 and provided the backbone of the 2020 electoral campaign. The most important feature of this campaign was the methods that successfully mobilized a record 2,472,002 voters for the Democrats. For years, activists did the hard work of grassroots organizing, convincing ordinary people to become politically engaged through their community networks of churches, workplaces, schools and beauty shops. The activists built their organizations and coalitions from the bottom up, identifying new leaders and training them as they grew. What they built was far more than a get out the vote campaign and will be active well beyond this election. And in the immediate future, this movement has positioned Democrats with an excellent opportunity to retake the U.S. Senate on January 5.

Georgia provides no less than a blueprint for every progressive organization in the United States about how to do its work. We must all center our work on the painstaking tasks of upholding the vital community ties that marginalized people have built, vital connections that provide them with safety and support and dignity in a hostile world. Our coalitions must be based on and led by people from these communities. While winning and exercising political power is important, we cannot prioritize each election or campaign over the hard work of building and safeguarding the relationships within and between different marginalized communities. Progressives must have the discipline to painstakingly build these relationships and to understand the long game we are playing.

Conditions in the South are favorable for this work: Black communities built on powerful bonds and a profound culture forged in the slavery and Jim Crow eras still exist and form a fertile basis for the efforts at reconstructing the South today. Of course, vibrant communities of marginalized people exist everywhere in this country (similar work done among Latinx people in Arizona also produced important electoral victories in 2020). It is in these communities that progressive movements—and their leaders—must be rooted. Progressives must always remember that building long-lasting relationships of trust within and between marginalized communities is more than a tactic to win political campaigns: it is the practice of social justice today that will make possible the reconstruction of America we for which we so sorely long.

Trump is Gone.Now Let’s Get to Work!

So, Joe Biden is President-elect, and Kamala Harris is Vice-President elect of the United States.

I guess it is possible that the Supreme Court might yet enable Trump to steal this election but given the states’ and Federal courts’ quick rejection of all of his lawsuits so far, I really doubt it. (But we better be vigilant!).

So, I’m going to assume Biden and Harris really won. Here are some initial thoughts about this election:

First, the fact that Biden and Harris won is a big deal. The Biden-Harris ticket received over 81 million votes, the largest number in American history. Had Trump been given four more years to continue his white nationalist project, the damage to democracy and to people’s safety, health and prosperity might have been irreversible. The vote for Biden was primarily driven by this fear, and the 81 million people who voted against Trump should give themselves a big pat on the back for defending democracy and opposing Trump’s racism and misogyny. The fact that a Black/South Asian woman was elected to the Vice-Presidency is also a significant milestone.

Secondly, this election was won because of the grassroots organizing work done all over the country to mobilize people of color. These organizations, led mostly by young Black and brown women, have been growing in numbers and capacity for the last decade. And this November, they delivered the decisive votes to push Biden and Harris over the finish line by mobilizing Black, Latinx and young voters in Michigan (Detroit Action, We Make Michigan), Pennsylvania (Make the Road Philadelphia) and Georgia (the New Georgia Project). A few labor unions (UNITE HERE and SEIU) also played important roles in this historic voter mobilization effort.

Thirdly, the win in Georgia is particularly important because it brings the herculean effort to reconstruct the South to a new level. This work has been already successful at forcing a rethinking of the history of the South (the removal of Confederate statues being the most visible part of this) but it has also been for years fighting against Republican voter suppression efforts that had been enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. This voting rights work, advocated for decades by John Lewis, was invigorated by Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Georgia which failed only because of naked Republican voter suppression. Her revenge: the New Georgia Project. And this year, if Georgia does go blue, it will mean that Georgia has finally broken through the wall of white supremacy that was erected when the state was first established in the slave era. Even better, there can be little doubt that this victory is a harbinger of things to come throughout the South. The Republican Party’s days of winning national elections by relying on white supremacy in the South are fading fast.

Fourthly, this election has saved American countless lives by ending Trump’s denial of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the vote for Biden and Harris might have been more motivated by this issue than any other. Starting in January, the United States will finally rely on public health experts to fight this pandemic.

OK. So that’s the good news, and that’s a lot to be grateful for. But the election also revealed something else: some 74 million Americans voted for a President who is an open racist and misogynist and is more than willing to undermine core democratic values and institutions. And, as of this writing, Republicans still control the Senate (although Georgia could change that on January 5), and Republicans now have a solid majority on the Supreme Court, and Democrats failed to flip any state legislatures in the year that redistricting is scheduled to begin.

The Trump voters, of course, were the majority of white people (men and women) who went to the polls. The few people of color who voted for Trump were disproportionately men (18% of Black men vs. 8% of Black women, 36% of Hispanic men vs. 28% of Hispanic women) who seemed willing to conciliate Trumps’ racism because of his “strong man” hype and his opposition to women’s reproductive freedom. Charles Blow recently suggested that 45% of gay men were also pulled towards Trump by his patriarchal and misogynist message.  

While many Trump voters said they voted for him because of their belief that shutting down the economy was an inappropriate response to Covid-19 (!), we must never forget that every single person who voted for Trump found a way to support an openly racist and sexist President who had amply demonstrated his willingness to use violence against immigrants and Black people. If anyone still needed more evidence, this election certainly showed the depth of white supremacy in the United States.

So, how should the Biden Administration deal with the reality of a deeply divided America? Biden has already stated that the mandate of this election is that the American people want Democrats and Republicans to cooperate to get things done. And he is certainly right that most Americans would dearly love to find a way out of the polarization that now has a death grip (literally) on this country.

But Biden needs to be very clear about one more thing: he must assure those who organized and voted for him that he is committed to working for racial justice. This commitment must be in the form of actions, starting with the appointment of a Black Attorney General to head the Justice Department and a Covid Task Force that understands the disproportionate risks faced by the Black and Latinx  communities. Already, many Democrats are pushing Biden to the right, claiming that the losses suffered in this election were the result of the Party being too ‘left.’ AOC, in a New York Times interview, pushed back against this narrative (LINK) but so far the Democrats are following an old playbook: they rely on progressives to win the election, and then cast them aside when it comes time to govern.

This time must be different: if Biden hopes to heal the poisonous division of this country, he cannot conciliate white supremacy. I believe the only way to win over some of the 74 million Trump voters is through equitable economic policies that promote real benefits for poor and working-class whites as well as for people of color. This can be done. Obama and Biden succeeded in pulling the U.S. out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in 2008-2010. This time, the economy is actually in better shape than in 2008, but economic growth since then has been measured almost entirely by stock market prices. It is time to shift economic policies away from support for financial markets (banks) and towards policies that support the production of real goods and services. This understanding is at the heart of Biden’s partial embrace of the Green New Deal. Biden’s experience with the automobile industry bailout in 2009-2010 certainly has prepared him for this job.

All of this certainly underscores the continuing importance of the grassroots organizing that won this election. Given the pressure to conciliate “centrist” Democrats, Biden and Harris must feel real pressure from progressives to live up to their commitments to racial and economic justice. The organizing work that produced the historic defeat of Trumpian fascism must not only continue but must grow. This will only happen if the millions of young people who were politicized by the protests against George Floyd and Breanna Taylor’s murders and who then stepped up to work for the defeat of Donald Trump continue to work for justice.

 It was most encouraging to see the huge crowds of mostly young people who flooded the streets of cities across America when the election was decided on November 7.  But when the celebrating is over, there is still so much work to do. Rather than thinking of this election as the finish line, let us think of it as the spark that ignited the progressive movement.

The only issue in this election is now clear: we must save democracy

The first Presidential debate was last night. Most commentators aptly referred to it as a shit show. It was intensely uncomfortable to watch, and demonstrated to the whole world how much Trump has debased this country.

Most people see this debate as a disaster. I do not. The purpose of a debate is to clarify where the candidates stand on important issues. This debate clarified where Trump and Biden stand on what should now be the ONLY issue of this election: the defense of democracy against fascism.

Trump made it as clear as day: he knows he is going to lose this election, and so he is gong to disrupt it by any means necessary. He is lying about ballots being stolen and secret plots of Democrats to trash ballots cast for Trump . But more importantly, Trump’s intentions were revealed by his statement to the Proud Boys (and all other white supremacist militias) to “stand back and stand by.” With this, Trump has finally outed himself as the leader of the fascist movement of this country. He clearly intends to mobilize these racist thugs to attack polling places and to intimidate voters.

This is all part of Trump’s larger effort to delegitimize this election. Republicans have for years been creating mechanisms to dissuade people–especially Black and brown people–from voting. Now, Republicans are creating a large legal team to sue swing states over their ballot certification process. And Trump is rushing Coney Barret onto the Supreme Court to cast a vote to decertify the election results in at least one or even several states. He also hopes that the chaos he creates will make it impossible for the electoral college to vote on December 14 as required by the Constitution. He has publicly said he hopes that the end result will be a vote by Congress (also allowed by the Constitution if the Electoral College cannot decide the election), which Trump thinks will give him the edge since voting is based on Senate rules.

The only issue in this election is now clear: will the American people get to choose the next President of the United States (and the Senate) or will democracy cease to function in the United States?

For the next thirty-two days, Biden’s campaign should pivot away from the platform on which he is running. Instead, the entire effort should become a campaign to save democracy. And all Republicans need to be immediately put under intense pressure to declare their confidence in the ability of the states to conduct a safe and secure election.

Trump hopes that on Election Night (November 3), most mail-in ballots will not yet have been tallied and since Republicans are being instructed to risk their lives to vote in person, that he will have more votes that night. He plans to declare himself the winner on November 3. On November 4, everybody in this country who still loves democracy must take to the streets to defend the election. And we must stay in the streets until the results are certified and Trump is defeated.

Since Trump has chosen to attack the election, it is time for all democratic-minded people of any political persuasion to come together to defend democracy. The time is short, but it can be done.

On Political Violence in 2020

Trump has made the condemnation of violence by the movement protesting anti-Black police violence a central strategy of his campaign to save his Presidency. His weaponized Department of Justice is now investigating leaders of the Movement for Black Lives for criminal conduct.

Well-schooled in Nazi (and McCarthyist) propaganda techniques, Trump’s claims turn reality on its head.

First, the protestors that Trump describes as “thugs and criminals” stand in opposition to violence, particularly the long-standing and continuing police violence against Black men, women and children. While the current upsurge was sparked by the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd on May 25, the Black Lives Matter movement was already nine years old by then and had already achieved many important victories to curtail police violence through its disciplined organizing efforts. Most importantly, the movement from its beginning defined itself by its love for and by marginalized people. The movement always understood that loving Black people also means love for women, transgendered and queer people and poor people as a whole.

On the face of it, opposition to Black Lives Matter implies that loving Black people is threatening. And it is– to whiteness.  The fact that many police departments adopted the slogan “Blue lives matter” in opposition to this movement only proves the point that American policing defends structural racism and white supremacy.

Secondly, the police response to the protests is itself a major source of violence. Protestors in Minneapolis, for example, burned the Third Precinct to the ground only after three nights of the police using massive force against the protesters. New York City police drove armored vehicles into a crowd of protesters. When Trump sent ICE and Border Patrol agents to Portland, they deployed every weapon at their disposal against peaceful protesters. On September 13, a California Highway Patrol vehicle seriously injured a protestor in Sacramento.

Thirdly, the violence that has occurred at protests is increasingly being committed by right-wing militias. Some of that violence has been overt, such as the killing of two protesters by a 17-year-old in Kenosha Wisconsin. Armed right-wing militias have appeared with increasing frequency at protests across the country, especially in Portland. And these militias often have the open support of the police. The Kenosha killer was openly carrying a long gun (illegally because he is a minor), and police officers gave him water and thanked him for being there…just before he murdered two people.  It is becoming common for people to ram their cars into protests. (Remember that Heather Heyer was killed by a right-wing fanatic who drove his car into a crowd of protestors in the infamous rightwing attack on Charlottesville in 2017). Some of the violence is covert. Protestors in many cities reported acts of vandalism and violence committed by right-wing agitators who had infiltrated the demonstrations in order to discredit the movement.

And, of course, the main cheerleader for all this violence is the President of the United States.

But, in the midst of the violence directed by the right, by the police, and by the President against the movement for Black Lives, there can be no denying that some of the violent confrontations with police and right wingers are by people who think that fascists can only be defeated by violent means.

It is hardly surprising that some who oppose police violence have turned to violence. Many young Americans feel quite hopeless in the current moment and are completely alienated from politics. In this context, some can be seduced by anarchism with its romance of “revolutionary” violent resistance.

But anarchism, and its romance of violence, is not revolutionary. Anarchism stands in opposition to the revolutionary spirit in which people say Black Lives Matter not in service to violence, but out of their love for and defense of Black peoples’ humanity. Not only are anarchists disregarding the Black leadership of the anti-police violence movement but are actually doing precisely what Trump and the fascist militias that serve him hope they will do, which is to enable them to create an “antifa” boogeyman and to discredit the movement.

Trump, of course, is seeking to delegitimize the movement against anti-Black police violence by equating the actions of a few anarchists with the entire protest movement. The Anti-Defamation League estimates that no more than 20,000 people in the U.S. belong to ‘black block’ groups loosely called ‘anti-fa.’ An estimated 27 million people have participated in the anti-Black police violence movement. But Trump has already succeeded at eroding public support for the movement, which stood at close to 70 percent in June and is now down to under 50 percent.

For those who want to fully understand the relationship of anarchism to fascism, one needs look at the history of the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish anarchists at that time were a formidable political force initially fighting against the fascists. But in 1939, the anarchists denounced the communists leading the anti-fascist defense of the Republic and switched sides. Ultimately, anarchists then and now found irresistible their commonalities with fascism—especially their common love of violence. There is nothing revolutionary about this ideology.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s adopted the strategy of non-violent civil disobedience because it manifested the principles of social justice that motivated the Freedom Movement (i.e. the beloved community).  Also, and this cannot be overstated, non-violent civil disobedience took remarkable discipline. It was never easy to confront the violence of the police or racist mobs with one’s humanity. But with training, hundreds of thousands of people did do this, and it worked. It was effective at giving the movement moral superiority and it also demonstrated what social justice looks like in the day to day practice of the movement for social justice.

One of the main challenges in this moment is to organize the millions of people who have recently been jolted into active resistance to anti-Black police violence. Organizing people is essential for the movement to be able to unite around a common understanding of our goals, and the effective means to achieve them. Organizing this historic energy is essential if the movement is going to continue to build its power and influence. And part of organizing people is to develop in them the discipline necessary to face violence without resorting to violence.

Given what has already happened in Kenosha, Portland, Sacramento and elsewhere, there can be no doubt that right wing and police violence against protestors will escalate in the weeks leading up to and perhaps after the November 3 Presidential election. The ability of the movement against anti-Black police violence to meet this onslaught in a way that keeps the focus on police racism and  builds public support for its legitimate demands will depend on activists’ understanding of the importance of being organized and disciplined.

Abolish the Police (and Prisons)!

The world-wide demonstrations that were triggered by the police lynching of George Floyd on May 26 are now embracing what once appeared as a shockingly extreme demand: abolish the police!

The demand surfaced first in the Minneapolis protests and was powerfully made indeed when protestors on the first night of the insurrection burned the Third Precinct to the ground.

Over the course of the one month of continual protests since then (in 2000 American cities and towns and over 60 other countries) this demand has begun to receive widespread legitimacy for the first time.

This might be the most important impact of the current uprisings so far.

Here’s why.

‘Progressive’ politicians and police chiefs have been promising to reform the police for nearly fifty years. When police and the FBI assassinated leaders of the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and 1970s under the COINELPRO program, politicians called for reforming the police.  After Philadelphia police dropped bombs on the headquarters of a Black nationalist organization in 1985, killing six members and five of their children and burning down 65 houses, there were calls to reform the police. After four New York City plainclothes cops killed Amadou Diallo in 1999, after Bay Area Transit cops killed Oscar Grant in 2009, there were calls to reform the police.

But all the police reform efforts were doomed to failure. By the late 1980s, every police department in the U.S. had been militarized by Federal and state programs under the so-called War on Drugs. Bu the 1990s, virtually every police department had a SWAT team, and was receiving training and equipment and new recruits from the U.S. military and at times the Israeli Army. Whatever their previous histories, every police department in the United States was transformed into a military occupation force, trained to view policing as the pacification of a potentially insurgent civilian population.

The militarization of the police was explicitly conceived of as a racial project. In 1968, Richard Nixon had been elected President by ‘the Silent Majority’ of suburban and Southern whites because he had called for the ‘restoration of law and order’ to quell Black-led urban insurrections. Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980s explicitly targeted Black and Latinx communities as ‘drug-infested neighborhoods’ in order to justify police occupation. From 1986 onward, the increasing reliance on police violence created a system of mass incarceration with more citizens behind bars than any other country in the world.  By the early 2000s, some 72% of the prison populations was non-white.

The use of force to keep pacify Black and Latinx communities was necessitated by logic of the new neo-liberal order, which, in the name of economic efficiency doomed more and more people of color to low-wage jobs, public schools stripped of all meaningful educational resources, the termination of public health and mental health services, reduced access to low-income housing, and unleashed of gentrification onto these communities. Neo-liberalism was a force that was tantamount to physical and cultural genocide.

The demand to abolish the police is a call to rethink public safety as a whole”

The demand to abolish the police is therefore a call to dismantle far more than racist police departments: it is a call for this nation to rethink public safety as a whole. To do that will mean undoing the neo-liberal order that necessitated militarized policing in the first place.

The question implied by the demand to abolish the police is simple: what do we mean by public safety? We can certainly say this:  People feel safe when they are not afraid of police or anyone else bursting into their homes or randomly stopping them on the streets in encounters that too often lead to their deaths. People feel safe when they know they will be rewarded with a decent standard of living for their hard work. People feel safe when they can get a high-quality education and learn how to think for themselves. People feel safe when they have access to health care. People feel safe when they live in places where they know their neighbors and share a real pride in their community. They feel safe when they are not threatened by environmental disasters.

In other words, real public safety means rethinking our investment priorities. It means taxing wealth and limiting profits. It means a guaranteed high minimum wage. It means spending trillions of dollars on education, health care, and housing. Why should we invest trillions of dollars in war, police and prisons? Why should the top 1% get 90% of the wealth?

Abolishing the police certainly does not mean abolishing law enforcement. In a just society, we will need to enforce tax laws (on wealthy people) and fair working laws and environmental laws (on corporations) and housing laws (on landlords). The main people responsible for maintaining community safety will not be cops. They will be well-resourced educators, health professionals, religious leaders, and most importantly, community-based organizers.

Let’s be clear about it: this simple vision for public safety requires a massive reconstruction of American society. It means a new economy that is based on investment in production and not investment in financial speculation; it means an economy with guaranteed full employment and high enough minimum wages to abolish poverty; it means investing in an excellent educational system at all levels, universal and free health care. 

The demand to defund the police is also closely tied to the demand to abolish prisons. If we can imagine a new way to think about public safety, we can surely think of better ways to take care of the 2 million people now populating America’s prisons: people who have been damaged by racism and poverty.

The growing popularity of the demand to defund the police shows us that this new world is not as far away as it seemed before COVID. The pandemic has revealed in very stark ways the failures of neo-liberalism. Anyone of conscience can see that the disinvestment in public health has left the United States very vulnerable; everyone can see the injustice of a $3 trillion economic recovery act that left hundreds of millions of Americans poor and lined the pockets of investors. And the operation of racism in this crisis has been vulgar and obvious to all: millions of Latinx and Black ‘essential’ workers forced into unsafe work conditions developing high levels of infection; the unchecked disease ravaging many Native American communities; the callous disregard for the dangerous conditions in America’s prisons and jails, etc.

In a strange way, George Floyd’s terrible last words—“I can’t breathe’—mirror the feelings of a large majority of this nation, who are experiencing the pandemic as an assault on their livelihoods, their families, and their hopes and dreams.

We are at a moment when the neo-liberal order itself is teetering, and ready to fall. Let us have the courage to demand the restructuring of American society that should—no, must—begin with the demand arising from America’s streets: Defund the Police!

On Mourning, Hope and Rage

June 6, 2020

The silent weeping of millions of Americans is over. Now their cries are heard everywhere. People have taken their grief over the murder of George Floyd and so much more to the streets.

These protests go far beyond the police lynching of another Black man. Mostly young Americans of all races, in solidarity with Black people, are putting the country on notice that they will no longer tolerate business as usual in this country.

Protestors in over 700 American cities and towns no longer accept the murders of innocent Black men and women by the police. They no longer accept the deaths of over 100,00 Americans to COVID due to the incompetence and greed of this country’s so-called leaders. They do not accept that 40 million workers are out of work or that “essential” workers are forced to work at low wages without PPE. They do not accept mass incarceration, the murder of queer and transgendered people, the looming environmental crisis, and more. And they do not accept the outright racism emanating from the White House.

As Rev. William Barber said, “Thank God people are in the streets, refusing to accept what was ‘normal’ for too long.”

It is not surprising that the ‘disorderly behavior’ seen during or after many of the protests elicited more media and political attention than the righteous anguish and just demands that drove people into the streets in the first place.  To do anything else—to empathize with and really try to understand this ‘disorderly behavior’–would require acknowledging that the “order” is itself the problem. One of the hallmarks of racism is to fixate on Black and brown peoples’ righteous anger instead of looking at the reasons people are angry. Once one asks the right questions—WHY are people so angry? WHAT do they want?—there can be no return to ‘normal.’ For many whites and some well-off people of color, still deeply invested in the American Dream and the middle class, asking that question is still too frightening to contemplate. But millions of protestors are now breaking the silence, and demanding that these questions be asked and answered.

The single-minded focus by government officials and most of the media on the “disorder” produced by these protests is a symptom of the problem itself. The point of the protests is that the existing order is violent and unjust. By all accounts, 99% of the protestors have made this point through peaceful and non-violent actions. The fixation on the “disorderly” conduct of a small minority within these protests has led elected officials of both political parties to support police violence, no matter what lip service they pay to the righteousness of the protestors’ demands for justice for George Floyd and so many others. Once again, America meets peoples’ just anguish and their demands for justice with escalating violence. The President declares the protestors are ‘domestic terrorists’ and calls in the military. Dozens of cities are put under open-ended curfews. The police kill a well-known restaurant owner in Louisville on Saturday; the Army deploys Apache attack helicopters against a peaceful protest in D.C. Sunday, Black college students in Atlanta are tased while sitting in their car on Sunday, etc.

These responses only confirm the failure of government to listen to protestors, and only deepen peoples’ feelings of loss, of grieving and rage. The escalation of police and military violence only makes it more difficult for protestors to speak in any language other than pure rage, yet the protests continue to be peaceful despite all these provocations.

But the escalation of police violence against these protests is telling us something important: the protestors are winning.

Despite the efforts to stop them, the protests are continuing, and are growing in both in size and the breadth of the people joining to demand justice for George Floyd. The protests have succeeded in securing indictments against the four police officers implicated in George Floyd’s murder. Six officers were charged in Atlanta for tasing college students in their car. Pressure is mounting on Louisville for charges against the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, and the killer of Ahmaud Arbery was finally charged. A bill to outlaw the militarization of the police and to end some now-accepted practices like carotid holds is rapidly making its way though Congress with bi-partisan support. A growing number of police departments are (perhaps) signaling some willingness to change by taking a knee in support of the protests. Biden has called for the “restructuring” of America in a few of his speeches. While these responses are still far too little, they are evidence that power is beginning to shift.

Far from being destructive acts of despair, these protests are providing a space for enraged and grieving people to engage in positive action, to feel that they matter, that they can make history. These protests are acts of hope in a time of crisis and despair.

These protests did not just spontaneously appear. Protests against police violence sporadically broke through the nation’s consciousness after videos of police murdering Oscar Grant in Oakland went viral in 2009. The national movement to defend Black lives began in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, and what is now the the Movement for Black Lives was formed six years ago as a national coalition in the aftermath of the protests over the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. This movement organized hundreds of existing community groups, spawned hundreds more new organizations and energized a generation of mostly Black and brown and young activists to fight for their communities. Many activists ran for public office, and Ferguson itself elected a Black woman mayor on Tuesday. When the video of George Floyd enraged millions of people, this movement was ready to give them a vision of what was possible, and has provided the scaffolding to sustain weeks of protests in the face of determined police resistance.

And this vision, the results of a generation of work, was able to keep the focus on the defense of Black lives while at the same time acknowledging the deep connections between George Floyd’s murder and the ways the failure of the U.S. in the time of COVID had impacted working class people, women, queer and trans communities, migrants, and the environment.

Yes, acts of store looting, brick throwing and arson fires on which the media and government were far too focused are a real problem. These acts are a problem because they provide police with the pretext to escalate the use of force. They are a real problem because they can be used by defenders of the old order to de-legitimize the protests’ demands for justice. And always lurking in the background is the real fear that Trump would love to find an excuse to declare martial law in this country.

So, who are the people who are acting in ways that undermine the protests, and provide ammunition to the police? At least part of the answer is that these acts are being instigated by police and right-wing agents. During America’s last era of national ‘unrest,” from 1964-1968, we learned that the police often inserted agent provocateurs into radical organizations and demonstrations, inciting disorder to justify police crackdowns. The scale of these operations was revealed in 1976 when the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which had been started in response to the civil rights movement and had secretly run from 1956 until 1974. Credible reports from Minneapolis and Atlanta indicate that right-wing groups have infiltrated the demonstrations in order to incite ‘a race war.’

But responsibility for the widespread looting and brick-throwing and arson cannot be solely placed on police agents provocateurs and right-wing agitators. Many of the protestors who trash stores and set fires are young people who have grown up in a time of trauma and despair. They are people who have no hope that positive change is possible. They have seen too much and too often have encountered no one to inspire them that their world can be safe and meaningful.

It should therefore come as no surprise that in a moment when people are engaging in a collective act of mourning and are demanding to be heard, there will be some who feel hopeless. For some, participating in these protests can make them re-visit their traumas, and make them feel even angrier at a society that has not acknowledged their humanity. For some, acts of destruction feel empowering because they have no other language with which to utter their grief.

So, if we acknowledge the presence of violence within the protests, what do we have to do about it? First, we have to consistently point to the source of this violence. We have to show this country that for hundreds of millions of Americans, the social order that dooms them to the violence of racism, poverty, militarism, pandemic and climate change is the problem itself.

Secondly, we must denounce the steady escalation of police and military violence as a solution to property damage and looting. We must show this country that police violence is the problem and can never be the solution. We must call out the Louisville police department who murdered a Black man on May 31 during a protest against police killings.  And we must certainly denounce the efforts of the racist-in-chief to define the protests as acts of ‘domestic terrorism’ and use that as an excuse to, as he puts it, “crush the protests “.

Thirdly, we must denounce acts of vandalism, looting and arson. But we must do so without demonizing the people who commit these acts out of their despair and trauma. We must find a way to provide those who have been driven to the streets by rage and hopelessness a space for hope, for healing, and for love. To do so, Rev. Barber has pointed out, requires this nation to listen to the despair and anguish of the protestors, because to do so is the first step towards understanding, and towards healing.

The work to end police violence against Black people will take time and enormous effort. So much has already been accomplished: we can now imagine a society whose safety and well-being does not require police or prisons; we now understand the intersections between many converging issues of queer, transgendered, poor and immigrant communities; we are building a broad multi-racial coalition; we are connecting protests to politics. This work has been years in the making, but there is so much still to do. Thanks to the large number of innovative and relevant grassroots organizations working hard at both ending police violence against Black and brown communities and developing new approaches to safeguarding marginalized communities without the police, the millions of people who have protested George Floyd’s murder will have many opportunities to continue to work for justice. The work that millions of protestors have

For now, let us honor the spirit of these historic protests. We must acknowledge the pure human emotions that are being demonstrated. The fact that the protestors have broken the silence should give us all great hope at a time of pandemic and economic crisis. Let’s denounce the violence: let us denounce the violence of racism; poverty, sexism, homophobia, militarism, and ecological destruction. Let us teach one another how to express our grief and mourn. Let us embrace all the raw and difficult feelings exposed in this terrible moment and heal this nation.

For George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor


Andy Barlow

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.  

America is at the crossroad

            There’s a deep longing in this country—indeed, around the world—for this Covid-19 nightmare to end. Nine weeks into California’s shelter in place orders (SIPOs), people are starting to break out of the disciplined routines they adopted during the first phase of the pandemic. More and more people are leaving their homes for all kinds of reasons, some with and some without masks. Traffic jams—so oddly absent for weeks—are starting again. Employers are requiring workers to report back to their jobs, some with protective protocols, others without. Professional sports leagues are talking about re-starting.  You can feel people slipping back into their “old” ways.

            This feeling is being exploited by rightwing extremists, Republican governors in the South, some corporate execs (Elon Musk leading the pack), and, of course, their orange-hair cheerleader-in- chief. For weeks, the right has argued that the nation must choose between restarting the economy and fighting the pandemic. The narrative on the right has now become even more extreme: the pandemic is fake news. Progressives manufactured the Covid-19 pandemic to frighten Americans into giving up their ‘freedom’ and to submit to a socialist state.  Scientists and public health officials are part of the conspiracy. Communist China weaponized Covid-19 and unleashed it on the United States.  Whacko conspiracy theorists (Judy Mikovits) are everywhere on rightwing websites and Fox News debunking science.  Republican governors in the South are ending SIPOs and re-opening restaurants, bars, movie houses, stores and beaches in states with rising Covid infection rates. Armed militias have invaded state capitol buildings in Michigan and Wisconsin demanding “freedom” from socialist politicians.

            The demand for “freedom” from public health restrictions is dehumanizing. Right wing demagogues on Fox openly state that the nation must “pay a price” to revive the economy.  They had always been willing to sacrifice delivery people, shopping market workers, and other so-called ‘essential’ workers who were forced to work with little or no safety precautions. They then said that elders and other at-risk people must be sacrificed. Then they added essential workers in the poultry and meat processing plants. They could care less that African Americans, Latinx and Native American people are dying at double or triple the rates as whites. They ignore the mortal threat to all incarcerated people. Now, Southern governors are endangering their entire states’ populations, including their own white racist base, in order to “re-open” their economies. And President Trump is airily and insanely predicting the U.S. economy will rapidly recover quarter in 2020, while acknowledging that the number of Americans who will die in the next two months will double.

The right has made it as clear as it can be: The freedom to make profits comes before the safety and health of the American people. There is nothing new about this callous disregard for human beings. Slave owners accused abolitionists of taking away their freedom. Early industrial capitalists decried efforts to regulate the working day or establish minimum wages as intruding on their freedom. When white men were forced by affirmative action to accept people of color and women of all races on the job, they protested their loss of freedom.  And again, we see in this pandemic the American spirit of materialism and racism that callously offers up for sacrifice the lives of many millions of Americans. And it is certainly worth mentioning that what starts out as racists dehumanizing people of color has quickly broadened into a wider lack of regard for the safety of many working-class whites as well.

But this vulgar disregard for human lives is not the only way Americans have responded to the pandemic. There is a real spirit of cooperation and concern for others’ well-being that manifests especially in moments of real crisis such as this one. Opinion polls show that a significant majority of Americans oppose rapid “opening up” policies that ignore public health protocols. Most Americans are paying attention to science-based guidance on what is OK to do and what is not. Most Americans continue to refer to health care workers and supermarket checkers as ‘heroes.’ While people no longer need to make masks, many continue to support friends and family members who lost their jobs, donate money to help undocumented people, to feed the hungry, to support anti-domestic violence programs, etc.  Some on the left scoff at all this celebration of working-class heroes as mere posturing meant to cover up these workers’ continuing exploitation. And no doubt corporations are doing just that. But leftist cynics are wrong about the source of this sentiment: this spirit of cooperation is real, and the collective actions that millions of people are taking right now are important steps towards reviving social consciousness and community empowerment.

The most important test of America—indeed of all societies today—is whether or not people will respond to the Covid-19 pandemic collectively or will devolve into vying interest groups. If people heed the right wing’s siren call for ‘the return to normal,’ America is at risk of losing its new-found and still fragile collective spirit, the understanding that we are all in this together, and that we must all take responsibility for those who are at greatest risk or we all will suffer the consequences. We are at risk of losing our new-found spirit of honoring our health workers, first responders, delivery people, and elder care workers for stepping into harm’s way to protect vulnerable people. If people believe the right-wing’s attacks on China and the WTO, and anti-immigrant policies masked as health policies, we are at risk of losing our understanding that this is a global pandemic that knows no borders, and that fighting it requires a truly global response.

Of course, the right-wing strategy of denial will not work. It will sooner than later blow up in their faces. They are just hoping that they can make it to the November elections before that happens. But this virus does not bend truth.  States and businesses that ignore epidemiologists’ advice will within a few weeks see rising infection rates and deaths. The economic damage will certainly get worse as well, as governments will again be forced to order strict SIPOs in order to bend the curve down yet again. And once again, people who were lured into the right’s siren call of ‘returning to normal’ will have another opportunity to redeem themselves by recommitting themselves to actions to protect us all. But so many people will have needlessly died before this happens. 

So now is a crucial test for America. Across this country, progressive organizations like the National Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus and influencers like Killer Mike are working hard to combat the right-wing strategy and are advising people to continue to shelter-in-place in states where the infection rates are very high and governments are ignoring CDC benchmarks when re-opening bars, restaurants and beaches. The idea that we are all in this together, while under attack, is still strong.

What is needed now is a clear moral message about our collective responsibility for one another. We need a clear message that says that when people are forced to choose between going back to work and their family’s health, the problem is that the government’s enormous economic stimulus program gave trillions of dollars to the super-rich and paid lip service to the needs of working people and small businesses. A Facebook meme says it best, “if people have to choose between the economy and their safety, it’s time to fix the fucking economy.” But this is exactly what the right is afraid of. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare America’s inequities, but it also points us inexorably at what we need to get through this crisis. We need a robust national public health care system and we need government to pay workers their lost wages and to safeguard employers so they have jobs to go back to. We need to ensure that people will not lose their homes if they cannot pay rent. And all of this must intentionally ensure that those most harmed by this crisis are the first helped. If any of us is to be safe today, we must all be safe.

            America is once again faced with the moral challenge that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of in 1967 when he said, “…(W)e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values… We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society….Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.“ And now, when most Americans are aware that we need to be people-centered and that poverty and racism (and, yes, militarism) threaten all of our safety, now is the time for decisive steps to be taken to restructure America.

We stand at the crossroads with a dramatic choice to make. Which America will we be?

The Worst of Times/The Best of Times: America in the time of pandemic

by Andy Barlow

March 30, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has paradoxically brought out the worst and the best in the United States.

The ineptitude, narcissism and avarice of the Trump Administration is to be expected. It becomes clearer every day that Trump does not care a bit about the hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who will die as a result of his mishandling of one of the biggest crises in the history of the United States.

But the United States’ vulnerabilities are not caused by Trump: they are structural problems baked into the DNA of modern American society. Here I discuss four of those vulnerabilities: racism, neo-liberal capitalism, the disinvestment in public health, and the conditions of American families.

Racism is Trump’s language but it is not Trump’s creation. It has always been America’s Achilles heel. American racism has consistently undermined democracy throughout its history. It has distorted and undermined economic growth, and it has produced the developed world’s most extreme inequality.  American racism left the U.S. defenseless against the coronavirus at the point that it could have been stopped. The novel virus was first identified on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan. And while the second largest economy in the world shut down to deal with the virus (successfully, it should be noted), only a few epidemiologists in the U.S. raised the alarm. The American (indeed Western) reaction was that it was a “Chinese virus,” so who cares? By the time the U.S. began to respond, it was too late: community spread of the coronavirus had already begun even while Trump was stopping travel from China to the U.S. (Indeed, evidence in Seattle suggests the coronavirus might have been in the community since November 2019). Even now, when the United States has far more cases than China, Trump continues to whip up xenophobic hatred of Asians for “bringing it here,” which endangers Asian Americans and leaves the whole country less able to understand and deal with the pandemic.

American racism also dooms millions of people of color to far higher levels of coronavirus exposure and mortality. The people infected on the Princess Diamond were mostly Filipino and Latinx ship workers. The supermarket checkers and stockers, house cleaners, non-professional hospital workers, and the service workers in general who have to keep working despite their likely exposure to the coronavirus are disproportionately non-white. People of color have less access to health care and are far likelier to suffer from pre-existing conditions because of the ravages of racism. And both of these factors predict who will die from Covid-19. The most endangered people in America for coronavirus exposure—those incarcerated in America’s prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities—are mostly people of color. Undocumented Latinx people face especially grave perils, as they are often the ones who are working at jobs where they exposed to the virus yet fear going to hospitals because of their lack of health insurance and their lack of trust in hospitals’ potential cooperation with ICE.

The United States’ second major structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the impact of neo-liberalism on its economy. The U.S. economy has always been the most lightly regulated and taxed in the developed world. But over the last thirty years, neo-liberals have steadily dismantled business regulations and social programs. In this environment, American businesses have operated with almost no plans beyond the profits they seek to make in a single quarter. To put it mildly, no business had planned for (in economic terms, “priced in”) an economic crisis such as the one triggered by this pandemic. And now the bill is coming due. The disruptions in business activities caused by months of sheltering in place have already produced 10 million newly unemployed Americans. Worse, the drop off of consumer demand and the likely permanent closure of millions of small businesses—especially restaurants and other services—as well as the disruption of global supply chains will produce longer-term economic pain. Even worse, unregulated American corporations are virtually all heavily in debt and dangerously over-exposed as they borrowed excessively in anticipation of the continuation of the economic expansion that had started in 2009. Neo-liberalism has certainly multiplied the economic pain the U.S. will suffer.

The third structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the weaknesses of the United States’ public health system. Indeed, to even call what exists a public health system is a big stretch. The U.S. is so far failing at every stage (isolation, mitigation, treatment) of this pandemic whereas other nations, especially Asian nations with the real-life experience of having dealt with SARS-1 epidemic in 2003, have been very successful. Indeed, the U.S.  already has more Covid-19 cases than any other nation and the rate of coronavirus infection is still rising. Far more than Trump’s ineptitude, the problems in the U.S. are the result of a long neglect of public health, most obviously the absence of a national health system—the U.S. being the only developed country without one. This problem has been greatly exacerbated by the United States’ four decade-long preference for mass incarceration rather than health care (very much part of the problem of racism discussed above). Put simply, the U.S. never developed the tools to address a pandemic. Even worse, some public health officials had long warned top government officials of this vulnerability, and nothing was done about it despite two ‘exercises’ that predicted the failures we are now experiencing.  And the failures are too long to list: the incredible lag time before social distancing was practiced, the lack of screening test kits, health care workers dealing with the pandemic without face masks, nitrile gloves or sterile gowns, very sick people dying in hospital hallways, the lack of ventilators, etc. Even with the Affordable Care Act in place, millions of Americans worry that their health insurance will be inadequate if they get sick, an anxiety that will contribute to higher mortality rates.

The fourth structural Covid-19 vulnerability is the precarious situation for many families in the United States. Decades of neo-liberal policies have left many American families in a precarious condition. The depression of wages over the last forty years has required families to work more hours for an ever-declining standard of living while public benefits have been steadily retracted by corporations and governments alike. The sudden collapse of the service sector during the Covid response has left the most vulnerable workers, tens of millions of them if you include the workers and their families, without incomes of any kind while rents and food bills and medical expenses pile up. At the extreme, the half a million Americans who are homeless are forced to live in conditions that all but guarantee exposure to the coronavirus.  And isolation and the shelter in place requirements during this emergency have increased the vulnerability of women and LGBTQI people, especially those who are exposed to domestic abuse.

These are indeed the worst of times, a situation produced not just by Trump but by decades of neo-liberal policies and America’s long-term embrace of white supremacy.

But there is another side to the American response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Crises always force people and nations to re-examine what has long been taken for granted. And it is these responses that are cause for hope.

Neighbors are helping neighbors with shopping and other chores. Friends and family are checking in with one another more frequently than before. The heroism of American workers—nurses, doctors, hospital staffers, restaurant workers, delivery people, supermarket checkers and stockers, teachers, social workers, etc.—is now being recognized.  People in Oakland are sewing badly needed masks for medical workers. Chinese Americans, themselves victims of right-wing racism in this pandemic, are sending medical equipment to Seattle hospitals. Signs are hung over freeways to honor “essential workers.” (Canadians have gone one better: Vancouver residents go to their windows during hospital shift changes and shout encouragement to medical workers.) Many upper middleclass families are paying the people who cleaned their homes throughout the shutdown.   A (very) few landlords have announced that they are not collecting rent from tenants (families and businesses) for the duration of the shutdown. A new working-class militancy is flickering into consciousness. Workers employed by Instacart (a food delivery service) have gone on strike demanding better protective training and work conditions knowing that they have public support for their demands. So have workers at Amazon’s JFK8 Fulfillment Center in New York. Families left without incomes are organizing rent strikes in New York City and Oakland. All in all, one of the most significant responses to the Covid-19 pandemic has been this re-awakening sense of community in a nation where individualism and greed were celebrated as the neo-liberal ideals.

One of the pillars of modern American racism is the enormous system of mass incarceration. Some jurisdictions are responding to the threat of Covid-19 infection by depopulating their jails and juvenile detention centers. This is a startling development that actually advances policies that prison abolitionists have long advocated but seemed a distant dream just a month ago! Immigrant rights organizations are working hard to alert Americans to the failure of the current American bailout plans to address the needs of undocumented people or to empty the Federal detention centers that now imprison over 50,000 people.

American neo-liberalism is under full assault from the Democrats in Congress. The $2 trillion bailout plan written and adopted in two weeks was the largest government economic intervention in history. The initiative is deeply flawed by its method of handing out money to billions to corporations and hundreds of dollars to American workers. But there can be no doubt that a SECOND multi-trillion-dollar bailout plan will be needed. And, increasingly,  Democrats are becoming clear that the next plan must do what ALL of the other developed nations have done: pay workers their salaries during the shutdown and guarantee them their jobs at the end of the shutdown, a guarantee that will then focus corporate bailouts on jobs recovery, not just ripping off the taxpayers yet again! Many people are also demanding all rents and mortgages forgiven during this emergency, and all Covid-related health expenses be covered by the government. Los Angeles has already decided to require expanded sick leave for workers in big businesses located in that city, for example.

The deficiencies of the American public health response to the pandemic are now widely acknowledged, and governments at every level are racing to patch together a public health system. It is possible that by the end of this pandemic, a real national public health system might actually exist in the United States for the first time in its history. The only question at that point will be whether or not to keep it going. This is a far cry from the debates over whether or not the U.S. should have a universal single payer system that gripped the Democrats less than a month ago.

The plight of working families cannot go unnoticed. Too many people in this country are experiencing not just a pandemic but real economic displacement. The pressure on the Federal government to guarantee wages and jobs and to pay for peoples’ Covid-19-related health care is already mounting. Some progressive cities (including Oakland) have already barred all evictions and instituted a rent freeze for the duration of the crisis. But this is not enough, and the U.S. will soon feel pressured to institute the protections of working families that have already been made by every other developed nation, even Britain.

       Perhaps the most hopeful development of this new era is that a majority of Americans are beginning to understand a fundamental principle of public health: that to protect ourselves, we must protect everyone. Younger neighbors offer to shop for more vulnerable elders. The large majority of populations ordered to shelter in place have done so. Despite the idiots (covidiots?) who cavort at the beaches in SoCal and Florida, most young adults who (wrongly as it turns out) believe that Covid-19 can’t kill them still practice social isolation to protect elders in their families and communities. Volunteers have been showing up in droves at homeless encampments. People have donated money for hospital medical supplies (a shameful need if there was ever one!) and have started GoFundMe accounts for myriad out of work friends and family members.

       This spirit, the slow and painful stitching together of the beloved community, is the source of all hope, the possibility for the redemption of America. If, out of this pandemic, America has learned to care for its sickest, and has rejected the ruinous lies that racism and neo-liberalism put on this country, if America has learned that our strength lies in our diverse communities, and that we are better together than apart, then this crisis and the terrible loss of lives and the misery it has created will one day be seen as the moment America awoke.