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

by

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.

Why I Voted for Elizabeth Warren

Okay. It’s time to get personal. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, even though I knew she had almost no chance to win.

I voted for her because she has progressive politics. She was willing to stand up to big corporations and wealthy individuals. She understood the terrible plight of poor and lower middle-class families in this era of hyper-inequality and had specific plans to support them. She supported the idea of Medicare for all, and the need for big action on the climate crisis. She denounced the racism of mass incarceration and clearly articulated a civil rights agenda for the 21st Century.  She was an unflinching supporter of the #MeToo movement. She had a clear vision of creating a social democracy in the United States.

And I voted for her because she is a woman, and the U.S. is long overdue for a woman President.

Like many progressives, I supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 with great reservations. We know what the Clintons did: they created the bipartisan support needed to unleash neo-liberalism in the 21st Century. It was really hard to have to support Hillary in 2016 but I did because the alternative was and is unthinkable. I also wished the day after that disastrous election that she and Bill would just go away.

Warren does not have Hillary’s baggage. Quite the opposite, she was the leader of the most important effort to rein in the banks after the financial meltdown of 2007-2010. In the fight for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, Warren showed incredible tenacity and the ability to bring together a broad coalition in support of her historic effort to regulate capitalism’s most powerful and egregious institutions. She also showed great compassion during the debates, telling stories about people she had met at campaign stops. (OK, doing this when she had 45 seconds to speak might not have been a good debate strategy, but still…..). 

But she never had a chance both because of the rampant sexism towards her and because Bernie Sanders was in the race. Sanders also articulated a progressive agenda, but a far more grandiose one that would require trillions of dollars to accomplish. He has positioned himself as the leader of a great political revolution in which workers, minorities and youth would rise up and put America on a humane course. He embraces the concept of socialism, although it is unclear exactly what he means.  And after he lost to Hillary in 2016 Sanders built a formidable campaign with a large staff and early support from many progressive intellectuals and politicians. In the early days of the 2020 campaign, he seemed unstoppable.

But then he was stopped. And what stopped him was not Biden and the centrist Democrats, but a widespread rejection of his campaign by voters across the South and Texas.  Bernie ran into a storm of opposition because:

  1. His belief that there is a hidden wellspring of voters waiting for socialist politics is delusional. There is little evidence that progressive movements are moving into high gear these days. Quite the opposite: all but one of the candidates endorsed by Justice for All lost in their Super Tuesday primaries.
  2. He has built his campaign appealing to young voters, but young people unfortunately voted in typically small numbers on Super Tuesday.
  3. He consistently couches racial issues in class terms. This has alienated many African Americans who understand the importance of addressing racism straight on. His recent decision to pull out of Mississippi to put resources into the very close contest in Michigan angered many Black activists because he clearly does not understand the deep connections that bind Southern and Northern Black communities.
  4. He is a polarizer, leading many to conclude that he would not be able to build a coalition broad enough to beat Trump or to govern if he did. Sadly, Bernie’s long career in both houses of Congress is unimpressive, largely because he did not want to engage in the hard give and take work to build coalitions that is always needed to pass important legislation.
  5. His personal style of perpetual anger does not resonate with most voters, who are still looking for someone who can stabilize the ship, not overthrow it. I was recently moved by a post written by famed civil rights activist Ruby Sales, who was targeted for assassination by an angry white cop while she led Lowndes County Alabama’s voting campaign in 1964. In this post, she warns that Bernie’s self-righteous anger, replicated by some of his followers, is as dangerous as the anger of the right.

Despite these shortcomings, Sanders’ campaign has successfully built a narrow but deep base of support because of his progressive politics. His base is whiter, richer and more educated than the working class he hopes will rise, but it is clear that millions of Americans resonate with his call for a ‘political revolution.” Perhaps most importantly, his campaign opened up a space for almost the entire field of candidates—including the so-called centrists– to take positions to the left of virtually all Democratic Party candidates before this year.

So, back to my vote for Elizabeth Warren. I voted for her because she had progressive politics but did not have Bernie’s baggage. She is a coalition builder; she does know how to get things done in Congress. She is compassionate where Bernie is angry. She is flexible (look at her position on Medicare for all) without sacrificing principles. I think she would have made a great President. But she had no road to the nomination and had to withdraw. (By the way, she will never ever endorse Sanders. Remember the debate where Sanders called her a liar on national television? She does.)

The Democrats’ nomination is now Biden’s to lose. I don’t think he will. Biden is running a good campaign. His biggest weakness—the specific format of debates the Democrats adopted—will be less of a liability as the field narrows and as his campaign picks up endorsements and money. His greatest asset is that he is what most Americans are looking for: an adult with real job experience. His support among African Americans is not because he was Obama’s Veep. It is because of his real commitment to the first Black president. Yes, Biden took terrible positions on school desegregation in the 1970s and mass incarceration in the 1990s. But as Obama’s wing man for eight years, Biden was steadfast and loyal. Biden has a track record of being a white ally that is undeniable, and frankly, unusual. I would not be surprised to see him choose a woman of color as his Vice Presidential candidate. (But I don’t think Stacy Abrams wants that job, darn it.)

For the past year, I have been writing that progressives cannot expect to win the Presidency when they still have not built their base. I still believe that to be true. Bernie did the left a big solid with this campaign because he energized thousands of young political activists. But the key will be whether or not these activists stay engaged in the hard work of community and labor organizing after the primaries—and the 2020 election—are over. The future of left politics should not and cannot be defined by electoral politics. The main metric for success must be the capacity of workers, minority communities, women, LGBTQI people to get organized, and to align with one another with a progressive agenda that allows them to coordinate their efforts to take on the matrix of domination in this country and the world. Certainly, electoral politics will support this organizing effort, as Bernie’s and Warren’s campaigns did this year. But Americans will not be ready for a truly revolutionary politics until they can envision themselves as agents of change. We are still a ways from the kind of progressive movement that can make a “political revolution” actually win.

The Soul of (white) People

            A significant number of whites are becoming more aware of racism today, a fact often overlooked in this time of rising white supremacy. In the mid-1990s, some 70 percent of whites denied that racism was a serious problem in the United States. In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 45 percent of whites think that race relations between blacks and whites are somewhat bad or very bad; 56 percent of whites said that racism against blacks is widespread in the U.S.; 45 percent of whites believed that blacks are treated unfairly by the police; and 48 percent of whites said that there are not equal job opportunities for racial minorities in the United States today

This growing white acknowledgement of racism is the result of many determined campaigns led by people of color (and some whites). From Obama’s campaigns to Black Lives Matter, evidence of racism and protests against is now never-ending, from the Russian plot to disrupt the 2016 elections to Republican Party racial gerrymandering, to the racism of the criminal justice system, school segregation, and inequality of access to jobs and housing. The recent commemorations of the beginning of slavery 400 years ago prompted a broad reassessment of American history, with even the New York Times editorial board stating that American democracy and the American economy have always been racialized, a position held by only the most radical among us a few short years ago. Paradoxically, the willingness of tens of millions of whites to support an openly racist President solidified many other whites’ understanding that societal racism is alive and well.

“Today, the question for many ‘woke’ whites is no longer whether racism exists; the question now is what they will do about it.”

Unfortunately, many whites seem to be having a lot of difficulty answering this question. Certainly, anti-racist movements, backed by a generation of work by academics and public intellectuals, have insured that “woke” whites are aware that all whites are privileged by structural racism. But the problem is that this knowledge alone does not produce change.  Many whites who are barely holding onto their middle-class status may well decide that there is nothing they can do because they can ill afford to surrender any opportunity they have, privileged or no. As a result, ‘woke’ whites often feel paralyzing guilt.

            These paralyzing tendencies are, unfortunately, often re-enforced by ‘white studies.’  A host of books, articles and documentaries have appeared, explaining and decrying white rage and white fragility, and seeking to explain why so many whites are willing to vote for and advocate for policies that are completely destructive to their class, gender, etc. interests.  But, as Lauren Jackson recently wrote in Slate, the problem with white studies is that it is inward turning: the subject is white people, and the solution offered is for white people to heal themselves. LINK

The urging that whites turn inward to “heal themselves” through endless discussions with other white people produces a toxic stew of guilt and impotence.  Furthermore, many people of color are quite appropriately growing weary of being looked to as the experts on racism, or as the saviors of white liberals, or too often being the only people who show up to take action against racism,  and are wondering aloud why whites can’t figure out what’s going on and what to do about it.

So, what can whites who understand that racism is real and white supremacy must end do to become effective actors against it?

I believe the starting point for whites to take action is this: they must understand that racism damages everyone, including white people. There can be no doubt that racism has produced economic, political and social privileges that have benefitted all whites. But what is often missed by those who grasp white supremacy is that whites pay a dear price for their privileges. The recognition that racism harms whites may just be what is needed to propel them into action, not just to pay reparations to people of color for their privileges, but literally to save their own souls.

“Racism damages everyone, including white people”

The recognition that racism does damage to whites is not new. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about this in 1910, observing that colonial claims of the racial superiority of white civilization were built on ‘feet of clay.’ DuBois argued that when a civilization justifies the appropriation of the wealth and culture of the entire world on the basis of its racial superiority, those who participate in that appropriation deeply feel their own inauthenticity, the falseness of their own claims. In order to maintain their privileges, whites must believe that the people they oppress cannot see the pretenses of racists for what they are.  As a result, DuBois notes, it is when people of color assert their own humanity that whites become the most violent, because otherwise white people would have to acknowledge their own inhumanity. Martin Luther King also decried the false sense of superiority that racism imparted to whites, arguing that the belief that people of color were not equal human beings strips racist whites of their capacity to love—not only the non-white majority of the world, but also themselves.

White people are damaged by the fallacious belief that they are the only real human beings, (or, the belief that America is a white country, or the belief that saying that Black lives matter is somehow a threat to whites, etc.). In reality, the United States has always been a multi-racial society.  There was never a time when enslaved people (or Native Americans) completely lost their personhood, despite racists’ best efforts. Throughout American history, racially oppressed people always had their own lives, their own loves, their own agency. And, usually in secret, there were always some white people who refused to dehumanize these people, and at risk to their lives, were accepted into black and other communities of color.

Racism seeks to erases these realities. Racists must deny the ways that people outside Europe were and are effective agents of their own destinies, living, and loving and building civilizations. Within the world that racism created and continues to create, whites live out an enormous lie, one that is continually challenged by the very existence of over 80 percent of humanity.  In pursuit of white privilege and a false sense of their own superiority, whites voluntarily strip themselves of all their own national ethnic cultures and communities, leaving them no choice but to find meaning in bourgeois pursuits of wealth, power and status.

Worst of all, whiteness leaves many whites—especially middle- and upper-class whites—without a deep connection to a historically grounded loving community, to a sense of soulfulness. In this sense, DuBois’ effort to describe the ‘souls of white folks ‘was misplaced: whiteness renders people soul-less. (Indeed, in a rare moment of insight in her guilt-ridden and hand-wringing documentary about white privilege, Chelsea Handler says to the family of her Black teenage boyfriend, “Hanging out with you guys was the most soul I ever had in my life.”)

The understanding that racism radically distorts and undermines white peoples’ humanity and capacity for love is different from the Marxist argument that racism harms white workers by depriving them of the material benefits that would be theirs if they acted in class solidarity with workers of color. The Marxist position asks whites to believe that they would benefit from a working class solidarity that very few people in the United States see or experience. Marxists ask whites to give up the racial benefits they see very tangibly in their lives for class benefits that are far too abstract to be believable, let alone the basis for action. At this moment, when whites are becoming aware of structural racism but not yet racial capitalism, I believe the humanitarian/spiritual costs of whiteness have far more salience than Marxism for most people. This is not to say that white workers will not benefit from working class solidarity at some point. It is just to say that this moment is not yet one in which most whites will be receptive to that argument.

If racism harms whites (albeit in very different ways from people of color), then whites certainly have an interest in opposing racism that goes beyond guilt for their privileges. Indeed, since racism harms whites, then whites have every bit as much reason to oppose racism as anyone else. That is, white anti-racism must go beyond guilt-ridden support for the struggles of people of color and must include the struggle of white people for their own humanity, their own souls.

As Dr. King repeatedly told us, anti-racist struggles are more than fights against white supremacy and racial privilege. They must be about building relationships between people who, by opposing racism, learn to transcend race. The goal of anti-racist work is to build a new society by developing new social relationships between people now divided by racism. This is what Martin Luther King meant by the beloved community as the true meaning of social justice.

The work of anti-racist whites, then, is no different than that of anyone else: it is to absolutely and consistently oppose every manifestation of racism with everyone who is willing to undertake the work. As they do so, whites can transform themselves through their anti-racist practice and the relationships with people of color they forge in that context.

In so doing so, of course, whites face particular challenges and have particular opportunities. First, white anti-racists must recognize that they do have white privileges. But instead of feeling paralyzed by this reality, whites should utilize their privileges for all they are worth to oppose the system that created them. In doing so, whites will learn that by working against their privileges, they can build a far more rewarding society.  Anti-racist whites must also be willing to disrupt white spaces, engaging in courageous conversations with their white co-workers, their white friends, their white neighbors, and even their own white families–conversations that, often, only whites are able to initiate, but must eventually (very soon) include people of color. White anti-racists must also learn to respect, support and defend people of color’s needs for their own spaces to build community and, frankly, to be safe for a while in the face of unrelenting racism.

But most importantly, white anti-racists need to show up to do the many hard and sometimes dangerous things that are needed to oppose racism today. In doing this work, whites will discover an important truth: they will gradually begin to transform their own consciousness and ways of relating to people of color through multi-racial efforts, and as they do so, many people of color will accept them not as whites, but as fellow human beings pre-figuring a new society.

The task for whites who claim to be ‘woke’ is simple: just show up and stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else willing to combat racism. It is through this simple but essential practice that white people will begin heal from the terrible wounds racism has inflicted on them, and will finally find their souls in a world without whiteness.

The Squad and the Democratic Party Today

            The emergence of a group of young progressive women of color in the U.S. Congress is clearly of great significance. For the first time, activists who came out of the social movements of the 2010s are sitting in important governmental positions and are fearlessly articulating a progressive agenda. The question is: how will these new members of Congress re-shape the Democratic Party?

The Congressional Progressive Caucus now has 98 members, including 29 newly elected Representatives. Forty-seven members of Congress are women of color. Among the new members are four –Ilhan Omar (one of the two first Muslim women ever elected to Congress) , Ayana Pressley (the first African American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts), Rashida Tlaib (the other Muslim woman elected in 2018 from Michigan) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who famously unseated a powerful Democratic leader in New York City)—who refer to themselves and are widely known as the Squad.

The Squad has had, in their first six months in office, an outsized impact both in the Congress and on public opinion. They have called out Trump’s racism and demanded his impeachment.  They have been outspoken advocates for social democratic policies, such as universal health insurance and the New Green Deal.  All four are at the forefront of demanding the elimination of Trump’s migrant concentration camps, as well as ICE as a whole. In May, Ilhan Omar was targeted by Republicans and Zionist-supporting Democrats for her critical stance towards Israel, and in the ensuing fight, Democrats were forced to defend her and oppose racism in general.https://justice4all.law.blog/2019/03/10/ilhan-omar-and-the-future-of-the-democratic-party/ .  In July, Trump’s tweets and campaign rallies demanding that the Squad members “go back to their own country” led to a House resolution condemning the President’s remarks as racist.  To put it mildly, it is highly unusual for new members of Congress to become so influential in setting the agenda for the Democrats, let alone the House of Representatives.

But the Squad has bigger dreams than influencing this Congress: each woman is identified with an insurgency to unseat centrist Democrats and replace them with progressive activists. AOC’s chief of staff was the founder of Justice Democrats, an organization that recruited, trained and supported all four of the Squad’s campaigns, and is sponsoring five more candidates for 2020. https://www.justicedemocrats.com/The Squad is also closely aligned with Brand New Congress, an organization seeking to field progressive challenges to some forty ‘moderate’ members of Congress in Democratic primaries next year.  https://brandnewcongress.org/ The Squad has notified the Democratic establishment that women, people of color and young people will not tolerate business as usual. AOC publicly criticized Nancy Pelosi in June for not fighting harder for stipulations for humane treatment of migrants in the DHS funding bill passed by Congress. Ilhan Omar called out Obama for his immigration policies. AOC has repeatedly stated that the insurgency will win because of the movement they are building. She points to her 4 million Twitter followers as evidence for this movement’s size.

Here’s the problem: The Squad is undertaking this historic insurgency at a very dangerous moment: Democrats must now determine their strategy for contending with Trump in 2020. Virtually everyone agrees that the most important question is how to prevent Trump from having another four years to continue his assault on democracy. Progressives argue that the only way for the Democrats to win is to appeal to voters who are often taken for granted, especially women of color, with broad and bold proposals. Centrist Democrats are accused of being overly focused on white suburban independents and displaced white workers in the Upper Midwest states and Pennsylvania, a strategy that cost them the 2016 elections. Centrists respond that a shift of the Democrats to the left will doom them in the 2020 elections.

Based on the Democrats’ first Presidential debates last month, it appears that most of the aspiring candidates are feeling the need to tilt towards progressive politics.  (Indeed, Kamala Harris’ s decision to call out Joe Biden’s opposition to court-ordered plans to desegregate public schools in the 1980s and 1990s was a similar tactic to that used by the Squad, and it immediately galvanized widespread support for the only woman of color running for President in 2020.)

In the long run, the progressive push on the Democrats may very well produce their desired result. The Democratic Party (particularly the Clintonian centrists) is indeed complicit in many of the policies of the last thirty years that produced hyper-inequality, mass incarceration, violence against immigrant communities, and the downward spiral of the climate crisis. Progressives are certainly right that in the long run the Democrats can only be a viable party to the extent that they embrace policies that benefit the majority of the population, and not just the top 1 percent.

“Grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity.”

But is the Squad and their progressive allies building a movement capable of delivering enough votes to defeat Trump a year and a few months from now? Unfortunately, I would argue that they are not. My reason: grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity.  This is not to say that grassroots social movements don’t exist: they do, and from time to time are able to win important victories. But these movements have not been able to galvanize large numbers of people into long-term activism, and to keep them organized and mobilized on multiple issues on a national level. As a result, there are sporadic upsurges of protests, but the energy soon dissipates because the participants are not organized and lack a unified vision to connect to other social movements.

Getting people to participate in electoral politics is a specific form of organizing work, one that is highly centralized and guided by top-down decision-making and media-focused messaging.  Some people can participate in electoral campaigns as activists, but their activism is solely focused on securing their candidates’ election, and usually ends after the election. The large majority of people who support progressive candidates show up to vote (hopefully), and might attend a march, but do nothing else.  Building support for a progressive politician is not the same thing as building a grassroots social movement. The current fad of progressives referring to  electoral work as ‘movement building’ is in this sense quite misleading.

Progressive electoral campaigns that are backed up by grassroots social movements—like the civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, or the labor movement from the 1930s to the 1960s—have a different relationship to power. Once in office, elected officials who receive grassroots movement support can count on the social movement to continue to support their legislative agenda, and the social movement can also grow to the extent that elected officials raise issues that educate and activate people.

The big problem facing the Squad and other progressive politicians in 2019 is that grassroots social movements are not gaining momentum, size and power at this time. As a consequence, progressive elected officials have limited power. This is precisely Nancy Pelosi’s problem with the Squad: when AOC publicly called out Pelosi for her decision to abandon progressives’ language requiring humanitarian treatment of migrants in the emergency border budget bill, the Speaker tartly reminded AOC that the Squad was unable to get a single other Democrat to vote with them in opposition to the bill. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Even worse, recent polling suggests that Trump’s efforts to make the Squad the face of the Democrats seems to be working to his advantage: his racist and red-baiting attacks on the Squad have led to an increase in his favorable ratings.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is far stronger now than it was in 2012 or 2016, in part thanks to the Squad’s leadership. And, in the long run, the progressive agenda will certainly win widespread support, as the seriousness of the climate crisis hits home, as the stagnation of the majority of peoples’ standards of living becomes intolerable, as people become repulsed by Republican racism and misogyny, as organizing efforts break through the walls of Republican voter suppression grow. But will these changes happen in the next year? I don’t think so. Most Americans are not alarmed by the state of the U.S. economy; the efforts to impeach Trump are not galvanizing widespread support; the horrors of Trump’s border policies have not moved Americans to do anything (and that includes progressives!); women’s reproductive rights are under attack with little grassroots fightback, etc.

Progressives should take heart in the fact that the fight to shift the Democrats to become a left-led coalition is under way. The number of progressives winning elections is growing, and progressives’ influence in the Democratic Party is too. But, given the long slump in grassroots movements’ power in the United States, it would be naïve to think that progressives can set the agenda for the 2020 election, or expect the Democrats to nominate a progressive candidate for President. Now is a good time for progressives to take a deep breath, be realistic about our actual influence, and understand that participating in the Democratic Party’s center-led coalition in 2020 will increase, not decrease our influence in the future.

Towards a Center-Left Coalition in 2020

Virtually all Democrats and progressive independents agree that the principle issue for the 2020 election is the defeat of Donald Trump. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi recently stated that winning is not enough: it will be necessary to beat Trump decisively, because Trump might very well not concede if his defeat is by a small margin.  (The worry that Trump might not concede defeat in 2020 was first raised by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, in his March 2019 Congressional testimony).

One thing for sure: the only candidate who can beat Trump will be the candidate of the Democratic Party. While progressives who feel alienated from the Democrats might not like this, there is no possibility in 2020 for a third-party candidate to get more than a tiny percentage of the vote. But there certainly is the danger that a progressive third-party candidate could siphon off enough votes to give the election to Trump (remember the Green Party in 2000 in Florida). For this reason alone, progressives are going to have to fight for influence within the Democratic Party. But there is another reason: the vast majority of organized progressives in the United States are in the Democratic Party—labor unions, communities of color, women of all colors, etc. are not about to re-align with a third party in 2020. Thus, efforts to unite progressives around a common agenda and vision for the future will take place within the Democratic Party. Those who, out of self-righteous ideological purity, disdain this process and leave to form a third party will simply doom themselves to political irrelevance.

So, what are progressive Democrats to do now?

Let’s start with the state of the Democratic Party today.  It is indisputable that progressives have greater potential influence within the Democratic Party now than at any time since Jesse Jackson’s historic Presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. The 2018 midterm election brought nearly a hundred progressives to Congress and gave women of color a far greater voice in the Democratic caucus than they have ever had. As well, so-called centrist Democrats (i.e. those who appeal to white suburban voters) have lost their hegemonic control over the Democrats with Hillary’s defeat (and Bill Clinton exposing his racism) in 2016.  Unlike 2016, when centrist Democrats could assert Hillary as the nominee apparent, there is no presumptive Presidential candidate this time around. As a result, there are 23 candidates engaged in a rich and far flung debate over the way to beat Trump in 2020.

On the one hand are so-called centrist Democrats like Joe Biden, who continue to argue for policies to woo back white male workers and suburban white voters whose defection allegedly cost the Democrats the 2016 election. These centrists believe the winning strategy is to offer white workers and suburban independents pragmatic ideas, like strengthening the Affordable Care Act, raising minimum wages and improving schools.

On the other hand, progressives such as Stacy Abrams, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Berne Sanders argue that the Democratic Party’s problem in 2016 was its inability to get people of color, youth and poor people of all races to vote in sufficient numbers. Progressives argue that Trump cannot be decisively defeated by pragmatic policy proposals that appeal to a small number of middle-class whites. Instead, they are calling for the Democrats to appeal to disaffected potential voters (41 percent of all eligible voters did not vote in 2016) with bold new ideas that address threats to democracy, climate change, hyper-inequality and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.

While progressives have a stronger hand to play as the Democrats shape their 2020 strategy, there is also the danger that progressives could overplay their hand. Progressives can and should develop a progressive agenda and push for candidates that embrace it. But progressives cannot win the 2020 Presidential election and take control of the Senate by themselves. The simple fact of the matter is that progressives do not have the political clout, organizational capacity and access to money that it would take to go it alone. Developing this capacity is a long-term matter, requiring a new leadership, new agendas, and new members for many organizations, including labor unions, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, immigrant rights organizations, LGBTQI organizations, etc. It also requires coalition building around many campaigns and issues, some of which might be electoral, and others not.

Progressives have already shown their ability to generate enthusiasm with youth, communities of color and poor people. Because of their 2018 Congressional and local electoral victories, progressives have won the right to demand that centrists agree to a strategy that places voter registration, the concerns of communities of color and environmentalism at the center of their strategy. It is clear that, to beat Trump in 2020, centrists will have to make room for progressive issues and candidates.

Whether or not centrists and progressives can hammer out a common understanding remains to be seen. The formerly Clinton-led centrists still hold most of the power in the Democratic Party. And, while the boldness of AOC, Ilhan Omar, Stacey Abrams and others is inspirational, their appeal is mainly through social media. Progressives are still untested at the state and national level and have not yet developed the organizational clout they need.

So, if the Democrats are to beat Trump, they will need to come to a common agreement, and develop a center-left coalition. (Let there be no misunderstanding: the coalition will continue to be dominated by the centrists because they have more political muscle and financial backing). There are different ways to do this: Kamala Harris is trying to run as a center-left candidate, for example. Joe Biden, who hit the ground hard as a centrist appealing to white workers, might be able to lead a center-left coalition if he chooses a progressive like Stacey Abrams or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris as his running mate and adopts key progressive policies.

Above all, progressives need to take a long view of their strategy. While another four years of Trump would do terrible damage to this country and the world, progressives need to remember that Trump and his supporters are the resistance and that people of color, women, and young people represent the future. History is on our side, not the side of white nationalism. Already, progressive issues that have been marginalized for many years—the devastating effects of neo-liberalism, mass incarceration, attacks on reproductive rights, attacks on immigrant, the mounting environmental crisis, etc.—are now on the front burner. Already, a new progressive leadership is emerging. Progressives need to be in it for the long haul: the process of building progressive organizations and coalitions is not easy and happens at a pace dictated by historic forces outside anyone’s control. Progressives must dig in for the hard work of re-invigorating labor unions, reigning in corporations’ greed, organizing resistance to state violence against Black and Latinx communities,  fighting for reproductive rights, and working on behalf of environmental justice no matter what happens in 2020.

There can be no doubt that organizing for a progressive agenda within the Democratic Party must and will be one of the most important arenas for progressives for the next year and a half. Specifically, progressives are leading the fight against the Republicans’ racist gerrymandering strategy. To the extent that we succeed at this, we both safeguard democracy and increase progressives’ influence. Whether or not centrists will agree to a center-left strategy and candidate for 2020 remains to be seen. But early signs, exemplified by Nancy Pelosi’s steady leadership in the House of Representatives (such as her handling of the attacks on Ilhan Omar) are encouraging.

It is incumbent on progressives to not be swept away by our ideals. We must keep a sober eye on our own capacities as we undertake the main political task in front of us: the defeat of Trump in 2020. This task will require progressives to enter into a coalition with centrists, and likely to back a candidate who tilts towards the centrists’ agenda. Every progressive candidate needs to sign the Indivisible Pledge and agree to back whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020.  Progressives will be rewarded by such discipline by growing progressive organizations, building more unity among progressive causes, and with greater influence in the re-making of Democratic Party.

The days of the centrists, who came to power supporting Clinton’s neo-liberal agenda are coming to an end. But progressives have a lot of capacity-building to do before we can provide this country with the leadership needed to heal us from the destabilizing forces of inequality and white supremacy. Let us remember that redeeming this country is a long game, and we need to be very self-aware of our strengths and limitations at every step along the way. 2020 is an important test of this resolve.

Reparations Uplift Us All

The idea that the United States should pay reparations to African Americans, which for many years was considered extremist, has suddenly gone mainstream. A host of Democratic Presidential candidates and even Republican commentator David Brooks are now advocating for it.

The fact that a national discussion on reparations is now taking place is itself interesting. For two centuries, African American organizations or, in the past 25 years, a few Black members of Congress have issued calls for reparations without sparking much notice outside the black community. Now, HR 40 (as the bill to study reparations is called) has 35 co-sponsors. It has become a requirement for Democratic Presidential candidates to stake out a position on this issue. There can be little doubt that the reason for this is the growing recognition of societal racism by a majority of Americans, as well as the growing influence of progressives within the Democratic Party.

Those who support reparations have made a compelling case about the history of state-sponsored and private racism in the United States. The role of enslaved people in the creation of the national wealth is now better understood. The perversion of democracy, both in the slave and Jim Crow eras, is now well established. Many scholars have shown that the current housing and school segregation, often treated by courts as just a “fact of life” (de facto segregation) actually resulted from continuous purposeful action by government, banks and millions of whites throughout the second half of the 20th Century. Still others have detailed the ways banks foisted sub-prime mortgages on African Americans and Latinx homebuyers in the 2000s, paving the way for a massive stripping of Black and Latinx wealth after the 2008 financial crisis.  Based on the historical record, it is undeniable that African Americans (and, in other specific ways, Latinx, Native Americans and Asian Americans) have been systematically and intentionally denied access to the opportunities afforded white Americans throughout American history , resulting in the well-known statistics of the present: the black poverty rate is three time that of whites, and the black/white wealth gap is 12-1.

The case for reparations, however, cannot solely be based on proving that African Americans and other people of color have been systematically denied the opportunities given to whites and have been subject to the government and capitalists stealing whatever wealth they had accumulated. Having established this grim reality, we have to address the other side of the question: what is the purpose of reparations?

To some, the purpose of reparations is to level the playing field between blacks and whites by redistributing wealth, education, housing and other social resources, “balancing the scales” as Elizabeth Warren puts it. If African Americans are given, say, preferential admission to selective colleges, or easier access to bank loans and investment capital, then they are closer to equal opportunity. For many years, the principle demand for reparations was for a cash payment sufficient to enable a Black family descended from enslaved people to invest in buying a home or starting a business. (An updated version of the original 40 acres and a mule promised by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867). In this version, if African Americans are given enough capital to participate in the market economy then America has repaid its debt.

Giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society will not achieve social justice.

But will giving Black people greater opportunity to participate in the existing society achieve social justice? I don’t think so. If the social order remains wedded to racism, these efforts will be to little purpose. We already know that when Black people achieve their family’s hard-won dream of graduating from college, they earn less than white high school graduates. We already know that when people of color were able to finally scrape together the funds to buy a house, fully half of Black (and 65% of Latinx) homeowners (as compared to 15% of whites) lost their homes in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown.  “Balancing the economic scales” with one-time interventions simply won’t end systemic white privilege. Far more is needed than that!

If we are to be serious about reparations, we need to do more than give people a stake in a system rigged against them. Reparations must make those who are dehumanized and exploited feel that this country has actually made a significant step away from America’s embrace of white supremacy and towards being a society that truly values all people. At its core, the importance of reparations is that it gives the United States as a whole the opportunity to understand the enormity of the harm that has been done in its name to individuals, families, whole communities, to the economy and to democracy itself.  In this sense, the most significant goal of reparations is to create a situation in which whites feel the need to issue a sincere apology for the damage done to benefit them, a spiritual change of heart towards people of color. Of course, an apology without efforts to improve the material well-being of those harmed is not a sincere one. But what makes reparations impactful is the extent to which they compel a re-thinking of the relationships between people, a real recognition that black lives matter as much as white lives.

We don’t have to look far for an example of successful reparations. In the 1980s, Japanese Americans succeeded in their long campaign to convince the country that Franklin Roosevelt’s EO 9066 (which in 1942 ordered 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps in the U.S.) was mistaken and racist. In 1988, President Reagan issued a formal apology that included reparation payments of $20,000 for each survivor. The payments were nominal given that internees had been forced to sell many billions of dollars of property to whites at 1/10th their value. But the Presidential apology, coupled with a Congressional apology and a Supreme Court decision restoring internees’ voting rights, was real. The significance of this apology was underscored shortly after 9/11/2001, when right wing extremists advocated the internment of Muslim Americans. But America had indeed turned a corner on mass internment of U.S. citizens because of the apology. This nation was no longer the America of 1942. The proposal to round up Muslims was dead on arrival.

To be meaningful, reparations for African Americans must be transformative of the United States as a whole. That is, reparations must be driven by a sincere acknowledgement of the history of white supremacy both past and present, and a real desire to get beyond its long and deadly grip on this nation’s economy, politics and culture. While the primary purpose of reparations must be to make whole those harmed, whatever is done to provide African Americans with opportunity will be short-lived unless it is closely coupled to efforts to come to terms with who America has been, who we are, and who we want to be. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his influential 2014 Atlantic article, “We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”

Here, then, is the crux of the matter: the demand for reparations for African Americans addresses one particular group’s grievances against America, but in so doing it allows us to look at our history and future in a new way. Again, we are brought face to face with the powerful insight of intersectionality: there is no fatal contradiction between the interests a specific group and the needs of all people. By centering and addressing the needs of one group, we get closer to be a nation that can embrace everyone’s needs and interests.

Predictably, many—including Bernie Sanders– have pushed back against the demand for reparations, calling instead for universal programs like improving public education that don’t single out any “special interest group.” Sanders misses the point. If we are serious about creating a society committed to everyone’s well-being, we must start by first addressing the needs of those who have been singled out for unequal treatment throughout America’s history. To do so does not detract from the needs of others; to the contrary, acknowledging the nation’s responsibility to remedy the wrongs done to Black people makes it far likelier that everyone else will also be included. Sanders’ argument is similar to those who upon hearing the slogan “Black Lives Matter” push back by saying “No, everyone’s life matters.” The problem with this position is that we know that white lives now matter far too much, and black lives far too little. Until we say black lives matter, we can never say everyone’s life matters.

Coates puts it this way:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

This is the most effective argument for reparations. Yes, Black people are owed for what was taken from them. But if they are to mean anything, reparations must be based on the argument that such an apology and payment will provide everyone in this nation—indeed, in the world—with a powerful opportunity to step away from this country’s history of racism and enter into a new age in which everyone’s humanity is valued.

Once again, we see the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea that social justice is the creation of the beloved community. We cannot settle for the idea that equal opportunity is social justice (Elizabeth Warren) or that equality is social justice (Bernie Sanders). Let us insist on a far more radical proposition: that social justice exists when we people acknowledge one another’s humanity, and desire to live as a beloved community. Reparations to African Americans can be an important step towards that end.