The Uprising after the Murder of George Floyd
GEORGE Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis (Minnesota) police officer on May 25. He was unarmed and had been accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. The officer – Derek Chauvin – knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Eleven times Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe’. The entire brutal episode was captured on a cell phone camera. Three other police officers either restrained Floyd or prevented bystanders from intervening. The video went viral; it revived memories of a cycle of police killings that became very visible after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. After Brown was murdered and after protests broke out in Ferguson, police departments said that they would reform their ways. Since Brown’s killing, over five years ago, the US police departments have killed over six thousand people, most of them unarmed. Floyd’s murder, therefore, came in the midst of a regular spree of police murders, disproportionately of African Americans.
Ten days before George Floyd was killed in the street, police burst into the apartment of Breonna Taylor in Louisville (Kentucky) and shot her dead. They claimed – without foundation – that this was a drug raid. Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was shot eight times and died instantly.
It was this cycle of police murders that raised the ire of a very large section of the public in the United States. Despite the lockdown due to the pandemic, massive demonstrations took place under the slogan ‘I can’t breathe’. These protests have been largely organised by a very specific demographic: young African Americans, often women, and often from the working-class and lower middle-class, in other words, those who have either faced police violence or whose family members have been killed by police violence. Organised political forces and social groups have joined these protests, but they are not the main authors of them. There is a disorganised quality to the protests, but it is held together by the determination that this time the police violence must stop. At each demonstration, young leaders have emerged to give voice to this sentiment. Their voices are clear and precise: no more of this police brutality.
If a defining feature of these protests is that they are led by young African Americans from the working-class, then the other characteristic is that they are peopled by a range of precarious workers who are not only angry at the murders but also at the collapse of the US system. It is not only African Americans who are in the streets; large numbers of others – whites, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos – are angry about the police murders, the general insensitivity of the Trump administration, and the rising economic distress. At rallies, the political mood shifts quickly from anti-Trump (‘vote him out in November’) to anti-elite (‘It’s the system’); the former gets loud cheers, but so does the latter. This sentiment emerged during the Occupy movement of 2011 and has not dissipated. It is why the protests go beyond the murder of George Floyd and go beyond the police murders in general.
Unemployment rates due to the lockdown are perilously high, and so too are increasing rates of hunger. An entire generation of young workers finds itself in a permanent condition of crisis, now exacerbated by the pandemic. The tenor of the protests shifts swiftly from anger at police violence to the inhumanity of the system at large. One of the great worries of the authorities is that these protests – which began over the murder of George Floyd – will take on a more general character; they have already become about the universal brutality of the police, but they could just as easily become about the utter failure of this system to deal with the causes of suffering in society. If the general sense of despair at unemployment and hunger becomes political, then this will no longer remain merely a problem of this incident or that incident but of the system itself.
RIOTS OF THE POLICE
Every mass protest against police violence in the United States over the past century has been a combination of non-violent mass protests and of a general jacquerie of the impoverished. High rates of poverty and hunger – particularly amongst oppressed minorities – defines cities in the United States. Combine this social condition with general anger at police behaviour and a combustible mix presents itself. It is not as if any organised political force called upon the people to go and break shop windows or to take goods from there; such action is a spontaneous consequence of poverty, indignity, and anger. In 1992, during a similar cycle of uprisings, Pamela Speaks who had participated in the rebellion in Los Angeles said of the looting, ‘I don’t think it’s right, but it gets the frustrations out’. This captures the essential issue here: growing anger and resentment that manifests itself in these riots. Riots take place as a reaction to the deep structural violence of capitalism; these riots are a message from the dispossessed that they have just had enough. The riot can only say that, and nothing more; riots are a message, but not the answer.
These acts of vandalism only emerged in the early days. As the protest movement developed, there was less evidence of looting. A seriousness marked the actions of the people who came to demand an end to something endemic in US society: anti-Black racism rooted in police actions. It is this seriousness that is bringing people to the streets day in and day out, and it is this seriousness that shifted the mood from simply a protest against the murder to a demand for the defunding of police departments and the removal of statues of racists (including confederate generals).
Media coverage focused on the riot, but the more formidable violence came from the police. Over the past twenty years, the domestic police departments have been buying up used equipment from the US military as well as new equipment from military suppliers. Even police departments in small towns have invested in lethal weaponry, body armour, drones, and armoured cars; policemen across the United States resemble the US military. Belligerence is the order of the day, as the police officers no longer behave – particularly in working-class areas and in mainly minority areas – as if they are servants of the people, but as if they are an occupying force. The police’s occupation army attitude came in their routine use of tear gas, callously used against peaceful protestors during a respiratory pandemic.
The test of this came during the protests that followed the killing. In Buffalo (New York), police officers shoved a peace activist – Martin Gugino – who was well-known to them as a Catholic worker activist; he struck his head on the sidewalk and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma. On Twitter, US President Donald Trump called Gugino a ‘terrorist’; it did not help that Gugino is white. This came at the same time as Trump decided to go after Antifa, a loose grouping of anti-fascist activists. From Trump and the hard-right Republicans as well as the more obvious neo-fascists came full-support not only for police violence but also vigilante neo-fascist violence which has been brewing in the United States for the past decade.
ANGER AT THE POLICE
There is now a credible call to ‘defund the police’ across the country. This means that police departments should no longer be provided with large disbursements to arm themselves to the teeth, but that municipal money should go towards eradicating the sources of criminality. Basic questions of human decency are being asked of city councils and mayors: rather than a police force that ensures that people are kept out of vacant properties, what if these vacant properties are turned into places to live? What if rather than a police force to protect grocery stores from the petty theft of the hungry, the city administrations create institutions that make sure that everyone has enough food to eat? Sociologists have argued that people turn to non-violent crime largely because of the entrenched inequalities in society; if eradicating these inequalities are the focus of government, then the need to fund the police would be lessened. This is what the slogan ‘defund the police’ means.
The city of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, has voted to disband the police department. The city council plans to use that money to create community safety initiatives. City Council president Lisa Bender said, ‘We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a transformative model of public safety’. They will take some time to study their options, the councillors said, but they will certainly not return to the militarised policing that led to the death of George Floyd.