V. I. Lenin wrote, “there are decades when nothing happens, then there are weeks when decades happen.” We are in such a moment, and it has been to difficult to catch one’s breath. I mean this literally and figuratively. First, by the explosion of the COVID pandemic, which has stolen over 100,000 lives in the United States through slow asphyxiation, disproportionately affecting Black and Brown folks. Second, the Minneapolis Police’ execution of George Floyd through intentional strangulation in broad daylight, on the street. Third, the police forces’ abusive gassing of domestic protests with tear gas and pepper spray, leaving thousands gasping for air and coughing, therefore spreading COVID. Finally, the ripple of consequences due to the uprising against police violence has been difficult to keep up with. We’re running to catch up. Three weeks of struggle have led to officer arrests, pledges to defund the police, and toppled memorials to white supremacy. The quick escalation of these demands is a reflection of the years of hard work laid by abolitionists, long dismissed as utopian by the mainstream and even by sections of the left.
Neoliberalism shaved away all the social programs of the past, particularly in majority Black and Brown locales, leaving nothing but policing to enforce brutal and unequal laws. George Floyd received a death sentence for allegedly using a forged $20 bill in Minneapolis; Eric Garner was choked to death for selling individual cigarettes in New York. Anatole France once wrote that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” Eugene Debs, the great socialist orator of the early 20th century, argued that the criminal justice system is like “a magical fishing net that catches minnows, yet lets the whales go free.”
These are the moments that reveal with great clarity the systemic horrors of life under capitalism and hint at an alternative future. Back in March, that was the COVID-19 pandemic. As I wrote at the time:
“Now is the time to demand the impossible. We must for immediate reforms: paid sick leave, paid family leave, emergency stipends for service workers and independent contractors, free testing, free treatment, free meals delivered to home-bound individuals, and guaranteed equipment, personnel, and beds in the hospitals. We must also demand the release of imprisoned, detained, or jailed people. Long term, we so desperately need socialized healthcare, paid family and medical leave, guaranteed income for the unemployed or underemployed, and paid childcare. Demands that seemed impossible last week, such as freeing people in jail or people detained by ICE, are gaining traction. Horizons are lifting.” I as I have oft-repeated over the past three months, what was considered “radical” last week is now common sense. These demands, while still necessary, have been superseded by the uprising.
As Molly Crabapple wrote, “I will forever remember how New York City had no money to help the renters that make up 70% of our population but had unlimited funds to pay the cops to break our skulls”
We find ourselves in a moment of utopia. Minneapolis activists burned down the police precinct and forced the retreat of the cops; the City Council is now seriously considering defunding the police. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was sent packing from a demonstration when he refused to commit to police abolition. Seattle activists reclaimed blocks of Capitol Hill now known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone after rerouting the police. In Ann Arbor, abolitionists disrupted a pro-police “unity” march and got marchers to join a cop-free march and public forum memorializing Aura Rosser, who was shot in her own home in 2015 by the AAPD. In New Orleans, protestors surrounded a cop car and freed an arrested woman, chanting “we protect us! we protect us!”
As Angela Davis, the great abolitionist, maintains,
“An abolitionist approach that seeks to answer questions such as these would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment-demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance” (Are Prisons Obsolete 107).
It is a moment of radicalization. Across the nation, protestors have encountered the viciousness of police brutality in demonstration after demonstration in what has been described as a “police riot.” Many who have never protested before find themselves battling the police in street skirmishes, building barricades and being tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, and shot at.
The Black freedom struggle in the United States has always been revolutionary because anti-Blackness is baked into bourgeois class rule. In every area of life – health, education, debt, life expectancy, earnings, rates of homeownership, eviction, incarceration rates, and police violence – and now COVID deaths, Black folks suffer disproportionately. This fact gives lie to any promise of American greatness or democracy. It is only through the Black freedom struggle that America was forced to become formally democratic – first through the abolition of chattel slavery and again by extending voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement. We owe an immense debt to the Black radical imagination, which is once again shows us the way forward.