Analysis United States

The Language of the Unheard

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“Can you hear us now?” Those were the words spray painted on the boarded-up windows of Minneapolis’ East Lake Clinic—near the 3rd Precinct police station that protesters burned down on the night of May 28th.

The whole world has now watched four Minneapolis cops murder George Floyd. Yet it took eight full days of sustained, massive and multiracial protests in hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. before all four cops were even charged. Without the protests—and yes, the rioting—the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd would have been treated as just another case of police “doing their job.”

The protests have finally forced the world to acknowledge that white supremacy is not part of a bygone era but is permanently engraved in the very foundation of U.S. society, since the time of chattel slavery and genocide against Native Americans that enabled the capitalist system to develop. Racism is not an aberration of the system but a central component of that system. Those who decry the “violence” that erupted during protests all over the country are missing the point: While the capitalist class cares nothing about Black and Brown lives, it cares very much about the sanctity of private property and the legitimacy of the police who “serve and protect” its interests.

The Language of the Unheard

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued in 1967,

a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.

King concluded, “as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

King’s words are just as relevant today, demonstrating just how little virulent racism has diminished in U.S. society more than five decades later. And then, as now, urban uprisings shook U.S. society to its core, forcing the issue of racist police violence to the center stage. But whereas the 1960s urban rebellions were almost entirely Black, the protests taking place today all over the U.S. are thoroughly multiracial. It is significant not only that whites are joining the protests, but other racially oppressed people—like Native Americans, who have also suffered centuries of brutality—identify with the struggle. As Ben Pease, an Indigenous artist from Montana, argued, “Personally, I think, how loud do you have to be to be heard? How many times do you have to die? How many African Americans have to die at the hands of the police for there to be systemic change? Rioting does work. Looting does work. Protesting does work.” We need to ask ourselves what all this can mean for the future of organizing against racism.

While most mainstream commentators condemn burning and looting as wanton acts of destruction, rebelling against racism is a tactic that has been proven to bring attention to the systematic violence inflicted upon Black and Brown people—normalized within mainstream society, sustained by political officials’ enforcement of the status quo, and perpetrated by armed police and white supremacists (who too often overlap). George Floyd’s murder was nothing short of a 21st century lynching.

“I can’t breathe” were also Eric Garner’s last words in 2014, spoken desperately 11 times before he was murdered from a police chokehold in Staten Island, also captured on video. Every major U.S. city has its own Black and Brown murder victims—many killed by police and some by armed white vigilantes. These included, most recently, Breonna Taylor, the young first responder from Louisville, Kentucky, who police shot and killed as she slept, and Ahmoud Arbery from Brunswick, Georgia., whose murder while jogging by two white men (one a former cop) was captured on video. “Say their names” has been a rallying cry at protests around the U.S. in memory of so many other Black murder victims whose killers walked free—from Trayvon Martin, to Michael BrownFreddie Gray, and Tamir Rice—to name just a few on a very long list.

Protests spread around the world in solidarity with the U.S. struggle—because racism and racist police violence are fundamental features of capitalism everywhere. “I can’t breathe” has become a universal chant of anti-racists worldwide, as protesters carry pictures of George Floyd—and, predictably, police respond with tear gas. The impact of Floyd’s murder and the outcry against it was demonstrated vividly on May 30th as hundreds rallied in Tel Aviv for justice for Iliad Hallak, a Palestinian man with autism who was recently shot and killed by police in Jerusalem’s Old City—whose signs read “Palestinian Lives Matter” and “Justice for Iyad, Justice for George.”

‘Justice for Iyad, justice for George’: Hundreds protest police killing of Palestinian in Jerusalem

 

Curfews and Police Violence

Politicians and pundits at first responded to the murder of George Floyd with expressions of anguish (ranging from feigned to sincere), but they pivoted toward righteous condemnation of the protesters as soon as the burning and looting began. Officials wasted no time in imposing night time curfews, while 24 states plus the District of Columbia called in the national guard—transforming the protests into “illegal” assemblies. The mainstream media focused their attention on the suddenly “lawless” protests instead of the racist police violence that ignited them in the first place.

While the corporate media focused almost solely on the “violence” of the protesters, police were rioting all around them, shooting rubber bullets, beating, kicking, tear gassing—and in some cases, killing—protesters with their hands in the air and the journalists who were exposing the police violence. News outlets such as VoxSlate, and The Verge, along with social media, were among the first to document the countless instances of police raging against protesters—long before the mainstream media took notice. One especially disturbing video showed police in Austin, Texas firing into a crowd of peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas, and then firing on those attempting to carry an injured protester to safety. In another case, Louisville police and national guard shot and killed beloved local restaurant owner David McAtee. None of the police had activated their body cameras before opening fire on McAtee. Buffalo police were shown on video using batons to shove a 75-year-old peaceful protester to the ground and walking away as he lay bleeding from the head.

The police brutality was so ferocious and so widespread that no one who has viewed it, much less experienced it, can continue to blame police violence on “just a few bad apples.” It is obviously systemic.

It is impossible to ignore the contrast with law enforcement’s benign treatment of reactionary white protesters at Michigan’s and other state capitals demanding the reopening of state economies from the coronavirus shutdown. Those gun-toting whites suffered not a single arrest despite shouting obscenities and spitting at police, while President Trump cheered them on—calling on state governors to “liberate” them from the tyranny of social distancing in the midst of a pandemic.

Donald Trump and his ilk, to be sure, fomented yet more police violence against protesters. Back in 2017 Trump advised police arresting “thugs” to be “rough” with them. In the same vein, Trump responded to the George Floyd protesters with a tweetstorm, calling them “THUGS!” and declaring “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” repeating the threat of 1960s-era Southern segregationist police. Trump and his attorney general flunky, William Barr, wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunity to blame the violence on leftist “radical agitators” like “antifa”. Trump tweeted soon afterward that he would designate antifa a “terrorist organization” (although there is no such organization).

Trump’s Overreach

Then the infantile Trump grossly overstepped his own authority. Apparently, on May 31st Trump retreated to the White House bunker in the face of the growing protests in Washington, D.C. The next day Trump decided he needed a new photo op to counter that cowardly image—deciding that strolling across the street to the partially burned St. John’s Church and posing with a bible would shore up his voting base. Barr rushed across the street on Trump’s orders to demand law enforcement drive out the peaceful protesters to clear the way before Trump’s desired photo op.

Officers in riot gear used rubber bullets, flash grenades and tear gas against the perfectly legal protest, taking place before Washington, D.C.’s 7 pm curfew. As Trump held a Rose Garden press conference—where he announced his plan to invoke the Insurrection Act to mobilize federal troops to “dominate” the streets against the protesters—the screams of protesters and the thunder of police weaponry could be heard in the background. When Trump, who rarely attends church, held up the bible for photographers in front of St. John’s Church, he was asked whether he was holding his own bible. He responded, “It’s a bible.”

Trump, who rarely attends church, held up the bible for photographers in front of St. John’s Church

It seems that Trump provoked a bit of a constitutional crisis by threatening to use the Insurrection Act nationwide, while also summoning active duty troops from the 82nd Airborne to Washington, D.C. Support began to unravel even among Trump’s closest allies in the wake of these events. Defense Secretary Mark Esper registered his opposition to Trump invoking the Insurrection Act, stating, “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now.”

President Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis declared he was “angry and appalled” at Trump’s response. Mattis added, “Never did I dream that troops…would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” A handful of Republican congresspeople have openly supported Mattis, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who said she is “struggling” about whether to vote for Trump in 2020.

Granted, there are nearly five months to go before the November election, but there are ominous signs emerging for Trump’s political future. Rep. Steve King from Iowa, after serving nine terms and known for keeping a confederate flag in his office, was defeated in the June 2020 primary. King was infamously quoted by the New York Times in January 2019 asking, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?”

The Liberal Echo Chamber

Minnesota Governor Timothy Walz is a member of the liberal Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or DFL. Liberal mayors govern both in Minneapolis (Jacob Frey, also of the DFL) and St. Paul (Melvin Carter III, the city’s first Black mayor). All three expressed their disappointment and anger at Geoge Floyd’s murder, yet echoed the notion that “outside agitators” committed the violence once it began. Unlike Trump and his cronies, they blamed not only leftists but also white supremacists invading the state to foment violence. They were forced to walk back those claims, however, once concrete evidence emerged that those who had been arrested in Minneapolis were overwhelmingly homegrown.

There is some evidence that white supremacists attempted (with little success) to foment violence or blame antifa for the violence, while there is as yet no credible evidence that “violent radicals” did so. The white nationalist group Identity Evropa, for example, falsely identifying itself as @ANTIFA_US on Twitter, tweeted on May 31st, “Tonight’s the night, Comrades,” accompanied by a brown raised fist emoji and “Tonight we say ‘F—- The City’ and we move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours…”

Nevertheless, liberal political leaders responded to protesters with considerable antagonism. After New York City police deliberately drove two vehicles into a group of protesters, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he did not “blame” police, adding, “If those protesters had just gotten out of the way and not created an attempt to surround that vehicle, we would not be talking about this.” Days later, the mayor defended police beating protesters with batons, stating, “In the context of crisis, in the context of curfew, there is a point where enough is enough.” It is no wonder then that when de Blasio got up to speak at a George Floyd memorial on June 4th, the crowd booed him off the stage, chanting “I can’t breathe.”

Likewise, Minneapolis’ mayor Jacob Frey, even after nearly two weeks of continuous protest, refused to commit to defunding the police department—and was driven out of a George Floyd protest on June 6th with loud booing and jeers such as, “Go home, Jacob.”

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden brought no solace to those seeking transformative change to the racist system of policing when he offered the following tactical advice for police to use during altercations with unarmed suspects: you shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart.

The ostensibly “liberal” New York Times ran an op-ed on June 3rd entitled Send in the Troops by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, echoing Trump’s call to use the Insurrection Act to mobilize the federal military to create “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” Cotton also repeated Trump’s false claim that the destruction of property was caused by “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”

Cotton’s op-ed, however, provoked a rebellion by staffers at the Times itself, as dozens tweeted “Running this puts black @nytimes staff in danger.” In addition, over 800 staff members signed a protest letter and threatened a virtual walkout.” The Times published an op-ed entitled “Tom Cotton’s Fascist Op-Ed” that same day and issued an apology the following day. On June 7th, the editorial page editor resigned under pressure.

Minnesota: A Microcosm of Everything that is Wrong in America

George Floyd’s family called not only for the arrest of all four officers who murdered him but also a first degree murder charge for Chauvin to match the seriousness and intent of the crime. It turns out that Chauvin and Floyd both worked security at the same local nightclub, El Nuevo Rodeo (since burned down), with overlapping shifts on Tuesday nights. The club’s former owner described Floyd as “beloved in the Latin community,” while remarking that Black customers complained about Chauvin’s rough treatment of them—noting that he doused the crowd with pepper spray when fights broke out, which she called “overkill”.

The Floyd family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said of Floyd’s and Chauvin’s shared employment,

“That is going to be an interesting aspect to this case and hopefully upgrading these charges to first-degree murder because we believe he knew who George Floyd was. We think that he had intent.”

Chauvin has chalked up 18 complaints during his nearly two decades on the police force. Only two of those complaints resulted even in an official letter of reprimand while the others produced no disciplinary action whatsoever. On the contrary, Chauvin was celebrated by the Minneapolis Police Department, singled out for his “bravery” on the job. He was awarded two medals of valor, one in 2006 and another in 2008. He also won two medals of commendation, in 2008 and in 2009.

Minneapolis is technically a very liberal city, with a city council made up of 12 Democrats and one member of the Green Party and two Black transgender members. But Robert Lilligren, the first Native American elected to the City Council in 2001, explained, “Minneapolis has ridden this reputation of being progressive,” adding, “That’s the vibe: Do something superficial and feel like you did something big. Create a civil rights commission, create a civilian review board for the police, but don’t give them the authority to change the policies and change the system.” One longtime Somali-born resident described the city’s culture as “racism with a smile.”

And Minneapolis’ police department is notoriously racist, killing 30 people between 2000 and 2018, a clear majority of them Black—in a city with a Black population of less than 20 percent. Minneapolis police records show at least 237 instances of cops using “neck restraints” during arrests, leaving 44 people unconscious. Three-fifths of those left unconscious were Black.

Yet only one police officer has been convicted in decades—Mohamed Noor, the Black police officer who in 2017 shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk, an unarmed white woman. Her family was awarded a $2 million dollar settlement. While that conviction and settlement are justified, the double standard sheds yet more light on the racial discrepancies in cases of police murder—when Black families get neither the satisfaction of a conviction nor a financial settlement of any kind, however strong the evidence.

In 2016, for example, Philando Castile was pulled over for a traffic stop. After he informed the cop that he was in possession of a legal, licensed firearm, the officer responded by shooting him seven times. Castile’s girlfriend turned on Facebook Live and recorded his dying moments as her 4-year-old daughter watched from the backseat. Prosecutors charged the cop with manslaughter, but he was acquitted months later, despite police dashcam video of the shooting.

And Lt. Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis police union, is a vocal racist, who apparently sports a white power patch on his motorcycle jacket and belongs to the City Heat Motorcycle Club, a group of white supremacist police bikers. He is an enthusiastic Trump supporter who has called Black Lives Matter (BLM) a “terrorist organization” and, in the face of recent anti-police brutality protests, denounced the late George Floyd as a “violent criminal.”

Indeed, Minnesota is a microcosm of everything that is wrong in America. As Kandace Montgomery and Miski Noor summarized at Vox,

Minnesota, which has a Black population of about 6 percent (Minneapolis has a Black population of just under 20 percent), has had the fourth-biggest employment gap between Black and white residents in the US: In recent years, about 8 percent of Black households were unemployed, compared to 3 percent for white households. Reading test scores of Black fourth-graders have been much lower than their white counterparts, making it the second-widest gap of the 41 states that tested enough black students. According to 2017 census data, 76 percent of households in Minneapolis headed by a white person own their home compared to 24 percent for black people, one of the largest disparities in the nation. In 2019, a financial news website ranked Minneapolis the fourth-worst metro area in the United States for Black Americans, based on such disparities.

These disparities are mirrored in the behavior of the Minneapolis Police Department. According to City Lab, a 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that in Minneapolis, Black people were “8.7 times more likely than whites were to be arrested for low-level offenses like trespassing, playing music too loudly from a car (this is actually illegal), drinking in public, and disorderly conduct,” and five times more likely to be arrested for lack of proof of car insurance. It’s 25 times more likely for a Black person to be arrested for “loitering with intent to commit a narcotics offense,” considered an offense even if narcotics are not in someone’s possession.

Changing Hearts and Minds

It is no exaggeration to say that the recent protests—which should be more accurately described as uprisings against racism—have accomplished more in a matter of days than decades of patient organizing seeking slow and incremental change.

Minneapolis has now banned police choke-holds and neck restraints, leaving many to wonder why these sadistic techniques ever became accepted police practices. City councilmember Jeremiah Ellison wrote that they aim to ultimately replace Minneapolis law enforcement agencies with a “transformative new model of public safety.” While this outcome would be welcomed by anti-racists everywhere, history tells us that this is unlikely to happen once the heat of this moment blows over—or put differently, without sustained massive, organized, struggle—which is why, after centuries of Black and Brown people fighting against racism, this crucial element of the capitalist system remains intact.

National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell at long last apologized to Black players on June 5th, admitting “we were wrong” for not listening to their concerns regarding racism sooner. While this is an important change in NFL posture, Goodell did not address the injustice done to Colin Kaepernick, who began taking a knee in 2016 during the national anthem to protest police violence against Black people and has not been signed by any NFL team since. But the connection between Kaepernick’s sacrifice and the recent protests couldn’t be more clear. As he tweeted in support, “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction.”

The impact of the enormous protests in response to George Floyd’s murder has shown itself in the changed hearts and minds among a majority of the U.S. population, who stand with the protesters. A Reuters poll published on June 2nd reported, “64 percent of American adults were sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now.” A June 5th ABC/Ipsos poll showed nearly three-fourths of respondents (including 70 percent of white people) viewed the death of George Floyd as a sign of an underlying racial injustice problem, compared with just 43 percent in 2014, after the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Only 32 percent of the ABC/Ipsos respondents approved of Trump’s reaction since Floyd’s murder.

But the protests have not only shone a light on the deeply racist character of U.S. society. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and mass unemployment, the protests against the murder of George Floyd have also brought all the contradictions of capitalism to the fore—including the legal system’s definition of “crime”. As Jeff Bezos loots his way toward trillionaire status on the backs of his underpaid and overworked employees, many of them Black and Brown, he is nevertheless considered a law-abiding citizen. The cost of the property damage inflicted by supposedly “criminal” protesters is miniscule in comparison to the amount Bezos takes in daily through wage theft from his workers.

Signs with the slogan “White silence = violence” have resonated everywhere.

On June 6th, the 12th consecutive day of protest, hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. took to the streets—larger than ever before—including in Washington, D.C., where Trump had fortified the security fencing around the White House. The demonstrators were of all ages, many races and genders, and some were attending the first protest in their lives. Signs with the slogan “White silence = violence” have resonated everywhere. One white West Virginia native carried a sign stating, “Hillbillies support Black Lives Matter.” Days earlier, a group of 50 Black cowboys on horseback joined a 60,000-strong protest in Houston, one with a “Black cowboys matter” t-shirt. Virginia’s governor ordered a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to be removed in Richmond, Virginia, while Fredericksburg city officials removed a slave auction block that had been prominently displayed in its downtown since the 1830s or 1840s. “Defund the police” is now a concrete demand of protesters in communities devastated by the economic crisis—as demonstrators reject the choice to continue bloated police department budgets while slashing education and health care, and denying affordable housing. For the first time in many years, a sense of hope has begun to replace the despair that has pervaded U.S. society for so long. We can thank the protesters—and yes, the rioters—for finally giving voice to the unheard. The whole world is now listening, and watching.

Courtesy International Socialism Project

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