In the last three weeks, we have witnessed protest actions that were massive, creative, sustained, multi-racial, worldwide, and the doing of the young. What began in one city, Minneapolis, scaled up in size and across space at astonishing speed. Small towns as well as big cities were sites of marches. Across the globe people walked the walk.
The attitude of the protesters wasn’t one and done. Quite the contrary, marchers came back the next day, and then the next, and then the next. And each time the numbers increased. All of which testifies to how sickened and angry the protesters were at the cruel execution of an innocent Black man, George Floyd.
There was no trial, there was no jury, there was no rendering of an impartial verdict in a court of law. This was a lynching, modern style, in broad daylight. It was slow and heartless, nearly 8 minutes long, with Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe.” In a different era, the killers could have been Nazis or Jim Crow vigilantes. But they were neither, merely 21st century white cops, trained in a sick culture in which Black lives don’t matter.
The only thing that didn’t enter their cold calculus in their execution of George Floyd was the immediate tsunami of protest that would flood the streets in its wake. And three weeks later, the flood hasn’t ebbed. In fact, its rising waters have toppled monuments honoring Confederate generals, cut police budgets, initiated criminal justice reform, triggered a national debate over defunding police, forced institutions of all kinds to change their practices, and more.
Unlike floods of the past, this flood shows no sign of ebbing, no sign of returning to the status quo ante. If anything, its churning waters are invading other redoubts of racist exploitation and oppression. But not quick enough to prevent yet another ruthless murder of a young Black man, Rayshard Brooks, by a white Atlanta cop last week.
Some of the outrage on the streets surely draws from a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 114,000 people (and climbing), with the heaviest toll in communities of color, as well as triggered a deep economic crisis and laid bare an emaciated and cash starved public sector. It has also exposed the deficiencies and contradictions of U.S. capitalism.
Still, it was the cruel death of George Floyd, witnessed by tens of millions, that set into motion this largely spontaneous revolt on a scale never before seen. To say that the massive protests shook the country and the world to the bone, reconfigured politics in important ways, recast racism and anti-racism in the minds of millions, revealed mounting dangers to our democracy, and gave new urgency to the November elections contains not even a hint of overstatement.
Much has been made of incidents of rioting, looting and car burning, but these acts are, if we look at the data, no more than a footnote to the main text of peaceful demonstrations in city after city demanding racial justice. As televised footage clearly showed, if anybody “rioted,” it wasn’t the marchers, but the boys in blue, equipped with military gear, trained in a broken police culture, protected by right-wing police unions, and egged on by a racist president. If anybody crossed the line, it was these “protectors of the peace” and “guardians of public safety.” To call them an occupation army is more right than wrong, particularly in communities of color.
If the execution of George Floyd by a white cop became the opening argument for radically re-imagining public safety and criminal justice, one has to think that the out-of-control actions of too many police departments in “quelling” demonstrations was a convincing final argument for immediate and far reaching changes in policing.
But will change come? Is a radically different criminal justice system, not to mention an egalitarian society in the cards? Or will this popular upheaval end with little but cosmetic changes? Some argue that in 1968 when a similar revolt occurred, what we got wasn’t reform, but Nixon and the first signs of the resurgence and long ascendancy of right wing extremism, culminating in the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
That’s a cautionary tale for sure, but there are enough differences between now and then to think that we are at the beginning, not the end, of a long march through the criminal justice system and other institutions where racist practices have ruled the roost for much too long, provided, of course, that we thrash Trump and his Republican cohorts in November.
Briefly, here’s why I say that.
First, the county is different now. Nixon’s law and order theme and Southern strategy resonated with enough people to get him elected, not once, but twice. And the second time in a landslide against a Democratic candidate of great character and a progressive political resume. Today Trump is channeling Nixon’s law and order appeal, but it isn’t catching on, evidenced by polling that shows public sympathy for the marchers and their cause.
Second, in 1968, the progressive and radical upsurge was reaching its limits, as was the long capitalist economic expansion dating back to the end of World War II and liberal hegemony going back even further. Meanwhile, the ascendancy of the right to a dominant role in U.S. politics was only beginning. But today, in contrast, the center of political gravity across the country and in the Democratic Party is tacking in a progressive direction and the right wing, while exceedingly dangerous, shows signs of weakening. And as long as we take care of business on election day, this dynamic will continue.
Third, notwithstanding the obdurate persistence of segregation in most areas of life, the culture in which white young people have grown up is much more multi-racial than the culture of the sixties. The crossover is on a different level and Black youth set trends for the entire generation. As a consequence, anti-racism is something that white youth embrace in their gut, in their values, and in their lives. The outpouring of the young onto the streets of cities, big and small, in recent weeks is proof of that.
Finally (and most importantly), the main protagonist in this high drama of the past few weeks — young people with the notable role of Black youth and particularly young Black women — aren’t ready to exit the political stage, to get realistic, to return to the status quo ante. A few changes on the edges isn’t a bargain that they are ready to make. They aren’t exhausted. They still have plenty of energy to burn, good ideas to share, and a job to do. Three weeks ago they didn’t have any sense of their power. Now they do and there is no reason to think that they won’t wield it to re-imagine public safety and make our crisis ridden society more just and egalitarian, especially if they can avoid some of the pitfalls of the revolt of fifty years ago.
The rest of us should join them.