After the George Floyd murder: Reflections on a year of upsurge


George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. Derek Chauvin’s knee remained on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds as three other officers assisted in lynching Floyd. In the year since Floyd’s murder, tens of millions of people from all sectors of U.S. society protested in the streets, in their workplaces, and in any way they could. The summer of 2020 was a moment of massive consciousness shifting that affected virtually every corner of American life.

The ruling class was taken by surprise at the social explosion. Already exposed as incapable of solving the COVID health crisis, members of both parties were thrown off balance as they attempted to relate to the movement and bring it under their control. Their response was to try to speak in the language of the developing movement while also violently suppressing it. One of the ongoing legacies of the Justice for George movement has been an increasing embrace of “abolitionism” by a section of the Democratic Party establishment.

To jail a killer cop

Derek Chauvin faced a triple conviction on April 20, slightly under 11 months after he murdered Floyd. He is one of only a handful of killer cops to face charges, let alone be convicted. Since George Floyd’s death, at least 1068 people, or about three per day, have been killed by police in the United States. Only eight officers have been convicted for murder since 2005, despite killing at least 15,000 people in that time.

The entire “criminal justice” system rests on cops remaining outside of the law. Policing everywhere is fundamentally based on using violence to uphold capitalist exploitation. By extension and by design, this also means maintaining the historic systems of racialized, gendered, and anti-Indigenous terror that are the cornerstones of the U.S. economy.

A contradiction in the concept of “justice” in capitalist society is the class divisions at its core. The ruling class, which lives by exploiting working people, defines not only the laws but also the “common sense” moral system. Millions of working and oppressed people menaced by police terror would benefit if real accountability measures were applied to stop cop violence. However, the relatively few people whose ownership of the means of production and financial system puts them in control of society depend on maintaining the systems of oppression and the cops who uphold them. Violent policing enhances the ability of capitalism to quickly take in and spit out workers who are made precarious through criminalization or priced out of their homes to make room for speculation.

The only force that can effectively discipline the police is a mobilized working class. That was shown by the mass movement that was required for Chauvin to be charged. As described above, virtually all killer cops get off scot free. It took over 20 million people in the streets, some for months on end, and the threat of the mask being totally torn off bourgeois “justice,” for just one cop to be convicted. Chauvin was sacrificed by the ruling authorities in order to save themselves.

One step forward

An important legacy of the George Floyd upsurge was the dynamic from below, which gave life to actions and conversations on Black oppression and penetrated all spheres of social life. There were walkouts in the NBA and WNBA; support for kneeling for the flag in the NFL; an explosion of “Black at” Instagram pages; and thousands of professional, academic, casual, formal, and all other organizations making anti-racist statements with a sincerity and vision never before seen.

A sampling includes the journal Nature, which published an editorial stating, “We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.” The Williams Record, a campus paper at Williams College, a school of less than 3000, published a compilation of statements from 15 different organizations making anti-racist statements. Major corporations, including Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart, ATT, and Coca-Cola made statements that mere months ago would have sounded impossible.

In the Black community itself, young women and queer people have launched online Black book clubs and other consciousness-raising organizations. Libraries, schools, and publications of all kinds took on the responsibility to publish bibliographies and documentaries that fed the sudden craving to understand the Black struggle in the United States.

The rapid exposure of and mainstreaming discussion about Black oppression as a systemic crisis that is fundamental to U.S. society reverberated quickly in two important directions. One was instigating labor action both by Black workers specifically and by all workers against Black oppression. An important example was the union drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Ala., which is a majority Black shop. Rank-and-file leaders in the drive acknowledged one of the catalyzing factors as the Justice for George Floyd/Black Lives Matter movement.

Another important legacy of the upsurge is the understanding, won through struggle, that fighting injustice requires bringing as many people as possible into the streets. Any concessions wrested from the ruling class were clearly a product of mass demonstrations showcasing the power of working people. The recent, totally unprecedented movement calling for an end to U.S. aid to Israel and a free Palestine is a product of these experiences.

Two steps back

While there is an objectively higher level of consciousness and combativity among many workers and young people, no leadership capable of connecting the national movements has emerged. In place of mass organizations of struggle, the misleadership of the Democratic Party remains intact.

Many cities that had slightly “cut” police budgets to appease the movement and temporary pandemic recession shortfalls have since increased police spending. This includes Baltimore, whose new mayor, Brandon Scott, had campaigned on “reimagining” the police department. As city council president, Scott had pushed a $22.4 million budget reduction. According to The Wall Street Journal, after being elected mayor “he proposed a $27 million increase.”

Posing left only to reinforce the police state is the role that Democratic Party politicians play, regardless of their intentions and personal desires. A good example of this dynamic is in Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd, Philando Castile, and dozens of others have been killed by police. The city council is especially “left,” composed of activists and “progressive” Democrats. On June 6, 2020, nine Minneapolis city councilors “pledged” to abolish the MPD. The method they chose was through amending the city’s charter. But all of the councilors understood that this would not work, since the charter committee was known to be unwilling to support the move.

As one section of the Democratic Party sets itself as “friends” of the movement, the party as a whole has been quick and brutal in repressing anti-police brutality activists. Democratic Party politicians positioned themselves to the ruling class as the ones who could most effectively take the movement out of the streets. In Portland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York City, Stamford, Conn., and many other cities, Democratic mayors and city councils worked with police in a campaign of mass arrests and attacks on activists that saw over 15,000 protesters arrested.

The ruling class is unified in its support for political suppression. While the most obvious pieces of legislation are coming from GOP strongholds, especially Florida, President Joe Biden is proposing sweeping increases in domestic spying. Using the cover of the far-right Jan. 6 riots, the Biden administration’s Department of Homeland Security already opened a new division focused on “domestic terrorism.” That is part of a larger project that is planned to be a public-private partnership in order to get around Constitutional privacy laws.

Included in the targets of Biden’s new surveillance program are groups “seeking to end or mitigate perceived cruelty harm, or exploitation of animals or perceived exploitation or destruction of natural resources and the environment”; “with ideological agendas derived from anti-government or anti-authority sentiment including opposition to perceived economic social, or racial hierarchies; or perceived government overreach, negligence, or illegitimacy”; “who oppose all forms of capitalism corporate globalization, and governing institutions which are perceived as harmful to society”; and/or “with ideological agendas in support of pro-life or pro-choice beliefs.”

End capitalist violence, abolish the police!

Under capitalism, cop violence will always exist. The only thing that can slow its pace is mobilizing workers and community members against each and every manifestation of police brutality. That level of combativity will require an equally high level of organization. As a national struggle, the coordination of efforts on a national level will also be a necessity.

Unfortunately, a section of the people radicalized over the last year still have illusions in the Democratic Party. That is a testament to the party’s ability for confusing activists. With billions of dollars and many state and private institutions at its disposal, and the (often begrudging) support of many young activists, the Democratic Party has an aura of being the only change-maker in the game. But the Democratic Party is incapable of making significant change. As a capitalist party, its role is to pacify the movement and put a friendly face on exploitation and oppression.

Instead of going deeper into the fold of class enemies, working people need their own organizations of struggle. Such organizations can only develop through building actions, while debating program and strategy in the real movement. One of the main groups missing from the last year of demonstrations has been organized labor. Militant workers have a tremendous opportunity to enable their coworkers to better understand how and why to push their locals, unions, and federations to expel cop “unions” from the labor movement and to join the social struggles.

The struggle to end police brutality and abolish the police is simultaneously part of the struggle to end capitalism. Only by replacing the system of social production from one based on individual profit to one organized by and for working people will the conditions exist to end policing once and for all. In the meantime, all of the lessons from fighting the capitalist system and the cops who uphold it need to be centralized and built upon with each new instance of police repression. Such a cohering of experiences necessitates an independent party of working people, capable of mobilizing significant sections of the class. The creation of a mass workers’ party, armed with a revolutionary program, is one of the fundamental steps towards smashing capitalism for good.

Photo: Marching in Minneapolis on May 23, 2021, to mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. (Christian Monterrosa / AP)

Leave a Reply