Ferguson and After: Where Is This Movement Going?

The movement that has erupted after non-indictments of the cop killers of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City, one further fed by relentless continued police killings of black and brown youth on a weekly basis around the country, is without doubt the deepest social movement to emerge in the United States in more than forty years. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles shook the country in 1992 but burned themselves out in a matter of days; this movement has gone on for weeks and months, and will undoubtedly continue in some form. In many places, it built upon the 2011 experiences of Occupy and was nonetheless, by the large black participation mainly absent from Occupy, much deeper. Its innovations in strategy and street tactics also went well beyond Occupy; instead of holding public spaces and remaining vulnerable to the inevitable police crackdown, kettling and mass arrests, this movement kept moving, blocking streets andfreeways here, bridges and Christmas shopping there, and generally refusing to become a stable target. The movement, unlike Occupy, focused dead center on the American “blind spot,” race. It showed a very steep learning curve from previous protests over the murders of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, which, while explosive, did not have the same staying power. This movement kept coming, first of all in Ferguson itself, and later in a hundred different cities. The black youth of Ferguson led the way, running off the professional black politicians, the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons, and defying further vain attempts from the local black elite to channel people who had never given a thought to voting into votes for the Democratic Party. Its depth forced comment from the likes of Barack Obama and Eric Holder, frantically attempting, for their part, to find some way to throw the movement a bone and to rein it in. Perhaps it will upset Hillary Clinton’s apparent waltz toward the White House by forcing her onto the thin ice of some real issues. The ideological pretense, built up over decades, according to which Obama’s America was in a “post-racial” era, was ripped away in days. The appearance over those decades of a small but real black professional elite as well as the entry of black individuals into positions of leadership in major corporations, in the wake of the 1960s, could hardly compensate for poverty, huge unemployment (50 percent for those under 25), mass incarceration, stop and frisk, relentless police profiling and legalized open season on black and brown youth for the vast masses. It is not the case that “nothing has changed” since the killing of Emmett Till in the Jim Crow South in 1955; a black president and a visible black elite, one which shares real power in places such as Atlanta (and even Wall Street), tells us above all that in America, from slavery to Jim Crow to the mass assembly line of the 1960s to the mass incarceration of today, America’s “black question,” which is in reality its white question, constantly evolves. The maintenance of this race-coded hierarchy has never, since it began in the seventeenth century, been so much about controlling black people as about controlling white people, some of whom might today tut-tut about police “excesses” and wish they would cease, but who above all never grasp, within the white bubble, that all of this has something essential to do with them, in their seemingly quiet lives and passivity.

Insurgent Notes therefore devotes most of this special Mike Brown/Eric Garner issue to Ferguson and what has followed. We present as a centerpiece John Garvey’sarticle “No More Missouri Compromises,” which gives an in-depth historical background to Ferguson and the St. Louis area generally. We follow this with accounts by participants from the movements in 7–8 cities around the country, highlighting above all New York City and the “Bay,” the Oakland-Berkeley area where, along with Ferguson itself, the movement has been the deepest and most long-lasting. Another, more skeptical, point of view is presented by a friend of IN writing from abroad.Our purpose is, moreover, not merely to focus on historical background and contemporary militancy, but also to trace the depths and limits of the current movement. We do so following in-depth discussions within IN as well as with the widest swath of people we know. What has struck us throughout, with the unfolding of the very real expansion and creativity of the movement over weeks and months, has also been its weak spot:its inability, like Occupy before it, to cross over into any notable workplace actions or in broader working-class communities generally. We say this cautiously and without, as yet, full confirmation from around the country. True, in St. Louis, the movement hooked up with the $15 an hour movement in fast food. Truer still, in San Diego, it apparently overlapped with not merely the $15 an hour movement but also with the movement in solidarity with the 43 disappeared students in Mexico. There is no question that many of the people, black and white, hitting the streets day in, day out, night in, night out, had jobs of one kind or another (which in today’s highly casualized economy points to the fluidity of terms such as “working people” or “youth” or “the poor”).With all due respect to the great differences of time and place, we thought about the May–June 1968 “events” in France. There, in May, students and others rioted in the Paris Latin Quarter for a week—riots initially set off by some relatively small issue and scuffle with police. Then the rioters were “joined” (and engulfed) by 10 million French workers embarking on a month-long wildcat general strike and workplace occupation, which required all the forces of the official left (Communist and Socialist) parties and unions to contain them and herd them back to work. It seemed to us, on the whole, that it was exactly this crossover with the great mass of ordinary American working people that, this time, as with Occupy, was lacking.We are hardly unaware of the tremendous changes that have been “remaking” the contemporary working class in the United States since the powerful strike wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strike wave in which militant black workers often played the key role, as with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the auto plants of Detroit. We know very well that most of those auto plants are today shuttered and that the most of the following generation of black youth never saw the inside of a factory or worked on an assembly line. We are acutely aware of the atomization, outsourcing, downsizing, and simple media “disappearing” of ordinary working people in America today. Hopefully, we have recovered from (some of) our former romance of the big factory and the kinds of mass struggles it so obviously engendered not so long ago (but long enough ago to be swallowed whole in the United States of Amnesia of the media, such that few people today under the age of 60 remember them meaningfully).

Yes, Walmart has replaced General Motors as the largest corporation in the United States, the perfect symbol of a shift from alienated production to alienated consumption, and moreover the consumption of goods produced abroad, out of sight, out of mind. But what of its regimented, demeaned “associates” (as they are called), constantly subject to arbitrary shift changes and barely paid above the minimum wage, with miserable health plans (if any) and no benefits? Are they any less “proletarian” than the far better paid and organized auto and steel workers of the 1960s and 1970s? And what can one say of the millions of wage laborers in transportation of all types, ports, trucking, air and rail; of those in a myriad of jobs, in education and health care (including professional ones that were previously held by self-employed individuals); in the back rooms of Silicon Valley and Wall Street; in Midwest slaughterhouses and meat packing plants; in seasonal agriculture; in fast food; in the vast bureaucracies at the federal, state and local levels? And last but not least of the workers still making as many cars in the United States as 40 years ago, now in twenty scattered “greenfield” sites across the Sunbelt as well as in the more traditional production centers elsewhere in the country? It took the New Left of the 1960s most of that decade to “discover” the working class, which had been waging low-intensity warfare on the shop floor since the late 1950s; how much more difficult will it be for the new movement of the present to “discover” the latent power of the working class today and to find a way to meaningfully hook up with it?To return, in conclusion, to the present movement—what exactly can be the focus of a movement that so acutely poses the question of the police and its wanton powers of life and death, exercised daily? In a capitalist society, there can be no abolition of this “special body of armed men”: the direct enforcers, with the military they increasingly resemble, of the power of the capitalist state. A movement showing such sophistication in such a short time can readily grasp that the tried and tired palliatives of the past—civilian review boards, sensitivity training for cops, and town hall meetings to improve “police-community” relations—are and always have been a farce, hardly worth a snort of contempt. We note in occasional calls to “abolish the police” another historical amnesia at work, namely of those past episodes of our movement, such as the Spanish revolution of 1936–37, where the police (and standing army) were abolished and replaced with armed worker militias. That, or an adequate update of that for the present, is our program, as of any revolutionary movement worthy of the name.Such a revolution is not, of course, presently on the horizon. What to do in the meantime, while we seek to build the crossover to the broad working class that will shift this movement to a whole other level? A movement capable of responding to each new police murder with days of rioting and looting, with the promise of no business as usual in response, might be a start, in the unfortunately unlikely case that such a movement could be sustained. Even better would be the prospect of mass strikes or a general strike, under the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Integral to our efforts should be the attempt to relink with the great revolutionary working-class uprisings of the past, whether in Spain or Russia or Germany or, closer to home, the Seattle general strike of 1919 or Minneapolis in 1934, when our forces imposed our order on the chaos and disorder which are all the capitalist status quo can increasingly offer us from here on out.As a coda, where a broadening of the movement to working people as a whole is concerned, we might briefly refer to the larger economic context in which it has unfolded. A cursory look around the globe might remind us that both Japan and the European Union, the other two major capitalist poles, are already locked in a downward spiral of deflation, with China slowing as well, and that nothing whatever has been resolved in America’s post-2008 “recovery” of mainly poorly-paid jobs and scarce real productive investment, with declining real wages at that. When even the International Monetary Fund warns of years to come of a “new normal” of “secular stagnation” (at best), we might well think that the terrain is prepared for the growing anti-capitalist mood evident among American working people to finally hit the streets, as dramatically as the Ferguson movement has. It requires little argument or knowledge of the finer points of Marx for most people, today, to acknowledge that this system is in a profound crisis. The only thing lacking is a sense that there is a better alternative, the abolition of capitalism itself, and that the sole forces capable of achieving that are these same working people. A further cursory glance at history will remind us that, as in the last comparable crisis, that of the 1930s and 1940s, this will not be a merely “economic” crisis; we need only consider the chaos in the Middle East, or in Ukraine, or the further spread of Islamism to central Africa and Nigeria (where only days ago Boko Haram apparently killed 2,000 people in the town of Baga), not to mention the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, to see that some capitalists will use the very fallout of their own global crisis to rally mass support to a dozen anti-immigrant parties around Europe or to the defense of “republican values,” as in France. The militarization of daily life in America in turn is only one such episode away from a further crackdown on any meaningful opposition. Our work in broadening and deepening the post-Ferguson movement to the larger working population is cut out for us.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. L. May,

    Perhaps the groping character of this statement is a different kind of blindspot. Perhaps you search in vain for an inroad to workers because you are not looking at either their grievances as a starting point and/or have written off the “economic” arena as a terrain for struggle. If not true you might have brought up the P9 strike, or the massive revolts in Asian factories or even given a nod to Madison, instead of seeing Ferguson as the best hope of 40 years.
    The 1985 struggle of Local P9 meatcutters in Minnesota lasted 2 years, broke with the union, made overtures and connections to Black and Native struggles, openly supported international causes like anti-apartheid, and gladly associated with white radical groups, including the IWW. It did spread to many cities and might have done more with the involvement of more of us. Ferguson offers possibilities, but doesn’t include an organic pathway to challenging the heart of capitalism. We really shouldn’t be surprised it got trapped in reform. What about the “hot” stuff going on in Asia, per your correspondent?

  2. Isaiah,

    The following thoughts are not meant to “attack” the writers of the editorial.
    They are offered in the spirit of discussion and with thanks for the opportunity that your editorial presents. The aspect of the editorial which I am concerned is really a part of a historical development over many years.

    The Black elite, the mayors, police chiefs, professors, social workers, human resource professionals (they used to be called managers), is not “small but significant” as this editorial suggests.

    They are NOT tokens. It is like saying as Gunnar Myrdal said years ago racism was “The American Dilemma.” Dilemma conveys a relatively minor tone and further permanently suggests we don’t know where we are going.

    Who and how racism is managed should be “the key” social question we are concerned with (in light of police brutality and mass incarceration). Of course there are other social challenges and there is none that is a lynch pin that will make all other forms of oppression collapse.

    The Black political and administrative class are the key to this stage of post-civil rights, post-independence form of classical colonialism and white supremacy. The cultural authority of the white man can not sustain it on its own.

    That white people intermittently or perennially attacks this Black political class’s right to rule does not make it the embodiment of anti-racism or anti-fascism.

    Barack Obama is not “our brother” and he wasn’t in 2008 or 2012; the political class he represents has a genealogy back to 1972 or so. Was the Black administrative and professional class “our brothers and sisters” then?

    To say they were favorable to Jim Crow racialists on their way out (or still around with aspirations) does not clarify the distinction between anti-racism, anti-fascism, and revolutionary strategy.

    This Black political and administrative class is now all out of proportion not to the democratic majority of the Black community but the actual percent of the rest of the ethnic makeup of the population in many cities. This is consistent with enforcing voting rights in majority people of color cities and districts.

    This Black political and administrative class has their peers among Asian Americans in the northwest and Mexican Americans in the southwest. Most of the ruling class, if you notice, no longer contests affirmative action in practice. The question is who will best maintain the ruling classes’s chosen policies — to which people of color are now a constituent element. This was what affirmative action was always all about. It was not going to redistribute the wealth and end “the ghetto.”

    For those who say people of color are not a constituent element of the ruling class of the U.S. based on wealth data, I would simply say 1) we shouldn’t wait for more to join and 2) everyone doesn’t get in the club based on how much money they have, but how they serve that class. John Lewis has less personal wealth than Andrew Young, and both have way less than Gates or Soros or even Oprah. But they are in the club, as are the latter three.

    Some say no it’s not true, we need more of this social class of color, that the professional and administrative classes of color are not like those of whites — we will get more (because the American Left, whether whites or people of color, is vacuous and dense). And there will be continuing paralysis in response to this class with its historically oppressed identity.

    If we will propagate the destruction of hierarchy, we have to practice naming them as not “small but significant.”

    Separate from President Obama, and perhaps Hilary Clinton, we need to deal with the reality of the affirmative action empire and say if you come from a historically oppressed people, and wish to break “the glass ceiling” and manage us you can do it on your own, not with a purported freedom movement behind you. You can no longer embody change.

    Those who have advocated “privilege politics,” emphasizing the problem of white identity, have failed in their guilt and their pursuit of coveted positions above society, to advocate class struggle against the Black middle and professional classes.

    They are the key managerial class exactly because of the national perception (radicals both established this and reinforced this too much for too many years) that “Black people” were the conscience of the nation.

    Ferguson does suggest that a sector of communities of color are potentially insurgent, but enhancing this potential means discarding the sector of the community, not those who are unsure and hesitate, but who insists on their right to rule.

    The Black community didn’t fracture into social classes simply with Ferguson or the election of President Obama. In fact the vast majority of people of color, especially women, still enthusiastically support Obama in the wake of Ferguson. Who decides what is anti-racist?

    We cannot cultivate the popular will simply by taking a poll of the majority. We need to advocate something to the majority about their own self-governing capacities. To have an insurgent democracy you have to oppose the minority who wishes to rule above and at the expense of communities.

    Who will acknowledge that their political thought of the last twenty to forty years on this matter was mistaken?

    The idea of white privilege suggests that whites place their pursuit of property, their possessive individualism, over solidarity with the most oppressed. And so many white people did and still do.

    But for years we heard this was unique to white people, and that people of color, especially African Americans, were special, and lived to jump over barricades and burn down the rulers’ way of life. How did the credit for this instinct get captured by a Black elite, in the name of a whole community, who then disavowed it?

    The new “Selma” movie, wretched in many ways, tells us. People died and were brutalized for the right to vote (the time honored lie) and not to be free. The legacy of that struggle, we have to be reminded, is eternal reverence for the Black political and administrative class.

    Let us be clear, to say that the Black professional class, is “small but significant” is to avoid the fact that much of the American Left, includes them as a progressive social class, in their political strategizing. Isn’t it refreshing to name this problem more clearly?

    This is the social class, who in the American Left’s wildest imagination will “redistribute the wealth.” This is why many find the advocacy of direct democracy or workers self-management absurd. They are not necessarily anti-worker or anti-workers of color. They simply do not believe nor do they work for a movement which will directly govern in their workplaces and neighborhoods (where redistribution and other political activities can happen).

    Many believe instead this is simply “protest activity.” And then we will hear remarks about the superiority of “the Marxist method.” There are more important things to do than to clarify the Marxist method and why people advocate anti-imperialism between election cycles. Insurgent Notes is not the type of journal who equivocates on these matters it should be noted.

    Who will say, they agree that the Black political class must be discarded and that this is key to the struggle against white supremacy (“not small and significant”)?

    Who will say I used to believe they were important but not now and explain what changed for them?

    Who will say it was correct in this period in history to ally with them as a class but wrong beginning in this epoch (please name the year or event)?

    The solution to Ferguson type problems is not a reductive search for labor.
    Just as Rodney King wasn’t beat up because he was a member of “the proletariat” neither was Michael Brown or Eric Garner.

    It is valid and crucial to say that white supremacy believes a significant section of African Americans in particular are seen as bestial and unworthy of life. It is also key to underline that the measure of “Black leadership” is to believe this also, despite occasional rhetorical flourishes to throw off the stench, and carry out policies which initiates, reinforces, and maintains this degradation.

    But to say it is “the Black condition” as a whole and to be silent on the question of equal opportunity to enter the rules of hierarchy (affirmative action) is to sustain that the Black administrative and professional classes are anti-racist and anti-fascist allies (even potentially anti-capitalist allies).

    Many might conclude but who else among the state or among the capitalist class would be anti-racist and anti-fascist allies? Who else will help “redistribute the wealth?” And by this process of thinking we see the thin democratic content of their socialism, their revolution, their anti-racism.

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