Author Jim Henle

A Letter on George Floyd

Glad you’re making the effort to try to capture what is going on at this moment.

I don’t think I have any particular insight. What follows will probably be not very coherent.

Like any transformative moment (if that is what we’re in, and I think we probably are), there are a confluence of factors. Just as the Civil Rights movement could not have happened without the “third world” liberation movements and the Cold War fears for American imperialism’s image, this moment could not have happened without Trump and the Coronavirus pandemic.

Trump is a nasty authoritarian provocateur and the virus has exposed the fragility of life in the United States.

I always thought that the crisis of American capitalism would happen when it became clear to the white working class that they were going to be treated like (or nearly like) the black population. The disaster of the American healthcare system and the incompetent (not to say malicious) response to the pandemic on the part of Trump has led to a surge of social anxiety and, for those looking further ahead, grief. Without in the least coming to grips with the pandemic, the government is now forcing workers back to work in dangerous conditions, pretending it is not happening, etc. Much in the same way that violence against blacks has always been treated. At best, it’s “sorry, now shut up.”

But many whites (and Asians and Latinx), especially the youth, are not racist. This has been a huge change, going on for a long time. There is some truth to the idea that the left retreated to the academy after the failure of the sixties/seventies. There they have influenced, not only through direct instruction, but through volume after volume of scholarship and textbooks, public intellectuals, etc., the ideology of the country. This has been a generational effort, with blacks in the lead, as always. Maybe a quarter of whites are racists. The rest, especially the young, not so much.

Of course, liberals are not being asked to give up anything right now on behalf of egalitarian goals. While I think it’s fair to say that most of the people in the street are working class, there has not been a class differentiation around the issue.

This moment is making people feel that it’s not enough to feel anti-racist, something must be done. The cops have been basically acting like Nazis toward the black community and now toward protests at times. The culmination of several incidents, the George Floyd being the most horrifying, and there for all to see, is the last straw. When everyone is feeling vulnerable—job, financial insecurity, fear of loved ones or oneself being brought down by the virus—this is particularly awful. You have to be a stone racist not to want to see those cops get justice.

The movement is powerful enough to wake the Dems from their slumber. They are scrambling to keep up. No surprise that Sharpton (who did give a powerful talk) was at the funeral, or that Biden and Obama have popped up in videoland. Or that Nancy Pelosi has declared that something big must be done. They have many motives for this. Capturing the movement, way up there. Pushing through some reforms, desirable. Pushing back on Trump.

Trump has clearly overstepped his bounds and frightened the ruling class as much if not more than the protesters. When Trump was elected I wrote a friend saying that I thought Trump was a “premature fascist.” He would love to be Mussolini, but the ruling class is not with him in wanting to eliminate democracy. Erode it, yes. Some of them, eliminate it. (The gop has a clear vision that they are a minority party and must curtail democratic norms, limited though they are. Since incarceration has reached its effective limit, and anti-immigration is not enough, the vote must be attacked.) But when the generals (most of them) come out and say—no we do not want to be used to directly repress the American people now—that’s indicative. There are no mass strikes, there’s no political or social force organized and active on the scene that can threaten the ruling class. (As you said, it’s still the black community allied with white youth, despite many differences from the 1960s.) The fascists and the military are not to be dogs unleashed now. The demonstrators feel powerless as much as powerful even in their numbers. Everyone is out there thinking—thank god this seems to matter. But will it? Will anything change?

But to me the great problem looming in the background for the bourgeoisie is this: The Dems historically always had a brake on them; they were “the people’s” party, but not black people’s. The Southern racists could always make sure that there were limits to social programs. Jim Crow was the checkpoint. Then the Civil Rights movement, despite its limits, broke that. Now, the racists are aligned with the most reactionary capitalists while blacks vote Democratic. Unions are Democrats, mostly. Progressives and social democrats, all Dems. Big problem: who will prevent the party, when the crisis intensifies, from radicalizing (and ultimately splitting left and right), who will prevent a left-right divide in us politics? You only have the centrists (Obama, dnc, etc.), whose only move is to fake left, as they are doing now. Some of them will want to implement significant reforms to quell the chaotic ferment, and some of those reforms are rational for capitalism. But these things have a dynamic. If by some miracle, you got universal healthcare (even a single-payer system), wouldn’t the appetite be whetted? Wouldn’t the right resort to more violent and repressive measures to prevent social reform?

The relief in liberal circles when Mattis and others said that they opposed using the military against the people was palpable. (I shared the relief of course.) The time for that has not come.

Interestingly, this movement is different from the 2014 blm movement, though it also continues it. Also from the 1960s. The sixties went from mass protest to violence. This, if anything, is going the other way, starting with sporadic and chaotic rallies (some of the violence perpetrated by fascists exploiting the chaos), but is now expanding into mass rallies. There is now a call for a march on Washington (August 28 I think). This is perfectly timed for the Dems, of course, for the fall elections. But it is more than that in impulse. Whites want to march with blacks against racism. I think there is a deep felt need for this among whites. Black movements have tended to welcome white support when they can get it. They are not a majority alone, so I am sure they welcome it (with appropriate skepticism). And there are people black and white comfortable across racial lines in a way that was barely possible back in our youth.

So, I don’t know. I love the protests, their creativity, their lack of political leadership (which could only be Dems right now), their persistence. The humanity of the Floyd family is stunning. It is a moment of hope, finally. Whether it will be more than that is still not clear, but that is not nothing.

Here’s an interview with Orlando Patterson, slavery scholar, that I think captures one important facet of the protests.

GAZETTE: What is new about these protests, compared to the protests of 1967, 1968, or 1992, or the more recent ones organized by the Black Lives Matter movement?

PATTERSON: For one thing, and this is even true of the Rodney King demonstrations in 1992, the difference is the composition of the demonstrators. One cannot help but be struck by the significant proportion of the protesters who are white, Hispanic, and Asian. It was interesting, for example, that when the police brutally broke up a demonstration near the White House and trapped protesters on a road, a South Asian man took 70 of them in his house. My sentiment is that this is a more diverse, although still predominantly black, expression of outrage. I think it has to do with the moment we’re living right now. People seemed horrified that we’re seeing this sort of thing after all these years, but they also sense that something is profoundly wrong. What’s terrifying about this moment is that the foundational institutions of our democracy are under assault, that the fundamental norms upon which our Constitution and our system of government rests are being threatened.

This I think is an important insight:

“[The protesters] don’t have democracy; they are people who don’t have power.”

These protests are an attempt to grab a modicum of power—to punish and perhaps change the police whose practices likely killed George Floyd. Protesting and disrupting are the only way some people have to exercise power. They are what people who lack more effective avenues of influence sometimes do. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Archung Fong is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Addendum June 7

Protests have now lasted 12 days; people are tired but still coming out. They understand that this is their moment, and that they have shaken things up. Trump’s attempt to repress and intimidate the movement out of existence has failed for now, and the protesters know it. They are being backed by significant portions of the ruling class who do not want to see the ideological and practical framework of the American version of bourgeois democracy disposed of now, for domestic motives and also for the not insignificant reason that Trump’s military authoritarianism makes it more difficult to aggress against China, say. But the mood is moving to one of strength of the streets and this is not wrong.

When NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell has to eat crow and say “Black Lives Matter” and repent of the league response to players taking a knee (though not yet of blackballing Colin Kaepernick), when Amazon Prime has a blm banner on their streaming home page (while attacking unionization), you know that the ruling class is trying to adapt quickly. But when, e.g., the liberal Democratic mayor of Minneapolis is booed because he won’t disband the police, you know that blm has, like a starter motor, activated something much more potent than their original forces. The outrage has reached a boiling point, while the depth of the problem has reached the point of undeniability. When a grad student calls 7 friends on twitter to protest (I believe this was in dc) and thousands of people show up, you know there is a mood. Significantly, she said on NPR—we’ve moved past the “hope” phase and on to the “change” phase. (I’m paraphrasing.) And she added: “By any means necessary.” Thousands upon thousands want police abuse and institutional racism to stop. They are asserting the right of the masses, and in particular the black masses, to be served by, not “dominated” by, the state. What they can do now is protest.

The immediate beneficiary will probably be the Democratic Party, which is the only political party of any size on the scene claiming a reform purpose. What is significant, though, is that the activists on the streets are not committed to it, but see it as a pragmatic vehicle for their agenda. It is not likely that they will be satisfied with the compromises that will be offered. Many if not most will be “anybody but Trump,” but their enthusiasm will depend on the Democrats’ actual response. The ideology of the movement, long generating and now rapidly developing, is more Social Democratic than Democratic. The obduracy of American capitalism’s intrinsic racism and the fact that the slumping world economy does not allow much room for concessions to workers means that the protest movement can be open to genuinely radical and egalitarian ideas.