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Black Lives Matter Grassroots Responds

Melina Abdullah, center, stands with others for a group photo at a Black Lives Matter event June 6 at Norman O. Houston Park in Baldwin Hills.(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“It took the Roman Empire four hundred years to fall. I have a feeling that the current one (the American Empire) will fall at the speed of FedEx.” – Chalmers Johnson.

The Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters “wei”, meaning “danger”, and “ji” meaning opportunity. – from Jared Diamond’s book “Upheaval, Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”. 2019, Little, Brown, and Company.

This spring and early summer has seen the United States experience an historic political sea change at least on the seismic level of 1968 or 1945. Both American neo-liberal parties, having steadily and stealthily abandoned their popular constituencies since 1945, have had their legitimacy overtly crushed first by Trump in 2016 and now in the streets in 2020.

With all due respect to the memory of the late Gil Scott Heron, this revolution will be televised. Maybe it is being televised, as we speak. Just the proliferation of cellphone cameras into the hands of virtually every citizen has been central in spurring this current uprising, so that personally captured imagery by mobile device has become the narrative maker as in the case of the public lynching of George Floyd. A spate of cel video recorded racial police murders has fueled the continuation the movement.

It took viewed repeated brazenness of official impunity to commit a public murder that screamed its indifference from the American system’s rulers to their restive subjects: “We don’t care what happens to you!” Talk of incremental change and papering over of structural racism had already failed. It became the dam that broke with the public witness to this nonchalant murder of George Floyd and the subsequent burning down of a Minneapolis precinct headquarters.

Since 1945, the world has transitioned from propellers to jets, but our information-delivery has gone from slow-paced paper to the electronic speed of a processor. Similar to the way the move from quills to the Gutenberg press created a revolution (the Reformation), can the greatest global empire in history, born at the end of the Industrial Period, do anything but fragment at the acceleration to the speed of light? Can information's Electronic Age itself inherently spell anything other than revolution?

So many defining historical revolutionary moments that might compare to this current one come to mind. For example, is this moment comparable to the Reformation itself, or to those pre-revolutionary moments leading up to events like the storming of the Bastille, the Haitian revolution of 1791, the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, or to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s guerrilla victory at Santa Clara-Yaguajay, Cuba, in 1958? Is that what we just witnessed in Minneapolis?

This current point of inflection may signal the political demise of Donald Trump, not by the geniuses of the DNC, who in a time of urgent change designed a primary more akin to a bullfight than a real contest—only to choose a “Mr. Yesterday”, with minimal political skills, a lack of both vision and integrity, towing a disgraceful record and a long-standing and comical case of foot-in-mouth disease.

If Donald Trump is to be defeated, it will be by a popular mass movement led by Black Lives Matter, a movement born only seven years ago. What a delicious irony that would be! The dual questions are:

  • Will it indeed assist in tossing Trump out of office, or maybe more importantly
  • Will it continue to morph into, a successful revolutionary movement.

In the 2016 election Trump was successful in head-faking contempt for the status quo by parroting popular contempt for both parties, but post-election he has been unable to find or sustain a racist majority in the electorate, or to provide needed leadership when confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic. Behind the insane narcissism it was gross incompetence that kicked in.

In our four years of outrage, we may have been remiss in giving Trump his due as a political actor. Among the many rhetorical (and diabolical) skills in the Trump political warfare arsenal, the most central has been his consistent ability to dominate the news cycle on a daily basis. Along with his constant faux “punching up”, his use of social media and even his short clipped speech patterns, his overt racism is “innovative” as a media phenomenon compared to recent presidents.

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But what has been most significant and defining is how his persona has so consistently dominated the media space “above the fold”, electronically and in print, more often than not for the past four years. Whether by bombast, insult, or outrage, that ability meant that even his media adversaries such as Comcast MSNBC and the New York Times were trapped into the conundrum of echoing his messages of dominance by their very knee-jerk daily reactions to him. He has been able set the agenda and choose the time and place of battle.

Trump’s consistency of headline-making for over four years is suddenly gone, replaced by a mass movement against him, overwhelming the very racist ethos on which he rode to power.

Why was this possible? The answer lies in the spontaneous opposition that arose on the streets and could not be co-opted by the obviously corrupted two party duopoly. The late historian Howard Zinn taught us that history is made by mass movements and we are witnessing one. The mass movement birthed by Black Lives Matter, having built itself for the last seven years since the murder of Trayvon Martin, was poised to seize the moment when Officer Chauvin executed George Floyd in public. It immediately sprang to broad-based national legitimacy that the Democratic Party has proved structurally incapable of, over and over again, since John F. Kennedy was president. One might even venture to call the legitimacy of the current Black Lives Matter movement one that derives its legitimacy from ”the People,” writ large. Not “all the people,” just a decisive mass of them–and a forceful, determined, and multi-racial mass movement.

The movement is led by an articulate Black vanguard who are intellectually armed with a sophisticated historical and societal critique able to encompass the national and international experiences that resonate on a universal level.

The movement is led by an articulate Black vanguard who are intellectually armed with a sophisticated historical and societal critique able to encompass the national and international experiences that resonate on a universal level. It is also aided by its immediacy as a generational movement.

Although ironically (and tragically) written while ushering in a slave republic bent on a genocidal war on indigenous people, Thomas Jefferson did record a genuine revolutionary insight in describing a basic human dialectic when he wrote in the United States Declaration of Independence:

“… when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

This uprising knows “it is their right and their duty” and they are determined to “throw off” 401 years of poisonous racism embedded in the status quo of the American body politic in 2020. When deprived of justice and of the means of redress, dancing on top of a police car resonates even with those who have never been attacked by the police. The police are a stand-in for the greater matter of security and “future security” manufactured as a defective product by the 1%.

Although the movement is diverse, it is made up of Black people tired of suffering at the hands of the police, immigrants who are exploited and marginalized, Asian Americans suffering because of Trump’s scapegoating China, and a growing mass of other categories of people, especially disaffected white youth, who are also suffering from elements of the macro misery. Most people resent impunity and arrogance of government when they live in a constructed economy in which things are so far out of balance that people are driven to desperation.

As the Declaration spells out, the moment will come when they will rise up against it, as we’ve seen in the last weeks, I think most young people generally are clear: under American Corporate Capitalism in 2020 there is no “future security”. There is the inverse: growing existential insecurity. Simply on the basis of a broader common “insecurity”, climate change, for example, represents an existential threat to all people and it has not been taken seriously by the governing powers.

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It’s clear this system is so dysfunctional that it oscillates between pretending to address it, such as Obama and the Democratic party, for example, signing on to the Paris Accords without a commitment to act on them, or the GOP’s more direct “purchased politics” of mad-hatter extraction to the last carbon molecule while the country and the planet hurdles towards the abyss. Likewise, for all the other existential crises facing the nation: housing, education, infrastructure, or of course, health, mass incarceration and police oppression.

A critical mass of Americans are finally beginning to understand that the unequal distribution of wealth and power is both an expression of and a delivery system for racism.

How ironic that the Declaration of Independence, which did not address economic equality or racism, let alone slavery, accurately and concisely mirrors a situation analogous to the current state of affairs this country both for Black people and for the general economic arrangement, because a critical mass of Americans are finally beginning to understand that the unequal distribution of wealth and power is both an expression of and a delivery system for racism.

Black Lives Matter is proving to be the right vehicle for exposing all this. As has been pointed out by many, such as New School economist Richard Wolff, the decaying version of the United States’ imperial capitalism that cannot even provide the minimum of security for tens of millions of its citizens right now primary needs. There is no meaningful “security” if you’re out of work and thereby put in immediate danger of Covid death without healthcare, with deaths increasing daily past 122,000.

By naming the police this uprising also fingers the ruling class. The use of “defund the police” as a slogan demands a fundamental concrete change at a local level, society wide. But it is clear the rulers are either too myopic- or at this point too terminally narcissistic—to see what wiser capitalist leaders in Europe and Asia see in order for their rule to survive: you must allow for meaningful social justice….and material well-being or suffer a revolution.

The status quo has got to go. No more impunity for police as occupiers of neighborhoods of color, no more prison industrial school-to-prison pipeline… Of course, this demand does not immediately overturn the U.S. capitalist system or even directly demand that. But the gross underlying inequality, racially and more broadly economically, affects every aspect of life in the U.S. and is the root cause of the volcanic anger erupting against the thin veneer of obsolete institutions.

By way of anecdote: our American-born nephew is the owner of a small restaurant in Amsterdam. He explained to us how the Dutch government, in the face of the Covid crisis, is paying 85% of his payroll to avoid lay-offs, in addition to a subsidy to his business. It only requires the minimum of insight to do that, which has been clearly lacking from Pelosi to Trump and back again.

Keep in mind, the Netherlands (Holland) is a leader in international corporate business and trade, and that also has a number of publicly racist politicians. To put it another way, like other European and Asian democracies, the Netherlands is still capable of coalescing as a community to defend itself when faced with an existential danger. We can only do that with the political will to radically change our system.

What kind of desperation awaits Americans now that back rent is due on top of current rent, in the midst of record unemployment?

In lieu of that, what kind of desperation awaits Americans now that back rent is due on top of current rent, in the midst of record unemployment?

“You don’t need a Weatherman to tell which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan sang. The diverse youth now in the American streets know damn well that this system is, in Bernie Sanders’ words, “rigged” against them, and the concrete consequences are raining down on them. So they didn’t need a weatherman, they need a movement and they’ve built one. It is a movement of outsiders. A large swath of people has revolted and has started “building justice” on its own. “Justice” should be a verb: it’s something you do, and it is being done in Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, and around the country.

In a currently much-quoted remark from 1964, Malcom X said, “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” If we take Malcolm X’s dictum seriously, that capitalism requires racism, we’ve got a damn good start in a wide frontal attack on racist institutions by a wide coalition. If white people—young white people especially—do agree with that dictum, and their actions strongly imply they do, then how difficult is it for them to come to the inescapable conclusion that their very existence must impel them to radical action?

Many people are understandably skeptical that anything will come out of this revolt, fearing more window dressing in the form of empty pronouncements, “studies”, and “commissions”. There will be no lack of them. Nonetheless important actions have already emerged before co-optation could even speak, and more will come. Many cities have already officially announced cutbacks in their police budgets, no small feat, and other concrete steps are sprouting. Seattle has an officially sanctioned autonomous zone excluding the police department fully operating as an example of the new paradigm. This might be very temporary but it shows grassroots resolve to demonstrate new possibilities of alternative structures that can be built from below. Seattle Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant is amongst those leading this movement with the Police union already tossed out of the Seattle area Labor Council of the AFL-CIO.

Likewise, Congresswoman Karen Bass of Los Angeles along with Ilan Omar (MN) and Jerry Nadler (NY) have introduced legislation called the George Floyd Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act with the approval of now Kinte-clad House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Those who would co-opt are trying to catch up to those who are in tune with a movement that is leading and translating the street into governmental structures.

Will this uprising extend to the defunding of American imperialism? Congresswoman Barbara Lee has already offered legislation this week to radically defund the military. Her bill would cut up to $350 billion including closing some foreign bases. (To the extent this idea can get support in the next Congress and ultimately from a Democrat President, it would be a “two-for” since the U.S. war machine is the largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet. This public and forceful questioning of priorities is widening and will probably widen further. Once questioned, maybe the whole house of cards of the fraudulent U.S. “international security racket” will be questioned more widely too, as it was during the Vietnam War. For example, does it really make any sense to perennially gift an Apartheid Israel $10 million a day when more than thirty million Americans are in need of basic income and services?

The uprising has cleared the space for new questions to be asked and new answers found, because from “Defund the Police!” to the “Defense” budget and back, the stale old policies and government institutions so lovingly shared by the bi-partisan “consensus” Democrats with Republicans have strangled life giving measures, literally and figuratively, from re-aligning resources and protecting stakeholders instead of shareholders. New priorities to correct this will emerge from this crisis, because they must if we are to have a functional democratic society. Synergy must and will beget synergy.

At the flex point of events, when confronted with a mass movement, Trump felt suddenly threatened on his own turf with a legal demonstration on the streets outside of the White House in Lafayette Park. It was reported that he retreated into the bunker in the White House, which he hotly denied, clearly embarrassed to be revealed as fearful. To shore up his image of retreating he then chose to attack the demonstrators, using an armed mob of cops and national guard, many with covered badges. It was an ugly and cowardly display of military assault on a non-violent demonstration not under curfew for the minor objective of a petulant photo-op. He got the photo-op. At that moment he won the battle and utterly lost the war.

The “battle” netted him a public spat with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. The general refused the President’s direction to militarize Washington D.C. and Secretary of Defense Espy sided with Milley and against Trump (at least once during Espy’s public flip-flops). Trump’s photo-op with the upside down bible and his encounter with General Milley may have been Trump’s Waterloo. He was challenged by his own brass and lost. Here was the top soldier of the United States military, who Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t have the guts to fire and who stood up to him.

After the General initially rolled over for the stroll toward the photo op, he then held a press conference telling the world with palpable humility, that he had made a mistake to go along with the former draft dodger President on aiding and abetting the assault on the demonstrators for the photo op. (When was the last time a top general, anywhere, admitted in public making a mistake in judgment?)

The moment Trump was forced to back down on having the U.S. military occupy Washington D.C. was the beginning of the end for “Dominance Donald”

The moment Trump was forced to back down on having the U.S. military occupy Washington D.C. was the beginning of the end for “Dominance Donald” during this period. It was building toward that from the moment the country saw George Floyd being murdered under the knee of Officer Chauvin. Now the reverses would begin to mount. He tried to spin the bunker dive as an “inspection”, and then he got yelled at by the top general in the country. The effect of his narcissism was being deflated by what would become a cascading series of embarrassments.

From then on Trump’s formula for dominance which consistently had given him the “the lead” “above the fold for four plus years evaporated. His daily glib rehearsals of racist demagoguery no longer translated powerfully into headlines or popularity when up against a spiraling pandemic or the mass resistance.

As a journalistic phenomenon, the previously successful Trump routine of empty posturing has been replaced by the counter trend: the uprisings and the rising of a movement. Trump’s most inflammatory speech or tweet cannot compete for 9 attention with a burning LAPD car by a multi-racial crowd of outraged young people near Hollywood, California, or the hard proof of the inflammatory stream of police lynching videos.

Adding fuel to the fire of Presidential embarrassment that same week, John Bolton published a book denouncing Trump with charges amounting to calling him a traitor for conspiring with China to assist him in his re-election, along with other malfeasance. John Bolton is an iconic right-wing figure well known as the chief water-carrier for the foreign policy dreams of gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who was the largest donor to the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. Adelson is also the largest contributor and de factor leader of the powerful Israel Lobby. Alienating such a pivotal mover and shaker in American right-wing politics before the election could have serious electoral consequences for the Orange Ogre in the November election.

Wanting to hit back from his rout at Lafayette Park, Trump (or more likely Steven Miller) reacted with the predictably ugly idea to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, scene of one of the worst racist massacres in American history, and on Juneteenth, in yet another attempt to humiliate Black people as a distraction from his pandemic governing failures.

At this point it seems like he’s not even reading his base, to say nothing about the national mood. Twenty-four hours later he backed down on the Juneteenth part by reversing himself on the date but having the rally in Tulsa the next day. Again, he allowed his need for a grand gesture to misguide him. The event’s paltry turnout failed miserably to live up to his inflated crowd predictions and was made more embarrassing with a nationally televised half empty house. Things are just not working out for the Orange Occupant at this point, not even in bright red Oklahoma.

Yes, the fact remains that this is a dangerous and deranged man at the pinnacle of world political power, and the fact he is seriously wounded does not make him less dangerous. Things could swing back his way, but right now it seems “the die is cast.” For a narcissist demagogue, second place is no place—it’s all or nothing, and from here on, it may be nothing. At this point he’s flailing. The page has turned and he has lost control of the news cycle narrative.