On May 30th, 2020, thousands of people descended on downtown Chicago for a raucous daytime march. The gathering was part of a nationwide crescendo of rebellion that began in Minneapolis five days prior in response to the police murder of George Floyd. After being cooped up for months amid the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic, fearful of everyone as a potential carrier of disease, we had been set free by the images of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct aflame. Hitting the streets that day was something akin to a religious experience. From the onset it was clear that the crowd would not follow the shopworn “peaceful” Black Lives Matter protest script. I watched with glee as teenagers scurried through the crowd graffitiing every conceivable surface with anti-cop slogans like ACAB and Fuck 12, alongside their own confrontrational reappropriation of “Black Lives Matter,” a long stalled out movement which many of them were too young to have participated in. An American flag was summarily lowered and burned, and after some spirited debate involving sentimental locals, the Chicago flag was similarly put to the torch. Chicago Police cars were attacked, their windows smashed with the skateboards preferred by many young people, or whatever else people could get their hands on. Multiple CPD cars were set on fire. The cops themselves were outmaneuvered by a massive crowd swarming a sprawling downtown grid, and formed defensive lines unprotected from behind, wantonly swinging clubs and deploying pepper spray with no clear purpose save perhaps their proximity to particularly valuable sites of potential looting.
In response, Lori Lightfoot — the city’s black lesbian mayor, who often postures as a police reformer — ordered the hulking drawbridges connecting Chicago’s iconic loop with the rest of the city to be raised. This dramatic scene, which would recur episodically throughout the summer, effectively cut off the heart of Chicago’s affluence from its largely black and brown working-class outer ring, revealing the subtle counterinsurgency mapped onto the stark racial segregation of the city’s terrain. On May 30th, raising the bridges also functioned, alongside the closure of the subway and parts of the city’s main artery, Lake Shore Drive, to trap protesters downtown, and a hastily announced 9 p.m. curfew served as the pretext for mass arrests numbering in the hundreds. As the sun set, Chicagoans who had escaped this net hit the streets in an explosion of looting that seemed generalized throughout the city’s otherwise disjointed neighborhoods. Affluent areas like the chic Wicker Park, and working-class neighborhoods like South Shore, were similarly cleaned out. These expropriations continued into the next day, as the cops guarded the big money retailers, leaving grocery stores and other targets deemed low-value to be stripped bare by leisurely crowds operating in broad daylight. Before the weekend was over, CPD would arrest at least 1,000 people, and hundreds of cops would claim to be injured.2
By the standards of the summer of 2020, this was not a particularly remarkable turn of events. Cops were outflanked and overrun in cities across the United States all summer. They were confounded by the ferocity of the riots, the abuse rained down on them by even the so-called peaceful protesters, and perhaps most shockingly, the people whom they ordinarily harass and intimidate with impunity defending themselves — and even going on the attack. Perhaps some cops were surprised by the realization that tens of millions of Americans hate their guts and want them to quit their jobs or else just die. If they were honest with themselves, though, they’d admit this was all a long time coming. The biggest surprise of the George Floyd Rebellion is how long it took to arrive.3
The rebellion unfolded amid a protracted capitalist crisis exacerbated by a global pandemic that laid capital’s most brutal contradictions bare. It came after decades in which stubbornly low rates of profit and the violent instability of the global market had wrought an enduring state of “churning and flailing,” as David Ranney put it. The stagnation of capital, lacking steady outlets for acceptable levels of protracted valorization, has created a protracted global instability with disastrous consequences in the lives of working people made to endure the worst of the chaos. But, as Ranney argues, working-class people are not simply acted upon by the turbulence of capital’s contractions; on a terrain largely configured by forces outside their control, they are forced to constantly react, and sometimes go on the offensive.4
As production and circulation are reconfigured at a breakneck pace, cutting the legs out from underneath any inherited sense of what it means to be a political actor or part of a larger polity, the disorder of what is glibly called “late capitalism” has spurred on churning and flailing within the political identities and forms of association necessary for proletarian struggle. Working-class Americans have been compelled to struggle against the disastrous form of life capital has engendered for them, and to replace this hellish world with a new one, while it is nowhere clear how to rectify the disjunction between the particular and the universal. In the magisterial American Civilization, C.L.R. James argues that the gulf dividing the belligerently “autonomous,” freedom-loving American individual from their broader social world has been the fundamental problematic of American politics since the colonial period.5 And the vociferous American individual, stubbornly irreducible to the universality for which they nonetheless strive in religion and politics, is also defined by profoundly different experiences of capitalist exploitation – so-called race, gender, national belonging, sexual identity, and an almost infinity of differentiating criteria. Thus the very constitution of American subjectivity is in constant tension with the necessity, objectively imposed upon exploited and oppressed people, for working political unity sufficient to create a world where the free development of each is the free development of all.
This formulation may seem abstract, but its implications are pressingly practical. American proletarians, like working people across the world, are compelled by the circumstances of their daily lives to engage in struggle. But once they are activated, key questions present themselves: who we are, what we are fighting, and what we are fighting for? Absent coherent answers, few will struggle for long. In recent decades in the United States, these questions have been addressed by two main answers, alternatively rooted in race, or class. Polemicists insist that one must choose one or the other, as if they even can be disentangled, let alone counterposed. But the recent American experience demonstrates something more profound is going on in the streets: a churning of struggles which are advanced under the aegis a coherent identity — class in Occupy, race in Black Lives Matter — which posits a tentative reconciliation of particular with universal, before this identity becomes a reified, meaningless abstraction, and an obstacle to the further unfolding of the movement. The only thing left to do in those moments is break these abstractions apart. The George Floyd Rebellion was the latest of such eruptions.
Assault on Precinct 3
“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper?” asks the young Hubert in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine. “On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good... so far so good... so far so good.”
Most of May 2020 was a sustained downward plummet. After nearly two months of stay-at-home orders, whatever novelty “the lockdown” originally held had decidedly worn off. The realization was setting in that Covid-19 was not going away fast, and whatever “normal” we eventually returned to would be irreversibly shaped by the virus. For the luckiest workers, disproportionately white and college-educated, this meant working from home, doing some of the most alienating and pointless jobs in world history, while battling depression, substance abuse, and a profound despair further amplified by the collective nervous breakdown known as social media. But this was only some 42% of American workers; the majority of the workforce faced grimmer prospects still, either losing jobs outright (33%), or being forced to risk the virus as a condition of continuing employment as so-called essential workers (26%).6 Service and transportation workers, suddenly deputized as unwaged enforcers of public health codes, tangled with customers refusing to wear masks, leading to countless acts of humiliation and abuse, a spate of assaults, and multiple murders of workers simply requesting that a customer cover their nose and mouth.7 Prisoners were largely left to fend for themselves in their squalid petri dishes, as Covid ripped through US carceral facilities, briefly making New York City’s Rikers Island penal colony the worldwide epicenter of the virus.8 Accordingly, carceral facilities became early sites of struggle in 2020.9
Even in the months before the pandemic, some 10% of Americans could not afford their monthly bills at all, while 39% would be unable to cover an unexpected expense of $400. A quarter of Americans skipped medical care because they could not afford it. By May of 2020, upwards of 25.4 million people were counted as out of work entirely, for increasingly long stretches of time. The unemployment rate was highest among black and brown Americans, who made up 16.8% and 17.6% of the unemployed, respectively, compared to 12.4% for white people. Even among the employed, a quarter of black and brown adults who desired full-time jobs were forced to work part-time. The demographic hit hardest by the Covid Recession was teenagers, who comprised 29.9% of those looking for work and unable to find it, and would go on play an outsized role in the rebellion.10 Only a national moratorium on evictions prevented an avalanche of sudden homelessness. This policy, along with the temporary suspension of student debt payments, represented state intervention to stem the most brutal immediate consequences of capital’s austerity regime, in order to keep it intact in the long-term. This approach to governance would define the public relief under Covid. Many laid-off workers found temporary relief in a one-time stimulus check, alongside unemployment benefits that enabled those many to keep afloat, or even live better than before while avoiding a return to shit jobs. But the rent would eventually come due, benefits would dry up, and anyone brave enough to face the future in May of 2020 knew that the picture was exceedingly bleak.11
The often-overlooked events that set the George Floyd Rebellion in motion in the first place paint a grim portrait of the desperation that defined working-class life in the early days of the pandemic. It all began in the Cup Foods bodega in South Minneapolis, when George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old precariously-employed black man recently laid off and freshly recovered from Covid, bought a pack of cigarettes with a $20 bill that may or may not have been counterfeited. The black teenage cashier who sold the cigarettes suspected Floyd’s money was counterfeit, but accepted it anyway. But as Floyd exited, the young cashier changed his mind, and decided he had to get the cigarettes back.
Who cares about a lousy pack of cigarettes, least of all an exploited teenage cashier? In this case, loyalty to private property or bourgeois law did not play a part. Like so many proletarians kept on the worksite during Covid, the employees of Cup Foods had been christened “essential” and tossed to the frontlines of the pandemic as cannon fodder to keep capital circulating. And just like the clerks in other places being thrown to the front lines as unwaged enforcers of mask mandates, Cup Foods workers had also been deputized as unwaged currency inspectors, forced to determine on the spot whether the money customers like Floyd handed them was real or fake, and to then engage in a potentially explosive confrontation with the customer. If a Cup Foods cashier allowed a counterfeit bill to slip by, they would have to cover it out of their own meager wages. Twenty dollars, which would come out of this cashier’s pocket, translates to a lot of time laboring for free in a city where the average cashier makes roughly $12 per hour, before taxes.
The cashier consulted a manager, who dispatched him to Floyd’s car to demand the cigarettes back, and then commanded another clerk to call the cops.12 The needs of capital accumulation had thrown this young service worker into the miserable situation of policing other working-class black people like George Floyd, who had long survived on the margins of the labor market, alternatively used and discarded as capital saw fit. These were two black men struggling to keep their heads above water in a country where the odds were against them. Thanks to the machinations of management science, their personal struggles to navigate the bottom rungs of the labor market were turned into direct conflict with each other. And to make matters worse, the cops were on the way.
“I’ve never seen a situation so dismal,” the Irish republican Brendan Behan once remarked, “that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.” When Minneapolis cops arrived, the low-stakes conflict between Floyd and the cashier turned deadly almost immediately, thanks America’s infusion of police violence into nearly every facet of life for working-class people otherwise left to fend for themselves.
Shortly after Floyd’s murder, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) released an account of his death entitled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” It is a remarkable example of the magical rhetoric US cops deploy to hide their atrocities, most often parroted with great fidelity by the press. “[Floyd] was ordered to step from his car,” the press release claimed. “After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance.”13 The millions of people who have viewed the footage of George Floyd’s murder have beheld a dramatically different scene. It is impossible to say how many times such a fabrication has passed for the truth, as cops can often command the very nature of reality to obey. But this time, video evidence of Floyd’s murder, shot by a black teenager named Darnella Frazier, quickly crisscrossed the Internet. In the stifling hell of locked-down America, with hundreds of millions of people cooped up and facing an uncertain future, the image of a man slowly choked to death by the repressive agents of US capitalism soon found resonance far beyond its local context.
The following afternoon, thousands gathered in the intersection where Floyd was murdered. Marches snaked through Minneapolis streets as demonstrators hurled rocks at cop cars. Much of this crowd soon arrived at the Third Precinct, where the killer cops had suited up the day of Floyd’s murder. The precinct’s windows were smashed and its walls graffitied, along with the windows of every cop car and personal vehicle they could get their hands on. A liquor store was looted and its goods redistributed. Professional social movement “organizers,” equipped with safety vests and megaphones to assert their authority, attempted to stop the action. But they were outnumbered — the momentum belonged to the rebels, who shouted that nobody got to decide when things ended. The people returned the following day with redoubled ferocity. Looting spread, providing food and liquor to sustain the growing crowd, but the main target remained the Third Precinct. By the following evening, it would be sacked and set afire, after the cops were forced to beat their ignominious retreat.14 Images spread across the country of a determined multiracial crowd fighting the police, destroying cop infrastructure, taking what they wanted without paying, and above all, undertaking bold and decisive actions at a time when trepidation ruled the land — and winning. The heat was on.
Forty Years in the Desert
The George Floyd Rebellion capped off a decade of struggles through which the decomposed and disoriented US proletariat struggled to articulate and assert itself on a social terrain defined by decades of retrenchment and “class war in which only one side was fighting.” 15 The struggles of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were drenched in the long shadow of the 1970s, when the US postwar boom ran aground amid a global crisis of overproduction, and a diminishing profit rate in manufacture led capital away from large-scale industrial employment and toward both the dramatic automation of production and increasingly ethereal speculation in the finance sector. Capital proved time and again unable to break the tendency, long heralded by Marx, of surplus capital, lacking a productive outlet, amassing alongside surplus populations of proletarians, for whom there is no place in a market they have nonetheless been forced to depend on.16 In the United States, the rate of profit, difficult as it is to calculate conclusively, fell from anywhere between 25% to 33% in the years between 1948 and 2015.17 Nostalgia for the good old days have long abounded — fueling the popularity of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — despite more time having elapsed since the postwar boom ended than the boom itself lasted. Meanwhile, jobs have become less stable, lower-paying, and more demanding, while pensions have vanished, and employment in the “gig economy” now resembles the frenetic drive of capital from one outlet to another, never satisfied and never sitting still.
Capital’s turn to intensive financialization in the final decades of the 20th century has driven an intensive project of global urban recapitalization known as gentrification, which has unfolded alongside the dismantling and privatization of essential public services like water, garbage collection, and education. Not only do the reinvestment in neglected land and the subsumption of previously public goods provide outlets for surplus capital desperate to valorize itself, these brutal forms of expropriation also represent a ruling-class offensive against entitlements hard-won by 20th century working-class struggle. This is especially true among black and brown people in the US, whose decades of militancy had, by the late 1960s, begun to procure auspicious inroads into the labor force and housing market. Beginning with great intensity in the 1970s, however, the restructuring toward what is commonly called neoliberalism hit working-class black and brown people especially hard. The crisis of 2008, which demonstrated the objective economic limits to neoliberal policy alongside the ruling class’s unwillingness, or inability, to change course, also occasioned the particularly devastating liquidation of black-owned wealth.18
Today’s ruling class has only managed to stave off disastrous crises by sewing small-scale disasters all across the globe, especially in the daily lives of a growing number of proletarians. Among the chief global laboratories for austerity, the United States has undertaken a dramatic restructuring of working-class life, defined by the shifting of state functioning away from the welfare state and toward police, prisons, and military expenditures. This arrangement provides outlets for capital in the construction of carceral and military infrastructure, while cops protect real estate investments and other private property, prisons discipline proletarians to accept abysmal wages, and surplus populations are housed in prisons and military barracks. Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has dubbed this arrangement “the prison fix” — a stopgap measure overseen by a state increasingly reduced to deploying its immense capacity for violence to mitigate the most egregious symptoms of a protracted crisis it cannot end.19 Brutal state-sponsored crisis containment, with no horizon for resolution, constitutes part of the “holding pattern with a gradual loss of altitude” that characterized the post-2008 years.20
This transformation of labor and life on a global scale was not uncontested. In particular, the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s represented an attempt at an internationalist mass movement politics, albeit three steps behind the global hopscotch of capital long freed from the strictures of the nation state. With influences dating back to the militant activism of groups like ACT UP around state inactivity amid the AIDS epidemic, the anti-globalization movement was also the debut on the world stage of a profoundly fragmented amalgamation of people, grasping to articulate a positive conception of politics amid great disorganization and a decades-long crisis of universalist political identity. Lacking any substantive platform in production or circulation, dedicated and courageous activists took to the streets, in spectacular confrontations with riot cops at trade summits, where attendance became something of an extreme sport. The September 11th attacks, in turn, channeled this momentum into ill-fated attempts to block the US warfare state’s decades-long imperialist misadventures in the Middle East, where capital’s search for valorization in oil fields and arms dealing generated profits for some at the expense of untold carnage and irreversible social instability.
“In order to continue its philosophy of full employment,” auto worker James Boggs wrote in 1963, “organized labor has become part and parcel of the ‘American way of life.’ It has become partners with the military in establishing and maintaining a war machine the only purpose of which is to threaten the destruction of humanity.”21 The same could be said about the buildup of the police and prison apparatus in decades that followed; far from the enemies of the working-class they were once considered, cops and guards unions — whose primary demands are freedom from consequences of their brutality — became some of the most powerful unions in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest labor federation in the United States.22 It is small wonder, then, that attempts to contest the new regime of globalizing capital were characterized by an isolation of mass movement politics from the point of production. Even in the salad days of the postwar boom, as Boggs argued, most American unions surrendered control over conditions of production in exchange for higher wages and other benefits that could be revoked once worker power was decisively stemmed. Now that the proverbial carrot has been withdrawn from a significantly weakened labor movement, and it is mostly the stick that remains, recapture of the point of production has proved elusive, thanks in large part to unions remaining thoroughly institutionalized as the junior partners of capital, and the eager accomplices of America’s prison and police boom taking the place of its vanished welfare state.
The despondency produced in the early 2000s by the failure of the anti-war movement, the rightward drift of US politics, including its labor movement, and a general downward grind of working-class life across the country, can help the contemporary youthful observer make sense of the curious cult of Barack Obama, a tepid neoliberal technocrat on whom millions of Americans were all too willing to project their yearning for “hope and change.” Before Obama even took office, however, the 2008 crisis made it clear that any change would be for the worse. It was the culmination of decades of accumulation fueled by fictitious capital, as diminishing profits led investors to increasingly ethereal financial schemes.23 Some $10.2 trillion in the United States alone was revealed to exist nowhere except the imagination of feverish speculators.
Considerable sleaze and malfeasance throughout the ruling class prepared the ground for the worst of 2008. And thanks to bailouts overseen in part by Obama himself, the lion’s share of the suffering was kicked to the bottom of the social ladder. There it wreaked havoc in proletarian life in the form of persistent unemployment and cuts most to social spending outside military, prisons, and cops. Black homeowners, who were disproportionately targeted by predatory loans at the center of the housing bubble, were particularly devastated. More than 240,000 lost their homes. Overall, white families lost 28.5% of their total wealth to the crisis, while black families lost 47.5% — dramatically exacerbating longstanding trends in wealth inequality and home ownership dating back to slavery.24 The ravages of the crisis, initially met with meager resistance from unions, capped off a demoralizing decade of retrenchment and defeat. But as Loren Goldner would later reflect, “the sky is always darkest just before dawn.”25
Don’t Call It A Comeback
On September 30th, 2011, rumors ricocheted across social media that the English rock band Radiohead was set to play a surprise show at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The movement had originated with a call by the politically ambiguous “anti-consumerist” publication Adbusters to descend on Wall Street on September 17th, but it was quickly taken up by a variety of local actors, and soon escaped any coordination or control by the magazine. Local Occupy movements had important predecessors, like the 2009 protests in Oakland against the police murder of Oscar Grant, and the 2009-2010 student movement, which had considerable influence in New York and California, perhaps especially the clarion call: “Occupy Everything!” As the Radiohead rumor spread that day, thousands of New Yorkers descended on the tiny park, spilling into the street in every direction and exponentially increasing the protest movement’s record crowd. The concert was all a hoax, but it didn’t matter. The energy was electric; in the crush of the crowd, I sensed that something truly new was happening. Best of all, just about everyone could be part of it by virtue of just showing up.
The massive crowd brought traffic to a standstill as it meandered through the financial district, landing at last on the doorstep of One Police Plaza, NYPD’s home base. Communicating through the human microphone, a crowd-based amplification technique used to circumvent the City’s aggressive ban on unauthorized amplification, speakers echoed the movement’s populist themes of “the 99%” versus “the 1%,” peppered with a new grievance: police brutality. The previous week, a Staten Island cop gained international notoriety for emptying his pepper spray on a crowd of young women for seemingly no reason at an Occupy protest. This scene has greatly increased sympathy for – and participation in — the Occupy movement. The day after the Radiohead stunt, another massive crowd descended the park, marching across the Brooklyn Bridge’s vehicle lane, and directly into an NYPD kettle that netted 700 arrests. If it was the cops’ intent to stem the movement with violence and arrests, this backfired. Occupy Wall Street was just getting started.
Occupy was the largest and most intense wave of struggle in the US that my generation, which came to politics around the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, had ever seen. But it was not unprecedented. December of 2001, Argentinians took to the streets in large numbers, blocking roads, banging pots, and raising a resounding cry: Que se vayan todos!, “they all must go.” This wholesale and belligerent rejection of Argentina’s neoliberal political establishment was accompanied by assemblies on the hyper-local level, experiments in building a new conception of politics from the ground up. Its starting point was the imperative to wipe it all clean and start from scratch.26 These movements could be called “anti-formist” as, in contrast to reformist or conformist movements, which work within established modalities of political engagement, they sought a radical remaking of the social order, predicated on the delegitimization of existent politics almost altogether.27
Argentina’s piqueteros were a harbinger of things to come, perhaps befitting the country’s early and intensive adoption of neoliberal governance, which by 2001, had transformed life in a way deemed untenable by a critical mass of people. The movement augured a wave of massive public space occupations which rejected the entire social order root and branch – albeit with no clear conception of what was to take its place. This global wave of struggle, which crashed into ground zero of American finance capital with Occupy Wall Street, would come to be called “the movement of the squares.”28 Beginning in 2011, similar scenes recurred throughout the Middle East and North Africa as part of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement across the United States, and in Greece, Spain, and Portugal.
Occupy encampments were places where participants, drawn by a wholesale rejection of the capitalist status quo, sought to replicate in miniature new forms of social relations and democratic participation, through mutual aid and direct democratic rituals inherited from the anti-globalization movement. At their best, Occupy camps were experimental sites for common life outside of commodity exchange. They brought together great ingenuity and collective action, albeit among a tiny fraction of their city’s population. In one instance, a city ban on gas generators was quickly circumvented by some ingenious Occupier fashioning a battery powered by a stationary bike, which was itself banned under some flimsy pretext or another in short order. But camps also inherited many of the social problems US official society has largely given up on addressing, including mental illness, substance abuse, and sexual assault. 29 And while many of us who upheld the radical horizontalism of the anti-globalization movement as an article of faith went into the movement believing in the ideology of direct democracy, like most desires, its fulfillment was a nightmare; endless self-aggrandizing assemblies proved to be the last place where decisive action could be taken. Initiative taken outside of these bodies by affinity groups and other ad hoc micro-groupuscules gave flesh to the Invisible Committee’s imperative: “Abolish general assemblies.”30
Thus, the fragile ecosystems of many Occupy encampments struggled with social problems that could only be adequately remedied by structural social transformation. By looking inward toward problems of social reproduction that no monadic community can solve under capitalism, much less in an open air downtown encampment besieged by police, the camps ossified into ends in themselves, failing to realize their potential for serving as the basis of a class offensive. Reproducing the camps and defending them against increasingly violent cops organized on a national level to crush the movement became the movement’s sole horizon. The spatial location of the movement wasn’t just an element of its strategy; it was the strategy. This was perhaps best encapsulated by the fate of the human microphone. Originally a clever tactic that circumvented New York City’s prohibition on unpermitted public amplification, it became divorced from this context, and was used needlessly, when amplification was available, or else everyone could hear the person speaking. This produced a creepy, cult-like mass of core activists, dead-eyed and drained of enthusiasm from months of intensive struggle, chanting banalities in a frightful deadpan unison, for no reason other than that’s what they thought they were supposed to do. As temperatures dropped in many cities, evictions were likely welcomed by more than a few occupiers as relief from a situation that was increasingly chaotic, violent, and lacking direction.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Occupy failed to penetrate “the glass floor” separating street demonstrations from sites of production, and was exiled from any strategic leverage save for blocking traffic.31 In the United States at least, the public character of the movement was often celebrated as a strength, the return of the elusive commons buried beneath the atomization of capitalist society. But in reality, this really just represented the widespread evacuation of movement politics from workplaces, schools, and other social institutions, leaving people quite literally pedestrians in the politics of their daily lives. The most promising solutions to this problem, which has dogged US mass movements since the 1960s, came from Occupy Oakland’s putative general strike and West Coast port blockade alongside dissidents in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who naturally had to oppose their union leadership to make this happen. But these were exceptions proving the rule; by and large, Occupy encampments were places people went in their off-hours and on their way home, a form of politics removed from workplaces and the neighborhood where people lived.
Who Is the 99%?
My favorite part about Occupy Wall Street was that just about anyone claiming membership in a political entity predating September 17, 2001 was treated with suspicion when they expected to be able to throw their weight around. While the anti-formist Occupy movement was based on the profound fragmentation of traditional political coalitions and identities, and the rejection of much of the old world outright, including its oppositional politics, Occupy’s political subject was actually a quite coherent one, assumed in advance. The movement was, its faithful argued, the struggle of “the 99%” against “the 1%,” who hold a quarter of the nation’s wealth, and still more political power. In some of the movement’s most clever propaganda, participants photographed themselves holding signs explaining their struggles. The typical story ran something like: I followed society’s rules as I understood them, went to college because I was told that was the path to prosperity, worked hard, sacrificed, and so forth, but now I am a low-waged or precarious laborer in considerable debt, and the future looks grim. The messages almost always concluded with: “I am the 99%.”
While these narratives no doubt reveal a process of proletarianization across the middle tiers of US labor market, stagnating the career trajectories of many eager young professionals who expected to exceed their parents, of course nowhere near 99% of the country has been proletarianized, nor is the proletariat itself without divisions. Despite the incessant chant to the contrary, Occupy never was the 99%. A case in point was the growing presence of otherwise homeless people in Occupy camps. Many occupiers sought to exclude them from the movement altogether. This evinced not only the real divisions within the so-called 99%, but the unwillingness of downwardly-mobile young people to let go of their class chauvinism.32 The main reason the 99% failed as a class analysis is largely because it wasn’t one. Class is a social relationship of exploitation and domination, not a demographic fact. Many enemies of the working class, like the cops who guarded the Occupy camps, could conceivably make less money than unionized blue collar workers. This would not change the fact that the cops are structurally opposed to the assertion of working-class politics. By reducing class to how much money a person makes, Occupy didn’t just cast the homeless people in its camps in league with many of the bankers who served as its bête noir. The movement also prevented a serious treatment of what exactly class is, and how it can therefore be overcome.
Accordingly, the question of social role of the cops was a recurring roadblock to Occupy developing a clear sense of itself. They were surely in the 99% as a purely economic category, but what sense did it make to say that the 99% was cracking its own heads? As cops clamped down on camps across the US with a degree of brutality most of the white participants had never experienced, many occupiers struggled to rectify this particularly glaring evidence of the shallowness underlying the 99% identity, with many anarchists and communist participants happy to challenge the movement’s soft stance on the cops with deeper structural analysis of the role cops play capitalist society. Looking back from the comfort of 2021, when ACAB — “all cops are bastards” – has become a movement shibboleth even among many liberals, the degree of vocal support cops enjoyed from the heart of the Occupy movement may seem like a bad dream. But the cop love was real, representing the limitations of a populist analysis reducing class to income categories. While many occupiers came to despise the cops in the course of that struggle — thanks, in large part, to the brutality and belligerence of the cops themselves — this issue remained contentious even as Occupy’s wave crested.33
But the central division within Occupy emerged around the question of race. While the 2008 crisis had hit black and brown people worst of all, and three short years later, black people would be out in force for the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy encampments remained overwhelmingly white. This could be in part attributed to the location of many Occupy camps far away from segregated neighborhoods where many working-class black Americans live. But it must also be attributed to the movement’s populist flattening of racial difference into an abstract signifier of class. In the United States, where structural racism, especially in the years immediately following Obama’s election, often comes cloaked in an ideology of “color blindness,” failing to explicitly address race can be tantamount to endorsing the racial order. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is importantly subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness,” and deftly explores the unique moment of colorblindness that immediately followed Obama’s election.34 Above all, many black people in the United States, especially in working-class communities, are constantly reminded that they are black; if the geography of segregation and differential access to wealth, education, employment, and health care are not sufficient objective reminders, landlords, teachers, bosses, cops, and strangers on the street are happy to do it subjectively. Why, then, would a challenge to US society, waged by a critical mass of black people, be first couched in anything else besides the particularity of the black experience? All the critiques in the world of black particularity, no matter how correct on paper, cannot abstract away from this visceral fact of American life.35
Many non-white protesters who took part in the movement challenged its flattening of racial difference. These encounters, which challenged Occupy’s conception of class as a demographic category, were typically taken up using theory from middle-class academic and non-profit settings, where postmodernist and “intersectional” theories, valorizing the irreducible singularity of all people, had flourished for decades without any truth-testing in mass movement activity. These theories of difference tend to be less geared toward mass movement politics, and more toward winning classroom debates, discrediting professional nemeses, and beating out other competitors for scant resources like funding and employment, by distinguishing oneself as the sole authentic voice of an oppressed community. Surely there were instances in Occupy’s debates over the relationship between race and class where all participants involved did not talk past each other. But I wasn’t present for them. In the years following the movement, however, a number of critical engagements with intersectionality theory in particular wrestled with the tension between individual subjects and collective political struggle, particularly as it relates to questions of race and class. Many people emerged from Occupy with these questions in the front of their minds.36
In short, the simplicity of the 99% figure reaped its successes up front in the form of broad popular appeal, but the downsides came quickly enough. As was observed in these pages, “the fact that the 2011 movements presented themselves as already unified, as already beyond the determinations of a horrible society, meant that their internal divisions were usually disavowed. Because they were disavowed, they could only appear as threats to the movement.”37 Meanwhile, the tactical horizons of square occupations served as an apt metaphor for an initially dynamic movement that reified its own self-understanding almost immediately, and became, both figuratively and quite literally, fixed in space. This hackneyed class-first approach of course did not make very real divisions go away, any more than a judge’s orders to allow occupiers back into Zuccotti Park in the days after the eviction, pathetically brandished by hard-core activists demanding re-admission in the encroaching winter cold, were respected by NYPD cops who simply shrugged and kept the park closed indefinitely. Nonetheless, Occupy put the issue of class — and dormant practices of mass collective struggle — front and center in American life. And the turbulence of daily life compelling Americans to take action, and take these questions seriously in the process, would not cease.
This Stops Today
On December 4th, 2014, a large crowd gathered in Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for a march called by the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee. The previous day, a Staten Island grand jury had declined to indict the cop who murdered Eric Garner. Convergences called by dinosaur Marxist-Leninist parties and autonomous leftists alike had quickly escaped the control of the organizers, paralyzing much of Manhattan with snake marches tens of thousands strong. The major challenge for organizers in this setting was getting the ball rolling; cops would do everything in their power, including brutal arrests, to keep marches in parks and on the sidewalk, but once a critical mass of people took the street, cops had to beat a tactical retreat and prepare the next assault. On this particular night, the anarchists and communists who had called the convergence milled through the growing crowd, plugging people into a text-message based alert system, and letting them know that as soon as they heard “I can’t breathe,” it was time to march. A lone speaker announced he would be sharing the final words of Eric Garner, which featured the heartbreaking repetition of the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times. At the final iteration, the crowd surged forth through a weak spot in the police line and into the street, catching the cops off guard and easily gaining the upper hand. Within minutes, the raucous snake march ran into another massive crow, fusing together with great exaltation, to crisscross city streets ordinarily guarded so jealously by the cops, chanting the names of their victims as it blocked tunnels and bridges, parading up and down the West Side Highway, surging forth intractably toward nowhere in particular.
Shortly after the evictions of Occupy camps, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was murdered by a latino neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. Demonstrations popped up across the country, including among the remnants of Occupy. In North Miami Beach, dozens of students capped off their high school’s walkout by ransacking the local Walgreens pharmacy, and in New Orleans, three confederate monuments were defaced, with a message proclaiming the action to be “for Trayvon.”38 Agitation around the movement that would soon be commonly known as Black Lives Matter continued through a spate of killings of black people by US police and white vigilantes, including Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and Johnathan Ferrell. The downward grind of daily life for working-class black people, whose recovery from 2008 was even worse than the sluggish progress of their white counterparts, surely drove some of the anger at these deaths. But the hegemonic political narrative that emerged from these campaigns emphasized the poor treatment of black people by US police, arguing for greater procedural justice against vigilantes and the cops.
Despite the steady drumbeat of disastrous publicity throughout 2014, US cops could simply not stop killing black people long enough for the movement to blow over. “Martys drive this movement,” writes Tobi Haslett, “they are its origin and blazing emblems.”39 One such martyr was Eric Garner, who had long been harassed by police as he plied his trade of selling untaxed cigarettes on New York City’s Staten Island. When, in mid-July of 2014, a gang of cops accosted him after he had broken up a fight, Garner stood up to them, saying enough was enough. “This stops today!” he declared. For his defiance, Garner was attacked and placed in a choke hold which slowly drained the life from his body. As would later recur with George Floyd, Garner’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” immediately found resonance among large swaths of proletarians hemmed in on all sides by austerity and violence. Similarly, the killing of the black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was widely compared to a lynching. Like Garner, Brown was killed for refusal — while walking in the street, Brown ignored a Ferguson cop’s orders to “get the fuck on the sidewalk.”40
The reader may recognize this scene, the inscription of one’s social role by a cop on the street, from the famous example of interpellation, or subject formation by an external authority, proffered by philosopher Louis Althusser. In Althusser’s example, the cop calls “Hey you there!” and the addressee, by turning around, establishes themselves as the “you” who is subject to the police authority.41 But just as the police encounter is one where a subject position is imposed, so too can it be resisted. The cop who killed Brown later claimed that Brown responded “Fuck what you have to say,” and refusing to be pushed off the street, taunted him: “What the fuck are you gonna do?” Whether or not he made up this detail to make Brown appear more menacing, it is a telling feature of his justification for the latter’s killing: Brown’s act of refusal, no matter how trifling the original offense, posed a serious threat in the cop’s mind.42 His colleagues apparently agreed that Brown had to be made an example of; Brown’s body was left uncovered on the street for over four hours, in the hot sun, for all to see. As Ferguson Committeewoman Patricia Bynes later observed, the display “sent the message from law enforcement that ‘we can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”43
Garner and Brown had not just refused police orders; they had refused their ordained role in a social order where their lives did not matter, where the stagnation of capital offered them little in the way of employment or public relief to keep them afloat, and where their daily life was managed by armed custodians who treated them like inmates of an open air prison, allowing them not even the pretense of dignity. The contrast between Althusser’s “hey you there!” and “get the fuck on the sidewalk” furnishes a handy testament to how nakedly and belligerently the racialized class order in the US is enforced by the cops.
Doing well by the martyrs who gave the movement impetus, the anti-formist spirit of refusal which underlay these incidents would also define the public response to them, as a critical mass of people refused to be intimidated into submission by the gruesome spectacles, and heeded instead their spirit of defiance. Adding to the threat these acts of refusal posed to police power, many white people subsequently refused the silent complicity in black death demanded of them by their historical role in their privileged strata of the US workforce. This was significant, since a critical mass of white workers have, since America’s colonial period, been reliably willing to uphold a cross-class alliance with white elites, against everyone else. This alliance, between working-class whites and the ruling class, is especially important to the latter in the powder key environment engendered by capital’s austerity regime. But beginning in 2014, prominent cracks emerged in this unholy pact. Their source was not the world of ideas, but material changes afoot at the bottom tiers of the US labor market, long home to black workers, and to which a growing number of whites, including those, like the archetypal Occupier, who once imagined a bright future for themselves, were being consigned.
The movement that would come to be called Black Lives Matter, originated as a much broader rejection of this entire social order – albeit one defined negatively, in opposition to killer cops. In Ferguson, this resistance took the form of widespread protests defying the heavily-armored state security forces, episodic looting, and as the movement wore on, arson and sporadic gunshots in the direction of cops. Images of courageous Ferguson rebels confronting cops hiding behind Robocop riot gear purchased with their tax and fine money inspired protests all across the US. Successive announcements of non-indictment — first Brown’s killer on November 24th, then Garner’s on December 3rd — served as fuel to the fire. The memetic forces of such images, as Adrian Wohlleben argues in the remarkable essay “Memes without End,” in their viral transmission via images broadcast on social media and TV news, was more compelling than any stated political ideology or analysis of the situation in the short term. Instead, militant tactics and a general spirit of belligerent refusal were viewed and replicated throughout the US.44
Solidarity actions largely consisted of large, unpermitted snake marches, defaulting to the blockading of highways, bridges, and other transit infrastructure. Some commentators at the time attempted to argue that this constituted attacks on the circulation of capital. No matter how exciting a thought, however, it was a hard pill to swallow for this participant; it seemed more accurate that we blocked these sites because we had a whole lot of people willing to cause a big public disruption, and nothing better to do. We were, in a word, all dressed up with nowhere to go.45 This is not to say that it was worse off than open-ended occupations. Some organizers even tried to root the movement down by planning space occupations, but the state is always ready for the last class offensive, just as many activists are loathe to repeat it, and the combination of police aggression and popular apathy saw these projects come to naught. The relationship to space that ensued was frenetic, almost an experimental praxis of reclaiming terrain tightly regulated by the cops. But it soon regained the clear limitations consistent with being quite literally out in the street.
On the one hand, the blockade tactic, which emerged organically in many places, evinced a degree of courage and assent to illegality that surprised many of us so-called revolutionaries, who had expected to lead these actions. Like the Occupy camps before it, however, this tactic quickly ossified, and became a limit to the heightening of militancy. Standing in the middle of the street with no plan was exhilarating at first, given that an all-consuming tactical objective of most street mobilizations in the recent past had been simply getting marches “off the sidewalk and into the street,” as the chant goes. But this dynamism soon grew stale, its victories increasingly shallow. Direct clashes with cops, let alone attacks on them and their infrastructure, were rare and largely unpopular. Looting was similarly rare and discouraged. Anti-cop chants were routinely shut down. A gesture as harmless as toppling a trashcan was militantly opposed by so-called peace police among the protesters, who even resorted to assault, in the name of non-violence!
Those of us who caught legal cases for actions outside the canon of “non-violent civil disobedience” found little support in a broader movement that was quickly becoming dominated by non-profits with direct ties to Wall Street and local Democrats. Self-styled “founders” and “leaders” of Black Lives Matter fell over each other to bathe in oceans of foundation money and denounce anyone to the left of the Ford Foundation. While the memetic nature of tactics accounted for their early success, autonomous leftists failed to popularize politics connecting them with a conception of who we are and what we were doing, while all the old party formations could do little better than recite passages from Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao. This ground was seized by liberals, who recast the rebellion in the familiar trappings of Civil Rights ideology and the unfinished struggle for inclusive capitalist democracy, and the initial dynamism of the movement coagulated once more.
This was, however, not exactly cooptation. The first Eric Garner march had been called by none other than Al Sharpton, and the movement enjoyed earnest support from its inception up and down the class ladder of black America. Such “vertical mediation” meant that the steering of this protest activity into reformist channels was not the victory of an outside entity, but the resolution of struggle intrinsic to the movement. Under the aegis of the liberal wing of what is today called the Civil Rights movement, career movement politicians like Sharpton posited a monolithic black identity transcending the class stratification of black America. Whereas Occupy had flattened its self-conception in the name of an undialectical and thoroughly reified conception of class, the mainstream currents of the Black Lives Matter movement, which ultimately won the day, similarly defaulted to a one-dimensional conception of collective unity, this time in the name of a cross-class conception of race.46 Race is a category fundamental to the ordering of US society since its colonial period, specifically with regards to the structure of America’s division of labor.47 It is also viscerally felt in daily life by anyone lacking the luxury to ignore it. Occupy had very likely remained disproportionately white, for the very reason that it did not take race as a central category to how austerity is experienced. But it is also possible to bend the stick too far in the other direction.
The invocation of race as a fixed concept, rather than the social processes by which vastly different people are lumped together in a pseudo-scientific unity, often assumes the quality of what As Karen and Barbara Fields call “racecraft.” A play on the term witchcraft, racecraft describes the magical thinking which begins with the real premise of America’s racial disparities, and the uniqueness of how racialized capitalist exploitation is experienced. Racecraft assumes race itself to be a meaningful and unchanging attribute of human beings. When racecraft is in play, the assumed existence of race becomes the sole factor for sundry phenomena in social life. Under racecraft, any issue involving black people in particular is reduced to a so-called racial issue. Poverty that impacts black people becomes black poverty, an issue distinct from the economic structure of US society. Mass incarceration in the United States, which impacts millions of non-black people, must be discussed as a distinctly black issue. So-called races are depicted as having distinct histories, hermetically sealed from each other, and irreducible to any total social picture. Most importantly, racecraft assumes that racial categories are fixed, and inherent in individual people. By contrast, the Fieldses argue, race itself is an ever-changing social relation, and above all, it is not an explanation for anything; it is the creation, reproduction, and stubborn perseverance of race, they argue, which must be explained.48 America’s contemporary racecraft is doubly pernicious as political traditions like “identity politics,” which originated in the context of class struggle as a recognition of real and dynamic differentials of experience structured by capitalist exploitation, have become counter-insurgent reifications of difference, and comfortably at home in the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, which uses its jargon to attach the left.49
In the movement that became Black Lives Matter, the problem of composition that bedeviled Occupy was thus solved with another overlarge abstraction, a singular black identity. This contained within it a diffusion of class interests and antagonisms sufficient to make the President of the United States and homeless people harassed along Pennsylvania Avenue part of the same oppressed group. Meanwhile, the only acceptable role for non-black people became the spineless “ally,” destined to blindly follow the leadership of any non-white person they encountered — who were all, according to these allies, completely interchangeable.50 The racecraft structuring American politics reduces people to abstract categories, which social movement managers are eager to map onto a complex nexus of rules for who is allowed to say what, stand where, or even count themselves among those who are struggling. To this day, it remains a controversial proposition in the US left, sometimes even among self-identified revolutionaries, that white people can have any grievance against capitalist society that isn’t simply evidence of their sense of entitlement. What better gift could be imagined for the far-right?
But the churning of the individual and the universal was able to escape these strictures, for largely practical reasons. Of course in practice, most “allies” conveniently “follow the leadership” of people who they already agree with politically. But even the most earnest “white ally,” chock-full of anti-racist training, who encountered a heated argument between two black would-be snake march leaders, would have to choose which to follow when they parted ways in opposite directions. In short, it was all but inevitable that political affiliations based on racecraft would begin to give way to those based on political affinity.
There were some other noteworthy developments in the post-Ferguson period. Plenty of people who hadn’t attended enough activist-led “de-escalation trainings” to know better took it on themselves to antagonize and physically engage the cops. Toward the end of the movement in New York City, protesters began marching into high-end Manhattan stores, interrupting business, leading chants — and promptly marching out. A comrade reported at the time that the valuable merchandise seemed so near, but yet, so far. Looking back on this tactic from the vantage of the large-scale looting of lower Manhattan’s luxury retail stores during the George Floyd Rebellion, it is tempting to think of it as a kind of testing of the waters, however unconsciously, inching toward a heightened illegality. The same can be said of the protest encampment outside Minneapolis’s Fourth Precinct, which lasted for two weeks following the late 2015 police murder of Jamar Clark. Protesters massed outside the precinct of a killer cops, as they would five years later a mere six miles away, and were menaced by armed vigilantes, who opened fire.51 But the horizon of this action remained fixed on reforming the system to better ensure police accountability.
Thus, while this upsurge demonstrated a qualitative leap forward in the intensity and illegality of struggle, everywhere lagged behind Ferguson. Serving as an exception proving the rule once more, Oakland in particular did its best to follow suit, with more than two weeks of riots characterized by looting and skirmishes with the cops. Riots in Baltimore in 2015 following the death of Freddy Gray also bucked against the movement’s “non-violence” fetish, and were accordingly contained by the city’s black establishment with remorseless violence. However, such a clear display of the limits of race as a reified political category bespoke the antagonistic churning within a movement predicated on cross-class conception of blackness, but which could no more abstract from the instability of flattening dynamic class relations in the name of race, than Occupy could by flattening race into class. Following the 2015 riots in Baltimore, which pitted working-class black kids against a largely black city government, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observed: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.”52
As much of Black Lives Matter coagulated into a reservoir for foundation money, with self-identified founders monetizing the movement in the receiving line of its own wake, a crucial segment of young activists refused to be quietly folded into the Democratic Party. Instead, they bristled against the limitations of a class-blind conception of race, laid bare in the streets of Baltimore. Infused with ever-sharpening critiques about the interrelations of race and class in US history and society, a new generation of activists grasped toward connecting the figures of austerity, the primary thrust of Occupy, and the country’s behemoth punishment system, the driving force behind Black Lives Matter. Groups like Black Youth Project 100 and Movement for Black Lives developed analyses tying together mass incarceration and the disinvestment of black and brown communities. They issued ambitious programs for wealth redistribution under the banner of “divest/invest”: divesting funds from the carceral state, and redirecting them to the communities most impacted by mass incarceration.53
Among a growing number of young organizers, the problem was no longer conceived as greed run amok, the wrongdoing of individual cops, or racism understood as the bad ideas of individual people, but was instead a matter of the material distribution of wealth and power in a society where, as Stuart Hall observed, “race is the modality in which class is lived.”54Their understanding of who they were and what they were doing began to ever more reflect the reality of living in a class society structured by race. Police departments and prison systems were no longer seen as the sum total of individuals — as was the case in early BLM, or Occupy, when someone could derail a meeting by crying about their cop dad — but were coherent political forces structurally hostile to working-class black life by virtue of their position in class relations. An important influence in this political development would be a growth in popularity for the politics of abolitionism, a distinctly American tradition rooted in the purported linkage between slavery and mass incarceration. Black revolutionary figures like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, and abolitionist groups like Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, became important political touchstones among young people politicized by BLM. This would also occasion a rectification within the movement of the longstanding male chauvinism and homophobia characterizing Civil Rights politics. And even as movement activity in the streets ebbed, the ravages of capitalism surely were not making these figures, or their ideas, any less relevant.
Love in the Time of Covid
Gunfire rang out in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood as looters grabbed whatever they could from the liquor store and adjacent businesses. Looted liquor bottles were being passed around, so was the shooting celebratory? An ATM rolled by on a shopping cart and the crowd cheered its driver on. Could a baseball bat open it up? One man attempted to find out, stopping only to gesture toward us with the bat, as if to say we better keep moving. Tear gas wafted in the air as Chicago cops blocked an intersection for no clear reason, seeming unsure of their next move. It was August 10, 2020. The previous night, in response to a police shooting in Englewood, Chicago’s posh Magnificent Mile was ransacked by a massive car caravan of looters who clashed with the cops who tried to stop them. It was part of a new sensibility in 2020, akin to the customary rights chronicled by E.P. Thompson in eighteenth century England. Whereas in those days, prices above the commonly accepted maximum engendered marketplace riots deemed socially legitimate, in the summer of 2020, police shootings were met by large-scale expropriation and attacks on the cops almost as a reflex.55 As Garfield Park followed suit that day, the police scanner announced there were too many calls for looting in progress for squad cars to cover. The local Black Lives Matter chapter, flush with foundation money meant to prevent exactly this sort of disorder, bucked its funders and refused to denounce looting. One spokesperson went as far as to call looting reparations.56
If Covid did not break the holding pattern entirely, it certainly provided sufficient turbulence for a critical mass of passengers to flip the fuck out. By the end of the summer there had been over 11,000 protests in almost 3,000 distinct locations. While the vast majority followed the predictable script — marching and chanting ad infinitum overseen from the top down by organizers connected to local machine politics, non-profits, or decrepit revolutionary parties — hundreds descended into violence (if only on the side of the cops), property destruction, and looting.57 Even the lawful protests were lent impetus and a radical outlook by the actions driving the rebellion, direct attacks on key components of the carceral state: courthouses, police stations, cop cars, and the cops themselves. Courthouses and police stations were attacked in Nashville, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Portland, and New York City, among others, in the early days of the rebellion. Later, the Kenosha County Courthouse would serve as a target following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and in the subsequent rebellion, Kenosha’s probation office was burned to the ground.58 The siege of the Third Precinct and the acts of great courage and ferocity which followed its lead demonstrated a deep-seated conviction that the cops and courts were not to be reformed or bargained with, but represented an enemy force inextricable from the immiseration of austerity and its amplification by the Covid crisis.59
Protest largely took the form of roving street demonstrations ranging from orderly demonstrations in the traditional script, to fiery riots characterized by looting, arson, and attacks on carceral infrastructure and the cops themselves. The car, a staple of American social life, became a versatile tool in illegal street tactics — and, recalling the 2017 murder of Heather Heyer in by afascist in Charlottesville, a deadly weapon.60 In the early days of the rebellion there was not a hard and fast distinction between law-abiding protesters and rebels, as tactics like graffiti, defense against cops, and even looting and other property damage was generalized across large crowds of protesters in key sites of struggle like New York City, Minneapolis, and Seattle.61 In the early days, it was difficult for counter-insurgent liberals to parse the respectable from the deplorable forms of revolt. Even the tamest protests, New York rebel Tobi Haslett argued, were “propelled, made fiercely possible, by massive clashes in the street — not tainted or delegitimized by them, nor assembled from thin air.”62
This climate of illegality was abetted by the introduction of “frontliner culture,” pioneered in Hong Kong, Chile, and other sites of open contest around the world. This blend of tactics, equipage, and above all, a division of labor straddling so-called “peaceful” protesters with the most militant street warriors, provided a rich toolbox for US rebels in pitched battles against the cops. Police tactics and technologies are international; so too is the resistance against them.63 Frontliner culture also bears the indelible mark of Standing Rock, a struggle that drew militants from across the United States and fostered a high degree of tactical militancy, rooted in the building of trust not across the lines of so-called race, but the willingness to engage in collective risk-taking against considerable state violence.64 Before long, the iconic frontliner umbrella — a defensive tool against pepper spray, projectiles, and the prying eyes of the press, to name a few — popped up across the US. Networks like Vitalist International helped spread memes around tactics across social media, including polished guides on the basics of street tactics, and pithy slogans meant to solidify tactical commitments, which appeared on walls across the country as they whizzed across the internet. Perhaps the most effective of these was: “No good cops, no bad protesters,” six little words that drew the battle lines of the movement, and amounted to a pledge not to engage in the work of movement policing long practiced by “peaceful” protesters.
One curious tactic that gained traction as street conflicts waned represented at once the rejection, by a critical mass of Americans, by the dead weight of their past, and how this rejection can itself become still more weight of dead generations. Across the US, crowds attacked statues representing the old guard of American white supremacy. Statue topplings could be festive and intense affairs bringing together diverse crowds to engage in shared illegality and trust-building.65 But these tactics also risked succumbing to the belief that the statues had intrinsic qualities beyond shaped metal and stone; it soon became a symptom of the movement’s increasing fixation on fighting symbolic warfare within the popular discourse of official society, rather than class war on its streets.
As in 2014, these courageous maneuvers were largely conducted on the run. Unlike the Movement of the Squares — and continuing trends established in 2014 — the George Floyd Rebellion largely did not produce permanent space occupations. Notable exceptions included the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle and the City Hall Autonomous Zone in New York City, the occupied Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was by cops murdered in Atlanta, and Jefferson Park in Louisville, outside the courthouse where the wheels of justice turned slowly — and fruitlessly — for Breonna Taylor. Phil Neel called CHAZ a “tactical regression” to an earlier form long superseded.66 It was as if the problems bedeviling the space occupations of 2011, which soon became quagmires, had been forgotten, or perhaps never learned in the first place. If, as has been suggested, the CHAZ came as an alternative to burning a police station abandoned by retreating Seattle cops, it is most certainly true that the return of Occupy’s misadventures in prefigurative politics, supplanting the zeitgeist of open attack on the carceral state, was atavistic and lamentable.67 To the extent that open-ended space occupations served as staging areas for outward-focused activities, as they appeared to do in New York City, they served the rebellion’s dynamism. But when they became ends in themselves, these occupations became dangerous dead ends.68 By and large, however, the movement stayed out of space occupations.
While the George Floyd Rebellion did not enter into the hidden abode of production, it is also unfair to say that the relationship to space and sites of struggle remained unchanged since 2014. Widespread looting brought confrontational politics into sites of capital circulation, and represented a pointed disavowal of the necessity to procure commodities with the money earned through wage labor. Even more promising was the movement’s relationship to carceral infrastructure: cop cars, courthouses, and the famous Third Precinct were directly attacked, and even entered, in the case of several state buildings. This was an offensive relationship to the street-bound movement, in which people were united by their opposition to a common foe, which was then identified and attacked. Some even made forays into coordinating the reproduction of these attacks through the expropriation of commodities; a Minneapolis rebel describes how the Target near the Third Precinct was used to supply the crowd laying siege, sustaining the intensity of the attack over a long period of time.69 Reproducing a Minneapolis Commune for weeks and months would have, of course, required a more complex engagement with local supply chains, necessitating a sympathetic presence within numerous nodes on the complex logistical chains that keep cities functioning. Ultimately, these chains trace back to the point of production. While this prospect may seem far-fetched off in 2022, the reader should recall how far-fetched off the Summer of 2022 seemed in the Spring.70
Treason and Treachery
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movement was the diversity of its composition. The urban rebellions of the 1960s had been largely black and brown affairs. Key offensives in the George Floyd Rebellion were led by black proletarians, including the events in Minneapolis, and the militancy and dedication of black and brown proletarians continued to fuel the rebellion throughout the summer. Alongside them, however, were millions of white people risked police and right-wing vigilante violence. In a profound sense, the outpouring of white participation was not itself a change, but a sign that, beneath the surface of the monolithic categories of race that structure the US political discourse, a profound change has been taking place.
To say that these white people were simply “allies” of black Americans, and did not recognize their own liberation as bound up in the black struggle against police violence, implies that they were simply fighting for black people to enjoy the same quality of life that they enjoy as whites. Given the carnage capitalism has wrought throughout American life, including much of white America, this is a tough proposition to swallow. Coming nearly a decade after Occupy eulogized the golden age of upward mobility for white youths, and amid an downward slide of quality of life for white working-class people, perhaps the white youths who took to the streets in 2020 represent a generation averse to “dying of whiteness” and determined instead to fight austerity and state violence as part of a multiracial movement.71 “Rather than killing themselves with drugs,” wrote Shemon Salam and Arturo Castillon in a must-read essay on the topic, “a section of white proletarians heard the battle cry of Black Lives Matter and joined the rebellions.”72
Footage of the burning of the Third Precinct shows a remarkably diverse crowd working together to accomplish a common task, in a setting that is perhaps best described as celebratory.73 Similar images proliferated of great multiracial unity in the face of police violence and white vigilantism. Simultaneously, clear divisions emerged within the monolith of the US black identity, as militants and liberals made their political differences known, and the rift between the old guard of the Civil Rights movement and a new generation of more radical, street-savvy militants deepened.74 For a short time, the composition problem that bedevils all movements in the era of advanced fragmentation was tentatively overcome in the unity of practical action against an external foe: the carceral state and all who defended it. But the honeymoon of this happy union, defined negatively as it was, was therefore not to last.
Before long, the rebellion found itself hobbled by distrust, particularly against white participants. Cops and politicians, aided by Twitter-addled talking heads like Northwestern University historian Kathleen Belew, spread reckless rumors, tantamount to outrageous and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, about “outside agitators” and undercover white supremacists secretly guiding the hands of young black rebels — who could not, of course, undertake militant acts on their own volition.75“The mere existence of last summer’s rumors, and whom those rumors accuse, tells us everything we need to know,” writes militant Tim Bruno. “You see, the real bad actors, ops, provocateurs… never take action, only prevent it.”76 Worse yet, poor information discipline among even the most sincere activists led to breathless rumors proliferating of impending attacks by right-wingers, making the white rebels putting themselves on the line in the streets increasingly suspect, and sewing distrust in moments which could have been characterized by communal letting go of fear.77
“For all the rumors about supposed provocateurs,” writes Bruno, “less has been said about those real bad actors: the stylized Instagram militants, armed to the teeth yet who never pull the trigger, settling instead for a collaborative photo-op with a white-shirted lieutenant; the petty activist functionaries barking orders through megaphones, conveniently dividing the crowd into smaller and smaller marches, perfectly sized for kettling; the peace police enforcing order on a rally by handing over rowdy radicals to the real police.”78 And as the fires smoldered, traditional social movement managers, spurned in the early days of the rebellion, regained their grip on the movement and encouraged divisions along the lines of race.79 Racial animosity was not strictly black and white; on Chicago’s Southwest Side, latino vigilantes attacked black people they claimed to be prospective looters.80 As incisively noted by Idris Robinson in the early days of the rebellion, a more pernicious trick came from many US liberals who didn’t seek to discredit the rebellion’s militancy as much as redefine the rebellion such that it never even existed.81 But the greatest barrier to multi-racial solidarity was something far more concrete than the mythical Belew Brigades of Nazi ninjas planting “bait bricks” and distributing incendiary devices to guileless black teens to pick up and throw. It was the US color line itself.
W.E.B. Du Bois furnished us this evocative concept in his 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk, where he argued “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”82 Unfortunately, by all indications, the same could likely be said about the twenty-first. At the end of the day, American society is deeply stratified along the lines of race, which is a biological fiction but an enduring social fact. Longstanding historical segregation in housing, employment, education, worship, and just about every other feature of life, in addition to widespread ideological racial chauvinism among individual white people, have combined to engender a visceral dividing line between working-class black and white people in particular, but also between all so-called races. Marx, as David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch argue, may have been correct to predict that high concentrations of workers from different backgrounds would break down dividing lines such as race. But he did not anticipate how effectively capital could erect new dividing lines in their place, while weaponizing the old ones as part of a nascent science of management.83
While it is perhaps consoling to white radicals to imagine that racial prejudice is simply a trick played on their friends and family by the ruling class, it is hard to argue with a straight face that prejudice and chauvinism are foisted on guiltless white workers by their social betters.84 Instead, belligerent differentiation along the lines of race, ethnicity, national belonging, and so forth, often comes from below, with working-class white people as enthusiastic participants. While this pact with the devil doesn’t reflect well on the moral character of these individuals, it tells us far more about the predictable result of a race to the bottom for US proletarian quality of life, amid the absence of any effective multiracial movement to reverse this course.85 (The absence of such a movement, of course, in the face of enduring racial prejudice, becomes something of a chicken or egg question.) The color line structuring US society is of course not a static thing; the intense white participation in the rebellion can be taken not so much as a sign of “allies” pledging allegiance to a cause that is not their own, but rather the possibility of new alliances being formed in the growing ranks of the American labor market’s lowest tiers. But the racecraft that structures American life cannot be undone by common economic suffering alone, or else the US south would have long been a site of harmonious multiracial class struggle.
The appearance of multiracial crowds engaging in mass illegality together during the Summer of 2020 has led to a welcome resurgence of interest in the concept of “race treason,” drawing on the work of Noel Ignatiev and the now-defunct journal he co-edited with John Garvey, Race Traitor. Drawing on W.E.B. DuBois, Ignatiev and Race Traitor argued that race in the United States revolved around a cross-class alliance between white workers and the white ruling class, and the corresponding relegation of black workers to the bottom tiers of the labor market. Race has not always existed, and only came into being as a hierarchical ordering principle. Thus, they argued, dismantling white supremacy is not a matter of achieving equality between the so-called races, but detonating the social category race itself. With regards to whiteness in particular, this means, as the journal put it: “to dissolve the club, to break it apart, to explode it.”86
In the wake of the rebellion, the concept of race treason has been deployed by a number of writers reflecting on the lessons of 2020. This is not an intellectual trend but rather a reflection of transformations in how people live, and struggle, that were profoundly felt by participants in the rebellion. The influx of white participants in the rebellion, engaged in dangerous and illegal acts alongside black people in particular, made for experiences that defied the received political wisdom. As a result, a number of participants in the rebellion turned to the theory of race treason to make sense of what they had lived through. These accounts, hard-won by courageous participation in the rebellion, represent positive contributions toward what should be the primary goal of US revolution praxis: chiseling away at the walls between the so-called races.87 But just as they point toward the possibility of struggle overwhelming these walls, these accounts also tend to overemphasize the profundity of fleeting moments of tenuously common struggle, which appeared as a drop of water in the vast desert of US social life.
“These white insurrectionists fail to grasp,” writes an anonymous collective of black anarchists, “how their own whiteness continues to exist within and beyond the riot, instead opting to believe that race is magically transcended when they smash a window.”88 While it is hackneyed and incorrect to label all proponents of this position white, this is nonetheless a point worth making. No matter how auspicious the sight of black and white people fighting the cops together, the longstanding and well-earned mistrust of white people, or the ornate stratification between all so-called races, cannot be expected to simply vanish through spontaneous struggles — just as they remained present even in these much-heralded moments of overcoming. Un my own experience, and that of other militants I have spoken to, the visceral reality of race was not absent from a single second of struggle in Summer 2020, including some instances I have seen cited as multiracial crowds overcoming the color line. And even in the best moments of the rebellion, cooperation against a clearly identified enemy is one thing, but transcending the strictures of race is another altogether. Ultimately, the risk these analyses run, likely against the intentions of their incisive authors, is positing the moment of riot as the sole horizon for overcoming race. But most of the time we are not rioting. What can we do, during these times, to challenge the racial order permeating so much of daily life?
On August 25th, 2020, a call went out for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend” the small Wisconsin city of Kenosha, following two nights of intense rebellion. While the Kenosha County Courthouse was the primary target, it was defended by militarized cops who then propelled the crowd into the streets. Dozens of businesses were looted and put to the torch. In response, armed militia clad in paramilitary gear and ornately outfitted in shiny new gear swarmed in to stand guard outside businesses and menace protesters, alongside local and state cops and a sizeable detachment from the National Guard. Military Bearcat vehicles prowled the dark and otherwise deserted streets. But the rebels were undaunted. At the corner of 60th Street and Sheridan Road, four blocks from the courthouse, a Bearcat pelted the crowd with plastic pellets filled with pepper spray, receiving bricks from a nearby construction site in response. Meanwhile, militia guarding the Ultimate gas station were taunted by rebels who got in their faces and forced them to step backward as they anxiously eyed each other. The armed men seemed scared and surprised that their guns were not sufficiently intimidating.
Part of the crowd took off headed south, wearing dangerously thin. Before we knew what hit us, shots rang out. First one burst, then another, punctuated by sporadic pops seeming to emanate from all directions. Adding to the confusion, in the middle of it all, a car pulled up and its passenger sprayed a few of us with a fire extinguisher. The cloud of noxious white dust cleared to reveal a crowd of black teenagers screaming and crying around the lifeless body of Joseph “JoJo” Rosenbaum. Meanwhile, another volley of shots up the street signaled the death of Anthony Huber, who had pursued the gunman, armed only with a skateboard. The rebels were dispersed in all directions, pursued down lonely suburban streets in a game of cat and mouse with Bearcats, National Guard, and vigilantes like the shooter, who would soon become a hero to the US far right.
Somewhere in the chaos of Kenosha it struck me: this is how heightened struggle was always going to look in the United States, where people can barely resolve disputes over a parking space without armed conflict. These movements have been spurred by the casual violence of everyday life in the US, and for the short term, at least, seem capable of only deepening it. The stagnation of capital has dramatically increased inter-class competition, while making large parts of the population expendable in the eyes of the market and state. It is a world where life is cheap, defined by everyday violence — including mass shootings with no discernible purpose — and the now increasingly routine murders of activists, with a mixed but nonetheless remarkable blessing from some US courts. Through the eyes of 2020, what’s remarkable is not the degree of violence permeating the vestiges of American civil society, but how much remains peaceful. In the not-too-distant future, the present moment, with its soul-crushing barbarism, just might be considered the “good old days” before American society really went off the rails.
Since at least 2008, an armed movement of extra-parliamentary rightists, most famous for their forays into insurrection on January 6th, has broken with the fetters of legalism to constitute an armed challenge to liberal democracy.89 Between shootings, cars ramming street protests, and the extra-parliamentary murder of antifascist Michael Reinoehl by US marshalls acting under orders of President Trump, 2020 provided clear signs that the unfolding of struggle in the United States will be dark, dangerous, and armed to the teeth.90 While some white leftists in New York City complained of the discursive violence of “NYPD suck my dick!” — “the impossible demand”91 and chant of choice among working-class black youth — rebels in many places across the US took our lives into our hands each time we left the house, entering settings that were increasingly disordered and anything but harmless and safe. It’s hard to imagine that social revolution in the United States would be any better; in all likelihood, it will be much worse.
The month after Kenosha, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that of all the cops responsible for Breonna Taylor’s death, only one would be charged — for shots that were fired into a neighboring apartment. In advance of the announcement, downtown Louisville had been placed under nothing short of a military occupation; National Guard and heavily-armed cops from multiple jurisdictions locked down roads and surrounded Jefferson Park with a massive show of force. Armed vigilantes positioning themselves at gas stations and other businesses seemed a bit redundant, and their lazy demeanor suggested they were well aware. Meanwhile, the protesters themselves, who had faced down vigilantes for months at Jefferson Park, brought considerable firepower of their own to the streets. At one point, wedged in the middle of a shouting match between cops and angry protesters, I realized I was in the small minority not openly brandishing a firearm. I felt at once like a traveler from another time, hurled into a grim future I was not at all prepared to face. And that’s probably what I was. A feeble attempt to march out of the square was crushed by competing jurisdictions of cops seemingly tripping over each other to bring the hammer down on the outnumbered protesters, who never managed to mount a substantive challenge. Later in the night, a great racket erupted, as cop cars and helicopters flew by at top speeds. I later learned that frustrated and hemmed in at all sides, one protester had emerged from a march and fired his gun at the cops. It is hard to shake the feeling that this repressive environment, and the desperate resistance it engendered, furnished a snapshot of long, hard days to come.92
This is not to say everything is bad, as Michel Foucault once remarked, only that everything is dangerous. The spiral of violence that faced the rebellion in its later days isn’t a proposition that one can simply be for or again; it presented a new reality, which pressed novel questions of how the movement relates to armaments and violence, and how these choices will in turn reshape the movement.93 This is only one part of a total world picture. As the stagnation of capital and its attendant churning and flailing erodes the quality of proletarian life, it has engendered a decomposition of liberal democracy that can move at a breathtaking speed. Enduring support for Donald Trump and his imitators, though by no means constituting a majority of Americans, demonstrates a solid base for authoritarianism, andenables a smaller but no less important vanguard for extra-parliamentary rightist politics. One of the most serious rightist groups, the Three Percenters, derive their name from the belief that only three percent of colonists fought in the US Revolutionary War, which they purport to demonstrate that Lenin’s dedicated few can make a decisive impact at the right moment.94
Perhaps they’re right. But the images of January 6th that have aided US liberals in making a bugbear of “political extremism” of all sorts pale in comparison to the millions who took part in the George Floyd Rebellion. In fact, the biggest threat facing the rebels of 2020 is not the resurgent right as it currently exists, but the massive boom it would receive if autonomous leftists forfeit the terrain of extra-parliamentary politics in the name of united fronts with liberals and so-called democratic socialists against the specter of impending fascism in the United States that I remember hearing all about at my first protest in the year 2000. This is not to discount the reality that America is ripe for authoritarianism, but to dispute the idea that a woke variant of neoliberalism will appeal to Americans more than a hard-right repudiation of it. The danger in the present is that, as Americans join people across the world in rejecting the capitalist status quo with great disgust, the extra-parliamentary right will become the only visible organized anti-system movement.95 As the flimsiest pretenses of civil society are blotted from much of the planet, and politicians race to out-do each other in their blatant incompetence, political extremism does not present us with a yes or no question, but a crossroads: will it be our extremism that carries the day, or that of the far right?
By the end of the summer of 2020, the rebellion had largely run its course. This was surely due in part to the work of counter-insurgents, clad both in police uniforms and “social movement” garb, and the versatility of the color line eroding the tenuous trust won in the hottest moments of struggle. But the ultimate limit on which the rebellion ran aground was its inability to articulate a positive conception of what it was, and where it was going, capable of keeping things moving. The mimesis of tactics celebrated by Wollheben, initially spurring the rebellion, soon stalled out, as actions taken in the street became stale repetitions devoid of any dynamism. But this was not simply due to the failure of militancy to escalate and thus produce more and better images; people cannot live on memes alone. Nor do tactics necessarily suggest a politics underlying them. American history is riven with instances of riots, street battles with the cops, and even attempts at insurrection, most recently the Capitol takeover of January 6th, 2021, which actively oppose human liberation in their political content, but to the naked eye, might resemble many of the crowning moments of the George Floyd Rebellion.
Wohlleben’s radical faith in the active “gesture” as a form of political expression, then, is capable of addressing its audience more effectively than a rhetorical entreaty, provides an ingenious framework for understanding the wildfire spread of tactics across great expanses of space in short windows of time. But images can only carry politics so far; people in sustained revolt thirst for meaning. The memetic gesture, which in practice is largely a reformulation of the centuries-old anarchist “propaganda of the deed,” was no substitute for a cogent and easily digestible assessment of what the rebellion was, who its partisans were, and where it was all headed — desires irreducible from the desperate quest for meaning, and ultimately, human community so endemic to our age. Beneath the fiery negativity of the rebellion, through which it was defined by aggressive acts conducted against an external foe, was a subtle and inchoate, yet nonetheless urgent, striving for a positive politics. Accordingly, for partisans of the meme to accuse other political tendencies of cooptation is to lament losing a game they never really played. The spread of images mematically is not an alternative to deliberate and coherent political organizations, no matter how frustrated many of us have become with the maddening and often fruitless efforts to bring them into being.
Accordingly, the political tendency that met this need most effectively was a loose national network organized under the banner of abolitionism, the product of decades of deliberate political organization. It drew upon the momentum of the rebellion to craft local campaigns to defund police departments, largely through electoral mechanisms. While US abolitionists often trace their lineage back to the anti-slavery agitators of the nineteenth century, the present movement is more directly related to the anti-prison activism that arose from the prisoners rights and black revolutuonary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, typified by Angela Davis, who bridges that era with the present. Today’s abolitionists consider police and prisons to be structural foundations of the racialized division of labor intrinsic to US society. Many consider the US itself to be irredeemably racist. They do not believe in reforming police or punitive institutions, but seek to eliminate them, as part of radically remaking the world to meet the needs of all.96 In short, abolitionists offer a politics that speaks at once to the need to replace the present world with a better one, while providing a clear sense of who people are and what they are doing. And as much as abolitionism represents a sophisticated body of theory, more fundamentally, it is today a name given by many young people activated by the George Floyd Rebellion to their striving, within the present, for a liberated future.
But what, concretely, is the world abolitionists are actually building? What this means in concrete terms ranges considerably from the wonkish technocracy of Alex Vitale, who pushes for electoral measures to create a post-abolition system akin to Northern European capitalism somehow devoid of cops, to the overt revolutionary politics upheld by scholars like Joy James and militants like the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement.97 The campaign to defund the police represented the uneasy tension between the movements’ liberal and revolutionary wings, who achieve working harmony by squaring the circle of campaigns like Defund by calling them “non-reformist reforms” — strategic interventions that point toward broader, largely inchoate, structural transformation in the future.98 While the theory linking these campaigns to revolution is undeveloped, it would be a mistake to discount the reality that many people engaged in these activities believe they are working toward a post-capitalist society, and do so with great enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the persistence of this divide has engendered a profound indistinction within abolitionism, where those pushing a kinder, gentler capitalism work alongside those seeking its overthrow.
This ambiguity at the heart of US abolitionism, between reform and revolution, sometimes seems to be by design. Many abolitionists are primarily interested in working together on practical projects they consider non-reformist. This includes prisoner support, opposing jail and prison construction, and otherwise pushing for a lessened role of police and courts in social life. Abolitionists are generally organized in small locally-situated groups and campaigns, equipped with extensive public-facing propaganda.99 A notable tendency within contemporary abolitionism originated in the anti-domestic violence movement, and came to the framework of abolition through practical experience with the failure of cops, courts, and prisons to mitigate the social fallout of interpersonal violence.100 This means many abolitionists are intimately acquainted with the harsh realities of proletarian life, and have, through sustained practical activity, experimented in building a better world, while remaining rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of the present one.
The non-sectarian, action oriented impetus of abolitionism pays off. It was partly their organization within national networks of locally-oriented projects, and their accessible critiques of police and the punishment system, that allowed abolitionists to seize on the ideological vacuum left vacant by the more insurrectionary partisans of the George Floyd Rebellion, thus creating a large freshman class of self-identified abolitionist activists enlivened by the events of 2020 and longing to replace this world with a better one. With their large body of theory and a number of concrete political projects, abolitionism has furnished an outlet for young rebels to think through racial questions in terms of class, and class questions in terms of race, thus superseding the morass of Occupy’s class-first color blindness, and cross-class alliance of race posited by Black Lives Matter. Abolitionism also came equipped with decades of praxis around the persistent problems of gender and sexuality-based chauvinism and violence, which had sewn considerable divisions within the great monoliths of race and class.
Abolitionism won the consciousness of a critical mass of people engaged in the George Floyd Rebellion, but winning material gains has proven more difficult. Initiatives to defund the police have largely come to naught across the United States.101 This casts considerable doubt on the viability of abolition’s electoral ambitions, which were purported, especially in the writing of the deft theoretician Kay Gabriel, to be the strategic application of radical politics in a modality in which they could actually win.102 The present morass facing abolitionism, coming as it does amid a great influx of interested partisans, should give the movement sufficient cause to evaluate its own internal contradictions. In a period when carceral infrastructure is attacked and set afire in response to police shootings, the invocation of “non-reformist reforms” can no longer suffice to defer the question of reform or revolution. This is not an intellectual question, but a practical matter of how people orient struggles already underway: to save capitalism from its contradictions, or to push them to the breaking point? Unless the political terrain of the US changes dramatically, a viable revolutionary current in the United States is as likely to emerge from abolitionism as from anywhere else. If this is the case, revolutionaries do not have the luxury of being against abolitionism (or even lazily for it), but must push the contractions within it, to help sharpen its focus toward an extra-parliamentary politics that seeks abolition through the overcoming of class society.
Perhaps the most helpful metric for mapping this dividing line can be found in a central figure of contemporary abolitionism: “abolition democracy.” This notion comes from W. E. B. Dubois’s masterpiece Black Reconstruction in America. In it DuBois reinterprets the Civil War to cast slaves, who he calls “the black workers,” at the forefront of a “general strike,” the mass abandonment of plantations and dessertion to the northern army, sufficient to win the war and establish Reconstruction, which tendeded toward a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”103 DuBois gives the name “abolition democracy” to the unsteady political coalition of Reconstruction in the postwar South, that sought to considerably democratize large areas previously under the rule of the plantocracy, including through the creation of public schools and the thwarted attempts to collective much of the slaveholder land seized during the war. Reconstruction was defeated, as Du Bois argues, to the great detriment of black and white southern working people alike. The figure of “abolition democracy” was subsequently adopted by Angela Davis, to argue that contemporary abolitionism is concerned with completing the work of Reconstruction, as a radical democratizing project that can demolish the color line and build a society meeting the needs of all.104 Many contemporary abolitionists have followed Davis to pick up this concept as a central lens for interpreting abolitionist political engagements.105 But the imperative to take up the “unfinished revolution” of Reconstruction, as historian Eric Foner has characterized the period, begs the question of how we understand the work of Reconstruction in the first place.106
This is precisely the problem raised in a 1991 response to Foner by the historian and lifelong revolutionary Noel Ignatiev. A close student of Du Bois, Ignatiev concurs with Foner’s characterization of Reconstruction as a pivotal revolutionary moment in US history, uniquely constitutive of our own. But Foner, Ignatiev argues, has completely misinterpreted just what kind of revolution DuBois had in mind. For Foner, the work of Reconstruction was that of a bourgeois revolution, extending the promise of free labor under capitalism, and the realization of the rights of formal equality once denied to black people by their position as slaves. In this liberal conception of Reconstruction, its remaining work could unfold within a class society, effected by the cross-class cooperation toward the realization of the formal equality enjoyed by the wage laborer in a society otherwise defined by social classes. Not so fast, says Ignatiev; DuBois, who reinscribed the story of emancipation in the argot of proletarian revolution – casting the slaves as workers, their abandonment of plantations as a general strike, and likening Reconstruction to the dictatorship of the proletariat – understood the real stakes of Reconsturction, namely, the attack it attempted on private property. It is here, Ignatiev argues, that the real unfinished business of Reconstruction can be found: the abolition of class society.107
While this may seem like a scholastic debate, its implications are practical. People are already struggling against the present world and toward a new one. The name of this struggle, in the minds of some of the boldest and most dedicated among them, is abolitionism. But where is their struggle headed? Practices of mutual aid, popularized by abolitionists, are welcome palliatives to the suffering of daily life under capitalism, but scarcely point toward a revolutionary offensive, when they aren’t simply charity by another name.108 Similarly, building small, isolated lacunae against the worst symptoms of capitalism in decline, dedicated to simply reproducing themselves in a gentler way than life on the outside, is not a viable strategy for going on the attack.109 Similarly, opposition to prisons and cops is a negative unity; even the category Adrian Wohlleben counterposes to prison abolitionism, “prison demolitionism,” does not escape this trap.110
Striving toward a positive vision, abolitionists have created daring programs for redistributing wealth and building autonomy on the local level, following the model of Divest/Invest.111 Even this horizon, however, amounts to making demands of the state to work against its own interests. History instructs us that the US ruling class would happily hand the state to outright fascists before ceding any substantive ground in the class struggle, much less reconfiguring society to such an extent that prisons and police will be obsolete. Likewise, realizing even the modest economic program of US senator Bernie Sanders would in all probability require militant class struggle to a degree unseen in over a century, including the public beheading of about half of Wall Street. If the tenets of abolitionism are to be taken seriously, organizers and theorists in the present must engage head-on with the question of extra-parliamentary conflict with capitalism and its supporters, which will be, by necessity, a violent and thoroughly dangerous affair nonetheless essential to escaping the death spiral of capitalism. It is no longer enough to talk about abolitionism as an “imagination” or a “dream,” as its more poetic adherents often insist. Abolition must be a coherent practical approach to abolishing class society through mass struggle, or else it is just that: a dream. “Linking together struggles that affect working class people is at the heart of the anti-capitalist abolitionist vision,” writes Zhandarka Kurti, “because it can help concretize community, an otherwise amorphous term shaped by identity politics around a set of concrete political demands that can build political power and challenge the very ills that police power manages. Otherwise, abolition will simply be a rhetorical politics, a fad among the most woke elements of the academic left, or worse, a liberal pathway into building a more efficient and brutal social order.”112
A new world organized according to the righteous principles abolitionists uphold will not just require alternatives to conflict mediation and responding to antisocial behavior. It will also require the collectivization, on a mass scale of the means by which we labor and live.113 This is not something to be prefigured on paper. It will be the result of struggles to take possession of workplaces, neighborhoods, and above all else, the means by which commodities are produced and circulated. And however exciting and auspicious, the struggles that have defined the past decade in the United States have been limited in their capacity by their exile from these strategic sites of production and reproduction. As struggles tend to create their subjects, and not vice versa, reclaiming these locations as sites of struggle is not only essential for the strategic purposes of sustaining revolt, it will also determine the very political subjectivities who remake the world. In a very concrete sense, abolition will mean the destruction of the subjectivities foisted upon us by the dictates of capitalist society, including subject positions like race, that presently serve as the basis for solidarity. Just as the final victory of the proletariat will come not in its attainment of power but in its self-abolition as a class, creating the people who will inhabit the new world will require abolishing ourselves.
Above all, in order to satisfy even its most modest aspirations, then, the greatest hurdle facing abolitionism in the present remains the archrival of a half century of social movement activity: the separation of mass level left politics from both the point of production, and the networks of circulation and massified social reproduction that crisscross advanced capitalist societies. Undoing the world that has made the violence of police, prison, and war necessary on the barbaric scale as we see today will be a planetary exercise in reconfiguring how people live, labor, and distribute the plenty of the planet we share. The direct, extra-legal appropriation of vast expanses of private property for communal use is not simply the outcome of abolition, but the only means by which it can be achieved. And the politics which prove adequate to these tasks may not bear the name abolitionism in the end, but it will share the desire to bridge struggles in the present to an emancipated future which has characterized abolitionism in the present and earned it the support of a new generation of rebels. This is a massive undertaking but it must be done. Nothing short of the survival of life on the planet Earth depends on the defeat of capitalism and the creation of a new world suited to the needs, dignity, and free development of all. And as abolitionists are typically the first to admit: nobody said remaking the world would be easy!
- Claudia Morell and Becky Vevea, “Lightfoot Reports 1,000 Arrests Amid ‘Heart-Wrenching’ Weekend Violence,” WBEZ Chicago, June 1, 2020.
- My analysis of the George Floyd Rebellion was developed, as it unfolded, in collaboration with Zhandarka Kurti. See our essay, written in the first two weeks of the rebellion, “Prelude to a Hot American Summer” (Brooklyn Rail: Field Notes, July/August 2020), and subsequent book, States of Incarceration: Rebellion, Reform, and America’s Punishment System (London: Reaktion Books / Field Notes, 2022).
- David Ranney, New World Disorder: The Decline of US Power (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2014) pp. 9-10.
- This is a central thesis of James’s 1950 manuscript American Civilization (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1993).
- > May Wong, “Stanford Research Provides a Snapshot of a New Working-from-Home Economy,” Stanford News, June 29, 2020.
- Clarissa Lan-Jim, “The Other Victims Of The Pandemic: Workers Killed In Fights Over Masks,” BuzzFeed News, July 15, 2021.
- Miranda Bryant, “Coronavirus Spread at Rikers is a 'Public Health Disaster', Says Jail's Top Doctor,” The Guardian, April 1, 2020.
- David Campbell, “Stick-up on Rikers Island,” Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, May 1, 2020; Perilous Chronicle, “First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19: Report on Events, Data, and Trends” November 12, 2020.
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic on The Employment Situation for May 2020”; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2019, Featuring Supplemental Data from April 2020,” pp. 1-3.
- For a magisterial treatment of US society on the eve of the rebellion, see: Richard Hunsinger and Nathan Eisenberg, “Mask Off: Crisis & Struggle in the Pandemic,” Cosmonaut, June 8, 2020.
- Nicole Norfleet and David Chanen, “Testimony at Derek Chauvin Trial Triggers Talk of Expectations for Retail Workers to Stopping Theft,” Star Tribune, April 1, 2021. Salary data for Minneapolis cashiers comes from the wage aggregate website Glassdoor (www.glassdoor.com).
- John Elder, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” Inside MPD, May 25, 2020. Since deleted from the MPD website, this press release remains viewable on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
- Anonymous, “The World is Ours: The Minneapolis Uprising in Five Acts,” It’s Going Down, June 12, 2020. This excellent summary now appears, along with other texts on the rebellion, in: Nevada, The Abolition of Law (Minneapolis, 2022).
- Loren Goldner, “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the US from the 2008 Crash to the Eve of the Occupations Movement,” Insurgent Notes 2, January 2012.
- Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Ben Fowkes, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1976), pp. 762-876.
- Michael Roberts, “The US Rate of Profit 1948-2015,” The Next Recession (blog), October 4, 2016.
- Christopher Famighetti and Darrick Hamilton, “The Great Recession, Education, Race, and Homeownership,” Economic Policy Institute (blog), May 15, 2019.
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), pp. 87-127.
- “The Holding Pattern,” Endnotes 3, 2013.
- James Boggs, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) p. 53. For an excellent discussion of this classic study in the context of the George Floyd Rebellion, see: Jason E. Smith, “The American Revolution: The George Floyd Rebellion, One Year Out,” Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2021.
- Rebecca Hill, “‘The Common Enemy Is the Boss and the Inmate’: Police and Prison Guard Unions in New York in the 1970s–1980s”, Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 8, no. 3 (2011): 65–96.
- Karl Marx, Capital Volume III, David Fernback, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1981), pp. 525-542. I first encountered these ideas in: Loren Goldner, “The Remaking of the American Working Class: The Restructuring of Global Capital and the Recomposition of Class Terrain,” 1999.
- Nathalie Baptiste, “Staggering Loss of Black Wealth Due to Subprime Scandal Continues Unabated,” The American Prospect, October 13, 2014.
- Loren Goldner, “The Sky is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn.”
- Colectivo Situaciones, 19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism (New York: Autonomedia, 2011).
- Endnotes, “Onward Barbarians” 2020.
- Endnotes 3, “The Holding Pattern.”
- Rust Bunny Collective, “Under the Riot Gear,” Sic 2, 2014.
- The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e), 2009), p. 121.
- Théorie Communiste, “The Glass Floor,” 2009.
- Craig Hughes, “Occupied Zuccotti: Social Struggle and Planned Shrinkage,” WarMachines.info, 2014.
- Ari Paul, “Occupy Wall Street’s Dilemma: Are the Police Part of the 99%?” The Guardian, November 1, 2011.
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
- The brilliant scholar Adolph Reed has for almost a half-century advocated a form of socialist politics forswearing black particularity, which has to date found little traction. See: Adolph Reed, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (1979).
- See especially: Escalating Identity, “Who is Oakland? Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation", April 2012. A lengthy reading list compiled by writer Abby Volcano, of critiques produced by this period, has vanished from its original host but survives on, where else?, Tumblr.
- “The Holding Pattern,” Endnotes 3, p. 47.
- Brian Hamacher, “Trayvon Martin Protesters Ransacked North Miami Beach Walgreens,” NBC Miami, March 27, 2014; Katy Reckdahl, “3 Defaced New Orleans Monuments are Cleaned by Volunteers,” The Times-Picayune, March 30, 2012.
- Tobi Haslett, “Magic Actions,” N+1 40 (2021).
- The State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson, Grand Jury, Volume IV, September 10, 2014, p. 45.
- Louis Althusser, “On Ideology,” in The Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London and Brooklyn: Verso, 2014) pp. 191-192.
- United States Department of Justice, Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson, 2015, pp. 12-13.
- Julie Bosman and Joseph Goldstein, “Timeline for a Body: 4 Hours in the Middle of a Ferguson Street,” New York Times, August 23, 2014.
- Adrian Wohlleben, “Memes Without End,” Ill Will, May 16, 2021. Wohlleben’s analysis comes in part from close observation of the Yellow Vests movement. See: Paul Torino and Adrian Wohlleben, “Memes with Force: Lessons from the Yellow Vests,” Mute, February 26, 2019.
- JF, “The Old Mole Breaks Concrete,” Unity & Struggle, December 11, 2014.
- “Brown v. Ferguson,” Endnotes 4, pp. 14-24.
- For the historical centrality of the color line to the US economy see: W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1999 ); Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (New York: Norton, 1975); Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (London: Verso, 1997).
- Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London and New York: Verso, 2012).
- Salar Mohandesi, “Identity Crisis,” Viewpoint Magazine, March 16, 2017.
- For the best critique of the racist drivel of “white allyship,” see: Escalating Identity, “Who Is Oakland?” As was recently pointed out on social media by the Midwest Peoples’ History Project, after a decade of critique following its disastrous mass movement debut in Occupy, the term “ally” has now been replaced by “accomplice,” but means virtually the same thing. The source of this rebrand is the 2014 zine “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex” distributed by Indigenous Action Media. This essay is quite critical of allyship and deserves consideration on its own merits, not the connotation that “accomplice” has assumed thanks to its subsumption into the anti-racism industry.
- Sarah Kaplan, “Minn. Man Accused in Black Lives Matter Shootings Reportedly Subscribed to ‘Sovereign Citizen’ Subculture,” Washington Post, December 1, 2015.
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016) p. 80.
- The Movement for Black Lives, A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice, 2016; The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100, Freedom to Thrive: Reimagining Safety and Security in Our Communities, 2017. It occurs to me that these organizations receive foundation money. But receiving it, and using it the way it was intended, can be very different. Above all, young people are often attracted to these groups because they are the most organized projects visible, and sometimes can even pay them to participate. But organizations that court revolutionary-minded young people to practice counterinsurgent politics are unstable compounds. See Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti, “The Shifting Ground: A Conversation on the George Floyd Rebellion,” Ill Will, September 20, 2020.
- Stuart Hall et al, Policing The Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 394.
- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Penguin, 1968).
- NBC Chicago, “Black Lives Matter Holds Rally Supporting Individuals Arrested in Chicago Looting Monday, August 10, 2020.
- Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), A Year of Racial Justice Protests: Key Trends in Demonstrations Supporting the BLM Movement, May 25, 2021, pp. 1-2.
- Fran, JF, and Lane, “In the Eye of the Storm: A Report from Kenosha,” Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, September 7, 2020.
- Anonymous, “ The Siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis: An Account and Analysis,” Crimethinc., June 6, 2010.
- Shemon Salam and Arturo Castillon, “Cars, Riots & Black Liberation,” Mute, November 17, 2020.
- New York Post-Left, “Welcome to the Party: The George Floyd Uprising in NYC,” It’s Going Down, June 24, 2020, Welcome to the Party: The George Floyd Uprising in NYC,”; “The World is Ours”; Puget Sound Anarchists, “The World Opens Up: Recalling the First Week of the Uprising in Seattle,” It’s Going Down, October 22, 2020.
- Haslett, “Magic Actions.”
- Chuang, “Welcome to the Frontlines: Beyond Violence and Nonviolence,” June 8, 2020; Crimethinc., “Tools and Tactics in the Portland Protests,” August 3, 2020. For an excellent discussion of this division of labor see: Anonymous, “The Siege of the Third Precinct.”
- #IndianWinter, “Standing Rock: The Story of a Heroic Resistance,” ROAR Magazine, November 19, 2016.
- Crimethinc, “Accounts from the Battle of Grant Park: How Chicago Demonstrators Pushed Back the Police and Nearly Toppled a Statue,” July 21, 2020; James Stephens and JJ McAfee, “In the Streets of Philadelphia,” Hard Crackers, June 14, 2020.
- Phil A. Neel, “The Spiral: Epilogue to the French Edition of Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict,” Brooklyn Rail, September 2020.
- Adrian Wohlleben, “Memes Without End.”
- Anonymous, “At the Wendy’s: Armed Struggle at the End of the World,” Ill Will, November 9, 2020.
- Anonymous, “The Siege of the Third Precinct.”
- With the exception of Shemon Salam, who predicted the rebellion. See “Black Mutations”.
- Johnathan M. Metzl, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
- Shemon Salam and Arturo Castillon, “The Return of John Brown: White Race-Traitors in the 2020 Uprising,” Ill Will, September 4, 2020. Additional essays by this prolific duo appears in the collection: The Revolutionary Meaning of the George Floyd Uprising (Montreal: Darjala Press, 2021).
- Unicorn Riot, “Twin Cities Protest Death of George Floyd: Day 3,” May 28, 2020.
- Yannick Giovanni Marshall, “Black Liberal, Your Time is Up,” Al Jazeera, June 1, 2020; We Still Outside Collective, “Black Leadership and Other White Myths,” Ill Will, June 4, 2020; Haslett, “Magic Actions.”
- Belew’s remarks were stunning in their recklessness and scholarly malpractice. “When I hear reports of the U-Haul trucks, the pellets [pallets] of bricks left at opportune places, passing out bombs and incendiary devices to people who are already angry during the peaceful protests,” she told credulous local reporters, who had sought out her expertise as an self-identified scholar of the far-right, “those actions across multiple cities indicate some central planning.” This sweeping conspiracy to engineer black-led resistance, she argued, was likely done by white supremacists, manipulating hapless dupes coast to coast. In addition to denying the agency of black militants, this conjecture also made yet another national news event germane to Belew’s own expertise. But unless Belew has evidence none of us have seen, the “reports” she refers to with such scholarly gavitas amounted to specious social media rumors which any serious observer viewed with credulity. The “bait bricks” canard that Belew repeated had already been challenged by Rolling Stone, which did not need expertise in the far-right to smell a rat. See: Katie Kim and Lisa Capitanini, “Extremist Groups May be Infiltrating Protests,” NBC Chicago, June 5, 2020; E.J. Dickson, “People Claim Authorities Are Intentionally Planting Bricks to Bait Protesters,” Rolling Stone, June 3, 2020.
- Tim Bruno, “The Fireworks: On Rumor and Counter-Revolution (After Jean Genet),” Hard Crackers, October 24, 2001.
- Liasons, “Warning,” September 9, 2020.
- Bruno, “The Fireworks.”
- Shemon Salam, “The Rise of Black Counter-Insurgency,” Ill Will, July 30, 2020; Anonymous, “The Only Way Out Is Always Through the Police” (New York: Research & Destroy NYC, 2020).
- Laura Rodríguez Presa, “‘This is a Step Back.’ Latino Activists Speak out about Racial Tension with Black Chicagoans on Southwest Side amid George Floyd Fallout,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2021.
- Idris Robinson, “How it Might Should Be Done,” Ill Will, August 16, 2020.
- W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007) p. 3.
- David Roediger and Elizabeth Esch, The Production of Difference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- In a class I took some years ago, Charlie Post called this latter theory “the garbage can theory of ideology.” By contrast, Thomas Sugrue’s sketch of the proletariat in postwar Detroit in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998) is a classic study of racial chauvinism emanating, at least in part, from below.
- George Rawick makes this point compellingly in the 1964 essay “The American Negro Movement,” reprinted in George Rawick, Listening to Revolt: Selected Writings (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2010) pp. 1-29.
- “Abolish the White Race By Any Means Necessary,” Race Traitor 1, Winter 1993, 2.
- See: Salam and Castillion, “Return of John Brown”; Wollheben, “Memes Without Ends”; Nevada, “In the Wake of an Erosion,” The New Inquiry/Liaisons, July 16, 2021. Ill Will also began a series on race treason called “Desertions”.
- Anonymous, “Black Armed Joy: Some Notes Towards a Black Theory of Insurrectionary Anarchy,” Haters Cafe, January 18, 2022.
- Jarrod Shanahan, “The Big Takeover,” Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, January 7, 2021.
- ACLED, “Demonstrations and Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020,” September, 2020; Adrian Wohlleben, “Weapons and Ethics,” Ill Will, September 18, 2020.
- Anonymous, “The Only Way Out is Always Through the Police.”
- For additional perspective see the anonymous report back: “‘Breewayy or the Freeway’: The Rise of America’s Frontliners and Why Louisville Didn’t Burn,” It’s Going Down, October 15, 2020.
- In the wake of Kenosha, Adrian Wohlleben penned a brilliant and beautiful reflection on this question. See: “Weapons and Ethics,” Ill Will, September 18, 2020.
- Leonard Zeskind and Devin Burghart, “Is America’s Militia Movement on the Rise?” The Nation, September 9, 2013.
- See: Matthew N. Lyons, “Caution Doesn’t Make Us Safe: A Review of PRA’s Report on the MAGA Movement,” Three-Way Fight, February 17, 2022.
- Zhandarka Kurti and I discuss the history of the US abolitionists tradition in detail in States of Incarceration, Chapter 5, alongside a critical assessment of its current terrain. We have previously written about the crossroads facing US abolitionism in “Prelude to a Hot American Summer,” and “The Dangerous Seduction of Reform,” Brooklyn Rail, September 2020.
- Alex Vitale, The End of Policing (London and New York: Verso, 2017); Joy James, “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition,” Black Perspectives, July 20, 2020; Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, Burn Down the American Plantation: Call for a Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (New York, 2017).
- Garrett Felber, “The Struggle to Abolish the Police is Nothing New,” Boston Review, June 8, 2020. For the original articulation of non-reformist reforms, a concept popularized in recent time by abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, see André Gorz, Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).
- Dan Berger, Miriame Kaba, and David Stein, “What Abolitionists Do,” Jacobin, August 24, 2017.
- See: Beth Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: NYU Press, 2012),
- Char Adams, “Cities Vowed in 2020 to Cut Police Funding — But Budgets Expanded in 2021”, NBC News, December 28, 2021.
- Kay Gabriel, “Defund is a Strategy,” Verso (blog), June 7, 2021.
- Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 3-16, 55-83, 391.
- Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy (Oakland: AK Press, 2005), pp. 69, 91-93.
- See, for instance: Allegra M. McCleod, “Envisioning Abolitionist Democracy,” Harvard Law Review 132 (2019), pp. 1613–1649.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution - 1863-1877 (New York: Harper, 1988).
- Noel Ignatiev, “The American Blindspot: Reconstruction According to Eric Foner and W. E. B. DuBois,” Labour/Le Travail 31 (Spring 1993), p. 245.
- Gus Breslauer, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Liberalism,” Regeneration Magazine, November 27, 2020.
- Noel Ignatiev, “Alternative Institutions or Dual Power?” in Treason To Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity (London and New York: Verso, 2022), pp. 359-363.
- Wohlleben, “Memes without End.”
- No New Jails NYC, “Close Rikers Now: We Keep Us Safe” (New York, 2019).
- Zhandarka Kurti, “Police Power in the Aftermath of Black Lives Matter,” Social Justice 47 (3/4) (2020), p. 139.
- La Banquise 'For a World without Innocents,' forthcoming on Endnotes