Letter from a Tottering State

by Jasper Bernes

Originally written for the discussion group and publishing project Stoff, who are currently translating the letter into French. Thanks to Zaschia Bouzarri and Endnotes for help with the editing.

The United States was largely inert in 2019, even by its own standards, as a wave of struggles spread across the planet, from Sudan, to Haiti, then Hong Kong and beyond. The electoral campaign against President Trump, tightly bound up with the tireless Bernie Sanders and his liberal-democratic socialism, had begun as early as possible, this time with an ideological and political machine more finely attuned to the received ideas of the extra-parliamentary left. Anti-Trumpism was rich soil in which to cultivate enthusiasm for social democratic reform, it turned out, particularly when personified by the grumpy, avuncular Senator Sanders. To be crudely materialist about this political moment, increased turnout in regional elections by anti-Trump constituencies, looking for any alternative, even at the local or regional level, had made it newly possible to put social democrats into office and win modest reform initiatives, particularly around minimum wage ordinances. Insignificant as they were in the long run, these victories were nonetheless invigorating for many people used to winning nothing at all. Where no meaningful avenues for political contestation appeared, figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, newly-elected Congressperson from the Bronx, New York, nonetheless managed to elicit a perverse idealism about what could soon be possible, despite or perhaps because of having little to show for it.

Never in my lifetime has a political conjuncture evaporated so quickly, so completely. Six months later, almost nothing of it remains. With a Covid-19 epidemic whose vast size and stupefying mismanagement has no rival on the planet, with real unemployment at close to a fifth of the working population and barely improving, with forty percent of all renters facing eviction, and with a conspiratorial denialist for President, the United States is unraveling at breakneck speed. For most of the summer, the 2020 Presidential election, which six months ago dominated the news cycle, may as well have been happening on Mars. In place of Bernie Sanders, whose campaign succumbed to an overnight regroupment of center-left forces and the passive reflexivity of loyal primary voters, a narrative essentially too boring for anyone to recount, the Democratic Party has offered as its champion Joseph Biden, Barack Obama’s Vice-President, permanent also-ran, whose lack of appeal or political content whatsoever should have, in another history, meant the destruction of his decrepit party. He now stands to win the election, it appears, by virtue of being anyone but Trump.

In other words, at present anyone could win against Trump, anyone would lose if they were Trump. Biden is “not Trump” evacuated of any other meaningful political content—the difference he offers vanishingly small. His response to the black-led anti-police uprising that has just swept the country, the most intense, extensive, and long-lasting riot wave since the 1960s, is to suggest that police officers be retrained to maim rather than kill, to shoot at the knees rather than the chest. Kill ‘em all or take out their knees, these are the alternatives. Sanders, for his part, when asked about calls to defund the police partly or entirely, emanating from the riots of May and June but amplified across the summer, has said police need more resources not less, a brusque retort from a person who just months ago was credibly called a social movement candidate. We know now of which movements, and whose, he is candidate.

When the history of our long 2020 is written, the current uprising will no doubt be seen as one chapter in a building anti-police movement, whose principal episodes comprise the Oscar Grant riots in 2009-10 in Oakland, then riots in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities in 2014 and 2015, sometimes referred to as Black Lives Matter (also the name of a network of activist organizations formed at that time). Today, that slogan still functions as the watchword of the movement, painted across a thousand boarded-up storefronts and down the middle of streets, but that axiom has been developed, and from it “abolish the police” or more often “defund the police” has emerged as the accepted directive demand of the movement, taking up space that otherwise vague calls for justice might have occupied.

There is a new aggressivity or proactivity to the present wave which, as Joshua Clover noted, a single observation might grasp. In 2014–15, the nationalization of the riots, their spread to cities beyond the various provoking incidents—in Missouri, New York, and Baltimore—occurred always at a later point, once some attempt to seek justice or remedy through the courts had failed. No one waited for a verdict this time. The video clip that circulated, showing Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis police department, who is white, suffocating George Floyd, who is black, while he plead for help, crying “I can’t breathe,” was verdict enough. The 46-year-old Floyd was detained, it must be noted, because the cashier at a convenience store suspected him of having passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. “Attempted forgery,” was how the police dispatcher called it in on the evening of May 25, giving us a glimpse into the kind of petty property crime enforcement Minneapolis is conducting in the middle of a pandemic, at the outset of the worst economic crisis in my lifetime. This happened, notably, right as Trump and a majority of governors desperate to get people back to work forced a softening of social distancing measures far faster than was medically advisable, openly constructing an equation with Covid-19 cases on one side and economic growth on the other. Two curves—death rate, growth rate—and between them a crude congruence, a crude measure of a life’s worth.

The next day, May 26, people gathered at the Cup Foods where Floyd was killed, then marched two and a half miles to the police precinct where Chauvin and the other officers involved in the murder worked, fighting police along the way. By May 28, that precinct would be burnt to the ground, an image of victory that put the word “abolition” on the lips of tens of thousands and gave it a concrete meaning. The police evacuated the station, by command of the Mayor, in hopes that tempers might be quelled. Instead, rioters occupied it, stripping it of useful equipment, then set it aflame and moved on to the next precinct the next night. Solidarity actions had begun as early as May 27 in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Louisville, places where recent protests against police murder had run up against entrenched power. Now, for example, in Louisville, people angry about the murder of Breonna Taylor by police commandos executing a mistaken, no-knock raid on her apartment in March could join the national wave and, with it, find force sufficient to break down those blue walls.

In quantitative terms, that force is truly impressive. There hasn’t been a wave of riots this broad since Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. More than a hundred cities and towns saw rioting of some sort in late May and early June; as of June 3, at least two hundred had imposed curfew orders, rendering more than a hundred million people arrestable on site after dark. Governors in thirty states mobilized over 24,000 National Guard and by early June 11,000 people had been arrested, a number that seems low, comparatively, and may indicate more than anything how overwhelmed police were during the high point of rioting. For the first time in decades, police forces in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, which must be understood as small armies, were stretched too thin for crowd control. The river overflowed its banks, wrecking police cars by the dozen. Thousands fought with the Secret Service outside of the White House, while fires burning in the surrounding blocks seemed on the verge of forcing Trump from the city. A Black Hawk helicopter from the D.C. National Guard, which reports directly to the president, postured deafeningly close to the crowd, reminding insurgents, just in case anyone forgot, that they can and will if needed gun us down by the dozens.

Mostly, however, the police had to retreat, regroup, focus on defending their stations and escorting fire trucks. And that meant they could no longer cast their mesmerizing spell, no longer uphold the legal rights of the owners of private property. Looters went to work patiently knowing that, briefly, the cities belonged to them. To give some examples: in Philadelphia, at least one group was driving around blowing up ATMs and stealing their money. In San Leandro, a suburb south of Oakland, a group broke into a Dodge dealership and spent hours working on the safe. Later they drove away with seventy cars, worth over $1.3 million, including a number of “Hellcat” Dodge Challengers worth $90,000 each. In Fairfield, another Bay Area suburb, someone commandeered a forklift and drove it through the front entrance of an electronics superstore. The suburbanization of these riots is notable—San Leandro and Fairfield are largely working-class suburbs, like Ferguson, that have proletarianized and become less white in recent decades. But riots also happened in wealthier suburbs and districts, like Walnut Creek near me, Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and Buckhead in Atlanta, all places originally created to keep the unwashed masses at arm’s length. Social media campaigns explicitly directed rioters to focus their rage on these whiter, wealthier districts and their high-end commercial shopping, as also happened in the 2011 London riots.

The police are at their most dangerous when humiliated, when they are losing, and as they battled for control over cities, they shot and killed at least four people (by their own admission) maiming and grievously injuring countless others. In Oakland, state police attempting to recover one of those stolen Hellcats fired into the vehicle dozens of times, killing 23-year-old Erik Salgado, and striking his girlfriend, who was pregnant and lost the baby as a result. In Vallejo, another Bay Area suburb, police responding to a report of looting at a pharmacy drove up on 20-year-old Sean Monterrosa, who dropped to his knees to avoid being shot. The police claim they mistook a hammer he was holding for a gun and shot and killed him, firing their high-powered rifles through the windshield of their truck before it had even come to a stop. In Louisville, police and national guard patrolling a street turned off their body cameras and fired into a crowd, killing David McAtee, who ran a barbecue stand on that corner. Numerous people have lost eyes or been seriously concussed by rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and other grenade rounds: a popular thread on Twitter collecting instances of police brutality during the uprising features more than five hundred videos. The uprising put many police officers into the field against rioters for the first time, using unfamiliar less-lethal weaponry, and facing off against people who legitimately hated them and made that fact very clear. The result has been gratuitous, spiteful, and vindictive violence.

In the streets, rioters need worry about violence not only from the police but from right-wing vigilantes and militia as well. In public speeches during the first days of the uprising, Trump used veiled language to call on his supporters to intervene in support of the police, and they heeded the call in gruesome fashion. Cars are now the weapon of choice, as white supremacists and ISIS have shown the world how effectively they can be deployed. White nationalists and fascists have discussed and joked about driving over road blockaders since 2014, when the freeway blockade tactic was popularized by Black Lives Matter protesters. When fascist James Alex Fields struck and killed protester Heather Heyer on the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, he raised the profile of this counter-tactic immensely, and there are now dozens of reports of vehicles driving into protests at speed. In Bakersfield, a black man, Robert Moore, was run over and killed at a blockade. The driver of the car, covered in Nazi tattoos, was let go and has not been arrested, a fact that will no doubt go a long way toward sending other vehicles hurtling into crowds.

The rise of Trump in 2016, alongside a broader white nationalist and neofascist resurgence, was in several respects a direct response to the Black Lives Matter moment of 2014–15. Trump’s invocation of an “American carnage” afflicting the inner city in his inauguration speech had Baltimore and Ferguson as its not-so-secret referent and fear of black revolt at its heart, even as Muslims and Mexican and Central American immigrants were usually the explicit target of his rants. It took a few years for that nativist, fascist response to fully develop the first time, but now black rebellion and antiblack nativism are face to face. This has a determining effect on the tactical space in which these rebellions take place, since participants must now anticipate gunfire and vehicular assault.

Note what occurred in Seattle in early June. There, following the imposition of curfew and the deployment of the National Guard, an angry citizen of some sort drove his car into the crowd outside the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. As people attempted to wrest him from the vehicle, he shot one, exiting the vehicle, brandishing his gun, and then turning himself over to the police, who detained him. In the aftermath, the enraged crowd became so combative that all officers were eventually ordered to abandon the precinct, providing yet another image of humiliated police in retreat from one of their sanctuaries. This time, no one lit the station on fire, but they did barricade the surrounding area, declaring it the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) and giving as reason for the barricades the danger of right-wing and police violence. Orange construction barricades, plywood, and chunks of concrete watched over by armed rebels were, the argument came easily, the minimum level of defensive violence necessary when there were fascists around looking for a chance to kill with gun or car. The barricaded autonomous zone had a solidity that only necessity could have given it.

As the uprising began to quiet in other cities, the image of black radicals with guns on the ramparts in downtown Seattle had a deranging effect on the conservative media and, in turn, Trump, whose angry tweets largely follow what he views on TV. The parties of anarchy and order both found good reason to exaggerate the depth and breadth of the rift which the CHAZ had introduced— Fox News reported from the six blocks as if they were actually foreign territory that had seceded from the United States. Trump, accordingly, declared war on it, whatever it was, with the effect of making the area a target for every white-supremacist wingnut within a hundred miles (the Pacific Northwest has a lot of them). There were multiple shootings and vehicular assaults in or near the CHAZ over the next few nights, and weeks, and though the circumstances are unclear, white supremacists seem to have been involved in some of these incidents.

It can be difficult to tell what is happening, to say the least, especially for those trying to follow along from afar. Commercial purveyors of news, rendered brittle by waves of layoffs in the face of declining advertising revenues and confronting an excess of significant stories (pandemic, economic collapse, rebellion) often have little useful information and left most rioting unreported. Instead, participants and bystanders took to social media and messaging apps, where real information about what was occurring could be found, alongside all manner of stubborn conspiracy and rumor. The most common, intractable rumors concern the presence of white malefactors—either joyriding white anarchists, white undercover cops engaging in riotous behavior in order to smear otherwise peaceful activism, or sinister proto-militias looking to kick off a race war. The last rumor has its origins in something real, an informal militia organized largely by meme, calling itself the Boogaloo Boys, which rose to national visibility by tailing the so-called “Reopen” protests of early May, when rifle-toting mobs of ruined small-business owners invaded legislatures in the midwestern United States demanding they relax Covid-19 social distancing rules. When the George Floyd riots kicked off, the Boogaloo Boys, wearing Hawaiian shirts for reasons only bizarre memes can explain, showed up as participants, in ostensible solidarity, joining to fight against the common tyranny of the police. Their motives were not convincing, however. One friend living near a Midwestern city describes at least three groups carrying firearms besides the police—boogaloos, a New Black Panther Party offshoot, and an anarchist gun club, not to mention the many participants who were armed just because. In this instance the boogaloos were confronted, my friend tells me, and asked to chant “Black Lives Matter.” They agreed and were allowed to stay. In other instances, however, boogaloos have refused to chant the phrase and been forced to leave.

In Minneapolis, some of these boogaloo gunslingers took up position in front of businesses once looting began, acting as informal security, as did some black militia groups. A scan of any of the groups where these floral-shirted would-be heroes gather shows that many hate the state largely because it prevents the unfolding of a salutary race war. Though these gun-toting men are clowns, they are not entirely unserious ones. In Oakland, on the first night of rioting, while people were smashing up the Federal Building, two boogaloo-inspired men in a white van drove slowly through an intersection, shooting two of the guards in front, and killing one. The presence of such dangerous pseudo-allies has many on edge for real reason, but more dangerous probably are the white nationalists and fascists who make no pretense of neutrality: dozens of people have been shot and assaulted in the vicinity of protests, and given the chaos and fog of insurrection, fascists are quite clearly killing people and getting away with it.

The result has been a general worry about the presence of white people in the riot, and a fixation on the figure of the “white anarchist,” usually present either rhetorically or actually in the antipolice riots of the twenty-first century. Sometimes the allegedly white starters of fires and breakers of windows are thought to be provocateurs in the employ of the police, or sometimes they are just joyriding, nihilist idiots, but always the underlying assumption is that tactics can be sorted according to race, and that because property damage or violence is bad, then the good people of the correct race could not possibly have been responsible. In the morning after the third precinct burned in Minneapolis, tens of thousands of people online circulated an image of a tall, white man clad head to toe in black breaking all the windows of an AutoZone (an auto supply store). They offered various arguments for why he must be a cop (he was large, they said, and wore black, bulky shoes, just like a cop). A couple of weeks later, in Atlanta, already a hotspot and under National Guard occupation, the police murdered Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s parking lot. After rioters converged on the fast food restaurant the next night, setting it aflame, a livestreamer from a suspicious account circulated a video of a white woman they identified as starting the fire. “Look at this white girl,” said the person filming. “Look at the white girl trying to burn down the Wendy’s. This wasn’t us.” A few days later, on the basis of the video, police arrested Rayshard Brooks' white girlfriend, Natalie White, who now faces felony arson charges for her alleged participation in what had been, according to a remarkable account of the event, “a community effort.”

Even Trump joined in on the race-baiting discourse, providing an unholy alignment, however brief, between our revanchist president, white middle-class liberals, and activist protest managers, all of whom found it convenient to circulate images of otherwise peaceful black protest marred by white anarchists. Federal law enforcement, guided by Trump’s tweeted manias, has focused intensively on “Antifa,” a designation they and the media continue to build up into a substantial, formally organized terror group where none exists. In any case, the actually existing antifascism prominent after Trump’s election three years ago played little role in directing or organizing events this summer, and the now numerous open investigations will yield a scattering of disconnected convicts rather than the grand conspiracy Trump requires as mobilizing narrative. The full force of Federal law has been brought to bear on the riots, and many crimes that otherwise would have been prosecuted at the state level, where the penalties and penalty enhancements are lower, are being charged as Federal felonies. There are dozens facing decades in prison, or even life sentences, for things such as using a Molotov cocktail against an unoccupied police car. Trump, as wannabe fascist, has finally found the leftist menace against which he can Mussolini convincingly, and now gives speeches with long catalogs of state enemies: “anarchists, agitators, looters.”

Because of the breadth and speed of the uprising, overwhelming already overwhelmed circuits, there has been no place where the names of those who have died or been seriously injured are gathered, no aggregate analysis of who has been arrested and for what, no central repository for information on those facing serious federal charges. It is difficult, therefore, to easily and quickly counter fantastic claims about outside agitators, or the racial composition of the crowds, especially when one is talking about dozens of riots rather than one or two. Where news organizations provided some breakdown of arrestees, usually in response to a claim by a mayor or governor that the arrestees were all residents of other states, they found no confirmation. From arrest information made available, we can find confirmed what I observed and what many of those present will tell you: these were multiracial riots, in many places majority black, composed in large part of high-school-aged youth—in other words, precisely who one would expect, if one imagined a broad antipolice uprising by everyone who had good reason to hate the police and who had borne the force of the pandemic and the economic collapse most directly. Speaking to The New Yorker about the burning of the Wendy’s, Marty X more or less confirms: “I’m not gonna give white people credit. Black people were angry. We were organized. There was a bomb squad there within the revolution. They had fireworks—using them to signal that police were coming, where to meet. There was also anti-drone teams from other parts of the world: Venezuela, Seattle, Minneapolis. Boots on the ground, sharing the gospel about defunding the police. I saw lasers big enough to put on telescopes pointed up at the drones, disrupting their feeds.”

There is no conspiracy needed to explain a white person breaking a police-car window at one of these riots—outrage is good enough, as is a history of injury and insult by police, as is general desperation and rage in a time of pandemic and economic crisis. Leadership in a riot is about more than persons, who broke this or that window or directed the march onto the freeway—these were black-led riots in a sense more than personal: they were directed by black grief, black voices, black ideas, as the spraypainted murals on plywood covering the broken plate glass windows in dozens of city centers still testify.

What is certain, despite the falseness of the rumors, is that the ease with which commentators in the US sort events according to racial shorthand speaks to deeply segregated political communities, between which all sorts of self-reinforcing imaginary narratives might take root. Nonetheless, as partisan forces have found ways to push forward in June, July, and now August, they have tried to make who they are and what they believe known, for those willing to stop and read what has been graffitied onto the walls. After the first explosion in mid-June, this work of clarification dominated, and the riots turned with particular focus toward acts of iconoclasm, beginning first with statues to the Confederacy in the South and then turning to other examples of monumental white supremacy.

In San Francisco, for example, far outside the theater of the Civil War, the parks and plazas are dotted instead with monuments to Spanish colonization and later Anglo settlement. When statues began falling in other cities in early June, the city preemptively took down the twelve-foot-tall Christopher Columbus in North Beach, after getting word that a march would target it. No matter, iconoclastic youth went to Golden Gate Park and took down the big statue to Junipero Serra, the eighteenth-century Franciscan priest whose archipelago of prisons and military fortresses up and down the California coast, where indigenous captives from dozens of tribes were tortured and enslaved, forms the architectural template for most institutions in the state. Next, however, they took down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union military leader who defeated General Robert E. Lee, ending the Civil War, and four years later, as President, enforced Southern Reconstruction, repressed the Ku Klux Klan, and pushed for passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted explicit equal protection under the law to emancipated slaves). He also ruthlessly opened up the American West for settlement, effectively declaring war on the tribal nations of the Plains and the far West.

Where liberal commentators find ignorant, nihilist excess, wrecking things without regard for historical meaning, they often overlook the active thinking of the movement, developed on the spot. In San Francisco, crowds pulling down the non-Confederate statues to Ulysses Grant, to Francis Scott Key, and others, offered explicit justification, tagging the base with explanatory epithets, as those in attendance and passers-by debated the relevant points. In refusing the memorializations of settler violence and plantation slavery on offer, in drawing connections public history won’t, between Southern slavery and the settlement of the West, despite the conflicts opposing the ruling class fractions involved in both, such actions stand US history on its feet and set its sentimental mythology on its head. They also link, in memory, and raise banners to the two most important political moments in the 2010s, which we might name, metonymically, Ferguson and Standing Rock, the first the defining moment of the Black Lives Matter sequence before 2020 and the second referring to the struggle by Dakota Sioux activists and others against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which targeted the infrastructure of ecocidal capitalism directly.

Trump amplified these connections. His response to the wave of statue topplings was to hold a campaign rally at Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills, the sacred Sioux site defaced by giant busts of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. In response, indigenous protesters blockaded the entrance to the site, fighting with the police and eventually the National Guard. Trump’s instincts here as everywhere provide a moral foil for the movement, establishing continuity where none might have existed. In doing so, he draws toward himself and toward the Federal government antagonism that might have remained more dispersed.

This is clearest in the most recent episode of the movement, unfolding in the city of Portland since July 4. Portland has seen some of the most intense conflicts between fascists and antifascists in the years since 2016. In response to these intransigent rioters, many of whom have years of experience fighting Proud Boys and other alt-right groups, Trump cobbled together a new, national antiriot police force from the Federal law enforcement agencies most loyal to him, particularly the Border Patrol. In the United States, the division of powers between the Federal government and the states means that street-level law enforcement falls to mayors and governors, not the Federal government. National police forces, such as those supervised by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, have special jurisdiction. They investigate defined crimes, police the border, or arrest tax evaders. However, in response to the riots, Trump has created, through DOJ and DHS, new all-purpose Federal riot police, composed largely of Customs and Border Patrol officers and US Marshals, who can be directly commanded by the White House if necessary. In July, they took the streets in Portland, against the wishes of the mayor, driving around in rented vans and snatching protesters, facing off with growing crowds outraged by their presence and now given a tangible outlet for their hatred of Trump. This escalation from the Feds had the effect of reigniting the movement nationwide, as a July 25 day of solidarity with Portland led to riots in Atlanta, where a Department of Homeland Security building was attacked, in Seattle, where a construction site for a youth jail was burned, and Oakland, where participants tore up the Federal building and lit the lobby of Alameda County courthouse on fire, garlanding it in graffiti.

In other words, Trump has made the Federal government a target in a new way. The division of powers between the states and Washington, DC establishes a counter-revolutionary firebreak, shielding the Federal government from antipolice sentiment, but Trump has now removed that shield, insisting on understanding the riots as a referendum on his own presidency when he might have let the distance between the police and the executive government shield him. He has attempted to own the riots as much as he has tried to disown the exploding Covid-19 epidemic, perhaps because he is now less oriented toward governing than campaigning, and less to campaigning as winning over undecided voters than generating and responding to the fever dreams of an increasingly delusional base of supporters. Thus, the Federal intervention into Portland and, subsequently, other cities, was recast as an attempt to deal with an observed surge in crime, and particularly homicide, supposedly produced by the riots and general antipolice attitudes of the moment, according to the conservative news.

Trump has federalized the uprising and given the riots something to push against but he is as much an attractor as a disaggregator, and while he centralizes antagonism, he disperses decision-making. His assumption of newfound executive power is mostly rhetorical; he lacks the ability to govern and trusts no one to do it for him. In speech, he may foretell the birth of a terrible new order, but in deed he is the expression of this one—his goal is to strip the wiring from the White House, to empty the offices of the executive except for law enforcement and make a mess too big for anyone to clean up. The utter breakdown at the Center for Disease Control in March and April, unable to distribute or process even a fraction of the tests needed, and actively sabotaging attempts by states to manage the pandemic, gives one example. Another can be found in the sinking US Post Office, where a Trump appointee’s cost-cutting measures have created major mail disruptions in advance of the largely mail-in election and at a time when more and more people depend upon the post for medicine and essential supplies. Trump is a negator-in-chief. He will send in the police to defend his reputation, or generate counterpublicity, but he has a limited ability to run a full-throated counter-insurgency, which would require competent appointees and dedicated cadre.

An unappreciated consequence of Trump’s setting the riots in orbit around himself has been the gradual disappearance of police and prison abolition as objects of popular discourse, even as the people in the streets remain focused as ever. Predictably, during Trump’s intervention in Portland, the big bad Feds absorbed most popular outrage while the Portland Police Bureau got a pass. Knocked back by the shockwave from Minneapolis, all kinds of city legislators, in Minnesota and beyond, promised to either seriously defund their police departments or even disband them in some way. But the details, as always, are depressing, and if one could follow all these local news stories, they would mostly reveal city officials walking back earlier declarations, now revealed to be largely performative, a flinch reaction in the face of shouts from the dangerous rabble, or an attempt to re-brand austerity projects that were already in the pipeline as a result of imploding revenue.

“Abolish the police” and “abolish prisons” are powerful slogans because they present as simple maxim what can only be accomplished through a full revolutionary reorganization of society. Capitalism requires the police, requires prisons, in order to maintain the great lie of private property—within capitalism, the best one could get is cops and jails by another name: digital ankle-bracelets, drones, and private security forces. Such slogans offer the inverse of the so-called “transitional demand,” which presents a goal that seems like it should be feasible but isn’t and therefore, according to the theory, unmasks the capitalist system while building class power. Instead, these slogans present what are clearly maximal, revolutionary actions, predicates which clearly have no addressee within the ruling class, which can only be accomplished by the wrecking ball of proletarian insurrection, as if they were a demand, for full employment, healthcare, or the like. There is no syllogism, as with the non-reformist reform, only an antinomy. This partly explains how “defund” becomes a synonym for abolish—by presenting as demand what isn’t, the slogan asks to be replaced by something ruling elites actually could do. Numerous organizations, some of them abolitionist in orientation, were already pressuring local and state governments to decarcerate, defund, and disempower police, before the uprising. The translation of calls to abolish from the streets into calls to defund in the city assembly chambers is a result, in many cases, of these previously existing projects and groups, in a position to bargain on behalf of these movements and in many cases pacify them in exchange for the superficial concessions on offer.

Nonetheless, some real weakening of the police has taken place, especially in majority-Democrat cities where left-liberal government has moved to restrict the power of the police in the face of popular outrage, such as Portland, Minneapolis, or Oakland. These restrictions are usually superficial or ineffective, but may affect police morale, which may, in turn, go a longer way toward restricting police violence than budget-line reductions. The police say, through their representatives, that these movements make them less likely to arrest and beat people because they fear they might be suspended, fired, or prosecuted. One can only hope that this is true, while keeping in mind that it is in the interest of police and the party of order to over-report crime, to temporarily exacerbate fears, just as it is in the interest of proletarians to exploit the weakness of the police.

There will need to be more burning stations before such weakening can be made palpable. There’s no shortage of urgency. In San Quentin State Prison, ten miles away, site of the first prison chapter of the Black Panther Party, founded by George Jackson, two thousand inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 and twenty-five have died. In Santa Rita, the local jail where arrested rioters are taken, there are now hundreds of cases. The longest and hottest of Augusts now unfolds, as mayors and governors reluctantly enforce second lockdown orders, quashing hoped-for recoveries, and driving tens of thousands of employers out of business for good. While the US economy had, after falling into an abyss in March and April, added more jobs in May and June than it lost, many of those will now be gone for good, and the most recent August report shows weekly unemployment claims ticking upward again, to above one million. The actions of the ruling class are no longer intelligible from the perspective of any long-term strategic purpose, and now here, there, and everywhere practically taunt the populace toward revolt. Perhaps some see no future except in whatever stronghold they can secure against the collapse. Perhaps this is simply what the weakening of the capacity for collective action among the ruling class looks like—like heading to the vacation resort compound while unemployment insurance for the poorest expires and while viral loads go exponential in a dozen metro areas.

The demonstrated resilience of the United States and the postwar economic order it has superintended should urge caution on those eager to sign its death certificate. But the signs and symbols of civil war now roiling the streets confirm a thesis first clarified by W.E.B. Du Bois, in his Black Reconstruction in America, which now must be counted as axiom: that black revolt, first against slavery, then its afterlife and extension, lies at the root of every proletarian or working-class achievement in the United States. The defeat of Reconstruction in the South, which for Du Bois might have been the basis for an overcoming of American capitalism, does not lie in the past but must be encountered, again and again, with every cycle of struggles, until the work of emancipation is complete and there are no more police stations left. This is the task to which the George Floyd Rebellion calls, transforming an unprecedented economic and public health crisis into a political one, summoning forth the spirits of the generations for a reckoning long overdue.