By Eljeer Hawkins & Chris Gray, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US)
The conviction of former Minneapolis law enforcement officer Derek Chauvin was a direct result of the mass explosion by the working class, youth, and oppressed that captured the imagination of the entire world last year and the potential of another explosion if there was an acquittal verdict. It was also the attempt of law enforcement, the capitalist system, and the Biden White House to regain confidence in the overall system by reigning in “rogue” law enforcement officers in Black and Brown working-class communities.
However, despite the victory of a conviction, there was disturbing evidence in the background signaling that the struggle against racial oppression has a long way to go. Amid the trial and announcement of the guilty verdict, the Biden White House decided to drop the campaign promise to establish a national commission on law enforcement violence. Alongside this we saw the high profile law enforcement killings of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, and Ma’Khia Bryant. These events cemented the cold reality of the role of law enforcement in the capitalist order and how disposable the lives of Black and Brown workers and youth are in the eyes of the system.
“Man Dies of Medical Incident After Police Interaction”
– Original Minneapolis Police Department Press Release on George Floyd’s Murder
Only seven cops have been convicted of murder since 2005. The fact that Derek Chauvin is one of them is a testament to the power of the rebellion that rocked Minneapolis alongside the 26 million-strong protests that swept the country last year. The rebellion itself started with an act of civil disobedience: then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier refused to stop recording George Floyd’s murder, even as other Minneapolis Police Officers at the scene threatened and tried to intimidate her. Almost a year later at Floyd’s trial, Police Chief Arrodondo thanked her, though initially he worked with the Democratic Party establishment in Minneapolis to cover up Floyd’s murder.
In the initial days following George Floyd’s murder, the political establishment tried to argue that protesting was counterproductive to winning justice. Recognizing that people didn’t trust the MPD to investigate themselves, which is still standard protocol, Minneapolis Mayor Frey looked to the same state agency that failed to indict Philando Castille’s murderer in 2016. When people called this out, Frey appealed to Donald Trump’s FBI to intervene! In contrast, Socialist Alternative called for an “independent, elected, community-led investigation with full powers over the Minneapolis Police Department, including the power to subpoena, hire, fire, and review budget priorities.”
Minneapolis Democrats repressed the #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd Movement
As Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman continued to claim he had undisclosed “additional evidence” that pointed away from prosecuting the officers, Mayor Frey called in the National Guard. Under the dishonest pretense of stopping white supremacist vigilantes, who were never caught, the National Guard in reality targeted journalists and terrorized working-class people who were trying to organize neighborhood watch programs to keep people safe. This sparked wider protests. Minnesota’s Governor described the largest, and widely condemned, peace-time military mobilization in the state’s history as “good and righteous.”
National polls showed a majority of Americans felt that burning down the Third Precinct police station where Derek Chauvin worked was justified. This precinct has been described as a “playground” for renegade cops and has been neglected by the Democratic Party establishment that runs Minneapolis for years. While the Minneapolis establishment parroted Trump’s talking points about “anarchy,” working-class committees organized to defend themselves nonviolently. In one example, the Somali community nonviolently de-escalated a situation with a hooded, masked white man while the police and National Guard ignored reports. Socialist Alternative called for the National Guard to leave, and be replaced with “community councils to discuss next steps, protect against the vigilante violence as well as the National Guard, and distribute aid and resources.”
Democrats make big promises
While Minneapolis City Council did not intervene to stop the National Guard, they seized the opportunity to jump in front of the movement to make their now historic “Powderhorn Promise” to “dismantle” the police. They gained national attention, and prominent NGOs prematurely claimed victory. Within hours, many council members were already walking it back and managing expectations. Ever since, Minneapolis City Council has retreated at every turn when faced with the opportunity to actually confront Mayor Frey or the police. They unanimously approved a police budget last fall that made a mere 6% cut, and then reversed that months later, unanimously approving a measure to hire more cops.
As the Derek Chauvin trial came to a close, Minneapolis City Council did little to stop the redeployment of the National Guard and re-militarization of the MPD beyond bickering with the mayor and the police chief in council meetings. Police conducted military-style training, the city strung barbed wire near the courthouse, and the National Guard essentially occupied the city as the verdict approached. The politicians that run Minneapolis are cut from a similar fabric as most Democratic Party politicians, who make big promises during election years and in times of social upheaval, only to betray or water down these promises once in power. They stand in stark contrast to independent socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant in Seattle, who successfully passed a ban on chemical weapons, took on the Seattle police union’s reactionary contract by being the only “no” vote, and put forward concrete legislation to reduce the police budget by half.
The revolt of last summer demonstrated the raw potential that exists for an ongoing mass movement against racial oppression. However, a year on and, despite verbal “concessions” from the establishment, very little has concretely been won. If we are going to win significant police reform in the U.S., let alone the more far-reaching demands of the movement, we need to take a sober look at the state of our movement and what changes need to be made.
Fighting law enforcement terror
A deep and troubling crisis has emerged in Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLM) under the leadership of original BLM hashtag co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Since the inception of the BLM banner, it has become a life-affirming cry against racial oppression and law enforcement terror under capitalism. Still, the limits of BLM’s politics and narrow NGO/Democratic Party-focused approach are being increasingly exposed as completely insufficient to confront this moment of crisis.
Socialist Alternative members attended and participated in the Movement for Black Lives conference in Cleveland in 2015, which was the first national gathering of Black organizations and organizers since the 1998 Black Radical Congress conference. Early on we recognized the danger of co-optation from the Democratic Party and liberal philanthropic donors that has unfortunately become a significant feature.
The absence of sustainable democratic organizations, militant leadership, and a fighting independent working-class approach rooted in our communities has allowed the political and economic establishment to co-opt a section of the movement. The co-optation of the rebellion’s demands, like defunding the police, or even abolition of the police, was used to nullify the genuine mood to radically reduce funding for police departments, including getting the police out of dealing with mental health crises. It went from a slogan to an empty promise in Minneapolis and city councils across the country.
Big business donated two billion dollars to racial justice NGO organizations, and adopted a shallow but almost obsessive campaign of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” trainings which amount to little more than “Black faces in high places.”
The Black misleadership class played a dastardly role by directing the justified rage of millions into safe channels like advocating for Black capitalism and entrepreneurship. This effort was led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, like Black South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, who outright attacked demands like defunding the police.
The need for clear demands
During the rebellion, Socialist Alternative raised several key programmatic demands like putting policing under the control of democratically elected civilian boards with full powers including hiring and firing, cutting police budgets by 50%, disarming cops on patrol, and purging police forces of any officer with a history of racist abuse. In addition to fighting demands around policing, we called for demands that could fight racism in all aspects of society, including taxing corporations to fund jobs, education, healthcare, and housing. These demands would disproportionately benefit Black and brown workers while at the same time uplifting the working class as a whole. To build the strongest possible movement, Socialist Alternative raised the need for the labor movement to stand against racism and support the protesters and rejecting racist law enforcement policing and police unions in the labor movement. All this while providing a socialist analysis of the role of the state and how to end racist law enforcement.
As labor organizer and socialist Farrell Dobbs correctly stated, “Under capitalism, the main police function is to break strikes and to repress other forms of protest against the policies of the ruling class. Any civic usefulness other forms of police activity may have, like controlling traffic and summoning ambulances, is strictly incidental to the primary repressive function. Personal inclinations of individual cops do not alter this basic role of the police. All must comply with ruling-class dictates. As a result, police repression becomes one of the most naked forms through which capitalism subordinates’ human rights to the demands of private property.” This has been true since the very beginning of policing in the United States.
The role of unions in the fight against racism
Socialist Alternative members in key unions played an important role in bringing the labor movement into the fight for #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd. During the rebellion, Minneapolis bus drivers organized with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 refused to transport protestors to jail. USPS letter carriers organized a march from a burned out post office to shift attention away from right-wing fearmongering back to the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder. These actions from rank-and-file members put pressure on union leaderships at the state and national level to make statements in defense of the uprising, cutting across right-wing efforts to isolate what was happening.
As the jury deliberated at Derek Chauvin’s trial, Mayor Frey and the Governor re-deployed the National Guard. This dramatically heightened tensions, which came to a head when the National Guard were permitted to use a union hall as a staging area. While it was correct that union members and staffers confronted this, the action happened above the heads of rank-and-file workers. Republicans, Governor Walz, and the right-wing of the labor leadership seized on the moment to make it about decorum, rather than the overall role of the National Guard. To cut across these attempts, it is urgent that these unions organize rank-and-file meetings to discuss how the labor movement can play a role in the fight against racism.
We support any concrete reforms that can be won by the working class through social struggle that limits the power of law enforcement and Wall Street’s agenda. In 2014–2015 during the first phase of BLM, several reforms were won in 24 states, like body cameras. However, the body-camera documented lynching of George Floyd threw those ineffective reforms in the wastebin of history. The demands of this wave of BLM were in many ways a real step forward. For example, the demand to abolish the police showed how much further consciousness had developed and this has represented, to some extent, a step forward. It articulated the role of the police as the security guards of the capitalist class and its system of profit, power, and prestige. It acknowledged the police as an occupying force in communities of color.
However, Socialist Alternative has not taken up the approach taken by many on the left of adding immediate police abolition to our general political program. This is because, from the standpoint of Marxists, a political program should be a guide to action for the working class. We want to draw the widest possible section of society into the struggle against racial oppression and capitalism, and that means crafting a political program that people are willing to fight for. Broadly speaking, the demand to abolish the police has very limited support, including among the Black working class. Even at the height of the rebellion last summer, where popular support for the movement skyrocketed, the demand for police abolition only had 15% support. While the demands for sweeping police reform have much broader support, abolition leaves many wondering who would provide “public safety” in the absence of any police force.
Another reason we have not adopted this demand is because before the question of abolishing the police can be posed in any real way, we first need to end the rule of capital and lay the basis for a classless, socialist society. There is no abolishing the police on the basis of capitalism, the ruling class simply won’t allow it.
It’s for this reason that Socialist Alternative has frontloaded the demand for community control of the police. It points in the direction of the type of genuine worker and community self organization that would be needed to keep us safe. If policing were brought into real democratic community control, that would mean hiring, firing, budgetary priorities, and broad protocols would be determined by ordinary people ourselves. Our movement needs a broad set of demands that ordinary people are willing to fight for, as it’s only through the experience of fighting for something and winning that people gain the confidence to demand more.
We need serious discussions and debates in our movement about demands and program, and this needs to be connected to a concerted campaign to discuss these ideas with ordinary working people.
Terrified about another mass uprising, Republicans are passing various “back the Blue” bills that further criminalize protests, protect attacks on protestors, and militarize the police even more. These right-wing efforts are a genuine threat and are aided by Democratic Party politicians who spent all summer fear-mongering about “Antifa” and “outside agitators” while deploying the National Guard to “protect” people. On both sides of the aisle, politicians are essentially blaming the victims, claiming the protestors are the main source of public disorder, rather than killer cops and police actively instigating confrontations with majority peaceful protesters.
In Seattle, billionaire Republicans, big business, and the Democratic Party establishment have teamed up to attack Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant along similar lines. They are effectively attacking her for her participation in the Black Lives Matter movement. If this recall effort succeeds, it will set a chilling precedent that an elected official can be undemocratically recalled because she consistently stands with social justice movements and BLM, and it should be opposed by progressives around the country (and the world). Over 13 union locals and progressive union leaders like Sara Nelson, DSA’s national organization, prominent DSA elected officials like Julia Salazar, and numerous others have endorsed the Kshama Solidarity campaign, but it will take all our effort in the fall and winter to defeat the recall.
The Whole System is Guilty
The mass rebellions that rocked the country have exposed how racism is deeply interwoven into the fabric of capitalism itself. While there have been some victories, we need to be sober that the ruling class is only willing to make concessions under pressure, including sacrificing “bad apples” like Derek Chauvin, if it allows them to prop up their rotten tree a little bit longer. As Republicans and Democrats team up to terrorize, demonize, and mischaracterize the uprisings, it is essential that we discuss which demands and strategies are needed to build a genuinely multiracial working class movement to uproot all forms of racism, oppression and exploitation once and for all.