Revolution, Not Riots: Prospects for Radical Transformation in the Covid-19 Era

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police served as yet another wakeup call for a nation that has historically struggled with recognizing structural violence against people of color. The ensuing protests and riots represent a renewed effort to sensitize Americans to the reality of pervasive racism in their country. Recent events follow a familiar cycle:

1. racial profiling and police brutality persist, largely unabated, until public anger reaches a critical mass and boils over into protest and violence after a catalyst event – in this case, the murder of George Floyd;

2. Media coverage is heavily sensationalized, marginalizing the protesters who are non-violent, emphasizing looting and riots, and thereby obscuring the reasons for the protests;

3. National guard and police forces are mobilized to suppress the protests, further inflaming tensions and exacerbating the violence through the heavy-handed tactics of the police;

4. Millions of Americans nod in recognition of the travesty of racism and police brutality, while millions of others – including many whites – lament the destruction of property, while downplaying the loss of black lives to police violence;

5. Despite sensational media coverage, the basic point that millions of people of color are mad as hell at police brutality and societal racism manages to seep through, with it becoming increasingly difficult for most Americans to deny that race relations in the U.S. have reached crisis levels;

6. Reforms ensue, geared toward increased pressure on police forces to improve transparency, to rely more heavily on community policing initiatives, and to further sensitize Americans to the problem of structural racism. And the cycle repeats.

Covid-19, however, appears to have exacerbated public anxieties beyond a level seen in previous rounds of Black Lives Matter protests. Communities under pressure, particularly poor people of color who are worst hit by Covid-19, have reached a breaking point, and are rebelling in mass against the status quo of record economic inequality, racial oppression, rising unemployment, and a near-complete non-response from the federal government to the worst public health crisis in a century. Within the context of these intensified protests, many self-identified radicals I have talked to believe we are witnessing the beginnings of a political and economic revolution, in light of the violent protests that have now taken over dozens of cities in the U.S. But we should be wary of romantic celebrations of revolution. Americans are nowhere near developing the radical working-class consciousness that’s needed for a socialist revolution. And efforts to frame riots as revolution are fraught with peril in a country where the large majority of Americans lack critical working-class consciousness, let alone revolutionary consciousness.

Before examining the challenges faced by protesters and leftists who are seeking societal transformation, it’s important to emphasize the positive elements of this latest race rebellion in the struggle for democracy. First, protests are absolutely essential to drawing attention to police violence and repression in a country where large numbers of people have become willfully ignorant to recognizing these problems, despite a mountain of social science and journalistic evidence documenting the ways in which the “criminal justice” system routinely criminalizes people of color. Second, the protests represent a much-needed reorientation of our priorities, toward recognizing the tragedy of the loss of human life due to police repression, and away from the priorities of many privileged whites, who prefer to lament the destruction of property, while ignoring the countless lives lost to police violence. Third, most of the protesters in the streets are committed to non-violent action, and should be applauded for such restraint in the face of police repression. White affluent communities throughout the U.S. have long been allowed to self-police, with residents only engaging law enforcement when they are called to assist in defusing disturbances. I have little doubt that whites would be angry as hell, and many would riot too, if police treated them the same as they do people of color in communities that are severely over-policed.

Looting and riots across the country are the product of society’s failure to listen to those, like George Floyd, who are literally suffocating under the boot of police repression. Martin Luther King famously said in a speech assessing the prospects for change during times of violent protest and riots: “it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.” MLK’s reflection represents a nuanced understanding of the frustrations that African Americans face in a society that systematically practices racial discrimination, as related to educational, occupational, residential, legal, and cultural repression. He recognized the legitimacy of the frustrations shared by people of color, without endorsing violent acts that provide an excuse for a “criminal justice” system to further suppress minority communities.

Despite the positive aspects of recent protests, there are some red flags that should be raised, and that threaten to undermine these protests. For one, it’s still disturbing how much we don’t know about many of those responsible for violence across American cities. Early accounts claimed that 80 percent of protesters arrested in Minneapolis were from out of state, although that conclusion was undermined after a review of arrest data showing that these protests were homegrown. With these efforts to marginalize demonstrators discredited, there is still the question of the extent to which white supremacists have participated in violence, in an effort to discredit the movement. A number of recent reports have spotlighted highly suspicious whites who are seeking to stoke riots, and who clearly have no interest in playing a positive role in protesting police brutality. Most perversely, some white supremacists have even used the protests as an opportunity to assault black protesters.

A second concern is the haphazard way that protesters have thrown caution to the wind by failing to make good-faith efforts to practice social distancing, in order to prevent the rapid transmission of Covid-19. It should be too obvious a point to remind people who have been told repeatedly for the last three months that it’s a really bad idea to be out in large groups in public without remaining six feet apart. Despite being a long-time (20 year) participant in progressive and radical social movements, I’ve made the decision, as someone with multiple immune system disorders, to refrain from participating in these protests. From all the news footage I’ve seen in recent days, and from the many individuals I know personally who have engaged in protests of Floyd’s murder, it’s become abundantly clear that large numbers of demonstrators are simply failing to practice social distancing. This failure carries perils. As public health experts are warning, large protest congregations, even with individuals wearing masks, threaten to further spread Covid-19 in heavily-populated urban areas. Furthermore, the failure to practice social distancing makes a mockery of leftists’ condemnations of “reopen America” protests, considering the main criticism put forward against these individuals was that they were flaunting basic public health and safety concerns. The failure to put public health first opens up Black Lives Matter protesters to charges of hypocrisy. Viruses, after all, don’t distinguish between worthy and unworthy political goals.

Most importantly, it is vital that we recognize there is a mountain of difference between rioting and revolution, and that we are nowhere near the latter at this time. It’s tempting to see people rising up in the streets and conclude that system-level change is afoot. And that may well end up being the case if these protests continue. But the difficult work of organizing and movement building to achieve system-level change has not been done. The worker strikes at Instacart, Amazon, McDonalds, Whole Foods, and elsewhere are an encouraging start for Americans seeking to assert themselves in the workplace. But the goals are hardly revolutionary. They include a $15 minimum wage – which has now become mainstream policy in the Democratic Party – and efforts to protect workers from Covid-19 infections in the workplace, among other reforms. And the labor movement in the U.S. remains a shadow of its former self, with only one in ten Americans being a member of a union as of 2019. Perhaps this pattern can be reversed, but it will require major struggles beyond this first round of Covid-19-era labor activism.

Furthermore, if revolution is the goal, no viable or radical mass worker organization yet exists that can help individuals in their workplaces to coordinate a national campaign to agitate for and demand collective expropriation and ownership of the means of economic production. We still appear to be very far from revolution, at least one that’s based on a libertarian vision of socialism in which workers decide their own fates and control occupational decision-making. And in order to get there, there will need to be a rapid rise in working-class identity and consciousness – and radical class consciousness – both of which have been in short supply to date.

The vast majority of Americans – approximately 90 percent – see themselves as some version of “middle class,” not as revolutionary proletarians. Even when a “working-class” option is provided in surveys, less than a third of Americans identify as such, while a sizable majority – almost two-thirds – prefer the amorphous “middle-class” designation. And as of early 2020, only 28 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of socialism, which includes less than 40 percent of younger Americans aged 18 to 38. Even for those who support socialism, most have little understanding of what it would look like in practice. They’ve been socialized by Bernie Sanders and his supporters to think that socialism means Scandinavian-style New Deal reformism and progressive-liberalism. That definition has little to do with historic understandings of socialism as founded upon grassroots, radical revolutionary politics, and worker takeovers of the means of economic production. A miniscule one percent of Americans cite “cooperative”-style work arrangements, in which workers are empowered to make their own decisions, as constituting the core of socialism. Clearly, we are very far from any sort of bottom-up organic socialist revolution when the vast majority of Americans don’t even understand the historical meaning of the concept, and overwhelmingly associate it with general notions of “equality” and government run public goods like Medicare-for-all.

The latest uprisings against racist policing are encouraging and can serve as a launching point for renewed efforts to combat inequality in America. But we should be careful not to romanticize rioting or mistake it for revolutionary change. If we seek the latter, then our nation has to work toward developing a radical working-class consciousness – one that understands capitalist owners of the means of production (the “bourgeoisie” in Marxian terms) as retaining fundamentally contradictory interests compared to the vast majority of Americans who are facing rapidly rising economic stresses in the Covid-19 era, and who have been squeezed by decades of corporate capitalism, unrestricted by basic obligations to the citizenry. Without an understanding of society that centers on class conflict and the incommensurable interests that exist between working Americans and political and business elites, there is little chance of working toward revolutionary transformation.


Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.