A Beautiful Movement and Horrible Choices

The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement plus its allies is the most beautiful, inspiring movement since the Sixties. It is unprecedentedly diverse. It is angry, determined, grimly serious when not festive, generally peaceful but sometimes violent, bold enough to risk the plague to voice its outrage.

It is the result of a unique set of circumstances. On March 10—the second Super Tuesday—Bernie Sanders was beaten badly in the Democratic primaries. His campaign had been defeated by the DNC that had orchestrated the other candidates’ withdrawals and endorsement of Biden. It gradually sank in that we would likely have four more years of Trump, or four with the most conservative of the Democrats. It was a bitter disappointment to millions of Bernie supporters, although it was merely a repeat of 2016 in which the DNC had also worked to ensure Bernie’s defeat. CNN’s Van Jones warned that Biden may have scored a “Pyrrhic victory” and that “a lot of young people” had been “crushed.” (His solution? Biden needs to “turn to them and say, ‘We want to be your champion.'” Like it’s that easy…)

Six days later, as the stock market tanked, President Trump ordered the initial two-week national shut down, later extended to April 30. Startled by the suddenness of the COVID-19 crisis, anxious, disgusted at the November political choices, confined to our homes, we watched Trump’s daily “Coronovirus briefings.” These were designed to divert attention from Trump’s staggering incompetence in delaying action for about six weeks while the virus spread. (The Democrats having failed to drive Trump from power as a Russian stooge, or to impeach him on the basis of the Ukraine charges, now had a genuine impeachment charge. But they have simply pushed Biden as the wise, compassionate alternative to the misanthropic buffoon.) Trump’s ridiculous claims and abuse of reporters during these briefing appearances caused his handlers to discourage them. But they do not seem to have harmed him among his base, and indeed he used the “briefings” to maintain his contact during the shut-down with his stubbornly consistent 40%.

On May 25 Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on a Minneapolis street. A nation in the midst of what might become the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism and the worst pandemic since 1918, claustrophobic and frustrated, uncertain about the future (will my university be holding classes on campus in the fall?), disgusted with Trump but without passion for Biden, watches the 8.46 minutes. The record of three tapes is so clear, and clearly evil, and so long—it is a documented strangulation or a handcuffed black man whose face is scraping the pavement and who calls out repeatedly that he can’t breathe. The high quality and duration of the documentation, plus the conditions of confinement with the TV on all day, rivets the image into memory and motivates protest.

Some have observed that the sustained period of isolation has produced a longing for community. There’s nothing more social than a massive demonstration. One feels encouraged by big numbers, buoyed by the solidarity. Marching in formation shouting slogans is the best, although not advisable now. Were there ever any concern that demonstrations would disappear due to plague fears, it appears that marchers wear their risk-taking as a badge of honor. In many of the marches, the majority of the crowd is white. These are people who “get” it: racism is institutional in this country, always has been, and police departments in particular concentrate this racism. They get the idea of police defunding, which (have you noticed) the two presidential candidates loudly reject and ridicule.

The protestors are, again, diverse. But they range from progressive to left radical. I think it likely that most of the demonstrators support gay marriage, are critical of Israeli illegal settlements, are opposed to imperialist wars, want the Iran Deal, and don’t see socialism as a bad word. They want a single-payer health care system and student debt reduction. Most I think would have voted for Sanders, who had a vast, well-motivated organization.

Thus at precisely the point where the system is in free fall, and the people more radicalized than ever before, the Democratic Party tells the Bernie activists (that it worked so hard to thwart) to apply their energies to the Biden campaign. Then Trump will return to his tower, and normalcy will be restored. (That means at minimum Biden will return to the Paris Accord and the Iran Deal. NATO allies will be assured the U.S. wants to retain bases in Europe and further expand the alliance to include Ukraine and Georgia. The Kurds in Syria will receive apologies for Trump’s betrayal, and receive more U.S. aid. To compensate for Biden’s supposed “coddling” of Putin, Biden will hold more expensive NATO drills near Russia’s borders. Having once advocated that Iraq be divided into three countries, it’s hard to know what he’ll want to do in that country.)

On the issue of police murder, Biden was actually one of the police unions’ strongest advocates in the Senate. (These are not normal labor unions but organizations designed to protect police from prosecution.) He has recently (June 10) reiterated that he does not support “defunding” for police departments but wants to increase police budgets by $ 300 million.

Lenin famously said something to the effect that revolutions happen when the system can’t go on as before, and the people can’t accept it anymore, and there’s a revolutionary party. We have here the makings of a revolutionary movement uniting initially over the issue of police brutality. But we have no party, no candidate, just the hope of a return to Clinton-Obama normalcy after the “aberration” (Biden’s word) of the Trump era. Imagine how different things would be, had Bernie been allowed to win the primaries, and the mass movement turn out for him on Election Day. As it is, Biden’s response to the recent murders has been as scripted and insubstantial as Trump’s. His campaign reminds us that his proposals for increased police funding are detailed in the 1994 Crime Bill.

The burgeoning anti-racist movement is now ripping down Confederate statues, while local governments are forced to accept this general cleansing of “historic monuments” to white supremacy. In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has been established; the police were forced from their precinct office, now occupied. The mayor for the time being allows this, drawing Trump’s fire and the threat to send in federal troops to crush the revolt. Seattle could become a major battlefield in this plague year struggle, and a campaign issue. Gov. Jay Inslee and Mayor Jenny Durkan, both Democrats, have scoffed at Trump’s threats declaring he has no power to deploy forces.

The nation is polarized. Trumps FiveThirtyEight support figure, 45.5% on Election Day, has hovered between 36.4 and 45.8%, and has not fallen under 40.8% this year. His incompetence in responding to COVID-19 is not a big issue. Biden scores higher in the polls of late, while the DNC keeps Biden under wraps to avoid potentially disastrous “gaffes.” Public appearances haven’t gone well for Biden this year, as he displays apparent signs of dementia.

A case in point. On April 6, 2020, Joe Biden stated: “We cannot let this we’ve never allowed any crisis from the Civil War straight through to the pandemic of seventeen all the way around sixteen we have never ever let our democracy sakes second fiddle way they both have democracy and elections at the same time.” Discuss among yourselves.

Biden leads Trump in the latest Iowa poll—by 1%. (In the primary in February he came in fourth, behind Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren.) He leads nationally by double figures, as Hillary had in 2016. Trump has the solid support of the Republican Party whose leaders fear and respect his influence on the most backward among their base. Biden has the lukewarm support of most Democrats but is positively despised by many if not most former Bernie supporters. His victory is by no means assured.

But neither is the continuation of the system. The reelection of Trump would embolden him. This could, just by coincidence, produce some good—such as the U.S. withdrawal from NATO, or the withdrawal of troops in Korea, or great evil—such as war on Iran. A Biden could throw some crumbs at the people, in fulfillment of campaign promises, such as free community college tuition. He might be pushed left by organized protest. But Biden (the opponent of school busing, the partner of segregationists, the author of the Crime Bill, the defender of credit card companies, the tormentor of Anita Hill, the Iraq War enthusiast, the accused rapist) is as horrible as Trump. For what it’s worth, Real Clear Politics summary of polls show 46% of respondents view Biden unfavorably to 44% who view him positively.

Offered the horrible choice, one can reject the ballot option for the real politics of the street. Moved as I am by the images of truly multiethnic and intergenerational crowds declaring that black lives matter, I was most moved by the image of the Third Precinct police station in Minneapolis, which had been evacuated by the police when it came under attack, shrouded in flames at night with raised fists silhouetted against the inferno. This was the station of the four cops who murdered George Floyd. The mostly white young crowd watched with equanimity, no doubt seeing this as an act of poetic justice. That action falls into the category of the fall of the Bastille.

But Trump warns: “Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos; without law, there is anarchy; and without safety, there is a catastrophe. We need leaders at every level of government who have the moral clarity to state these obvious facts. Americans want law and order. They demand law and order. They may not say it, they may not be talking about it, but that’s what they want. Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want, but that’s what they want. And they understand that when you remove the police, you hurt those who have the least, the most.” (I’d read that Trump read Hitler’s speeches; this sounds like one of them.)

We got a taste of what this means when Trump used federal troops to clear the street of demonstrators so he could stroll across to St. John’s Church from the White House waving a Bible. Incipient fascism is making its case, targeting (predictably) the Antifa loose-knit network of anarchist, Marxist and other organizations committed to direct action rather than electoral politics. Trump has called for Antifa—which is not an organization—to be listed as a “terrorist organization.” This designation would allow the government to monitor anyone known to have contact with a member, and prosecute any monetary support for the group. The “terrorist” designation is arbitrary and political and basically designed to vilify. (You can always of course tell the government you disagree with their blacklist and consider the police state itself terroristic.)

As the long list of police murders grows—thanks to the blessed convenience of the cell phone camera—and as the demonstrations grow, producing more instances of police brutality, the issue of African-American oppression will be front and center. This includes the issue of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black people. The choices are: to stay home safely, or go out and march? To vote in the election, or boycott it as a farce? To follow the laws in a lawless society, or maybe, down the road, break some to bring liberation?

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu