Containing the Black Lives Matter Movement: Democrats and Republicans Play Good Cop/Bad Cop

A long smoldering and now massive popular response to injustice has been catalyzed by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th. Even Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson concedes, “this was without precedent in the modern era.”

A broad consensus critical of the coercive police function of the US state is building. The mass movement around Black Lives Matter has many currents, some reformist and others angling for bigger fish. A sea change may be in the making. In opposition, state officials from the police chief of Ferguson to any number of politicians are making a public show of taking a knee in homage to the movement, while conspiring against it.

In the affluent white community of Larkspur, California, a protester carries a sign saying, “Bad Cop – No Donut,” as whites throughout the US pour out in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Youth protesting for the first time muster into the streets. Articulating the perspective of her generation, George Floyd’s young niece Brooke Williams asks, “when has America ever been great?”

Significantly, small town USA is coming out in solidarity, including hamlets with predominantly white populations of just a few hundred. Many protest leaders are female. Confederate statues are being toppled by the score in Dixie. And no more telling indicator of the depth of the multi-national/ multi-racial movement is NASCAR’s ban on flying the Confederate flag.

The corporate media try to divide the movement into good and bad protesters. Television is flooded with sanitized clips of Martin Luther King preaching peace, when – as those of us involved in those historical struggles knew – King’s message was resistance with non-violence as a tactic. Riots, he explained, are the voice of the unheard.

At ground zero of the Black Lives Matter protests, the Minneapolis third precinct police station was burned to the ground. Responding to grassroots pressure, the Minneapolis city council pledged to defund the police. While the propertied class can and have hired their own private security forces, this radical demand arises organically out of the mass movement and addresses the question of whose interests are served by the coercive arm of the state. Others demand even more fundamental change with community control and abolition of the police.

Attempts to demonize the movement by labelling it as violent have not met with success. The New York Times reports: “In the last two weeks, American voters’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement increased almost as much as it had in the preceding two years.”

Social media have exposed significant acts of violence perpetrated by provocateurs to discredit the genuine movement. Among the provocateurs were uniformed police, white supremacists not in uniform, and uniformed police with white supremacist symbols. This video shows Minneapolis police officers slashing car tires. In this video, Minneapolis police and National Guard rampage through a residential neighborhood screaming “light ‘em up” and lobbing paint canisters into people’s houses. Here police attack peaceful demonstrators.

Republicans, playing the bad cop, and Democrats, playing the good cop, have predictably come to the rescue of the increasingly delegitimized military-police state. Despite a superficial show of bickering, they are united by class allegiance in renewing the Patriot Act and passing ever more astronomical military budgets.

Prominent Republicans unabashedly summoned the police and military to repress the movement. President Trump has threatened to use the 1807 Insurrection Act to allow the military to wage war on its own people. Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas called for sending in the troops to crush the rebellion, describing the demonstrations as “carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.”

In states and cities controlled by Democrats, such as ones presided over by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, the police response is similar though the rhetoric is not. The difference is mainly that the Democrats wear a velvet glove over the iron fist.

Indicative of the determination of the protests, the show of police force has galvanized rather than intimidated the movement. However, brandishing the stick is not the only tool of the agents of the state. The Democrats are the foremost purveyors of co-optation.

House Speaker Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Schumer, and company staged a photo-op taking a knee wearing kente cloth sashes for George Floyd. Even Joe Biden briefly emerged to film a video of pious homilies about racial justice. He is the same individual who championed the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights and the 1994 Crime bills. Political economist Rob Urie credits Biden with being “the national political figure most responsible for the police practices that led to the murder of George Floyd,” second only to Bill Clinton.

Margaret Kimberly of the Black Agenda Report observes, “the black political class does everything in its power to make sure that nothing much is accomplished at all.” The Congressional Black Caucus, she reports, is making proposals that they know will not pass the Senate or the president, while letting stand legislation such as the Protect and Serve Act, which makes assaulting a police officer a federal offense.

Other Democrats are trying to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement by suggesting that outside agitators are behind it, as did Minneapolis Mayor Frey along with some Republicans. And – I am not making this up – other Democrats as saying, yes, the Russians are stirring the pot to make us Americans look bad. Obama’s former National Security Advisor Susan Rice appeared on CNN talking about a “Russian playbook” and hinting that the Russkies may even be financing the violence. Rice, BTW, may be the next US vice president.

Not to be outdone in the loony department, Republican Senator Rick Scott and backed by the White House accuse Venezuela of being behind the demonstrations. Venezuelan President Maduro tweeted, “The awakening of the American people is not just a protest against the death of George Floyd, it’s against a whole system of racism and structural repression,” demonstrating a deeper understanding of the what is happening in the US than these over-imaginative US politicians.

The Democrats hope not only to contain the Black Lives Matter movement, but to ride it into the White House. As Trump’s prospects ebb with the coronavirus pandemic, a tanking economy, and cities in revolt, the ruling elites will increasingly blame him for the systemic failures of the neoliberal state to provide either for the safety or welfare of its people.

More misfortunes loom on the near horizon, when peoples’ savings run out, unemployment claims are exhausted, eviction moratoriums expire, and the economy fails to bounce back dramatically. Given Trump’s liabilities, even a moribund Democrat – and that’s what the electorate is being offered – will sleepwalk into the White House. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has sounded a wake-up call heard around the world.

Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.