Progressive Pulses Among the Ruins of Riot

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The violence that erupted from the mostly-peaceful demonstrations around the killing of George Floyd has subsided, though many businesses in Long Beach are now boarded up. In addition to the property damage itself—in many instances not covered by insurance because deemed “domestic terrorism”—these protective measures have a chilling effect on efforts to participate in the full reopening of the economy. Slogans in sympathy with Black Lives Matter (BLM) grace the facades of many businesses to express solidarity with the protests, or to at least immunize them from further attacks.

Not that BLM was mainly responsible for the violence in Long Beach or elsewhere. To date there have been many arrests, upwards of 10,000 according to The Guardian (6/18), though determining who in the pool was violent or whether they will even be finally charged awaits further investigation. Anecdotally, the home movies show a variety of perps in action—including young whites—but they were masked. The credibility of the protests depends to a great extent on who the rioters were, and perspectives at this point appear to be processed through media scripts that have always surfaced in the aftermath of these events. Prominent is the claim that the protests were peaceful but “outside agitators” distorted the event through their organized mayhem, making it appear as though blacks were burning down their own communities, or even the property of their ethnic neighbors. People then select the version that minimizes their cognitive dissonance, and the result is a shaky quorum on blame (David Rovics, “Who’s Trashing Downtown Every Night and Why?” CounterPunch, 6/3).

Have the violent “protesters” done the right thing? The garbage can through the pizzeria’s window in Spike Lee’s great 1989 film—Do the Right Thing—produced a chain of violent events that eventually brought a divided ethnic and racial neighborhood together, though at the cost of Radio Raheem’s life. It raised the question of whether violence and even death are necessary to make advances against racism, seeming to say yes in giving the nod to Malcolm X—quotes from him and Martin Luther King end the film, violence-with-a-purpose versus anti-violence. Sal, the white business owner and exploiter is banished from Bensonhurst along with the colonialism that had victimized the community.

The mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, was appalled by the protests in her city when they erupted, saying they were not what Martin Luther King would’ve endorsed. If Malcolm X believed that African-Americans had the right to use violence against the system’s representatives because violence was already being perpetrated against them, MLK believed it was never justified; that the institutional blockage of change was never total and there was always a peaceful alternative. Maintaining a peaceful presence demonstrates the protesters’ moral superiority, giving them the credibility-edge through the innovative strategy of non-violent “direct action,” succinctly defined by Barbara Deming as “angrily fighting back against violence with poise” (Alexander Livingston, “Martin Luther King Knew That There’s Nothing Peaceful About Nonviolence If You’re Doing It Right,” Jacobin, 6/10/2020). The amassing of large numbers of witnessing bodies—many more than what the opposition presents—at the sites where the injustice occurred serves to bolster the protesters’ power and substitute for the need of force. This means occupying the spaces where the crimes occurred, or where the seats of power are located that offer the potential for a solution.

But the Minneapolis protests and others were spontaneous eruptions in response to a reprehensible killing and not planned events that would lend themselves to direct-action logistics, their urgency fueled by the pandemic-influenced availability of bodies. They lacked a director and clear direction. And when large numbers of people gather, irrespective of the occasion, crowd dynamics dictate. Ideas and sentiments get exaggerated and impulse governs, the resulting irrationality spreading like a contagion as Gustave Le Bon showed (The Crowd). And the effect was compounded by the arrival of sundry groups hitching their grievances to the primary events. This perhaps explains how so many minority-owned businesses and neighborhood cultural centers in the Lake Street area of Minneapolis were destroyed.

Then there were the comments from black activists in Minneapolis that can be taken as invitations to foment violence. Tamika Mallory, in a fiery speech, said that the black community learned violence and looting from white America (DemocracyNow, 6/4/2020). This rhetorical affinity with Malcolm X further weakens the authority of the non-violent strategy in this incendiary context.

This issue of looting presents a glimpse of a broader agenda than rooting out racism from police unions and departments. The pandemic “stimulus” packages have reprised the flawed approaches to downturns of the past in effectively sanctioning the looting of the Treasury by elite corporations at the expense of small businesses and programs that can directly benefit the most vulnerable, especially the black lower classes. These packages are contributing to the widening of inequality, and blacks are suffering this consequence to a greater degree than whites—though when class is factored into the comparison, we see that poor whites and poor blacks are closer. These payments are sold as stimuli, badly needed monetary replenishment for a starving economy that will stabilize it, but the recipients are not held accountable.

Senator Jim Clyburn announced recently that the oversight committee responsible for investigating where the stimulus money was sent and the terms for repayment, if any, had decided to suspend its work. Such developments lead many to allege that the payments to the top tier are merely welfare. The looting at the top can create many victims through time, though they’ll be hidden and therefore it will be difficult to prove the chain of consequences. The victims of looting at the lower levels are starkly identified, direct and visible recipients of theft and destruction. How can protesters not miss this glaring contradiction? More importantly, how can the logic of it be explained to those who only point to the effects of looting at the bottom, saying that the mob of heartless rioters randomly choose innocent victims?

MLK’s gospel of non-violence possessed the moral advantage of silencing attacks from critics when it worked in practice, minimizing if not eliminating the role of rioting. The massive demonstrations that dotted the Civil Rights Movement up until the mid-1960s were prime examples of the craft and helped get two seminal pieces of legislation passed: The Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. These laid the indispensable foundation for making future gains. The Movement was able to ally with SDS, which practiced its own version of non-violent direct-action, and embrace its positions against the Vietnam War and poverty, and especially get the attention of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to help break the logjam of opposition to racial justice from Southern Democrats. Then there were the beginnings of MLK’s broadening of the Movement to include a multi-racial coalition of the disadvantaged, a successful strategy that continued until his death. All these factors are responsible for ginning up his support from the Democratic establishment and the becoming-less-silent majority.

The start of the urban riots in the mid-1960s, as well as the student protests that turned violent not long after the first massive transfer of troops to Vietnam in the fall of 1965, led to significant changes in support. Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, in looking at news coverage and public opinion from this era, found that nonviolent protests increased support for the Civil Rights Movement and the Democratic vote-share, while violent protests tipped public opinion away from the protesters and toward support for law and order and control, shifting the vote-share to the Republicans (“The Case Against Riots,” Ross Douthat, New York Times, 5/30/20.).

This transitioning to a law-and-order majority, to include more and more Democrats as well, served to block the progress of organizations that were spawned from the constructive momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, and especially those with MLK’s stamp. One of the principal ones was the Congressional Black Caucus, an independent force whose National Black Agenda, penned in the summer of 1972, linked the struggles of blacks to the deprivations experienced by the poor of all races. Its demands conjure elements of today’s progressive agenda, especially with respect to universal healthcare and a living wage. But its positions were resisted by the governing Congressional consensus. According to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, many black politicians represented urban areas and “governing became harder as whites fled to the suburbs.” The 1970s also witnessed the end of the postwar economic boom and the deepening of deindustrialization, and the changing “economic fortunes of cities, which had been the engine of the American economy, made it harder for the ascendant black political class to carry out reforms” (“The End of Black Politics,” New York Times, 6/13/20).

As a result, as Taylor claims, black elected officials were increasingly seen as the managers of crises in working class communities instead of leaders who took charge to root them out, a trend that continues into recent times. I’ll return to this point.

The consequences of these shifts were felt through the 1970s as the right gained strength and proceeded to nullify many of the liberal advances of the prior decade. With respect to race, the Supreme Court claimed in the Bakke case—1977—that racial quotas for college admissions constituted reverse discrimination, contending that race could be only one factor to consider in these decisions. This diluted the spirit and substance of the seminal 1960s Acts and led to the weakening of Affirmative Action and its virtual elimination by the mid-1990s. It also signaled that some members of MLK’s broad coalition were now being left out, like poor whites. In fact, by the mid-1970s the Democratic Party’s broad equality-agenda was being replaced by “diversity,” the primary stress on the demographic inclusion of non-whites.

Will this same kind of reaction happen now? Some say that the violence of the Ferguson demonstrations in 2014 firmed up the law-and-order legions that helped swing the election to Trump in 2016, paralleling how the violence of 1968 supposedly tipped the balance to Richard Nixon in that year’s election. But in the aftermath of the few days of recent rioting we’ve witnessed mostly peaceful gatherings whose numbers have remained consistently large. Plus, the participants now constitute a broader, multi-racial coalition and are supported by a global network of sympathizers. This has given the “movement” the credibility it may have lacked in the early moments when it was mostly a BLM critique of police brutality.

Everything depends on how this evolves. The aftermath of MLK’s assassination, in conjunction with the breakup of the student movement later that year, witnessed the fragmenting of violence outside the framework of a broad movement, a diversity of “Black Power” affiliations influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X that negatively swayed the silent majority and fence-sitting politicians. But the confrontations between the Black Panthers and other organizations with the Federal government were usually mis-represented in the mainstream press, quashing their substance and productive links to the Civil Rights legacy. The Weathermen tried to build a larger movement that linked racial with class and economic injustice, but its ambitions and popularity floundered due mainly to its endorsement of violence.

The mainstream press is now focused more on the police as the fomenter of violence against the “peaceful” protestors, the riotous actions against property set aside for the moment. But have they created a new constituency of victims ready to haunt the Democrats in the fall election?

What’s interesting is that the dynamic of protest currently unfolding might transform conventional expectations. The demonstrators are a diverse mass, the large gatherings the focus for many groups with social justice issues not directly related to race that have been festering for some time without resolution—like the millennials who took a hit from the 2008 Great Recession, and other mini-generational groups that have fallen behind from the effects of neoliberalism. Causes and accidental allies have converged in a passionate expression for real change, not the pseudo-solutions and stopgap fixes that the establishment offers through the endless deferrals of the election process. As a result, the kind of organization and discipline that marked the direct-action protests of the past, and when the agenda was upfront and relatively clear, has been difficult to maintain, making at least some measure of disruption predictable.

Who then is directing the action? Unlike the direct-action-driven events of the past, these protests are lacking a central leader. You might even say they’re leaderless, the direction of activity pressed through participants present at opportune moments who witness a truth emerging and speak their experience. The guidance is decentered, not all speakers toeing the line from an imaginary central command. Some even want the order and discipline of the older legacy to dominate, the rules and decorum to be restored, to put extra-parliamentary pressure on the system to build the kind of movement MLK had control of. Recently Andrew Young and others who were active with MLK have argued for reining in the transgressors and crafting a clear agenda.

But these transgressors appear to be winning thus far as they evolve an agenda. They fear that the order and discipline will neutralize the energy of the protests, or even threaten the experiment itself. They seem to support neither the ballot nor the bullet, but surely the poised fighting back against the power of violence, the real public enemy, to produce results that prevent the establishment’s cooptation of the issues.

This includes the black political class, which has become an establishment ordering force. There are many more black officials today, but Malcolm X’s indictment of the ballot rings true. They somehow slip into the habit of supporting the existing class system and contribute to its worsening. Since the shift in the early 1970s mentioned above, this class has become even more entrenched. As more blacks entered the middle class, black elected officials became more in tune with the needs of their middle-class constituencies than with those of the working class, failing to invest in black neighborhoods to stop the loss of jobs or reverse the underfunding of schools, and trying instead to attract higher-salaried, educated workers.

Regarding the issue of policing brought to the fore with the killing of George Floyd, they’ve done little over the years to mitigate police violence or stop violence in their communities. It’s interesting that the Congressional Black Caucus played a key role in passing the Crime Bill of 1994 which was pivotal in the turn toward mass incarceration—and supported by black mayors in many large cities.

Lori Lightfoot was recently elected mayor of Chicago, one of the most violent hotspots in the country, registering the kind of euphoria generated when Barack Obama was elected. But as Taylor points out, this city’s greatest public policy expenditures are for the police and “boondoggle development ventures” that benefit the elite while residents grow desperate for affordable housing and investment in public schools.

Muriel Bowser, the black mayor of Washington and strong supporter of BLM, recently proposed a $45 million increase in the police budget. But the issue of budget priorities was raised in 2018 when three black women sued the city claiming that its policies are mostly directed toward attracting “younger, more affluent professionals” and discriminate against poor and working-class blacks who had lived in the city for generations, exacerbating the city’s pandemic of poverty and inequality.

So it was no great surprise when James Clyburn, the black Senator from South Carolina, strongly urged blacks to vote for Joe Biden in the recent primary, a move that effectively ended Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Clyburn’s sympathies are in sync with those of these black leaders in mostly preserving the status quo in support of neoliberal solutions that benefit the middle and upper classes.

One of the promising challenges to the status quo ignited by the protests is a coalition of groups called the Movement for Black Lives (, founded in 2014 by young black leaders in the wake of the Ferguson shooting. Concerned with much more than mere police reform, it proposes to put pressure on multiple fronts to break the system that enslaves blacks, especially the larger class system. It recognizes that neither political party is adequate to produce the sustained action needed for real change. A good chunk of its issue agenda reads like MLK’s but without the urging of a broad multi-racial coalition and inspirational hope through ballots. Another chunk reads like Malcolm X’s endorsement of community empowerment but without bullets. The linkage of ideas from these historically divided directors of actions creates a more realistic mapping of social reality from which credible solutions can be forged.

The impulse of these activists is to battle institutional racism on the one hand, and the entrenched black political class on the other. The issue is whether they can mobilize the energy from these protests into a broad multi-racial coalition whose actions and successes become resistant to backlashes. This means fighting the power of the real public enemy, the asset-producing hierarchy that manufactures lack and deprivation and fuels artificial sentiments, dividing individuals and groups against each other, reigniting old frictions and unleashing new ones.

Efforts to reform racist attitudes are not sufficient to root out racism which thrives through the workings of this power that enables its possessors to maintain the class system’s degrees of enslavement throughout all racial and ethnic enclaves in society. A racist-free society is synonymous with a win-win logic, what Barack Obama identified in a speech from 2008 as the goal of an equitable, multi-racial society. If one group believes to have gained at the expense of another, the ensuing frictions virtually guarantee violence.

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class