On Coronavirus and the Anti-Police-Brutality Uprising

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

An investigative reporter, Arun Gupta has been consistently ahead of the news. In September 2011, he founded The Occupy Wall Street Journal with the help of the Yes Men to help build support for the fledgling occupation in Zuccotti Park. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he warned that if elected Trump would carry out “the ethnic cleansing of America by eliminating Muslims and many immigrants through walls, bans, barriers and deportations.”

Gupta is not only one of the few reporters who covers social movements; he is the rare one who covers both the left and the right. He has gone inside the Tea Party, violent far-right militias, and the Bundy occupation of a national wildlife refuge. He has chronicled Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy ICE, covered the climate justice and low-wage workers movements, and journeyed to the unprecedented refugee camps in Mexico on the U.S. border. His work has appeared in dozens of publications, including the Nation, the Intercept, Jacobin, Raw Story, the Guardian, the Daily Beast, CounterPunch, and the Washington Post.

I caught up with Gupta to help make sense of the deadly pandemic, economic depression, and racist violence that Trump may have created but for which the entire American ruling class is to blame.

Q: As someone who foresaw the seriousness of the Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, what do you make of how it unfolded? Does anything surprise you?

Arun Gupta (AG): Scientists and journalists have been warning for decades that conditions were ripe for a pandemic to erupt. Rob Wallace wrote about it in“Big Farms Make Big Flu,” as did Mike Davis in “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.” I began taking the coronavirus seriously after the first cases were reported in the United States in February. Its rapid spread indicated this was different from other infectious diseases that didn’t become a global crisis such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, and H1N1.

Since then, one of the most disorienting aspects of how the pandemic has unfolded is every reaction from Trump is both astonishing and in character with his sadistic grifter clown presidency. The effects of the pandemic are far more disruptive than the 9/11 attacks. I watched from my rooftop in Lower Manhattan as people jumped from the burning towers. Despite being in utter shock, I knew what was coming: a war on brown people abroad and at home. But with the pandemic, no one foresaw much of the world shutting down, the shuttering of massive economic sectors — retail, manufacturing, education, travel and leisure, restaurants, sports, and entertainment. The social effects have been equally profound and surprising, the slow realization that we are all prisoners alone while together, at least those of us who have not drunk the Kool-aid of anti-science denialism.

But the way the U.S. Government responded to the pandemic is even more shocking than its effects. Trump and his henchmen have never even tried to address the crisis. He tries to tweet the pandemic into submission, acting as if the only problem is how to manage the reality TV show now that contestants were dying off on-air. At the same time, I am not surprised at how he or how billionaires have responded. When Trump seized the national stockpile as his own, apparently began stealing life-saving PPE from states, or Jared enlisted slimy McKinsey bros to manage a supply chain they were clueless about, I said, “Of course they did.” It is exactly who they are. Every crisis is an opportunity to steal money, grab power, and parade their egos.  I am not surprised Trump pushed dangerous quack cures like chloroquine or even injecting bleach. It’s breathtakingly deranged and I don’t think there is a novelist alive imaginative enough to draw a portrait of malignant narcissism as absurd as what we see in the news every day. But it’s not just Trump. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are among the billionaires demanding or forcing the proles back to work to die for their profits. Neither is it surprising that there is fascism from below wanting to reopen society, what we saw with the “Open-up” rallies in the spring. They welcome mass death. The Republican Party since Goldwater has been a death cult. Now it’s a suicide cult.

Q: How did we get here? Talk about the historical backdrop.

AG: Most Americans have no sense of their past. Gore Vidal said U.S.A. stood for “United States of Amnesia.” They are not taught how genocide and ethnic cleansing define American history, particularly in relation to Native Americans, chattel slavery of Africans, and Jim Crow. The anti-Asian pogroms of the 19th century are glossed over if they are even taught. The teaching of the conquest of the Southwest, which was one slaughter and ethnic cleansing after another, is recast as a misguided but generally heroic Mexican-American War. Almost no one knows about sundown towns. In his book by that title, James Loewen says thousands of suburbs originated as sundown towns. The name is from signs supposedly posted at the city limits reading, ‘Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You In ___.’ The Baltimore suburb I grew up in was probably a sundown town. It was nearly 100% white, but since Maryland was a slave state and the area was farms until the 1960s, there must have been lots of African-Americans there at some point. The question is what happened for them to leave, likely by force and intimidation. But this history has been erased. If the collective memory has been wiped out, then it is easy to believe, as it was among my friends, that suburbs are white because they are an inevitable outcome of natural forces such as meritocracy. Ironically, this explanation tries to be non-racist, but it’s completely racist: When people try to justify why suburbs are all white they will inevitably claim it’s because Blacks are socially, intellectually, or culturally incapable of succeeding as whites (or Asians) do. Erasing history ends up both encoding the racism in the system while rendering it invisible to those who perpetuate it and benefit from it the most. And that is the soil in which Trumpism grew.

Understanding systemic racism does take some basic education and consciousness, but the historical erasure is so thorough that even flagrant examples of ethnic cleansing have been wiped from memory. When Trump visited Tulsa this past June, the 1921 pogrom that killed up to 300 African-Americans was a significant story. But even in this supposed moment of racial reckoning, few mainstream media described it as a pogrom, which it was. The media portrayed it as mob violence, downplaying the complicity of white society and the state: how newspapers in Tulsa fanned the racist flames, the arming and deputizing of whites who went on to murder and rampage, cutting rail and phone service to Black neighborhoods, national guard joining in the terror, evidence that U.S. Army or oil company airplanes bombed the Black population, mass graves, imprisoning survivors in concentration camps, the lack of prosecutions, accountability, and reparations up to this day. Trump’s visit was also the perfect opportunity to talk about the “Red Summer” of 1919, and the racist massacres aided and abetted by the white power structure in Chicago, in St Louis, in Nashville, and many more towns and cities. But there was little coverage of this.

These are horrific moments that shaped this country, but the history is virtually unknown. I never learned about sundown towns in school and only in a graduate-level U.S. history course did I learn a bit about the late 19th century massacres and ethnic cleansing. This amnesia extends to the present. There have been surveys in which Americans think that 100,000 Vietnamese died as a result of the American War. In reality between 2 and 3 million were killed. Same with Iraq. A few years into the war, one media outlet found Americans believed 10,000 Iraqis had died, about twice as many Americans that had died by that point. However, the 2006 Lancet study put excess deaths from the war at 655,000. There is a curious tendency among Americans to believe we only kill twice as many of our “enemy” as Americans die in any given war. It’s an absurd idea, a product of Hollywood racism. It portrays the other both as superhuman, who with crude bombs and guns can nearly fight Americans to a standstill outfitted with tanks, guided missiles, and aircraft carriers, and less than human: we make no effort as a society to recognize the suffering we inflict, that we kill 100, 200, 300 Iraqis and Vietnamese for every American that loses their life. It would be as if Germans believed 200,000 died in the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews and not 6 million.

While this ignorance pervades American society, Republicans have made it central to their appeal. Since Barry Goldwater the GOP has been a racist death cult. Nixon embraced it from “benign neglect” of Black suffering at home to covert wars from Chile to Cambodia. Reaganism was a death cult, punishing the poor and covert wars from Central America to Southern Africa. Reagan made homelessness a systemic problem by gutting social welfare, public housing, and deindustrialization. It was the most visible element of Reagan’s war on African-Americans that saw their life expectancy decline during his presidency, according to CDC data. That’s extraordinary. Generally, a decline in life expectancy in an industrialized society only happens during total war. That’s not to excuse Democratic presidents like Clinton and Obama, but the bloodlust for death and destruction of the other defines the Republican Party.

Then we come to Trumpism. Trump ran as an ethno-nationalist. He began his campaign with a primal scream of racism: Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. Over time he has become fascistic. His speech at Mount Rushmore the day before July Fourth was straight-up “white genocide” conspiracy theory: He said, “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.” and “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” This is a blatant fascistic appeal. He is in effect saying savage dark hordes are coming to wipe out white society, history, and even their children. This is nearly the same as the “14 words” white supremacist slogan. I don’t think anyone in the mainstream media noticed, which points to how historical amnesia pervades the news media.

One final thought on the historical background. In some societies it appears ethnic cleansing becomes state policy when the population of a persecuted minority approaches 15%. In Israel, its wars and ethnic cleansing tend to coincide with when the Arab population gets above 15%. In India, the rise of the BJP, the ruling Hindu fascists, happens as the Muslim population of India went from 12% in 1990 to 14% twenty years later. In the United States, the ethnic cleansing around WW1 happened when the immigrant population percentage hit a historic peak of 14%. Well, in 2016, close to 14% of the American population was foreign born. That’s why I thought Trump would institute ethnic cleansing. It’s a combination of his extreme rhetoric, his plans to slash immigration, and parallels with violent nativism a century ago. Sure enough, Trump has gotten a Muslim ban, a refugee ban, concentration camps for immigrants, and a complete shutdown of immigration. These are all extreme forms of ethno-nationalism. Even the mainstream media is increasingly describing Trump as a racist and his following as a death cult. But once more they are years behind what is happening. They don’t understand that Trump is full-on fascist and his base is a suicide cult with the “open-up” rallies and the cultish insanity that mask-wearing is a globalist, Communist plot.

Q: And yet, you see a curious streak of rationality in Trump’s response don’t you?

AG: Trump is an idiot and a genius at the same time. You have to be a profound moron to suggest injecting disinfectants into the lungs such as bleach. But he has a genius for psychological and media manipulation. Doug Henwood’s description of Trump as a “viciously talented psychological terrorist” is quite accurate.

There is a great article in Bloomberg about Trump’s approach to the covid crisis. They apply game theory, explaining why it’s “highly rational.” Quoting from the article: “The concept is that if you’re behind in a game—say, a presidential campaign—big, bold moves can make sense, even if there’s only a small chance they will pay off. If someone does stumble on a miracle cure for Covid-19, or the national economy somehow gets going by Election Day, then both Trump and the American people win. If the gambles fail, he’s no worse off because he was probably going to lose the election anyway.” Of course, the strategy only makes sense for people who do not give a damn about the loss of lives and livelihoods—an apt description of Trump. You can already see the declining support for Trump among older voters. He’s botched the pandemic response. Closing the economy again will cost him the election, so his gamble is to reopen the economy, shift to culture wars, and then hope dirty tricks and sabotaging voting can deliver him another term. And it is very rational if extremely cruel and sadistic.

Take another example: Trump’s refusal to wear a mask. I know medical doctors who are shocked Trump won’t wear a mask. But they are liberals. They don’t understand the fascistic psychology of his appeal. He won’t wear a mask because it is emasculating. It’s all about power, masculinity, dominance and aggression. We see that with his followers who get belligerent and even violent over what should be a no-brainer public health issue.

His strategy will undoubtedly kill off part of his base. We’re at 130,000 deaths as of early July, which is likely a big under-count. Given the trajectory, add in undercount of Covid-19 deaths, and other excess deaths, the United States will probably hit 300,000 killed before the end of the year. But he doesn’t care, and neither do most of his followers.

I know people who say that the large-scale loss of life will compel Trump to change. That again gets the psycho-social appeal of Trumpism wrong. The deaths affirm his ideology, affirm the strength of the Trumpists. If you get sick and die, it’s because you were weak. You don’t deserve to be part of the master race. The dead bolster their attitude that their race, their ideology, their culture, masculinity, virility gives them power.

Q: Talk about the racial impact of covid and how it led to the current uprising against police brutality.

AG: I initially thought that the uprising would last a few days and die down because we have seen so many of these awful police killings before on video. Yet here we are well into the second month. In hindsight, it’s always possible to put a narrative together. Historian Greg Gandin argues that when US imperialism retreats from the rest of the world, it focuses on Latin America. With Trump, who is clearly an imperialist, he has taken it a step further. The main enemy is at home. Even before he was elected his strategy was to bring the “War on Terror” home. He would use the same methods of terrorizing segments of the population, stoking sectarian conflict, unleashing state violence and persecution as the U.S. occupation did in Iraq. His initial focus was on Muslims and immigrants.

Now it’s African-Americans, but Trump can’t be as outright racist because of their numbers, 41 million, and centrality to American history and politics. Trump only took coronavirus seriously in March when celebrities were stricken and his real-estate buddy died from it.

But then it became clear that coronavirus disproportionately affects African Americans. Adam Serwer, makes this insight in The Atlantic: “That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.” The mortality rate among Blacks is 2.4 times that of whites per capita. Young African Americans are seeing their elders die. Their parents, aunts and uncles, are much more likely to have essential jobs such as in trucking, mass transit, food production, retail, in a warehouse, and hence are at higher risk. About 40% of African American workers have been laid off or furloughed. Working-class African American youth, whose schools are mediocre, not bad, but not as good as upper-income white schools, are now stuck at home. There is no way they are getting the quality of education they were in person. These kids are less likely to have computers at home for learning online, less likely to have wifi, less likely to have a quiet space to learn and study. Then there is so-called food insecurity, i.e. hunger, which has skyrocketed. I have talked to people whose relatives say they and their kids have one meal a day. Can you imagine what that does to you psychologically, physiologically, emotionally? One third of Black children may be food insecure as a result of the pandemic.

When you add all that up together, it’s a pressure cooker situation. Trump’s 2016 line “what do you have to lose” to African-Americans was based on a racist caricature that they live in a hellish landscape. But he’s made it come true through his response to the pandemic. George Floyd’s murder was a matchstick thrown into a tinderbox. It provided a focal point for everything that is wrong with America.

Q: Talk about the characteristics of the uprising.

AG: Foremost, it’s an overwhelmingly popular, Black-led movement. Up to this point Black Lives Matter leaders have generally been middle-class, college educated. It means the politics are shaped by those young African Americans who have the social and cultural capital, the language, the space to articulate and hold a critique. There is nothing wrong with that, but where are the Malcolm X, Huey Newton, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis of today? Where are the new leaders who come from and represent the working class, the working poor, the criminalized? It is not being led by the lumpenproletariat, even though in the days after George Floyd’s death we saw the lumpenproletariat on the frontlines of the protests, as we saw in Ferguson in 2014 and Baltimore in 2015. I visited the Capital Hill Organized Protest in Seattle days before the police forced it out. Everyone, Black and white, were saying “follow Black leadership.” But no one could say what that meant. The CHOP drew in African-Americans who had never been involved in politics, including a lot from the working class. But it was riven with divisions around gender, between militants and those in non-profits, between new activists and seasoned organizers. There were also Black gangs on the fringes that many people in the CHOP claimed were responsible for violence that left two dead. The Black Panthers spoke to gang members and gave them a political outlet. We have yet to see that. The CHOP was a microcosm of the different interests, segments, and politics within the Black community, and slogans such as “follow Black leadership” can’t paper over that.

In New York, where I am from, the centers of unrest are Bronx and Brooklyn, both of which have huge African American communities and Afro-Caribbean communities. It has drawn in youth of color more broadly. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t tensions. There are reports of some tensions between Latinx communities and BLM activists in other cities. I think these tensions are probably minor, but not one that can be ignored. If you don’t take it head on, it gets hard to build cross-racial solidarity.

There’s also lots of white youth, whether marching, providing support, or involved in antifascist organizing. In Minneapolis, there was copaganda right away from Democratic politicians that protesters included outsiders, white nationalists, drug cartels and foreign elements. This sort of copaganda is pushed not only by the right wing, but also by neoliberal politicians who have been an utter failure — including a lot of Black politicians. Newer Black political leaders did not come out of the civil rights movement, so they acquired social power by doing the bidding of big business, real estate, and the police. There are a lot of problems with the trope of “outside agitators,” one of which is those who don’t want to admit that maybe they don’t speak for Black youth using more confrontational and even selfish tactics like looting, for instance. One of the most absurd claims I heard was that covert teams of white nationalists are “shooting people and burning POC businesses”. While white nationalists have been coming out to protests and committing violence and threatening, there is absolutely no hard evidence that they are engaging in some sort of guerrilla warfare, which would be extraordinary.

Blaming violence directed at BLM on covert operatives deflects from the overt violence by cops who are organized, have state sanction, and include plenty of white nationalists. Outside of that, white nationalists are pretty stupid and not very good at covert operations. Instead, they come out openly. We can break down white nationalist presence which is considerable into some categories:

Lone-wolf attacks: There have been scores of these, such as the guy in San Diego aiming a bow and arrow at protesters or the guy in Texas threatening others with a chainsaw. Interestingly, a number of the aggressors are Trump supporters, including a bar owner in Nebraska who killed an African American man, the Trump supporter who was an alternate delegate to the 2016 RNC and shot a man in Albuquerque, and the truck driver in Minneapolis who sped towards thousands of protestors.

Terrorist plots: There was a foiled plot in Nevada by three men affiliated with the far-right “boogaloo” movement that planned to use the BLM protests to engage in bombings and arson. The boogaloo boys, as some call themselves, are eager to set off a second civil war and have been involved in other recent attacks, such as the recent killing of two police in California.

Open displays of intimidation: In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a town that’s 93% white, packs of heavily armed men prowled downtown after social media rumors of an antifa invasion.  In rural Oregon where there’s been more than 60 BLM actions, “virtually all … encountered backlash from armed groups.” There seems to be a rule in America the whiter the area, the more paranoid, conspiratorial and violent it is. White-nationalist militias such as the Three Percenters claim they are protecting businesses, as in Idaho, Oklahoma, and New Mexico But they are showing up not to protect businesses, but because they are eager to kill people, Black, brown leftists.

There is significant extrajudicial violence like this. The police will ignore or even abet it on an episodic basis. But the belief among many leftists that there is systematic collaboration between police and militias is wildly misinformed. The police love their monopoly on violence and are not going to allow the militias to supplant them.

Q: Let’s talk about the coming presidential elections. We’ve seen a few articles about how the elections might be canceled by Trump. Your thoughts?

AG: Let’s look at the big picture first. I found 2018 midterms weirdly comforting. Trump made it a referendum on himself, trying to make it all about the caravan of Central American refugees and “invasion.” Trump inspired the MAGA bomber who mailed bombs to Democratic politicians and media critics of Trump. There was the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on the eve of the election, inspired by Trump’s rhetoric. And Trump was trounced despite trying to whip up racist fears.

So while Trump is an astonishingly successful demagogue, it’s important not to overstate his power. He creates chaos because he is adept at spinning the shitshow into political gold. But he is losing his ability to manipulate the levers of power, history has careened out of his control. His responses to the pandemic are outlandish, outrageous, and desperate: quack cures, pretend it doesn’t exist, and culture wars. His attempt to fabricate an Obamagate scandal flopped. His latest ploy is to go full white nationalist in response to the George Floyd uprising, which has wide support. It’s another one of his low-chance, high-payout gambles. If he was going to cancel the elections, then he would not be trying all these other gambits. But that does not mean he won’t try to stoke a massive crisis, make voting a mess, particularly mail-in vote, welcome attacks from outside forces, such as with a cyberattack, or refuse to recognize a loss or leave office. He will stop at nothing to rig, steal, or nullify the election, so we shouldn’t let our guard down.

That makes me cautiously optimistic about a Biden victory. Mass death, economic devastation, and the uprising against police might prove Trump’s undoing. You can open things up all you want, but even if 30% of the population stays at home, basically boomers and older, you cannot revive the economy. And now states are closing down, even in Trump country like Texas, just as medical experts warned would happen from premature openings. This is an even worse blow to the economy because it deepens the uncertainty of venturing out and spending money. Even among his followers who have drank the Kool-Aid, they will find it hard to ignore the pandemic when their parents and grand-parents are dying. That said, there’s 5 months until the election. It might as well be 50 years, that’s how much things could change.

Even if Trump is forced out, it doesn’t end with him. Trump has more than 40% support as he presides over a depression, a massive death toll, and stokes violent white nationalism. His brownshirts, FOX News, and racist conspiracism are not going away. Defeating Trump does little to address the underlying social and economic issues that have fueled extremism for decades. If Biden wins, the far-right backlash and violence will begin before he enters office. So it is crucial to be prepared for that, and organize to counter that and go on the offensive.

Q: What do you think of the prospects of Trump refusing to concede defeat in case he does lose the election? How should we prepare for it?

AG: We cannot ignore the possibility. Trump might hang on if he loses. Preparing for it would require millions of us to be out on the streets. We would need to shutdown Washington, D.C.

I see people suggesting the military intervene if Trump won’t concede. A coup would likely be worse than a second Trump presidency, however. Look at Chile, Egypt, or Pakistan. Coup regimes tend to last for decades, they warp society, and are horrific. If Trump does steal the election, then we need to oust him with a mass rebellion — general strikes, blockades, complete disruption of the economy — to force him from office. There is no substitute or shortcut for people power.

Raghav Kaushik is an activist based in Seattle. His recent engagements have been with the Tax Amazon campaign in Seattle, and the fight against the authoritarian Modi regime in India, specifically the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens.