Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
“An incorrect power analysis can lead people who want to end capitalism to think that small numbers of demonstrators occupying public spaces like parks and squares and tweeting about it will generate enough power to bring down Wall Street.”
― Jane F. McAlevey
Winning is the primary task of any political organizing effort. Generally speaking, in order to win, people must change the power dynamic between elites and the rest of us. Right now, ordinary people have very little actual power, but plenty of potential power. Elites hold institutional power, but their power is unstable, based on coercion, and requires our cooperation and participation.
Questions concerning tactics should always be tied to strategy. And strategy should always be tied to vision. First, vision. Second, strategy. Third, tactics. Many leftwing movements throughout the past two decades (antiwar, environmental, Occupy, BLM) started with tactics, then moved to strategy, and still lack a coherent vision. Movements today are making the same mistake.
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Eight weeks ago, mass uprisings exploded across the U.S. They were organic and fueled by righteous anger. Stores were looted. Police stations burnt to the ground. Most importantly, the uprisings included millions of people who don’t self-identify as organizers, activists, or radicals.
Today, the protests have largely died down, except for Portland and a few smaller scale actions taking place throughout the U.S. The goal, however, should be to increase participation. Without a broader political vision, which has yet to be articulated in any coherent or collective manner (here, I don’t solely blame BLM–this has been a fundamental problem with most left mobilizing efforts over the past 25 years), any future actions will have limited success.
This is already the case as many towns, cities, and states have stopped talking about how to reform police departments, and instead have switched their focus to mitigating the pandemic. To be clear, calls to ‘defund’ or ‘abolish’ the police is not a vision. It may be part of a broader political vision, but it’s definitely not an all-encompassing vision, or one that addresses the many challenges ordinary people face.
Obviously, the current rebellions are not strong enough to seize, take, or create alternative forms of power, and even if they were, what the hell would we do with our newfound power? I guess this gets back to the question: does the left actually want power? Not the power to impose dictate and rule over the people, but the power to democratically make decisions? Some of my friends on the left have openly said, “I like being on the outside, agitating and causing problems.” But “agitating” and “causing problems” isn’t revolutionary, at least not in my view. If what we seek is revolution, it seems clear to me that we need a vision for what a new society could or should look like.
The current wave of protests includes democratic socialists, indigenous groups, communists, anarchists, non-affiliated leftists, first time protesters (including many teenagers), progressives, even some liberals. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone in the streets should identify as one politically and ideologically homogeneous group, but there’s not even broad agreement on fundamental questions concerning the state, economy, ecology, or democracy.
On a small scale, the people currently marching in the streets have yet to articulate what, exactly, ‘defunding the police’ looks like, or what, exactly, the funds redirected from the police should go towards (and that’s assuming we could mount campaigns powerful and strategic enough to make sure defunding occurs), let alone what the movement would do if it actually had the power to collectively make decisions and reshape society.
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Take Chicago, for instance, a city that’s 30% black (also the most segregated city in the nation). Not one reform has been announced in the third largest city in the U.S., a city plagued for over a century by corrupt policing (one of the most corrupt police departments in history). Yet, the left gathers 1,000 people for a rally at the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park to intentionally engage in skirmishes with the police (eventually, the city took down the statue). Yes, take down the statues, but let’s not confuse political theater and symbolic actions for political vision and strategic purpose.
Filmmaker, organizer, former marine, and native Ukrainian, Sergio Kochergin puts it well:
This is the 4th time in my life that I see statues being toppled. The first time it was during the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the statues were toppled, these countries were raped economically, socially and culturally by the neoliberal system. The inability of close-knit communities to organize and develop a vision for a new society turned into another exploitative playground for the elites. The second time was In 2003, when I personally saw statues of Saddam Hussein toppled in Iraq. The country was thrown into a civil war (U.S. and U.K. imposed genocide), resources were privatized, masses imprisoned, abused, and exploited. The country is still recovering from decades of war and a caliphate created by the U.S.-U.K. invasion. Elites in Iraq have made out like bandits, enjoying billions of dollars worth of contracts and extracted oil revenues, while the people of Iraq suffer and protest in the streets, demanding security, food, healthcare and peace. In 2015, I saw statues being toppled after the popular uprisings in Ukraine. The movements on the ground did not have a collective vision. As a result, the country completely opened its doors to more capitalist predators, putting up 60% of all agricultural land for sale to the highest bidder, unleashing an onslaught of murders and attacks on small-scale farmers. Also, the passing of the E.U. visa mandate, replacing low-skilled workers in E.U. countries who migrated west to England, Netherlands, and Germany with high-skilled Ukrainians performing low-wage, low-skill jobs in countries like Poland, Czech Republic, etc. And finally, In 2020, in the U.S. people are toppling statues while the economy slumps into a dark hole, unemployment benefits are running out, people are getting evicted, and we are still waging wars around the world. With a continuous assault on our educational system most people don’t know our history anyhow, so whether statues stand or fall, those who don’t know the history are likely to repeat it. And without a vision, what are we doing? I am not bashing the toppling of the statues or trying to ignore the violent history these statues might entail. I am critiquing the lack of understanding about the most important issues we are facing: capitalism, low wages, lack of healthcare, lack of affordable housing, climate change, and militarism. Our lack of vision creates a lack of participation. Creating truly revolutionary movements requires dedication and discipline. Romanticizing violence and disorder is an easy way out.
Toppling statues and engaging in street skirmishes with the police may give the impression of a radical political movement, but such actions are nothing more than a sort of revolutionary simulacra. Turning our actions into truly revolutionary acts requires behind the scenes work–the sort of work that’s not sexy: one-on-one conversations, meetings, reading, studying, planning, strategizing, and the like. Our most effective weapons are not our bats, shields, or fireworks, but our collective organizations and institutions. Once the skirmishes are over, will people continue to organize? That’s always the question.
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Meanwhile, the night prior to the action in Grant Park, fifteen people were shot in the Gresham neighborhood following a funeral for a man who was killed by gun violence.
Of the fifteen, ten were women, with one 65 year old woman critically injured. All the victims were black. Without doubt, tragedies like this drive down support for ideas like ‘defunding’ or ‘abolishing’ the police (it should be noted that two patrol cars were at the funeral home when the shooting took place). While most Chicagoans don’t want the Department of Homeland Security patrolling their streets, they’re also tired of the neighborhood violence and shootings.
Indeed, many of the same activists fighting against police violence are also the same people organizing against neighborhood violence, something the corporate media conveniently leaves out of their nightly news stories.
Most importantly, Chicagoans don’t believe that defunding or abolishing the police will solve problems such as systemic racism, poverty, or the many ills of Neoliberal Capitalism. The 2020 police budget in Chicago is $1.6 billion. That may sound like a lot of money, but what it amounts to is a measly $600 per city resident. In order to genuinely meet the needs of poor and working class Americans, to get at the root cause of neighborhood violence, we must end the War on Drugs, levy heavy taxes on the rich, corporations, and financial transactions, break up, then nationalize the banks, and radically slash the Pentagon’s budget.
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Here, in Michigan City, Indiana, a town of 30,000 people, we’ve had 2-3 shootings every week since the beginning of summer: a fifteen-year-old killed at a house party; a sixteen-year-old shot at the beach; and a twenty-year-old shot while driving down the highway (his vehicle eventually crashed into a local business; people live-streamed the whole thing on Facebook). We’ve had twice as many shootings this year as we had last year during the same period.
Most of the black people that we know in the city are now holding events and rallies to figure out what the hell they’re going to do about neighborhood violence, as opposed to police violence (a tragic turn of events). In some ways, the tides have fundamentally shifted. I’m assuming that’s also the case in other Rust Belt towns and cities across the U.S. where street violence remains the primary public health concern.
Many black people in Michigan City are, in fact, calling for more police to patrol the streets. They’re scared for their children. They’re desperate, angry, and tired. At the same time, some residents are trying to figure out a combination of alternatives: social programs, community policing, after school and youth programs, and various other alternatives have been proposed.
The problem, of course, is that the organizational infrastructure doesn’t exist to implement these reforms, which is why people look for easy answers (such as more police). When people don’t see viable alternatives, they’re willing to settle for a miserable system instead of betting on a new (potentially more miserable) system.
For those of us living in places like Michigan City, Gary, Hammond, and similar small Rust Belt cities, we’re in a serious bind. Without doubt, people are more critical of policing than ever before, but on the other hand, people are scared of the street gangs and neighborhood violence (I call it neighborhood violence because most of these cats aren’t even crewed up–they’re just shooting it out at house parties, acting wild as hell in public, without affiliation or material interests).
Basically, without major federal government programs, we’re fucked. Indiana is a trifecta Republican controlled state with all sorts of preemptive laws, which means we can’t do much at the municipal level. And even if we could, there’s not enough money in the municipal, county, or state coffers to properly deal with the issues we face.
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Public opinion concerning the police is changing, but mostly in the direction of minor reforms. Gallup recently released a wide-ranging poll of 36,000 participants who were asked various questions about policing reforms. Below are their responses:
Requiring Officers to have good relations with the community: This idea meets with little controversy, as almost all Americans (97%) support it overall, including 77% who strongly support it. Black Americans are somewhat more likely to strongly support this requirement, at 83%, than are White (76%) or Hispanic Americans (77%).
Changing management practices so officer abuses are punished: Ninety-six percent of Americans support changing management practices so officer abuses are punished, with 76% saying they strongly support the idea. Nine in 10 Black Americans (91%) strongly support such a change, versus eight in 10 Hispanic Americans (80%) and just over seven in 10 White Americans (72%).
Promoting community-based alternatives such as violence intervention: Eighty-two percent of Americans overall support a greater role for community organizations, with 50% saying they strongly support it. Most likely to strongly support the idea are Black Americans (73%), Democrats (75%) and adults aged 18 to 34 (65%).
Abolishing police departments: For most Americans, the idea of abolishing the police goes too far: 15% overall say they support it, with Black Americans (22%) and Hispanic Americans (20%) somewhat more likely than White Americans (12%) to do so. Almost no Republicans (1%) support the idea, versus 27% of Democrats and 12% of independents. However, there is also a sharp distinction between younger and older adults on this question; one-third of those younger than 35 (33%) support the idea, compared with 16% of those aged 35 to 49 and 4% of those aged 50 and older.
Ending ‘Stop and Frisk’: Overall, 74% of Americans support the idea of ending stop-and-frisk policing altogether, with 58% saying they strongly support it. Though Black Americans are most likely to strongly or somewhat support ending stop and frisk at 93%, strong majorities of Hispanic (76%) and White Americans (70%) do as well. However, there is a much larger partisan divide; 94% of Democrats versus 44% of Republicans support ending the practice, with independents in between at 76%.
Eliminating police unions: A majority of Americans, 56%, support eliminating police unions, with results relatively consistent among Black (61%), Hispanic (56%) and White (55%) adults. Despite much higher approval of labor unions in general among Democrats than Republicans, Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to favor eliminating police unions (62% vs. 45%, respectively). Political independents fall closer to Democrats, at 57%.
Eliminating officer enforcement of nonviolent crimes: Half of Americans overall (50%) strongly or somewhat support this idea, including majorities of Black (72%) and Hispanic (55%) Americans, compared with 44% of White Americans. As with ending stop and frisk, there is also a huge partisan divide on this proposal; three-fourths of Democrats (75%) and about half of independents (49%) support the idea, but 16% of Republicans do.
Reducing police department funding and shifting the money to social programs: Overall, 47% say they support reducing police department budgets and shifting the money to social programs, including 28% who strongly support it. However, 70% of Black Americans strongly or somewhat support reducing police department budgets, versus 49% of Hispanic Americans and 41% of White Americans. Moreover, the partisan divide is wider for this idea than for any other police reform proposal: 5% of Republicans support it, compared with 78% of Democrats and 46% of independents.
The two demands most associated with the current wave of protests, namely, calls to ‘Defund the Police’ and/or ‘Abolish the Police,’ receive the smallest amount of support among those polled, though support for ‘Defunding the Police’ (47%) is much greater than public support for ‘Abolishing the Police’ (15%). In some cities and towns, defunding the police may be a viable option, but the impact of that victory will be short-lived because the funds gained from defunding the police will never be enough to meet the needs of the people.
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The current wave of protests will enjoy a very short shelf life if we’re unable to gain the support of large numbers of poor and working class whites, Latinos, Hispanics, and Muslims. Here, I’m thinking of the original Rainbow Coalition, which included the Black Panthers, Young Lords (Latino, largely Puerto Rican organization), and the Young Patriots (poor and working class whites), who found common ground (housing, poverty, war), while recognizing important differences.
Fortunately, to some degree, the protests have a sort of baked-in ‘Rainbow Coalition’ quality to them (thanks to previous movements): young white, Latino, Asian, Muslim, and Hispanic people fill the streets alongside young black people. It’s been a remarkable two months. Yes, mistakes have been made, but that’s always the case. We’re here. Now what?
It seems clear to me that the next step is to broaden our demands to include issues like Universal Basic Income (UBI), Medicare For All (M4A), student debt forgiveness, extending the $600 per month Unemployment Insurance benefit, expanding the moratorium on evictions, and protecting and expanding workers’ rights. These issues have the ability to bring millions of ordinary people into the mix.
Speaking anecdotally, I will say that I know many people who sympathize with the BLM protests, but who are too busy with children, work, family, and generally coping with the pandemic to join them. They would, however, join a nationwide protest movement that simultaneously demanded police reforms and social democratic reforms. Basically, Bernie’s platform, but with much more emphasis and a clearer (better) vision on racial justice, militarization, and ecological devastation. Such a platform would have the support of tens of millions of Americans who would see their primary concerns (housing, rent, bills, medical care, education) addressed, while also understanding how those concerns are connected to systemic racism and police violence.
Even if the people I know were able to join the movement, where would they go? Locally, in places like Northwest Indiana, leftwing political organizations simply don’t exist. I’m assuming that’s the case in many small cities, suburban, and rural areas. Yes, a few left organizations exist, but they’re small, insular, and culturally isolated from the public. Some of them periodically mobilize, but their efforts are mostly uncoordinated and lack support from ordinary people (people who don’t self-identify as leftists/radicals/progressives). Actual deep-organizing efforts are non-existent. At best, momentary mobilization.
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One of the groups who is doing the work of bringing ordinary people into the mix is Organized & United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC). They’re showing that left political organizations can both mobilize (OURMC held a BLM solidarity rally with over 700 people no less than two months ago) and organize ordinary people (OURMC is currently organizing tenants in Michigan City). When the pandemic started, OURMC immediately set up a city-wide mutual aid network.
OURMC doesn’t claim to have the answers, but it does understand that successful (or potentially successful) organizations should be able to do multiple things at once: mobilize in solidarity with national and international campaigns and movements; support local, state, and federal electoral efforts that align with its core values and bring ordinary people into the mix; adapt to changing political, economic, and cultural conditions (strategically, tactically, and ideologically); and create alternative cultural outlets (virtually impossible during a pandemic) that help build community.
Building multiracial organizations and coalitions is absolutely essential to winning. Any action, strategy, or vision that doesn’t include a multiracial and internationalist component doesn’t deserve the light of day. And any action, strategy, or vision that drives down the opportunity to build such a movement should be critiqued and questioned.
If the current wave of protests devolves into symbolic protests or a series of street skirmishes with police and rightwing agitators, we run the risk of eroding public support and driving down participation. I know many people on the left don’t want to hear that, or they may disagree, but it’s the truth (the polls don’t lie, which is why the powerful pay so close attention to them).
The current wave of protests must articulate winnable demands with regard to policing (which will vary greatly depending on geographical location/political context) while simultaneously articulating demands that meet the primary material needs of poor and working class people (wages, housing, debt). In order to do both, our movement needs vision. In order to develop vision, movements need organization and discipline. If we don’t do all the above, I’m afraid we’ll miss a great opportunity to make fundamental changes at a critical moment in history.