State Repression of Social Movements

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Growing up in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina I heard all about the infamous 1979 massacre. My parents and teachers lacerated the adventurist Communist Workers Party/Workers Viewpoint Organization (CWP/WVO) for courting death through increasingly aggressive rhetoric against the Ku Klux Klan. Family friends who were there on the day emphasized the complicity of law enforcement in facilitating the murders.

CWP/WVO’s Greensboro chapter consisted mainly of white middle class professionals who’d decided on committing ‘class suicide’ otherwise known as ‘proletarianization’. The Greensboro chapter contrasted with the majority Asian membership at the national level including the leadership of Jerry Tung. CWP/WVO merged with the all-Black Revolutionary Workers League, the largest Black marxist organization in the history of the U.S., who brought in needed organizing skills. Members lived collectively and operated on the turn-to-industry strategy taken up by many in the New Communist Movement. Their organizing target was the textile industry which had migrated south for a cheaper labor market.

Plants where CWP/WVO salts got jobs were already unionized but lacked internal organization. Salts built relationships with the workers and found racial disparities in how managers gave out assignments. Black workers were routinely given the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs. By organizing Black and white workers together for health and safety improvements overall, salts at one plant were able to move a strike.

Plant bosses close to the Klan targeted salts for termination making it more difficult to effectively lead workers on strike, and ultimately workers went back in without having won their core demands. CWP/WVO had already shifted by then to focus on countering the Klan.

A new local coalition made up of Klansmen and neo-nazis dubbed itself the United Racist Front (URF). One of their stated goals was to crush CWP/WVO. URF was thoroughly infiltrated by Greensboro police informants as well as FBI and ATF agents who knew of plans to kill specific CWP/WVO members, namely those leading organizing efforts at local textile mills. The two organizations confronted each other at raucous rallies where both came armed. CWP/WVO unveiled its new guiding slogan: “death to the Klan.”

On the morning of November 3rd, 1979, CWP/WVO members, their families, and community supporters gathered singing in a circle on the lawn of a housing project preparing to march under the new slogan. Police and FBI agents were stationed up and down the street. As demonstrators sang and chanted, a long car caravan of URF members pulled up.

“You wanted the Klan, you got em” a news camera recorded one URF member saying. Taunts and blows were exchanged before George Dorsett, an FBI agent, stopped his car at the head of the caravan, pointed a pistol out his driver’s side window, and fired once in the air. URF members took the signal. They calmly exited their vehicles, walked to their trunks, and withdrew guns. When the shooting was over, five CWP/WVO members were dead, and several others wounded. All URF members charged with the murders were acquitted twice, both times by all-white juries.

As a teenager this story led me toward anarchism. I viewed the state, particularly the repressive apparatus, as the absolute enemy of the masses. I got involved with a coalition of anarchists, faith leaders, and community groups which included the Greensboro Black-Brown Unity Coalition, led in-part by former CWP/WVO members, one of whom had lost her husband in the massacre.

The coalition included the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (ALKQN), formerly the Latin Kings, who put forward a bold new vision for their organization. They became a political force, organizing local gangs together into a peace treaty alliance they referred to as the Paradigm Shift, running for city council, and participating in calls for police reform.

The nascent coalition organized a caravan of their own up to Washington D.C. where ALKQN, NAACP, NOI and other organizations presented a formal civil rights complaint to the Department of Justice detailing abuses by Greensboro Police, including internal surveillance of Black officers. Three months later, federal agents kicked in the doors of leading ALKQN members early on a cold December morning and dragged their families outside after using flashbangs and wielding assault rifles.

The thirteen ALKQN members arrested were charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), essentially a prosecutor playbook for going after criminal enterprises like the mob. Jorge Cornell, one of those charged, pointed out “if we’re a criminal enterprise, then we’re the poorest criminal enterprise there’s ever been.” Even those critical of the ALKQN understood this to be a politically motivated attack, though some white progressives were uneasy. The parallels were not lost on surviving former CWP/WVO members who took on leadership roles in the ALKQN Legal Defense Coalition.

My role was small. I took kids to softball practice whose parents were now locked up. I sat in court hearings and took rigorous notes. I visited our ALKQN comrades in jail. Ultimately, I saw good people found guilty of a crime they didn’t commit and sentenced to decades in prison.

I was seventeen by the time the yearlong ordeal reached its tragic conclusion. The experience hardened my anarchism. In 2012 I drove down in a smaller caravan to Atlanta for a “fuck the police march” organized by a contingent of ‘insurrectionary anarchists’. Halfway through the march, police attacked. I saw a person carrying the lead banner take a punch to the jaw before entering into a scuffle with the cops.

Before I knew what was happening, I received a kick to the chest that knocked me from the middle of the street onto the sidewalk. When I looked up, I saw one of the marchers being choked out by a cop, so I ran over and tried to intervene. From there I was tackled to the ground and my head slammed into the asphalt. I spent the night in jail with one of those arrested and was given a sentence of community service. During our time in holding, my newfound comrades and I debated the cops on the merits of what we were doing which obviously came to no avail, but that night further solidified my commitment to anarchism.

I had read some Marx and disagreed with many Atlanta and Greensboro comrades that he was an “authoritarian”, but I lacked clarity on state power. Marx advocated the seizure of the state by the vast majority, ushering in an era of true democracy—majority rule. By controlling the repressive apparatus of the state, the masses are able to fend off counter-revolution. This is not hypothetical. It has happened before in the United States.

As we know, the state is not a monolith. It consists of factions and blocs of classes each vying for power. This struggle goes on in every state apparatus—governing, repressive, administrative, and ideological. The Right understands this as evidenced by the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. MAGA forces plan to “dismantle the administrative state” and secure their apparatchiks in key positions throughout.

Many on the Left view the repressive apparatus only as an enemy rather than as a site of struggle. Understandably. The military has historically been a tool of imperialism abroad and for crushing domestic dissent. But military personnel themselves are public sector workers with a long history of organized resistance. The military has also been decisive in enforcing mass movement demands during this country’s two most progressive periods.

After crushing the Confederate States of America, Union troops enforced martial law over and against the will of southern planter elites. This was done to the extent formerly enslaved Black and poor white workers briefly shared an economic interest with northern capitalists in overthrowing the rule of enslavers in the U.S. south. In that brief time, backed by the military, southern workers replaced the planter aristocracy as executor of the state.

Reconstruction had been underway six years when Parisian workers rose up and took power in that city, declaring themselves The Commune. After a bloody defeat in an ill-conceived war with Prussia, the French national guard, bitter toward the bourgeoisie, offered armed support to the rising workers. When the new French government, temporarily based in Versailles, came in force two months later, national guard troops fought to the death alongside the Parisian proletariat. The resulting massacre has been underplayed in most establishment histories of that period.

Imperial Russian military officers during the first World War frequently mistreated regular soldiers from working class and peasant backgrounds, sending them to pointless death in “no man’s land,” and depriving them of basic necessities. Soldiers became increasingly disillusioned, and their resentment grew into anti-Tsarist sentiment. After years of careful organizing, soldiers became essential to Russia’s successful mass movement against Tsarist autocracy.

Where the Russian movement succeeded was in winning over entire regiments of the military, even those scattered across the Eastern Front, as well as civil society. Winning over at least some part of the military for holding key urban centers, as the Parisian workers showed, is necessary but not sufficient for winning state power. Advanced forces in Russia recruited the Tsar’s military out from under him, leaving the regime without the means for a comprehensive crackdown. By the time St Petersburg women walked off the job in February 1917, the uprising was set to spread throughout the Russian Empire.

These abridged examples point to patterns we can draw on. Workers in Paris achieved temporary state power as an isolated outpost but never gained national cross-class hegemony. Any support they might have had among the backward French elite and petty bourgeoise was nowhere near strong enough to vie for governing power with the government of the burgeoning Third Republic.

Conversely in Russia, revolutionary sentiment was present in all classes of society. Cadre built relationships among the middle-class intelligentsia from which many of them came, rich liberals, and even sympathetic military officers, creating a mass cross-class support for overthrowing the Tsar. Leaders of the Russian movement accomplished their revolution by organizing a critical mass of the forces that would’ve otherwise opposed them.

State power can be won with little to no use of arms and final success still hinges on winning military support. Not exactly a novel idea, yet with particularities of time and place continually oversimplified in analyses of the contemporary American case.

The masses in the United States don’t need a violent revolution to win state power. Yet without the ability to defend itself, the revolution is over before it starts. Yet misapplication of the Russian experience imagines Teamsters breaking into municipal armories and doing battle on Main St with the 82nd airborne. Brave movement ancestors have given their lives teaching the lessons missed in that conclusion.

Most recently, grassroots armed struggle in the U.S. has taken place in the context of movement decline and severe state repression. Black Liberation Army, United Freedom Front, Weather Underground and others operating during the Second Reconstruction won no demands and alienated most of the masses. The two biggest concessions won during that period were the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which came before the adoption of an urban guerrilla strategy and were enforced by U.S. troops.

Mass nonviolent direct action, like strikes and civil disobedience, can be directly traced to large-scale tangible victories in the contemporary United States. I’m not sure the same can be said for urban guerilla warfare. We can honor the sacrifice of fallen and captured revolutionaries by continuing the struggle and avoiding mistaken action at inopportune moments.

We have influence over the state now insofar as progressives are elected to positions of governing power across the country. Unions and other civil society elements in the ideological apparatus such as Black churches often emerge as militant champions of progress. Mobilizing civil society and labor in the public sector (the administrative apparatus) could be critical to win the fight we’ve entered known as the Third Reconstruction. Along with schools and the family, these constitute those components of the state most concerned with the masses.

Through civil society, and particularly labor, advanced forces can build the mass organizations necessary for fighting within the governing and administrative apparatuses. Winning governing power gives the masses the ability to influence the repressive apparatus as occurred during the First Reconstruction. Far from being elevated above the masses, the state is all around us. It is a site of mass struggle.

Zara Jemuel is a labor movement activist with an organizing background in health care and the public sector.