U.S. Ruling Elite Maneuver to Repress, Coopt George Floyd Protests
The U.S. protests against police brutality and white supremacy have inspired the people of this country and the world. In nearly every major city across the country, people have risen up to protest the murder of George Floyd and the larger system of police brutality. Many attempts of the ruling class to coopt and contain the movement failed, as the traditional sequence of statements and maneuvers by reformist Democratic Party politicians and related non-profit organizations initially struggled to keep a lid on the movement. Policing aimed at containing the protests has often proved ineffective from the perspective of the ruling class. This was most apparent in Minneapolis where the protests overran and burned a police station. It was also apparent in New York City where people repeatedly defied an 8:00pm curfew. Despite the curfew having some success at limiting the amount of demonstrators on the streets at night, the anger of New Yorkers grew over the curfew, and eventually forced Mayor de Blasio to rescind it a day earlier than planned.
The movement presents the ruling class (which includes politicians, the military and intelligence service elite, high-level state officials, and the capitalists) with a significant crisis as people all across the country rebel and protest against police brutality and draw into question the institution of the police. In the face of these protests, the ruling class has been locked in a heated debate over how to handle the situation. Some, like Trump, have advocated full-scale and outright repression of the protests. Others, including many in the Democratic Party seem to prefer a blend of cooptation and containment aimed at repressing the protests through targeted arrests of key activists and funneling mass outrage into the dead-end of the voting booth. Key military leaders—including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper—have flip-flopped on the issue a number of times as the situation has developed. The debate over the exact blend of cooptation and repression rages on among the ruling class, and a number of the politicians, military officials, and capitalists will likely shift their positions a number of times in the coming days and weeks.
Despite the instability and uncertainty of the present situation, it does not seem, as some have suggested, that we are on the verge of a major fascist crackdown. While the term fascism gets used a lot, especially in reference to Trump, it’s important to define the term. The U.S. is currently an extremely oppressive society, as the present movement against police brutality highlights. The vast majority of working people live paycheck-to-paycheck, there is a system of mass incarceration which keeps millions behind bars, and oppressed minorities are routinely subject to harassment and violence from the police and vigilantes.
However, there are still basic democratic rights such as the right to assemble, the right to protest, and the right to openly criticize the government. Even before these protests, peaceful protesters do sometimes face violence at the hands of the police, and these rights are constantly under threat in one way or another. In addition, when people’s resistance does grow into a large-scale revolutionary struggle—such as was emerging during the rise of the Black Panther Party—the ruling class has always reserved the option to use outright suppression and violence. In contrast, in a fascist society, the government generally tries to suppress all protests and oppositional political meetings through the use of violent repression. Under fascism, nearly all forms of dissent and criticism of the government are criminalized and suppressed.
While some in the Trump administration appear to be advocating for a shift towards fascism, it seems that most of the ruling class is currently opposed to this, at least for now. However, given the instability of the situation, and the rapid nature of present developments, it is possible for this to change relatively quickly. Therefore, it’s important to understand the contradictions at play among the ruling class, and the different ways that they have been relating to the mass movement. It’s also important to evaluate the present movement and understand its strengths and weaknesses.
The Mass Movement and its Contradictions
What began as a protest against the Minneapolis police killing George Floyd has rapidly grown into a nationwide movement against police brutality. In over 350 cities around the country people have taken to the streets to protest against the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others whose lives have been taken by the police. People have defied tear gas, rubber bullets, flash bang grenades, mass arrests, and curfews to keep up the movement.
In Minneapolis protesters overran and burned the Third Precinct, forcing police to flee as the building went up in flames. In New York City, tens of thousands of people repeatedly defied an 8:00pm curfew, despite mass arrests and police brutality. Eventually, Mayor de Blasio was forced to rescind the curfew earlier than planned. Now calls for his resignation ring out at protests across the city. In cities across the country people have torn down and defaced statues of racists like Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee, and former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo.
There are also different contradictions within the movement, including a trend of asking police to “take a knee” and cheering for them when they do. This gesture supposedly shows that cops respect the protests, but recently it has been shown that many cops who take a knee one minute go on to brutalize protesters the next minute. At some protests, cries of “take a knee” have been replaced with “quit your job.” Some groups who have called protests also have deep links to the Democratic Party machine and have been working hard to coopt the protests and thereby undermine the movement. For example, in Boston the local Black Lives Matter chapter organized a protest co-hosted by a non-profit called Violence in Boston, which works closely with Mayor Marty Walsh as well as other local elites. The protest marched through a park and ended far away from any businesses or residential areas, presumably to minimize the chances of people continuing to march and protest after the official event ended. Biden’s photo-op at a Delaware protest operated in a similar fashion.
A series of opportunists have also worked to coopt the protests in different ways. For example, during the curfew in New York City some organizers held a meeting—brokered by city councilman Brad Lander—with the NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea in which they struck a deal where organizers would work to disperse protests by 11pm each night:
Quite similarly at #nycprotests opportunist activists struck deals with the #NYPD brokered by politicians like @bradlander in which they agreed to work to dissolve protests at a certain time pic.twitter.com/k2WYmcf05O— Revolutionary United Front (RUF) (@revunitedfront) June 8, 2020
In an even more disturbing occurrence, Instagram influencer turned pretend protester Perris Howard donned Black Panther Party-esque attire to march at the lead of a protest with his arm around the shoulder of NYPD Inspector Nikas. Howard’s camera crew filmed as he heaped praise on the cop, while the crowd chanted “peaceful protest” over and over again.
1. The cop leading the march— Radio Free Amanda 余美娜 (@catcontentonly) June 7, 2020
2. The model/brand ambassador (NOT organizer) who doesn't even live in NYC with his arm around him thanking him
3. The chants of "peaceful protest"
This is counter insurgency in real time. https://t.co/dimvLHnofl
These are not isolated incidents; similar events are transpiring at protests all across the country. They are part of a larger effort to coopt the movement and funnel people’s energy into the dead-end of the voting booth and electoral politics. Despite the fact that the movement continues, and has won some big victories, these cooptation efforts are having some impact. A wide range of people from all segments of society have been drawn into the movement. Some are keen on drawing the connections between police brutality and the capitalist system and the need for revolution. Others are focused primarily on the police themselves and have rallied behind calls to defund the police. There are also some in the movement who are fine with a narrow focus on the worst excesses of police brutality and take up the “few bad apples” narrative.
These differing views reflect larger political tendencies within the movement. Overall, it seems that most within the movement are focused on defunding and disbanding police departments. This is both a strength and a weakness of the present movement. It’s a strength because the movement has been very effective in exposing the racism and brutality inherent in the very nature of policing in the U.S. This has helped to clarify to many the absurdity of the idea that police brutality is a problem of “a few bad apples.” The focus on the institution of policing has also led to a series of demands that the ruling class cannot easily meet.
Instead of being satisfied with more body cameras and “implicit bias training,” many within the movement are calling for defunding and even abolishing police departments. These are demands that the ruling class is not eager to accommodate. The police play a key role in the U.S. capitalist system in particular. They are the front-line oppressors of many communities, and are used to control protests, protect private property, surveil activists, harass the homeless, and so much more. Their bloated budgets are also essential for ensuring demand for surplus military equipment. Therefore, the major weapon’s manufacturers have a big vested interest in maintaining and expanding police budgets.
However, the focus on the police is also somewhat of a weakness for the movement. Not because the police shouldn’t be criticized, but because if the focus of mass outrage and anger remains too narrowly focused on the police, the larger capitalist system—which the police exist to protect and serve—will not be sufficiently drawn into question. Mass outrage against the police is justified. The police are generally the front-line oppressors in the U.S. capitalist system. They are the ones conducting stop and frisks, they are the ones terrorizing the communities, they are the ones arresting people, and they are the ones brutalizing and killing so many. But their brutality is in service of the larger system, and in order to eradicate police brutality the system itself needs to be transformed from top to bottom.
The Democrats’ Strategy and the Contradictions Therein
Many of these dynamics in the movement present real challenges to the ruling class. The rapid growth of the protests and their expansion to so many cities make it challenging for the elite to directly crush them without facing significant backlash. This is especially true because doctors, academics, and many members of civil society are lining up in support of the movement. Co-opting the movement and funneling it into dead ends also presents some challenges, in part because the demands to defund and abolish the police are concessions the ruling class is generally very unwilling to make.
For example, Joe Biden’s campaign recently issued a statement clarifying that he opposes defunding the police. He also recently advocated for a massive increase in police budgets. This points to another difficulty in the cooptation efforts, which are largely being spearheaded by the Democratic Party and related non-profit organizations: the presumptive Democratic nominee does not have a good track-record when it comes to issues of white supremacy and police brutality.
Biden was one of the key architects of the 1994 Crime Bill that significantly expanded mass incarceration and related racist policing policies. He also worked closely with a number of segregationists and open bigots throughout his political career. The Democrats normally work to funnel mass outrage at inequality and injustice in society into support for their candidates, especially during an election year. However, given Biden’s track record, this is not an easy task. Despite various efforts to coopt the movement, only 36% of likely voters described Biden’s response to the protests as excellent, very good, or good.
While Biden recently made a highly publicized visit to a protest, his history of racist remarks and policies make him a less than ideal candidate for the Democrats to coopt the movement. Many are rightly unwilling to believe his promises to bring about meaningful changes, even if the changes are limited to moderate police reforms. Biden’s recent comments about training cops to shoot people in the leg instead of the heart do little to inspire confidence or win the trust of the people in the movement. And hints about him selecting a Black woman as a vice-president have also not been very successful in covering up his long history of racist policies and statements.
What’s more, cooptation efforts have been complicated by the limited success that the Democrats and the media have had in discrediting the movement. During the initial upsurge of the protests, Biden condemned what he called the “needless destruction in cities across the country." Supposedly progressive congresspeople, like Ilhan Omar, made similar statements. Democratic Party-aligned TV personalities like Chris Cuomo also have spewed similar ideas. For example, Cuomo on the one hand nominally supported the demonstrations, while also agreeing with Trump “calling out fringe elements who are here to take advantage of protests situations.” Cuomo even stated Trump’s criticism of these supposed “fringe elements” was “the right call." He went on to say “they’re bad actors. You’ve got to root them out. Every police force says it.”
These efforts are aimed at drawing a line between “acceptable” forms of protests and those which “cross the line” and which therefore justify violent responses from the state. The intense media focus on whether protests have been peaceful or not (with property damage generally conflated with violence against people), is also part of this effort. There is also an expectation that protesters not defend themselves from violent attacks from the police; in this framing it is considered violent for protesters to practice even basic forms of self-defense when under assault by armed racists.
For example, when the police shoot tear gas, pepper balls, and rubber bullets at protesters, people are often severely injured. If someone was holding a protest and a random civilian came up to them and shot them at close range in the face with a rubber bullet, it would be considered assault. When protesters have successfully defended themselves against attack by right-wing vigilantes via disarming them, this has generally been met with strong public support. This is despite the fact that disarming these vigilantes often does require some degree of force. However, any such form of self-defense against the police, even when they are brazenly assaulting protests with batons or other weapons, is generally portrayed in the media as unlawful violence against police and assault of officers. The media hence blurs the line between someone attacking the police without provocation, and someone who defends themselves from assault, as protestors in Seattle did by using umbrellas to deflect police projectiles—a tactic borrowed from recent protests in Hong Kong. Defense also can consist of attempting to disarm an assailant as Rayshard Brooks did in Atlanta by grabbing the taser from the cop who was arresting him, shortly before he was shot to death. The portrayal of self-defense as aggression pure and simple is an essential tool used by the ruling class to perpetuate its rule.
Despite these contradictions, for a variety of reasons, the Democrats and related media outlets have been hesitant to promote typical racist narratives about Black people being the source of violence and looting. Popular anti-racist sentiment means that these narratives would immediately inhibit the Democrats’ ability to coopt the movement. To deal with this contradiction the Democrats and other members of the ruling class have been promoting a series of conspiracy theories aimed at discrediting the protests. These in particular have focused on the idea that white “outside agitators” and “anarchists” have been the source of the looting and property destruction at demonstrations. Some among the Democratic Party establishment have even taken it further and proposed more outlandish theories.
Susan Rice—Obama’s former National Security Advisor—exemplified this approach when she stated, “We have peaceful protesters focused on the very real pain and disparities that we are all wrestling with that have to be addressed and then we have extremists who have come to try to hijack those protests and turn them into something very different.” However, Rice went one step further than the rest and claimed “based on my experience, this is right out of the Russian playbook." She went on from these absurd claims to conclude that if there was “new leadership” (presumably in the form of Joe Biden) then issues like police brutality could be resolved.
Promoting a similar conspiracy theory, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz claimed that the unrest and looting in Minneapolis was the result of the actions of white supremacists and drug cartels. He also claimed that 80% of those arrested on Friday, May 30 were from outside the state, a claim which was later proven to be false, as arrest records showed that the vast majority of people arrested were from Minneapolis.
It may seem strange that the Walz would make such ridiculously false claims, or that he would draw on the imagery of the HBO superhero show Watchmen—in which white supremacists attack the police and superheroes are needed to save the day. However, these sorts of contradictory and conspiratorial statements are a reflection of the divisions within the ruling class, their messy response to the situation, and the difficulty they face in discrediting the protest when typical anti-Black racist narratives about looting cannot be used effectively. They are part of the ruling class’ effort to discredit aspects of the movement so as to make it easier to coopt. However, these efforts have had limited success as evidenced by a recent poll which showed that 54% of Americans think that burning down the Minneapolis police precinct was justified.
This sort of public sentiment makes it more challenging for the Democratic Party and related media outlets to coopt parts of the movement while suppressing others. Narratives that “outside agitators”—whether they be anarchists, Russians, or white supremacists—are the cause of "unacceptable" activity at the protests have not been successful in developing significant popular support for repression of the movement. Given this confluence of factors, there is growing concern among the ruling class that this movement will lead to increasing disillusionment with electoral politics in general. To address this issue, people such as possible Biden running-mate Stacey Abrams have published articles which attempt to reassure people that voting does make a difference, despite the obvious fact that it has little impact on social change.
As the protest movement has developed, and earlier strategies failed to gain traction, this segment of the ruling class has altered their tactics. Recently, most major Democratic Party figures have offered less equivocal support, in large part because earlier cooptation efforts did not succeed, and the movement continued to grow despite increased suppression and curfews. For example, Elizabeth Warren and other prominent members of the Democratic Party have issued statements of unequivocal support for the movement, and have avoided mentioning both the issue of property destruction or the question of “outside agitators.” Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley even went so far as to call the present movement a “televised revolution” and quoted Huey P. Newton in a tweet. This shifting strategy reflects a degree of panic in the Party and the ruling class that the movement could grow out of their control.
Even before the protests, a significant number of young people were disillusioned with the Democrats and electoral politics more generally; this was especially true after Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic Primary and endorsed Joe Biden. There is a real concern that if the Democrats, non-profit organizations, and media outlets mishandle co-opting the energy of this movement, then a whole lot of young people will start demanding much more radical change and won’t look for it through the ballot box.
Overall, the Democratic Party has been nominally supportive of the protests while working to undermine them in a million different ways. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the actions of some Democratic mayors and governors. For example, as mentioned earlier, after protests grew in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed an 8:00pm curfew. Anyone outside after the curfew was subject harassment, police brutality, and arrest. Protesters routinely defied the curfew, and New Yorkers who were going about their daily lives were constantly harassed as soon as the clock struck eight. The situation got so bad that the New York Timed Editorial Board published an op-ed titled “Mayor de Blasio, Open Your Eyes. The Police Are Out of Control”. De Blasio was eventually forced to rescind the curfew and has since promised to cut the NYPD’s budget, though he has yet said by how much. In a similar form of double-speak, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, while nominally supporting the movement, pushed de Blasio to call in the National Guard to quell the protests.
These incidents have not been limited to New York State. On Saturday May 30, Eric Garcetti, the Democratic Mayor of Los Angeles, announced at 7:00pm that a curfew would begin at 8:00pm that night. This was used as a pretext to arrest numerous protesters and harass many others. Lori Lightfoot, the Democratic Mayor of Chicago, imposed a similar last-minute curfew. These incidents show that while the Democrats have offered nominal support to the protest movement, this is paper-thin. In reality, their actions are aimed at crushing and co-opting the movement.
Trump’s Push for Outright Repression and the Debate within the Military
In contrast to the Democrats and related forces, Trump and many of his allies in the ruling class have been openly calling for outright violent repression of the protests. As the initial protests escalated in Minneapolis, Trump referred to the protesters as “THUGS”, threatened to call in the military, and stated that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts." These remarks were followed a few days later by Trump’s speech where he labeled the protests “acts of domestic terror” while the police used tear gas, flashbangs, and more to disperse peaceful protests to make way for Trump to walk to St. John’s church. Despite support from people like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, there has actually been a good deal of debate within the Trump administration on how to best handle the situation.
For example, the New York Times reported on a heated argument that preceded the decision to clear the protesters for the march to St. John’s Church. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wanted Trump to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy the military throughout the country and crush the protest movement. However, Attorney General Bill Barr and Army General Mark Milley (who is the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) opposed the use of the Insurrection Act. They were particularly concerned about the how the public would respond to the mobilization of active duty soldiers to crush the movement. The Times notes that concern over exacerbating the contradictions between states and the Federal Government was also a significant factor. There were also debates with governors, in which the Trump administration pushed them to crackdown hard on the protests. In a discussion about the protests with governors, Esper encouraged them to “dominate the battlespace."
Despite this push by Esper, some in the military were concerned about the international impact of deploying the active-duty soldiers within the U.S. This would have a big negative impact on the U.S.’s international standing and would also weaken the military’s ability to respond to challenges from rival imperialist powers. This is important because countries like Russia and China have been increasingly challenging the U.S. empire during the COVID-19 Pandemic. They have done this not only through military maneuvers, but also through diplomatic efforts to weaken U.S. alliances with the EU and other countries. In the face of this inter-imperialist competition, many within the U.S. government are concerned that using active-duty military to crush the protest movement would have a big negative impact on the U.S. elite’s long-term strategic interests, even if it did successfully quell the rebellion for the time being. Using U.S. troops to put down a domestic protest movement against racism and police brutality would have been a public relations nightmare and further undermined narratives of the U.S. spreading “peace, freedom, and democracy” around the world.
The disagreements within the Trump administration are also related to contradictory views within Trump’s base. Barr’s opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act based on concern over “states’ rights” is not just empty rhetoric. This slogan has been a watchword of many on the right. What’s more, a significant section of Trump supporters are libertarians and conspiracy theorists, many of whom—despite often holding reactionary ideas—are rightly opposed to martial law and major crackdowns on civil liberties.
Some right-wing social media influencers have been claiming that these protests are funded by “globalists” like George Soros as part of a plan to undermine Trump’s presidency, impose martial law, and take away people’s Second Amendment rights. The prevalence of these ideas among a significant section of his base have had an impact on Trump’s response to this crisis. For example, in his speech where he promised to crackdown on protesters, Trump also made sure to clarify that he would “protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your second amendment right.”
Some on the right have celebrated Trump’s willingness to deploy the National Guard to crack down on the protests, even going so far as to say that he should have acted sooner. However, his actions have also angered a number of Republican figures and conservative groups. For example, Daniel Larson—a senior editor at *The American Conservative—*wrote a recent piece in which he described Trump’s violent dispersal of peaceful protesters as “an affront to constitutional government and the rule of law, and it brings disgrace on everyone that was involved.” Likewise, many in the military have disagreed with Trump’s call to deploy active-duty troops to deal with the protests. One senior retired Army general stated, “A lot of troops agreed with Trump when he [said] he wanted to end the ‘dumb wars in the Middle East.’ Not sure they will agree with him when he tells them to fight wars in the Midwest.” Retired General, former Trump staffer, and notorious war criminal James “Mad Dog” Mattis even published a statement condemning Trump’s response to the protests. It seems that these disagreements in the upper-echelon of the military relate to concern over the fact that there has been significant dissent among the rank-and-file troops (and even some officers) at present, specifically on the question of the deployment of the National Guard and active-duty military to police, surveil, and suppress the protests.
The recent disagreements between Secretary of Defense Esper and General Milley are indicative of the underlying disagreements within the military establishment on how to handle the present situation. What’s more, after Trump’s dispersal of the protests near the White House, both Esper and Milley sought to distance themselves from Trump’s actions.
The Times reported that “The spectacle staged by the White House also left military leaders struggling to explain themselves in response to criticism from retired officers that they had allowed themselves to be used as political props. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put out word through military officials that they did not know in advance about the dispersal of the protesters or about the president’s planned photo op, insisting that they thought they were accompanying him to review the troops.”
It’s unlikely that this is true; the military leadership almost certainly had an idea of what Trump planned to do, as General Milley showed up in battle fatigues. Acclaimed reporter and former U.S. army soldier William Arkin is one of many who as expressed skepticism about the Pentagon’s narrative on this topic. Regardless, it is significant military leaders sought to distance themselves from the Trump’s actions afterwards. General Milley recently issued an apology for his participation in the spectacle, stating, “I should not have been there” and noting that this presence in uniform “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
This shows that the military is concerned with how the violent suppression of peaceful protests will be perceived by the public. In a recent news conference Esper walked back his earlier support for use of the Insurrection Act, stating that he doesn’t believe the current state of unrest in American cities warrants the deployment of active-duty troops to disperse the protests. Esper’s flip-flop on this question is related to the rapidly developing nature of this situation. It also seems to indicate that the military has concluded that outright repression of the protests by active-duty troops is not advantageous, at least for the present moment. They are also likely concerned about having Trump direct the deployment and actions of active-duty military personnel throughout the country.
The military does have a series of plans in place to deal with crises to the U.S. state and even large-scale domestic rebellions, including plans to run the whole country via martial law if necessary. These plans were adjusted and updated in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, but not without significant debate within the military. The Intercept also recently reported that the Pentagon has previously conducted wargames to deal with a youth rebellion in the U.S. and around the world. While the details of the wargame scenario sound more like an updated remake of the 1960s movie Wild in the Streets than a realistic scenario for an uprising, the existence of this sort of wargame shows that the Pentagon has plans in place to deal with rebellions that pose an existential challenge to the U.S. capitalist state.
However, after some debate within the military, it seems that they have concluded that it does not make sense to support martial law or another similar form of crackdown at present. This is most evident in General Milley’s recent statements expressing tacit support for the protests and calling on the troops to protect freedom of speech in the U.S. In short, this is an indication that the military is not willing to support martial law and a turn to fascism—in which freedom of speech and freedom to protest would be suspended—at least for now. This is significant because in order for Trump and other members for the ruling class to impose fascism at present, they would need the support of a significant section of the military.
If not Fascism, Then What?
Given all of these contradictions, it does not seem like we are on the verge of fascism in this country. Without significant support from the military, and a broader section of the ruling class, a large-scale fascist crackdown is not feasible at present. It seems that the majority of the ruling class does not believe a turn towards fascism is in their interest, as it could lead to further resistance and unrest. However, just because we are not about to face fascism does not mean that there will not be severe repression of protests and activists. This is already ongoing. Capitalist democracy is democracy for the capitalists, not for the people. The disagreements among the ruling class are not about whether or not to repress the protests, but how best to do so.
Despite the turmoil within the ruling class, new repressive measures are being rolled out across the country. Major cities around the country rolled out curfews and arrested thousands who violated them. While some politicians and media pundits seek to position themselves in opposition to Trump, they generally qualify this opposition by noting their agreement with certain aspects of Trump’s crackdown. The above-mentioned example of CNN talking head Chris Cuomo is just one of many. Susan Rice also made an ambiguous statement on Trump’s decision to designate “antifa” as a terrorist organization (which is absurd both because the idea that anti-fascism is terrorism is akin to endorsing fascism, and because “antifa” is not a group). Instead of criticizing the idea that these protests are the “acts of domestic terror” she focused on the fact that Trump has remained silent on right-wing terrorist organization and white supremacists. In the same interview she also spoke of “extremists on both sides.”
All of this shows that the Democratic Party and the political establishment’s opposition to a crackdown on protests is paper-thin. They offer nominal opposition with a particular focus on Trump’s rhetoric instead of his actions, and simultaneously work to push the masses of people to get out of the streets and into the voting booth. They will continue to opportunistically criticize Trump’s actions, including his violent dispersal of the protest outside the White House, to build up support for their electoral efforts. While they may disagree with aspects of how Trump has handled the situation, they are not doing this because they genuinely support the struggle for Black Liberation, but because they disagree with the methods and manner in which Trump is working to crush the movement.
Invoking the threat of Trump imposing fascism has served as a useful tool for the Democrats, as it distracts people from injustices and inequalities in U.S. society and the Democrats’ role in perpetuating them. It also serves to rally people to support U.S. democracy without critically examining the fact that the vast majority of people in this country have little to no say in the key issues in their lives and communities. For example, the vast majority have no say in how much money they make, how much they pay for rent, how things at their workplace are run, etc. Without power over such basic aspects of their lives, democracy exists in name only for the majority of the people.
By promoting the narrative that Trump is an existential threat to American Democracy (which is in turn implied to be a bastion of freedom and liberty), other issues have been sidelined. Some of Trump’s actions, especially his photo-op in front of St. John’s Church with a bible in hand, play right into these narratives. It seems that the Democratic Party and a significant section of the ruling class will continue to use these narratives to promote themselves via the logic of lesser-evilism.
Of course, people in the U.S. do have some democratic rights, and are better off under capitalist democracy than fascist dictatorship. However, the threat of fascism is already being used by the Democrats as a means to de-fang the movement and funnel mass outrage at police brutality into the voting booth. These efforts are being combined with some very minor cuts to police budgets and other small concessions. For example, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh promised to cut the Boston Police Department’s overtime budget by 20%—a paltry $12 million—and spend that money on social programs. Although the 20% figure has been widely cited as a “meaningful cut” to the police budget, in reality $12 million is only around 2.8% of the entire police budget1, a drop in the bucket which will have next to no impact on the department.
At the same time, many of the new repressive measures rolled out by the Trump administration have been passed over in silence by the Democrats and others who have voiced criticism of Trump. In the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see an intensification of new repressive laws and policies. This has already begun. For example, the Department of Justice issued a statement threatening to prosecute those who cross state lines to join protests. The Drug Enforcement Agency has been given permission to investigate those protesting police brutality. The New York Police Department and others around the country have effectively been given free reign to attack protesters without facing consequences. These are just a few of the many new repressive measures being rolled out right now to quell the protests and disperse the mass movement.
At the same time, given the strength of the present movement, it is possible to win some real concessions from the ruling class. These include things like significantly cutting police budgets, demilitarizing the police, prosecuting the police for brutality and murder, destroying monuments to racists like Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus, and more. Many such victories have already been won. For example, the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department and replace it with some nebulous form of “community-based public safety.” Racist statues have been taken down across the country, and numerous cities across the country have begun to cut police budgets. However, these victories and future ones are threatened by the ruling class efforts to control, coopt, and repress the movement, and this threat comes from both sides of the aisle.
Based on the $414 million budgeted for the BPD for financial year 2020. See table 5 in the city’s Operating Budget summary, available here: https://www.boston.gov/sites/default/files/embed/file/2019-09/2-volume_1_-_operating_budget.pdf ↩︎