Reflection on Rebellion — Fearless, Mass, Unrelenting AntiRacism

Chicagoans take over bridge to win justice for George Floyd.

I remember 2019. As a revolutionary socialist, I remember feeling tremendous inspiration from the spread and success of rebellions and the return of the mass strike (to quote David McNally of Specter Journal) all over the world. Many of us wondered why it hadn’t spread to the US and what it would take to strike here.

We’ve finally seen the beginning of such a possibility and proven that industrialized democracies (including the heart of world capitalism) are still able to be rocked by mass upheaval.

I’m hoping to use this brief series to think through some of the main takeaways from the June 2020 rebellion. For this post, I see 5 main macro lessons:

I don’t know if concrete data exists anywhere at this moment, but I would love to see the numbers on how many protests occurred and how many protesters were out over the course of June 2020.

We need to sit with this and assess how it affects our next steps as activists and organizers. There is a recalculation going on in the arithmetic of US politics. For the last four years, with Bernie capturing the popular imagination and the explosion of the DSA, electoral politics became the primary tactic of the US Left.

This was an important and necessary development. It picked up from where Occupy and the first wave of Black Lives Matter had left off. After 4 years of non-stop, radical protest: people wanted something more routinized, concrete, and official. But having run up against the wall of what is possible within the US two-party system, and the low-level of organized class struggle, the anger has returned to the primary tool: taking the streets.

Our arithmetic between 2016 and 2020 was focused on “friendly” demands that everyone could agree on without fear of raising touchy issues and alienating “swing voters”. Medicare for all and rent control were “easy” talking points. Talking about racism and other forms of oppression appears harder and appears to risk alienating voters that might be conservative on social issues, but can see the economic logic of a social safety net.

But this is the wrong way to think of things. The question isn’t about what might alienate voters. The question is: what will mobilize the masses? The answer is anti-racism. This has mobilized countless protests and protesters. The desire to hit the streets was so high that random people were calling protests and turning out hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people who were eager to publicly and physically display their anger at the police and their solidarity with the Black community. This was beautiful and exactly the correct, instinctual response by working people.

But again, it wasn’t just that folks were eager to hit the streets. These were protests against police violence that would inevitably be overseen by the police themselves. These were also protests that were happening during the Covid-19 pandemic. Let me highlight this explicitly: millions of people across the US have deliberately engaged in non-stop protests where they risked both police violence and COVID infection out of a desire to participate in anti-racist struggle. If you distill the 5 things I listed above, this is the primary lesson from across the country.

The masses of the US have relentlessly gone up against the bourgeois state for the last month. This isn’t a revolutionary moment, but I assure you that this habituation to taking risks and facing down the threat of police violence is a major collective step onto the longterm revolutionary road.

The period of exhaustion from protest and exclusive focus on electoralism is over. It is time to apply the same rigorous study and fearless experimentation with protest as we did with electoralism. We need the best of both of these approaches so that we can build the anti-racist struggle that will win the friendly demands (i.e. getting all the components of a welfare state) by going through the unfriendly demands (i.e. dismantling all the components of an imperialist, carceral state).

Remember: the racist state is what keeps us from having social democracy. We can’t have social democracy if we have the world's largest police force, military, and prison system.

#DefundPolice has joined #AbolishICE in the popular consciousness, and things are actually being won. People don’t risk deadly infection and police violence for fun. They do so because they are inspired and committed to fighting and winning.

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Ken Barrios

Born and raised in Chicago to immigrant parents. A member of the ISO from 2006–2010. DSA member since 2018. Revolutionary abolitionist socialist for life.