The astonishing events of May-June 2020 have drastically changed our social circumstances and the terms of political discourse. Mass uprisings in every region of the United States and solidarity events around the world present an unprecedented new sequence.
The mass media has first made a comparison with the urban unrest of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. But in these initial stories we can see an attempt to limit perceptions; to speak as if this is simply a reappearance of the past. Other authors have made comparisons to the 1992 events in Los Angeles, when South Central erupted in rage at the police beating of Rodney King. I am going to write about these events, however, in a 21st-century context. We can revisit demonstrations and social movements that took place at the turn of our century, movements that have been repressed and largely forgotten. What we are seeing today is a moment of novelty that requires us to stretch our analytical frames; understandings of past experiences will not provide a reliable guide. However, the memory of earlier struggles brings certain tensions and possibilities into view and might help us to clarify the tenets and methods of an anti-racist perspective.
Twenty years ago there was a contrast between one approach that emphasized white privilege and diversity trainings, and another which was combative toward state power and advocated revolutionary transformation. In the course of this new century, the limits of the first approach have revealed themselves, while the revolutionary analysis and practices have deepened and become more inclusive.
Anti-Racist Training or Police Confrontation?
Twenty years ago, there was a pervasive approach to understanding racism that did not foreground police violence. Jane Elliott is one of most prominent advocates of anti-racist training, a method that views all white people as privileged and generally ignorant about that privilege. A video titled Brown Eye, Blue Eye, recorded in 2000, records her approach: She separates students according to eye color and subjects those with blue eyes to belittling behavior, meant to simulate the experience of people of color. The resulting anxiety leads to tears from some participants, and eventually one young woman flees in despair and indignation.
I am not sure how much this helps blue-eyed people to understand white privilege and to become more anti-racist. The exercise depends on certain theses about how to understand racism that are partly true, but that can also be misleading. For example, the exercise tells white people (at least those who are white enough to have blue eyes) that they will always be defined, in part, by their white skin and that they should always be aware that this provides social privileges that they cannot relinquish no matter what they do. The exercise teaches, then, that thinking about racism is something that deeply implicates all white people personally; they are marked, morally, with ineradicable guilt. It also tends to suggest that people of color will resent white people, and if white people talk about racism, people of color will see them as part of the problem, unavoidably.
At the same cultural moment, a multiracial struggle against police violence was already underway. Hundreds of people took part in mass demonstrations in major cities, sometimes including civil disobedience. Then as now, the police reacted harshly and punitively, jailing and harming non-violent protestors. Mumia Abu-Jamal was a prominent icon and point of solidarity for this movement, as well as an intellectual leader to some degree. Abu-Jamal was a journalist and political thinker who was given a death sentence in 1982 for the alleged murder of a police officer. There were multiple irregularities in his case, and so many observers believed that he was innocent or at least that the death sentence was insufficiently warranted by evidence. The confrontation between Abu-Jamal and the police officer was prompted by Abu-Jamal’s defense of his brother from police brutality, and for this reason he was given an exemplary and somewhat heroic status. Abu-Jamal’s death penalty was overturned in 2001, and he was transferred out of death row into life imprisonment. Many of us viewed him as a political prisoner and a symbol of the injustice of the death penalty, the imprisonment of Black people, and resistance to police brutality. In some respects, the movement viewed him as analogous to Huey Newton or Angela Davis, Black revolutionary leaders subject to state prosecution who became the focal points of liberation movements in the 1970s. Abu-Jamal had been a member of the Black Panther Party and advocated revolutionary politics.
The radical activist community that defended Abu-Jamal was heterogenous and multiracial, and included people who had been radicalized by various issues. Activists in this community believed that the police were not part of the working class. Rather, they were best understood as a crucial instrument of state power, enforcing compliance with the unjust social and economic order of the United States. This order depends on relegating members of the population to a racial underclass; so the causes of racism are social and economic, structural in nature; not a question of individual psychology or moral fault.
The movement surrounding Abu-Jamal was important and partly successful, in terms of turning popular opinion against the death penalty. It also provided crucial education for Generation X and for Millennials, connecting us to the earlier cycle of Black revolutionary politics in the 1960s and giving us a space to translate its insights into our own historical context. However, the emphasis on the figure of Abu-Jamal limited the scope of the movement because he was a self-consciously revolutionary figure who offered pedagogical guidance to people who already wanted to advance a revolutionary political perspective. As a conscious radical, he was an icon for other conscious radicals, self-identified as partisans of the revolutionary left. This emphasis on a traditional revolutionary leader seems entirely absent today and awareness is more diffuse. Iconic figures are primarily martyrs, men like George Floyd and women like Breonna Taylor who did not choose their political significance.
In some respects, another movement of 2000 is more proximate to what we are seeing now. At the turn of the century in New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani advocated a new spirit of harshness on working-class people of color, heeding cries to “get tough on crime” by encouraging the police to aggressively punish the Black and Latino populations for minor infractions or for no crime at all. Enabled by a culture of impunity, the New York Police Department sexually assaulted Abner Louima, in 1997, and murdered Amadou Diallo by shooting him 19 times, in 1999. Rallies in New York City took place, to demand accountability and justice in these cases, and denounced the abuses of the NYPD. Because Louima and Diallo were not revolutionaries or conscious radicals, the movements that took them as figures were more attentive to the everyday lives of ordinary Black people who wished to live in peace. Nonetheless, there was not a mass movement that recognized the justice of this struggle and many of the people who participated in these demonstrations had a more elaborate political viewpoint, influenced by the anarchism of Emma Goldman, the communism of Angela Davis, or the Black nationalism of Malcolm X.
The popular culture of this period showed some of the effects of the movements against police violence, particularly in punk rock and hip hop music (e.g. Propagandhi, Dead Prez). However, these revolutionary viewpoints were marginalized in society as a whole and as a result they did not lead to the mass confrontations and large-scale manifestations that we are seeing today. There is now something of a convergence of the revolutionary perspectives presented by the old self-designated “activist” community with the awareness of the daily lives of people who are not invested in the imagery or philosophy of the revolutionary left.
The injustices of the police would have received more attention and they may have been reined in, or perhaps the confrontations we see today would have appeared earlier, had it not been for the September 11 attacks. In the period of George W. Bush’s war on terror, policies of surveillance and repression reached new heights and domestic dissent was marginalized. The mass media and the culture as a whole forgot the death of Amadou Diallo, and mourning for him did not translate into an effective demand for justice.
“Racial Dialogue” and Black Lives Matter in the Obama Era
Abuses worsened and the police continued to murder people. While the movements around the figures of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Amadou Diallo dispersed, the anti-racist training methods of Jane Elliott became increasingly influential. People did not openly characterize the police as racist, abusive, or murderous; this was considered in poor taste, and someone who said something like this was judged rash and hyperbolic by the general etiquette. During the Obama administration, there was even a widespread cultural belief that the election of a Black president indicated that racism was over, that the United States had become “post-racial.” People knew that this was not true, but the anti-racist discourse was generally personalized and moralized. If a white person talked about his or her guilt and awareness of privilege, this was generally lauded. This was “having a serious conversation about race.”
In many respects this social mood was conservative; racism was naturalized, although there was much handwringing about it. On the other hand, the frequent reiteration of the basic truth that the United States is a racist society that particularly victimizes Black people slowly educated a large number of white people. It also meant that some white people desperately wanted to escape from the guilt and the confinement of their unchosen white identity, and hoped to find a way to do something, someday, to take part in a broader community that would not be shaped by the mediocrity and cruelty of white culture. This desire has matured and grown, and this must be one of the reason why many white people have taken part in the recent protests, in contrast to all comparable events in U.S. history. To be sure, the general boredom, despair, and isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic must also be a factor in the desire to shake up the established order. It seemed that the protocols of social distancing would produce an extraordinarily atomized and docile citizenry but at least in some respects the opposite effect has been produced.
The general ignorance about police murders came to an end in 2013, after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi advocated a human rights movement, Black Lives Matter. In some respects, I think that this movement drew from some ideas and practices that appeared at the turn of the century, around the examples of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Amadou Diallo. However, Black Lives Matter also drew in some ways from the discourse around privilege. They wanted to emphasize the experiences of Black people who are less easily subsumed by the usual political or cultural archetypes or norms.
Unlike Abu-Jamal and many of his supporters, Black Lives Matter did not foreground questions of class consciousness or socialist revolution. As figures, Garza, Cullors and Tometi were more influenced by feminism and aspects of queer theory and did not occupy the more traditional role of the “Black radical” that had been incarnated by Abu-Jamal or by Huey Newton. They also did not follow the other model of Black political consciousness, the righteous indignation of the minister, as had been exemplified by Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. This meant that the movement built a broader appeal in which more women could participate and which did not select so clearly for people of a “revolutionary” mindset. So, while the Abu-Jamal movement was associated in the popular culture with Rage Against the Machine, Black Lives Matter was more proximate to the kind of political consciousness evoked by Beyoncé. Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, beginning in 2016, also changed many people’s attitudes about who a political activist could be. Twenty years ago, rock and hip hop music could be political, but sports were fastidiously dissociated from any social discontent. Kaepernick made this arrangement untenable, and hence extended political awareness into a new territory.
In 2015, much of the popular discontent regarding U.S. economic inequality became concentrated in the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Initially, Sanders did not clearly align himself with Black Lives Matter and its fundamental concerns. He naturally believed that Black people would greatly benefit from the democratic socialism that he advocates, but he did not foreground their victimization at the hands of police. For this reason, two women of the Black Lives Matter movement, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, disrupted one of his rallies in Seattle. The campaign was confused and disoriented by this event. Many Sanders supporters believed that Johnson and Willaford were simply being divisive, sabotaging social prospects with identity politics. However, the campaign eventually made an effort to recognize the validity and importance of Black Lives Matter.
Erica Garner, whose father was murdered by police, became a vocal supporter of Sanders in the year before her own untimely death, and his campaign supported her efforts to achieve justice. The result of this was that some part of the Sanders movement also believed in Black Lives Matter and its identification of police violence. It became clear to more people that fighting racism would require drastic economic change, and also that the police needed to be seen for what they are. While Sanders himself has not advocated defunding the police, and seems to have been overtaken by events, Erica Garner affected certain aspects of his movement in a consequential manner. At this point, it is difficult to say to what extent Sanders’ movement has anything to do with contemporary events. Certainly, many of the people in the streets may have been indifferent toward him -- indeed, indifferent to any of the presidential campaigns because none of them foregrounded the concerns of vulnerable and over-policed Black people. He may have had some role in raising the consciousness of progressive young people who have acted as allies.
New Revelations and Future Prospects
Video evidence has been decisive in changing popular attitudes. Something about the verisimilitude and immediacy of evidence regarding the complete ruthlessness displayed by police, rapidly disseminated through social media, has produced this shocking change in national awareness. Many of us have seen the video of the assault on Martin Gugino, and this has also made us aware that white privilege can become thin and attenuated when the police believe themselves disrespected. This awareness of the hostility and aggression that police express against ordinary people might open up a dimension of universal social concern, to some degree extending beyond ethnic identity. However, it is certainly the case that Black people (as well as indigenous people) have born the brunt of this hostility and continue to suffer the most from it. The video of George Floyd’s torture and murder has exerted a profound effect. There is an ethical challenge here because to view it is in some sense to participate in the spectacle of death that the officers produced, with significant awareness of the public nature of their crime.
Filmmaker John Akomfrah has reflected on this unbearable imbrication of an aesthetic effect and a profound act of evil, hazarding a comparison to the crucifixion itself: "I don't remember seeing an image that harks back so graphically to Mantegna's Dead Christ. I don't recall seeing anything which felt so graphically like the scene of a crucifixion, so I'm not entirely surprised by its galvanising force, power and zeal. Somebody made me weep yesterday because they seemed to confirm this feeling that I had that there was some weird affinity between a 16th-century Italian painter and this man, you know, whose daughter was being carried through the street and she says, 'My daddy changed the whole world'. And she's right. Her dad's changed the whole world, in precisely the same narrative terms as one speaks – in biblical terms – about the crucifixion. I think the only difference of course, is that George Floyd probably would have passed on the invitation for martyrdom, given the choice – but it's not one that he got."
One of the dangers of religious interpretation of suffering is that it can sanctify, and make an execution appear as a sacrifice in a just world. In the Black theological tradition, however, the crucifixion finds its meaning and its value in the opposition to the unjust powers of the world and their frequent killings and humiliations. As Akomfrah remarks, though, Floyd’s martyrdom is one that was forced on him rather than chosen as an ethical self-expression. In this regard, the killing is not a destiny imposed by his own character or free will. It is a Golgotha that is not preceded by any contemplative Gethsemane. This renders the event more horrifying. Any political action we undertake today is in the shadow of that horror.
Because of this awareness of the founding and repeated character of anti-Black racist murder, I do not think we can simply reiterate the traditional anti-capitalist account; according to which, racism is an effect of relations of production, by which the working class is ideologically divided to enhance its exploitation. This is true in its essence and it is also true that the repressive and violent force of the state can be applied against people judged expendable, across racial identities. However, this moment is also characterized by the specificity of the endurance of Black people in conditions that perennially denied their humanity. We can reach a dimension of universality and collective rebirth, but this transformation can’t posit racism as an epiphenomenon of class domination. White people should consult the diverse perspectives and debates among Black people and other people of color in order to determine how they can best assist in realizing possibilities that were foreclosed in the history of European revolutions.
Now, today, in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we have uprising everywhere and activists are calling to defund the police, to abolish the police. At least for now, and for the first time, mainstream TV and print journalists are taking them seriously. We are beginning to realize that we can address the risks of crime through social programs that benefit people and give them more opportunities, rather than choking them, bashing them on the head, or shooting them a dozen times. We are witnessing a truth that everyone in power has ignored, or concealed, or distorted. We can finally do the long and hazardous work of remaking this wretched society.
Thanks to Ben Dangl, Patrick Blanchfield, Tatiana Argüello, Bhakti Shingarpure, and Brian Ehrenpreis for their assistance.
Andrew Ryder teaches at Texas Christian University. He has written numerous articles on multiculturalism and decolonization.
(Feature image is a cropped version of The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1490) by Andrew Mantegna via Wikimedia Commons.)