« Si l’Amérique éprouve jamais de grandes révolutions… »
A few months ago, after we ran a series of reflections on mass protests in 2019, I wrote a post on why the United States had not seen the kind of spontaneous uprisings that had broken out in places like France, Hong Kong, Lebanon, or Algeria. Now, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Americans have not only joined this wave of revolt, but have also inspired solidarity marches around the world—likely in many places the first large political actions that have taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic. My hasty conclusion in the early months of 2020 was that Tocqueville’s account of why “Great Revolutions will be rare” in the United States was not a particularly helpful guide for understanding American social movements today. Now, though, it looks like I should have given him a bit more credit. In that chapter, Tocqueville predicts that if a “revolution” will happen in America, it will be due to the fundamental social inequality founded on race. On the other hand, he writes that a revolution over socio-economic inequality is much less likely in a country where many people feel they have a stake in a stable, prosperous society. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that we can understand what is happening in the United States today by investigating these two contentions.
First, though, it’s worth remembering how differently things looked earlier this year. Around mid-February, it wasn’t crazy to think that a social-democratic renewal was on the horizon in the United States. Bernie Sanders was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, having won the first three early primaries, including a blowout win in Nevada. While most of the other Democratic contenders were struggling to capture the loyalty of the party’s aimless centrist base, Sanders had built a solid coalition of younger voters (i.e. under 45) along with various immigrant communities (e.g. Hispanic, Asian-American, Arab-American). For a brief moment, it looked like Sanders’s “political revolution,” a campaign run on the model of a social movement, fighting for solid social-democratic goals like universal healthcare and education, was unstoppable. That is, until the center-right consolidated around Joe Biden to easily win the remaining primaries, and the Covid-19 pandemic forced Sanders’s volunteer campaign army back indoors. The potential for radical socio-economic change through the electoral process appeared to have completely vanished.
The movement that has emerged in response to the killing of George Floyd—as well as others including Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky—is not at first glance a movement about the things Bernie Sanders talks about. Like the original Black Lives Matter movement that began in 2014, it is a movement against police violence, specifically the violence inflicted on African-Americans. During Sanders’s first campaign for president which began in 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters famously interrupted one of his rallies in Seattle, alleging that the democratic socialist was not sufficiently concerned with the issue of racist policing. Since then, it has been common for critics of the “Sanders left” to oppose “universal” social programs such as Medicare for All to a “race-conscious” politics, which might focus more on issues like the impact of policing and mass incarceration, or alternatively would call specifically for economic reparations to African-Americans (Sanders has rejected this proposal, along with current demands to defund or dismantle police departments).
Whatever the merits of this point of view as a critique of Sanders—in a many cases it has been used in bad faith to imply that free healthcare for everyone is somehow racist—it is clear today that there is a power in an explicitly race-conscious movement against police violence that the Sanders campaign itself was unable to generate. In the midst of a pandemic where any large gathering is risky, George Floyd protests have drawn crowds in many large cities that would be astonishing even under normal conditions. But the protests have not been confined to predictable urban settings, taking place in all 50 states, including in many majority-white areas, whether in the rural south or west or in affluent suburbs in the north. Meanwhile, police across the country responded to these protests with arbitrary arrests and astonishing acts of violence, all caught on camera: from police beating up elderly men in Utah and Buffalo, New York, to NYPD officers plowing a squad car through a crowd of demonstrators, to many examples of protesters getting arrested simply for giving a speech. In just a few weeks, the demonstrations have led to potentially radical results, including the planned disbanding of the Minneapolis Police Department, and serious calls to cut police budgets in cities around the country. While the Black Lives Matter protests of 2014-2015 were easily marginalized, particularly but not exclusively by racist right-wing media, the current incarnation has produced a nationwide, multiracial movement that those in power have been forced to take seriously.
The strength of this movement appears to confirm Tocqueville’s intuition that the inequalities caused by racism are the most likely touchstone for “revolutionary” social conflict in the United States (as he put it: Si l’Amérique éprouve jamais de grandes révolutions, elles seront amenées par la présence des noirs sur le sol des Etats-Unis : c’est-à-dire que ce ne sera pas l’égalité des conditions, mais au contraire leur inégalité qui les fera naître). The racist murders of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and others sparked a moral outrage unmatched by even to the worst indignities of the Trump presidency: from the revelations of “kids in cages” in the summer of 2018, to the blatant acts of corruption in Trump’s business dealings and foreign policy overtures, to the federal government’s criminally negligent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic this spring.
But we should not interpret Tocqueville’s emphasis on the centrality of racial inequality to support the crude reductionist claims one hears frequently today that “race” is a separate and more instructive category from “class” or “economics” (nor should we affirm the opposite: the vulgar Marxist notion that race is a mere epiphenomenon). It is hard to imagine that the current Black Lives Matter protest movement could have mobilized such a large swath of Americans without the pandemic. Covid-19 simultaneously created a severe economic crisis—mass unemployment, widespread business failure, the threat of state and local budget defaults—and revealed the federal government to be incapable or uninterested in helping ordinary people weather the storm. The Trump Administration refused to coordinate delivery of essential medical supplies, and in many cases actively interfered with state governments’ efforts to obtain masks and protective equipment. Congressional Democrats allowed the main relief bill to include massive giveaways to corporations. As a result, the two most important provisions of the CARES Act were one-time checks for $1,200 (an amount so stingy as to be more insulting than helpful), and an extension of unemployment insurance that, while admirable, relies on state unemployment systems for delivery that are often incompetent at best. As some other countries are beginning to return to normal life, many American states are still seeing their infection numbers rise, while people’s economic prospects continue to fall.
In this context, police violence is not merely a “racial issue.” The contrast between federal and state governments’ inability to mobilize resources to help people stay safe and secure, and the rapid mobilization of manpower and equipment to put down insurrections in major cities is simply too glaring to miss. Police have the tools and opportunity to commit acts of racist brutality because having heavily armed people patrolling poor communities is considered not only an “essential service” (which here in Chicago is worth nearly 40% of the city’s budget), but as Bernard Harcourt put it, the only area where the state is truly competent in a neoliberal framework. The call to defund police therefore appears as a radical demand both to refuse the idea that police—along with prisons, immigration enforcement, and the military—are necessary to keep us safe, and to insist that we can have a social state that does not use these coercive institutions as substitute. For this movement, we don’t need military contracts, prisons, or detention centers as jobs programs for rural areas; we don’t need armed service to be people’s only path to healthcare and education; we don’t need the criminal justice system as a last resort for a failed social safety net; we can put public resources directly towards giving people what they need to flourish, without the need for sacrificial violence as payment.
In this pandemic, unlike in the America Tocqueville observed, an increasing number of people have nothing to lose. As a result, the movement in the streets has articulated a potentially revolutionary demand to transform the American state. But this is not Bernie Sanders’s revolution—nor any national politician’s. For now, the fight is being waged by local activists over city police budgets. Only time will tell where it goes from there.
Photo Credit: Jacob Hamburger.