Escalation of state power
The uprising in the USA
The current protests are directed against the racist and violent normal state - and increasingly ask the question: Can the police as an institution also be abolished?
By Lukas Hermsmeier, New York
[This article published on 6/4/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.woz.ch/2023/aufstand-in-den-usa/eskalation-der-staatsgewalt.]
They cannot be reformed: Police officers smashed a demonstration in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Where do you start to describe what is currently happening in the USA? In the case of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African-American who was brutally pressed onto the asphalt by a white policeman in Minneapolis at the end of May until he could no longer breathe and died? In the case of Christian Cooper, who two days later was bird-watching in New York's Central Park when a white woman alerted the police, armed with the lie that she was being "threatened" by an African-American man? Should we start with Breonna Taylor, a black paramedic, 26 years old, who was shot by police in her own Kentucky apartment in March? Or Ahmad Arbery, the 25-year-old jogger who was chased and murdered by two racists in Georgia in February?
These events taken together may be the trigger, but they are not the reason why hundreds of thousands of people have been walking the streets for days, in the biggest riot this country has seen in decades. The protests are directed against racism and police violence - but above all against how normal racism and police violence are. The protests are directed against the USA itself.
So where to start? With Donald Trump, the fascist and civil-war-monger in the White House, who has used the last few days to celebrate astronauts, demonize anarchists and sic the police and the National Guard on the protesters?
Who else believes in reform?
As a reminder, which probably only white people need: When the Black Lives Matter movement started to develop from the summer of 2013 when Eric Garner spoke his last words, "I can't breathe", a year later, and when street battles broke out in Ferguson that same summer when the "Washington Post" created a digital database in 2015 to document how many people are killed by the police every day - at all these times Barack Obama was President of the United States. So as big as the problem is Trump, the problems are much bigger. And as suddenly as the protests appear, so long is their history.
What is disappearing in view of the circulating images: Most of the protests in the last few days were peaceful, especially the daytime ones. At night there were massive riots in many places, cars, even police stations were set on fire, shops were looted, thousands of demonstrators arrested. The state authorities acted and reacted as they so often do in the USA: with escalation. There are countless videos showing police beating wildly, videos in which police cars drive into crowds. There are videos of officers pulling down the masks of protesters to spray them with pepper spray in the face. There are photos of police officers pointing guns at children and horses of their mounted colleagues trampling over people. And these are just the documented cases.
Nearly 70,000 National Guard soldiers were deployed earlier this week, more than forty cities have imposed curfews, President Trump even spent time in a bunker under the White House. On Monday night, when he tried to pose with a Bible in front of a church in Washington D.C., he cleared the way - with tear gas grenades and rubber bullets.
This uprising is historic in scale, in the constellation of keeping in mind the ongoing health disaster, the more than 100,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19 and the forty million who have registered as unemployed in recent months. But the uprising is also historical in the sense that the radical nature of the protest, its size, its hopelessness, and its destructiveness can only be understood in the context of the history of oppression of the black population. "We are tired and tired of talk," Bernice King, the pastor, and daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, told MSNBC television a few days ago. The time has come to tear down the system and create a "different America."
Anyone who has been on the streets in the last few days, talking to demonstrators and reading their posters, who has followed the discussions on the Internet and the reporting, could get the impression that more and more people want a "different America". Or: that less and less people believe in current America, in the reformability of the systems.
Take money away from the police?
Ideas that a few years ago could only be perceived marginally are now being discussed in the prime time news, in the "New York Times" and even by some politicians: "Defund the police" is one of the central demands, which means: withdrawing funding from the police. "The discourse has changed," sociology professor Nancy Heitzeg told The Intercept last week. For a long time, she said, attempts had been made to bring about "better police work" through training and body cameras - without any real success. In the meantime, she said, there was more and more open talk about abolishing the police.
"The End of Policing" is the title of a book by social scientist Alex Vitale, published in 2017, in which he describes how the police have become bigger and more militaristic over the past forty years, and how they are now used in almost all areas of society - from schools to the health system - to control poor people and People of Color. Vitale states on the basis of numerous studies that the vast majority of reform attempts - including Obama's "Task Force on 21st Century Policing" - have failed. "We should demand protection and security - but not from the police. In the end, the police rarely offer both," writes Vitale, who teaches at Brooklyn College. The end of the police force begins, according to Vitale, with the redistribution of funds and resources. Away from the police, to social work, education, health care.
I don't think any city in the world shows the need for this redistribution as starkly as New York. The New York Police Department has more than 36,000 civil servants, and the annual police budget amounts to almost six billion US dollars. In the last three months, on the other hand, the broken-down hospitals lacked almost everything: personnel, masks, protective suits, respirators (see "Only the next emergency").
Obvious system failure
Among the most obvious problems is also the immunity of the police. Very few cases of police violence end up in court. And the vast majority of trials end without a conviction. In the case of George Floyd, it is probably only because of a mobile phone video that the policeman - against whom eighteen complaints have been filed in nineteen years of service, of which only two led to a reprimand - is now charged with manslaughter.
Here, too, the system failure is revealed: the images of dying blacks are dehumanizing, traumatizing - but they still often seem to be the only way to draw attention to racism and police violence. This was the case of the murdered Eric Garner, it was the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by a policeman in Cleveland, and it was the case of Philando Castile, who was killed during a traffic control in 2016. Without the recordings of these murders, their stories would most likely be unknown.
The US media has been outraged in recent days about police violence, about the eternal racism, about Trump - but also about the riots. Looting and vandalism would only make things worse, it was said at every opportunity, not infrequently Martin Luther King was quoted, whose non-violent resistance was emphasized.
The same Martin Luther King, however, also wrote in 1963 in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" what he considered to be the greatest obstacle to freedom: the "moderate white man, for whom order is more important than justice".*
In memory of the dead
A wave of solidarity is spreading, from Minneapolis to Montreal and London to Berlin-Neukölln - and beyond. Tens of thousands took to the streets in Paris on Tuesday to demand justice for George Floyd and Adama Traoré and all the others from the French banlieues whose deaths were the responsibility of police officers.
In Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators marched through the streets shouting "I can't breathe! They too protested against racist police violence in the USA - and against those in the favelas. In Auckland, thousands demonstrated on Monday and in speeches denounced, among other things, racism and violence against the indigenous population in New Zealand. In the Syrian province of Idlib, where opposition militias continue to fight against the regime of the ruling Bashar al-Assad, artists painted a mural to commemorate the event.
"Racism kills" was written on one of the posters that activists held up in the air in front of the US embassy in Bern on Friday. "Resistance to police worldwide. In solidarity with Minneapolis" was on another one. In Zurich, an estimated 2000 people, including many young People of Color, demonstrated on Monday afternoon. For tactical reasons, the police probably kept in the background - despite corona measures. At the end of the demonstration there was a minute's silence and several speeches. "No matter if you are white or black, no matter what gender or sexual orientation you have", said one activist in his speech, "the main thing is that you are here today!