by Gabriel Donnelly
Author’s note: The trial of ex-cop Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is going on now, as are efforts to secure justice for many other victims of police brutality through protests and organization.
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time – and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened… There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
— Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I. May 28, 2020
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Video of the vicious murder went viral on social media and was seen by millions. The public saw, in the murder of one man, an encapsulation of historical police violence, and perhaps their own interactions with law enforcement.
The day before Mr. Floyd’s murder, The New York Times published a piece commemorating the 100,000 Americans who, at that point in the pandemic, had lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. Those who die of COVID do so alone; the nature of infectious illness forces family and loved ones to stay distant and say goodbye through video calls. Perhaps such uniquely estranged mourning had primed a nation to sympathize with a death seen only on a phone screen. Perhaps the protests, which hoped to strike a blow at America’s deeply embedded structural racism, saw a link between the COVID death toll, which disproportionately affected people of color, and racist policing. In response, the proletariat of Minneapolis took to the streets.
On May 26, 2020, Minneapolis saw the beginning of mass action. By midday, the site of Mr. Floyd’s murder was occupied by community members. This occupation, in what came to be known as George Floyd Square, lasted for several months. The days and nights that followed saw widespread looting. In particular, a local Target was completely looted. The supplies secured from the store were used to provide mutual aid for members of the community. The confrontations with police escalated in both scale and intensity. Across the nation and the world, many declared, “all eyes on Minneapolis!”
Source: public domain
Certainly, Minneapolis was on the world stage, and when, on the night of May 28, protesters successfully overwhelmed the Minneapolis Police Department and burned down the Third Precinct, everything had changed. Not only were the police shown not to be invincible, but a sophisticated understanding of the police was articulated in the collective action of the Minneapolis proletariat.
The mass protests set out to affirm, during a pandemic in which many were allowed to die in the name of the economy, that human life has value. They declared that black lives matter, and that no life is disposable or will be abandoned to an inhumane system. This outcry illuminated the failures of past reforms and demanded complete police abolition. In on-the ground footage from those first few nights, interviewed protesters often reference the Rodney King Riots, the Ferguson Uprising, or the Civil Rights Movement. The radicalism of their demands emerged from both their radical actions and an understanding of their place in history.
In the days of nationwide uprising that followed, the resistance to riot police in various cities showed surprising tactical sophistication, experimentation, and, above all, great courage. Successful tactics were shared on social media, often adapting ideas developed in the Hong Kong protests or earlier Black Lives Matter uprisings. Much of these more practical concerns have been covered in depth elsewhere. One such example is “What You Need To Know About The Battle of Portland” by Robert Evans, which covers the 50-plus days of battle waged by the people of Portland against their police force. Truly, in regards to the possibilities for combat, all eyes were on Minneapolis.
Even more than combat, something worth fighting for was on display. The protesters saw that a world without policing was possible, and they recognized, thanks to those earlier Black Lives Matter struggles, that reform was a dead end. Much is made of the disintegration and atomization of the modern American proletariat. In Minneapolis, as if in direct refutation, a unified struggle against a strong, well-armed enemy was waged en masse.
Interviews of protestors from those first three days share many common themes. One is an emphasis on unity, even when the particular interviewee is disagreeing with an aspect of the protests. For example, those who regretted the use of physical force against the police would acknowledge that they still stand with those protesters who have employed force. Many observed the cross-racial solidarity, and noted the presence of Minnesota’s Native American population. None of those interviewed exhibited the banality, dreariness, or narrow mindedness of mainstream American political discourse. In fact, it can sometimes seem as if this footage is a glimpse from a different world, a world in which the unsustainability of our society, and it’s barbarism, can be frankly discussed. Although the vocabulary of police abolition was not explicitly invoked very often in those early days, it would be popularized after the Third Precinct burned and the fundamental idea was widely endorsed. In short, the crowd was unified and knew that the police could not be reformed, only abolished.
Even with multiple serious disagreements in the movement, perhaps the largest one being on the morality of violence, there was shared agreement on the goal. Police abolition came to be seen as a requirement for continued existence. With their struggle, the protesters said that the world could not go on as it was. There was room for healthy disagreement, as long as there was concurrence on the goals. The resilience of that idea inspired unbelievable courage and made a propulsive, world shaking movement possible. Furthermore, and this is something that is impossible to cite or quantify, the energy of that moment was something felt by all.
The power of that energy should not be forgotten. Since those heady days in the early summer, much has occurred, all around the world, and the memory of that time is more distant and faded than it should be. It was a moment when anything felt possible, and, to an extraordinary extent, it was. Some have said it radicalized a generation, but that will be for posterity to truly ascertain. However, it certainly, if briefly, galvanized a generation that had been otherwise hopeless and directionless.
The formulation of the political theory of police abolition was displayed by the burning of the Third Precinct, a display which contributed greatly to the idea’s spread. In the middle of a pandemic, the theory of police abolition had a tripartite virality. The first, and in the early days of uprising, the most important, was the powerful articulation of the Minneapolis proletariat, which stirred the proletariat around the world. The second was — similar to how tactics were shared on social media — the spread of PDFs and infographics explaining the demands. In particular, Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? was widely shared. The third aspect of police abolition’s spread is the most interesting. Campaign Zero, a police reform organization that emerged in the wake of the Ferguson Uprising of 2014, released the disastrous #8CantWait platform for police reform on June 3. This was, quite transparently, an attempt to strip the movement’s demands of their radicalism and to provide liberal politicians with an easy out. Unsurprisingly, in the first days of the platform’s existence, mainstream Democrats, Vox, and figures like Oprah were promoting it. However, the slate of reforms was subsequently so savaged by figures on the ground who saw through the reformist opportunism, that, by June 9, members of Campaign Zero were apologizing for the initiative. A competing measure #8toAbolition was launched to more positive reception. The idea of complete abolition could be spread because reformism was seen as vacuous and impotent.
Reformism wearing the language of abolition, however, could still survive and thrive. Even as reformists like Campaign Zero were being humiliated, in early June the beginning of the defanging of “defund the police” could already be observed. Take for example, the #8toAbolition initiative cited above. Although this initiative acknowledges the need for complete police abolition, it fails to recognize the initiative and self-direction inherent in the Minneapolis Uprising. The proletariat of Minneapolis exercised the abolition of their police, albeit temporarily, through the destruction of the Third Precinct and the occupation of George Floyd Memorial Square. This was a self-directed action, without the need for intermediaries or elected representatives. The language of #8toAbolition, however, is that of social democracy, as it advocates for redistribution of resources. This is a failure to reckon with the truly radical formulation of the Minneapolis Uprising, and an early example of how the slogans and language of abolition began to be peeled away from the direct power of the uprising itself.
Moreover, after the propulsive beginning, the reliance on elected representatives and bourgeois politics became the greatest weakness of the movement. It must be clarified, no matter how self-evident it may appear, why this is. Senator Sanders or Senator Warren cannot deliver emancipatory justice for black lives in America. This is not due to the personal failings of individual politicians. The Senate is an undemocratic institution designed to uphold a white supremacist, capitalist state, and it can never be a tool of liberation. No Supreme Court ruling can hand down freedom; the purpose of the Supreme Court is to maintain the existing power structure. This fundamental aspect of America must be reckoned with and seen with clear eyes. A similarly honest appraisal must be made of the proletariat’s present power. Without a general understanding of how capitalism works, a prioritization of theory also as a force for change, and the construction of a strong party of the class for itself, the proletariat is reliant on bourgeois governments to exercise change on its behalf.
Still, the burning of the Third Precinct and the occupation of George Floyd Memorial Square provide a brief glimpse of alterity. The much remarked-upon presence of Native Americans alongside black people provides a cross-racial example of systematically disenfranchised groups taking and exercising power. Not only were they using their creative will to begin to shape a world in which they could live more fully human lives, but they were doing so without talking in abstraction. They used their hands, their bodies, and their voices. They labored together and used that labor to form connections among themselves that could create a better world.
When the uprising was in its ascendancy, sympathizers around the world devoted their time to the new ideas and practical tactics that were emerging from Minneapolis. Now, as the efforts of the masses have run aground against institutional resistance, very few still look to Minneapolis. If we are ever to continue the momentum of those incredible days, we must see the entire arc of the uprising — not just the powerful beginning, but the failings and faltering that followed.
II. After the Third Precinct
Over 60 countries saw protests in response to Mr. Floyd’s murder. Often those events started as sympathy protests with the US, and then shifted focus to oppose local police brutality and structural racism. Of course, the Minneapolis Uprising was not solely a source of fascination for those on the radical left. All of bourgeois politics, and the world more broadly, turned to the city. The proletariat of Southside Minneapolis, in the face of glaring racial injustice and white supremacist violence, demanded to be heard. They matched their demand to action, and successfully, if briefly, secured the attention of the world.
Reactionaries, of course, had to weigh in. The very nature of these protests were an existential threat to their project. Trump, unsurprisingly, weighed in with his usual fascistic fervor. On May 29, he tweeted that Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey is “Radical Left” and that, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” This is an implicit endorsement of an idea that the proletariat of Minneapolis had explicitly refuted in their actions and protesters’ interviews: human life is not as important as property, Trump fumes, as he calls for looting to be treated as a capital offense.
The video of Mr. Floyd’s murder was so shocking and clear that the condemnation was bipartisan. Even Senator Ted Cruz weighed in that “it was clearly police brutality.” However, Republican rhetoric around the events in Minneapolis centered on the decisions of the individual murderers and the looting. On June 1, Senator John Cornyn, on the floor of the Senate, condemned Derek Chauvin’s actions as an individual but stated that “change can’t happen when businesses are being looted.” This attempt to decouple the event from any structural critique is typical of the Republicans. They also attempted to blackmail protesters (“change can’t happen”) into relinquishing proven means of exerting pressure on the political mainstream.
In Minneapolis, elected officials, who, it appears, had been reeling since Mr. Floyd’s death, finally began to make their own moves. The Minneapolis City Council is composed of thirteen members, twelve of whom are in the Democratic state affiliate, the Minneapolis Democratic-Farmer-Labor party; the council has substantial power relating to matters of policing and the overall city budget. These thirteen elected representatives had control of the “legitimate” levers of bourgeois political power that could, theoretically, achieve the change demanded by the protesters.
The demands to defund the police could not have been made at a more opportune time. The City Council was simultaneously “preparing to make budget cuts in June to handle a $165 million shortfall related to the pandemic” and conducting police union negotiations. This was a strategic and savvy demand. It reveals yet another front on which the central demand of the uprising fights, namely, against austerity. Had the uprising not occurred, we can only speculate where the bulk of those cuts would have been, but it’s reasonable to assume that the City Council would have pursued a policy of austerity against the people.
Exertion of political pressure by the protesters and on the members of the City Council became the main tactic of the uprising in June. The City Council members needed to appear open to such pressure, and willing to listen, in order to win back their own credibility, influence, and power. They had been party to the decision to abandon the Third Precinct, an active surrender to the creative power of the proletariat that surely haunted some of them. Councilwoman Linea Palmisano described the burning of the third precinct as the “epitome of ultimate chaos in our city.” In the council members’ comments this rhetoric of “chaos” or “lawlessness” recurs, and, in this regard, they are in continuity with the patricians of ancient Rome who labelled any power beyond their own as “barbarous.”
The City Council held an emergency meeting on May 30 to address the crisis. Council President Lisa Bender, in an email on June 1, stated that she had received multiple demands for divestment from the police, and individual council members released their own statements echoing that sentiment. These statements often included acknowledgement that drastic measures were needed. In his remarks, Councilman Phillipe Cunningham said, “you can CCC down the list of all of the various aspects of even 21st century policing, which was a part of President Obama’s administration. Those efforts have really not panned out to substantive change.” Cunningham recognized that reforms like body cameras or de-escalation training would not satisfy his mobilized constituency. This is an extraordinary admission.
Due to the mass movement’s radical demands and its unwillingness to settle for reforms, Council members found themselves between a rock and a hard place. On June 2, Councilman Steve Fletcher said, “The whole world is watching, and we can declare policing as we know it a thing of the past, and create a compassionate, non-violent future. It will be hard. But so is managing a dysfunctional relationship with an unaccountable armed force in our city.” Fletcher went on to say that, “after the first time I cut money from the proposed police budget, I had an uptick in calls taking forever to get a response, and MPD officers telling business owners to call their councilman about why it took so long.”
Containing surprising honesty, Fletcher’s remarks illuminated a previously hidden dynamic—the use of extra-legal methodology by the police to maintain their current levels of funding and power. During the nationwide uprising, many mayors and city politicians seemed afraid and held hostage by an openly hostile police force. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addressed this in a tweet on May 27, saying “a lot of politicians are scared of the political power of the police, and that’s why changes to hold them accountable for flagrant killings don’t happen. That in itself is a scary problem.” A particularly striking example of this open hostility was the doxxing of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter by the NYPD union in a tweet on May 31. So the council members found themselves between an uncompromising constituency demanding, at the very least, major cuts to the police budget, and a police force with a history of punishing council members for making such cuts.
Source: public domain
Far from being apolitical, the police are, on the whole, very politically engaged and willing to fight to maintain their power. Several massive police unions endorsed Trump in the 2020 presidential election, often citing his “back the blue” stance as the motivator for their support. Ed Mullins, president of the same NYPD union that doxxed Chiara de Blasio, prominently displayed a QAnon mug during a Fox News appearance. Mullins’s preening is part of a larger pattern of law enforcement members embracing the far right QAnon conspiracy. According to Ali Breland of Mother Jones, “these public expressions could just be the visible tip of a larger iceberg of less visible support for QAnon from law enforcement contingents, including from officers worried about repercussions and savvy enough to keep their conspiratorial politics to themselves.”
That hidden iceberg made itself seen during the January 6, 2021 fascist riot at the US Capitol building. At least 31 off duty police officers from across the nation took part in the riot, alongside openly white supremacists and QAnon supporters. Moreover, the fascist riot can be read as a response to the George Floyd uprisings. American history professor Robin D.G. Kelley, in an article at the Intercept, commented, “I’m really thinking hard about the notion of a thin blue line, and what does it mean when the very forces that many of us were fighting in June are the forces that ended up trying to take the capital?” Kelley described violence like that seen on January 6 as “responses to insurgency.” The insurgent, nationwide BLM uprising threatened the police, and in response they flirted with far right politics, doxxed politicians’ daughters, and engaged in a fascist riot.
Although the Capitol riot was still months away, hindsight shows the participants shared the hostility displayed by the police during the BLM uprising. There was a real aspect of entitlement to the police response to BLM — they were enraged at having their power questioned. By June 1, there was already enough footage of police brutality against journalists alone for Vice to put together a compilation. In Minneapolis, the president of the police union, in a June 1 letter, described the uprising as a “terrorist movement.” All of this should be kept in mind when considering councilman Fletcher’s remarks on police retaliation. He elaborated on those remarks in his June 5 Time editorial, “I’m a Minneapolis City Council Member. We Must Disband the Police—Here’s What Could Come Next.” He stated that after he spoke out about the retaliatory slowdowns, “elected officials from several cities and towns around the country have contacted me to tell me I am not alone in this experience.”
Fletcher explained his push to disband the police by stating that, “after viewing George Floyd’s murder, watching police not only fail to apologize, but escalate the situation with aggressive tactics, and finally watching the department abandon neighborhood businesses to exclusively defend their precinct building, most of my constituents have had enough.” June 6 saw another massive day of action. One march explicitly calling for “defund the police,” ended with an appearance and speech by Minneapolis’s congressional Representative Ilhan Omar. During her remark, Omar not only endorsed defunding, but stated that “we need to completely dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.”
With much pomp and circumstance, on June 7 at Powderhorn Park, nine of the thirteen City Council members pledged to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. Council President Bender said that “our efforts at incremental reform have failed,” and that the Council had a commitment to “end policing as we know it.” The council members did not pretend to have any precise answers for exactly what ending the police would look like. They merely pledged to divest from traditional policing, which they identified as being rooted in white supremacy, and to invest city funds in community and mental health resources. Councilmember Cunningham, acknowledging the peacefulness and camaraderie on display in George Floyd Memorial Square, stated that, “we have a paradigm for safety that is rooted in community and justice. We have seen it the last two weeks.”
This vagueness was worrisome. Talk of community policing should not be viewed with starry eyes. Camden, New Jersey, which disbanded their police force and recreated a new police force alongside enhanced community policing initiatives, should not be seen as a model of what can be done. The transformation of Camden policing saw a massive expansion of surveillance, and did not see needed additional funding of social services. Moreover, and it bears repeating, funding for public goods handed down from elected representatives does not, in any way, speak to the transformative and radical initiative of the Minneapolis proletariat.
Still, the Council, with a much-touted veto-proof majority, had pledged to completely dismantle the militarized, highly funded Minneapolis Police Department. In no way, shape, or form did this happen.
A different aspect of the official response was displayed by Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. On June 10, Arradondo abruptly pulled out of contract negotiations with the police union. This made national headlines. In Arradondo’s explanation of this decision, he cited the union’s power to have arbitrators overturn termination or disciplinary decisions about police officers. While he was sure not to endorse police abolition, he was generous with vague platitudes, saying that “history is being written now, and I’m determined that we are on the right side of history.” This showy move appears to have been just that, as the contract negotiations simply continued without the chief. The Star Tribune said, “some on the City Council described the announcement as a publicity stunt.” By September, local reform groups were voicing worries about the complete lack of transparency in the continued contract negotiations. Arradondo, however, secured his headlines and a moment in the sun. For him, it seems, that was enough.
June 26 brought a minor bureaucratic development that seemed to provide the possibility for broader change. In response to continued agitation and vocalization from the Minneapolis proletariat, the City Council voted 12-0 to approve an ordinance that would amend the city charter, changing the language that mandated the city to maintain a police department. The specific language set to be replaced described a “police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident,” meaning that, legally, the City Council had to maintain that leveling of policing unless the language was removed. Instead, the ordinance stated, the city would maintain “a department of community safety and violence prevention.” The ordinance proposing the remove and replace amendment still had to be reviewed by the Charter Commission.
The Minneapolis Charter Commission is a fifteen member body appointed by the Hennepin County District Court, which is responsible for legal oversight of the Minneapolis city charter, and “is analogous to a standing constitutional convention.” If the Charter Commission approved the repeal and replace amendment, that would make it a ballot measure during the November 3, 2020 election, requiring a 51% vote to pass. This did not happen. Instead, on July 29, the Charter Commission voted 8-6 to block the repeal and replace amendment from appearing as a ballot measure. This was a consciously reactionary vote. Commissioner Matt Perry said “[the City Council is] intent on defunding the police. So I think having the provision in the charter to have a minimum number of officers and employees in the department is a wise one at this time.” Notably, Perry does not cite a legal argument. The Charter Commission, who are appointed legal officials, had taken it upon themselves to put limits on the political decisions of democratically elected officials. On August 5, the Charter Commission voted 10-5 to delay debate on a similar amendment, effectively blocking it from appearing on the ballot as well.
Such a reactionary, entrenched bureaucracy blocking reform is hardly new. However, the inexhaustible energy of the Minneapolis proletariat was refreshing. Perhaps recognizing that their demands would not be met, the Minneapolis proletariat refused to relinquish their remaining asset, namely, the continued occupation of 38th & Chicago, otherwise known as George Floyd Memorial Square. The city had met with and negotiated with occupiers of the site, and had set August 17 as the date of a planned reopening. However, on August 14, the city announced that this reopening would be delayed.
On August 17, the community members holding the site released a “justice resolution” containing 24 demands, many of which related to earlier cases of police brutality in Minneapolis. The demands include the end of indemnification for police officers and an end to qualified immunity. Interestingly, the words abolish or defund do not appear in the document. Less than three months after the burning of the Third Precinct, and already it was hard to imagine, let alone demand, complete abolition. Still, the language is admirably defiant. “As the city meets our demands for justice,” the resolution reads, “the barricades can be negotiated for removal.”
To present the resolution, the occupiers held a press conference. The Unicorn Riot article on this press event describes how “Jeanelle Austin, a primary caretaker at the George Floyd Memorial Square, reminded everyone that “the city killed a man and that is why we are all here.” She said the art [in the Square] was protest art, resistance art, and that the space is not a museum.” The understanding that George Floyd’s murder stemmed from a systemic problem, “the city,” and not just four “bad apple” officers, was constantly being reaffirmed and reinforced in these statements and by the actions of Memorial Square more broadly.
This was not empty rhetoric. The night of August 16 saw a sustained protest around Minneapolis’s fifth precinct. In their article on the protest, Unicorn Riot described how “a participant shouted into a bullhorn that it was “not advisable” for the city to follow their upcoming plans of ‘taking down George Floyd Square.’” The building was egged, spray painted, and fireworks were fired at it. Several months later, in January of 2021, City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins complained about the continued occupation of 38th & Chicago. “Protesters cannot just take over the city. That’s not a reality.” Community members reminded her of their 24 demands in the justice resolution, unshaking in their commitment. The city government has failed to meet all of those demands, and so, the barricades, for the time being, remain.
After preventing ballot measures, the Charter Commission formally and completely rejected the City Council’s charter amendment. Charter Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein explained the decision, saying that “there was no evidence that we were able to collect that showed how the charter change specifically would facilitate police reform.” This is an example of further bureaucratic, and semantic, maneuvering on behalf of the Charter Commission.
With their more extreme plans defeated, the City Council ultimately voted for the “Safety for All” plan, which cut only $8 million dollars from the Minneapolis Police Department’s $200 million budget. It also “funds an expansion in the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, funds mental health crisis response teams, and moves more than a dozen civilian employees of the Minneapolis Police Department to other departments.” Police staffing levels were not affected by this plan, and, due specifically to that compromise, the mayor signed the budget into effect. The budget, notably, “include[d] cuts to all the city’s largest departments.” Another measure was a change in disciplinary proceedings intended to prevent police officers who commit misconduct from getting off as easily as they had been.
This did not implement any of the various demands in the justice resolution relating to this matter. Instead, it merely made the city attorney’s office more involved in the process.
And so, a year of intense struggle and hardship closed in Minneapolis. The beginning of 2021 brought superficial changes. Minneapolis Police Department union president Bob Kroll announced he would retire at the end of January. Fittingly, he would be leaving office in the same month as Donald Trump, a politician Kroll had vocally supported. Just as in the case of Trump, Kroll’s departure would not solve all of the problems he embodied. “There remains a culture of impunity in the department that his departure alone won’t solve,” Gross said. “The officers themselves elected him multiple times so clearly that shows that they are fine with the culture…”
The Charter Commission continued its reactionary politics. In December, it had announced its initiative to overhaul the city government. “The commission is considering changes that could dramatically transform the structure of city government, potentially handing the mayor new power while better defining the role of the city’s council members, who hold considerable sway in their wards and in the daily management of the city. Also under consideration is the hiring of a city manager to shield rank-and-file staffers from political debates between the mayor and the council.” While the language was deliberately vague, it seems clear that this initiative was taken to prevent the Minneapolis City Council ever again attempting to defund the police. The police department funding debate was even specifically cited by some more forthright Commission members.
Iric Nathanson, writing for the Minneapolis Post, rightfully pointed out that “any effort to redress the balance of power between the mayor and the council will play out again the furious controversies now swirling around the future of public safety in Minneapolis. The current council has already signaled its desire to cut back Mayor Jacob Frey’s authority over the Minneapolis Police Department while enhancing its own MPD oversight role.
According to the Star Tribune, Charter Commissioner Greg Abbott “said debates about the future of the Minneapolis Police Department — and who should control it — reinvigorated a longstanding discussion about how to share power and responsibilities in the city.” It seems not coincidental that the Charter Commission, which opposed police abolition, would favor the mayor, who also opposed it, in the debate over the balance of power in Minneapolis municipal government. Moreover, the plan would even criminally charge council members who dare to “usurp, invade, or interfere” with the mayor’s authority.
Councilmember Cunningham rightfully pointed out that “anything that involves the criminal justice system inherently disproportionately negatively impacts people of color. So this makes me very nervous as a Black City Council member.” Instead of defunding the police, the mayor and Charter Commission of Minneapolis now seem dead set on expanding policing. The Charter Commission’s proposal is set to appear as a ballot measure in November 2021. They appear to have to have no intention of blocking this one.
Eight months and four days after the murder of George Floyd, three members of the Minneapolis City Council proposed another charter amendment. It is startling how much the new demand, formulated without the creativity and forcefulness of the Minneapolis proletariat behind it, contrasts with the earlier ones. The newest proposal merely advocates for the expansion of public services and making police accountable to the city council. “Unlike last year, if the council members continue on their current trajectory, the commission will not be able to use its powers of delay to keep the question off the ballot this fall.”
III. Spontaneity, Creativity, and Violence in 21st Century America
The narrative of the Minneapolis Uprising, and the broader, international Uprising for Black Lives, is one of extraordinary ascendancy and institutional defeat. There is nothing surprising about the institutional defeat. Structures like the Senate or the Minneapolis Charter Commission cannot produce justice. They are unjust, bourgeois structures, designed to maintain the white supremacist, capitalist order. Of course the City Council has been humiliated and defanged.
This is not surprising to those who waged war on Minneapolis’s Third Precinct. An anonymous protester on the second day of protests (May 27) summed up the reality of the situation: “The change needs to be now. Because Donald Trump, Joe Biden… these ain’t the answers. So, something gon’ pop. It’s gonna be a long summer. It’s gonna be a thick winter. We’re getting into some seasons. This is a new norm. Get used to this shit.” There was never a point when this struggle was not going to be prolonged, and the Minneapolis proletariat recognized that when they began it.
Source: public domain
Perhaps the most successful tactic on display in Minneapolis was the most simple. Footage of the first three nights of protest in Minneapolis makes one thing clear — the streets were packed. A multi-racial mass, mainly young people of color and overwhelmingly black, surrounded the Third Precinct for over twenty-four hours. The building was abandoned when the police realized that they were significantly outnumbered. As they left, they fired a piddling few tear gas canisters and so-called less than lethal projectiles. They had fired all they had at a crowd that was not wavering.
Historic courage was shown that night, and from that courage stemmed new possibilities and the reawakening of a long struggle. Not only did a mass movement emerge over night, but this one successfully combated and terrified a well-armed police force. The movement was strengthened by an idea, a shared recognition that things could not go on as they had. Police abolition was needed and the reforms secured by previous BLM uprisings were not enough.
The strange, dangerous weeks that followed saw widespread brutal police crackdown on protests, including targeted attacks on journalists. More insidious were attempts to construct a counter insurgency, using methodologies refined during the American military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. This was proof, as if more were needed, that actions of American imperialism abroad will not stay abroad.
This unique moment emerged out of a history of struggle, both centuries old and recent. The struggle against capital and white supremacy is, of course, an old one. The struggle of Black Lives Matter in America is a more recent one. Clearly, the Minneapolis proletariat has learned from both. The Ferguson Uprising was an incredible moment of resistance, and certainly fresh in the memory of the black American proletariat.
Chris Dorner, the black Los Angeles police officer turned domestic terrorist who targeted police officers, lives on in a variety of internet memes, as does Micah Xavier Johnson, the army veteran turned Dallas sniper who similarly declared war on the police. While these figures appear in memes and kind references, their tactics have not been duplicated. They are treated as martyrs, but not as models. This indicates a recognition by the black proletariat that individuals cannot substitute their own actions for mass actions of the population.
Earlier BLM uprisings laid the groundwork for the newer, more radical, larger, cross-racial, and more sophisticated formation that appeared in Minneapolis. Spontaneously, a sophisticated and unique understanding of twenty-first century American anti-capitalist struggle emerged, with its own tactics, philosophy, and victories. On its own, this development is extraordinary. However, when you compare the growth and maturation of BLM to contemporary American movements — the Sanders campaigns or the trade union movement — BLM is astounding. Whereas those movements have become atrophied, incompetent dead ends, the BLM movement has shown an extraordinary capacity for growth and adaptation. To quote MHI’s recent statement on the movement, “… the foremost achievement of the new, mass stage of the BLM movement is its own multiracial working existence.”
Still, as much as there is to be admired, the spontaneous approach of BLM has its limitations. There remains a need for mass movements to go beyond defeats and to develop themselves through absorbing and adding to Marx’s philosophy of liberation. Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism, in her book Philosophy and Revolution, focuses on the need not only to overthrow the old order (“first negation”), but also to prepare for the even harder task of working out a new society (“second negation”). Her book, after discussing the new mass movements of the 1960s and 70s, ends with this (p. 292):
The reality is stifling. The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own. It demands a unity of the struggles for freedom with a philosophy of liberation. Only then does the elemental revolt release new sensibilities, new passions, and new forces—a whole new human dimension.
Ours is the age that can meet the challenge of the times when we work out so new a relationship of theory to practice that the proof of the unity is in the Subject’s own self-development. Philosophy and revolution will first then liberate the innate talents of men and women who will become whole.
The people of Minneapolis have been brave, innovative, and united on issues of “first negation.” There has been widespread agreement not only there but around the world about the needed “destruction of the old.” But the lack of the BLM movement’s self-development to encompass an explicit theory of liberation allowed space for defanging, counter insurgency, and, ultimately, defeat of its key demand.
However, we must not view this initial defeat as indicating a need for a patronizing or condescending view of workers’ initiatives, especially in light of the incredible development of the Black Lives Matter movement up to this point. As Rosa Luxemburg once said, “historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.”
The call for police abolition, currently more muted than in the heady days of last May, continues. It can and should be tied to other, older struggles and to philosophical notions. Just as police abolition emerged from mass struggle, so too did those older ideas. Marx, Luxemburg, Dunayevskaya, and Fanon, among others, did not produce their work in dusty isolation. They responded to and learned from the mass struggles of their times.
It appears very likely that the coming months will provide ample opportunity for reinvigoration of the BLM movement, because the police murders of black people are continuing unabated. George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department less than eleven months ago, and many more police murders have followed since. On April 11 of this year, Daunte Wright was killed by Brooklyn Center police during a traffic stop, less than ten miles from where Floyd’s murderer is at this moment on trial. Each time, the black American proletariat has stood up across the country. Already protests have broken out over Wright in Minneapolis, Dallas, Portland, and New York.
Although this article sought to track the rise and fall of 2020’s Uprising for Black Lives, history has overtaken me. What I saw as a fall was merely the trough in a larger wave.
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