The United States: An Awakening Decades in the Making

Protesters march against the murder of George Floyd on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

International Revolutionary Convergence V.1, Aug. 2020

There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.
V.I. Lenin

Introduction

The brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops turned out to be the last straw for hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. A combination of circumstances – from the pandemic and the new economic crisis to systemic racism and years of rising inequality and more – converged to help shape a ticking time bomb of outrage, especially among the Black population and young people. And George Floyd’s murder just pushed everything to the edge, exploding into weeks of protests in cities and small towns in every state in the country, and in major cities around the world.

Social conditions in the U.S. have been deteriorating for over a decade, disproportionately impacting Black people and imposing an increasingly uncertain future on most young people. The police have always terrorized the Black population with almost complete immunity from prosecution. Systemic racism has degraded the lives of Black people for generations. And many Black youth regularly face the dual threat of being incarcerated or gunned down in the streets.

At the same time, many young people in the U.S. have grown up with little to look forward to other than an adulthood of economic insecurity, drowning in debt. But even that grim future is threatened by an increasingly destroyed environment accelerating towards total collapse. And in contrast to a more hopeful atmosphere that the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, brought to many people, those who came of age during the era of Trump have had to navigate a new climate of open nationalism and blatant xenophobia coupled with a lingering anxiety about what will come next.

And then like a tornado, the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression as the U.S. government responded by protecting capital over human life. Millions of people lost their jobs in a matter of weeks with no sign of things getting better. Those who continued working had to fight for safer working conditions.
This pandemic has ripped the mask off the capitalist system in the U.S. and revealed its priorities for all to see. The relentless violence of this system, the callous preservation of profit at any cost, the enduring racism, the conscious contempt for human life – all are hallmarks of this system.

It is too soon to tell where all of this will lead. But there is no question that tens of thousands of people have already been transformed by their experiences. In a matter of a few short weeks, suddenly a generation-defining social movement could be taking shape. We will see if the working class is finally drawn out of a long slumber and into what could be a powerful movement.

A Movement on a Scale Not Seen for Years

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and the horrifying videos of his killing were released soon after. Three days later, a Minneapolis police station was burned to the ground by protestors. Within a week of Floyd’s death, protests were spreading to major cities and small towns across the country. In one single day, on June 6, over half a million people turned out in nearly 550 different demonstrations across the United States. As of June 12, there were protests in over 2000 different cities and towns, with multiple protests in big cities happening at the same time, drawing thousands of people. With no schools in session, students home from college, very few people working, and many people fed up with sheltering in place, untold numbers of people were free and eager to participate in rallies and demonstrations in every part of the country. Demonstrations of solidarity have taken place in over 60 countries and on every continent except Antarctica.

Curfews were imposed in over thirty cities. The National Guard was called out in over 35 states, deploying more than 17,000 troops across the country – more U.S. soldiers than are currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than ten thousand people have been arrested. More than twelve people, mostly Black men, have been killed – one shot by the National Guard, others shot at or near protests, some by individuals on the far-right.

Many small towns reported protests for the first time ever. A town like Beatrice, Nebraska, for example, with a population of 12,000, 95 percent of whom are white, was the sight of several protests by dozens of young people who were never active before. Protests have taken place in small towns like this in every state and in some of the most conservative counties in the country.

Three weeks after George Floyd’s murder an estimated 26 million people had participated in protests, with an average age under 30 years old, and over 50 percent of people participating in a protest for the first time in their lives.

The majority of protests have not been called by organized groups but have arisen out of a generalized discontent and have been called by individuals spontaneously, using social media – the majority of whom have never done anything like this before in their lives.

Everywhere the participants reflect the general demographics of young people in these communities. And there have been protests with people of all ages, from toddlers to grandparents. The diverse and multi-generational nature of the protests reveals a real awakening happening in this country, an awakening to the reality of the brutal racist conditions that Black people have faced for centuries. And this awareness has led to the mass mobilization behind the banner “Black Lives Matter” and the refusal to tolerate the racism of this society along with the brutality of the police any longer.

The potential for this period to unleash a deep-seated anger in the population has certainly not been lost on the ruling class. Senior Democratic Party politicians, along with local city officials have rushed in to promise changes to policing and makeovers to their cities as they remove monuments and various commemorations of slavery and racism. Large corporations have urgently responded by trying to remove overtly racist products and practices. These politicians and leaders are ready to promise reforms if it will get people to give up and get out of the streets, and once again accept solutions offered within the framework of bourgeois democracy.

On the other hand, as the Democrats have tried to seem sympathetic, the Trump administration, along with many Republicans, have pushed in an opposite direction, deciding to demonize protestors as terrorists and thugs. Thus far Trump has staked his re-election on opposing protests, defending racist monuments, and sending federal officers into a variety of cities to bolster law enforcement.

In a few short weeks, changes that were once deemed impossible, have been wrenched from this system. In the past, politicians could get away with calling for police department investigations, and making promises of getting rid of bad officers. But this movement has made those promises obsolete.

These protests have already forced the firing of police officers and the resignations of several police chiefs. The Mayor of Minneapolis now has a hard time showing his face in public without being denounced.

The Democratic Party politicians have proposed new legislation to make police misconduct more transparent. Many cities have passed bans on chokeholds and other practices of excessive force. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, passed legislation requiring local officials to work with community members to change police practices. Minneapolis city officials proposed to dismantle the police department supposedly creating something new. And many politicians have begun to make promises of funding cuts to police departments.

Protests have toppled dozens of monuments commemorating Confederate generals, and others who represent slavery and the entrenched racism of the society. Now politicians have begun to promise to remove other offensive statues and to rename institutions named after racists. Trump and others have denounced the removal of these landmarks in order to appeal to reactionary forces.

All of these changes are significant not because they transform society in any lasting way, but because they were unthinkable just a short time ago. They are important because they have demonstrated to an entire generation that change is not won through endless visits to the ballot box, but by mobilizing in large numbers. It has shown people that their willingness to rise up is a real threat to the functioning of society.

Together these changes and promises will have little impact on the functioning of the police. The role of the police as the front lines of the violence to defend the system is not changing. The main purpose of these reforms is to get the protests to cool down, and to convince people that the system is still capable of addressing people’s grievances. The ruling class is well aware that when those illusions are shattered, the path to an even more powerful movement can open up quickly.

But what is clear is that this movement has given hundreds of thousands of people a new experience that cannot be easily forgotten. Many have uncovered a contagious hope in this extremely dismal time. And regardless of whether this current wave of protests subsides, there is likely more to come.

The COVID Catalyst

This pandemic has turned up the heat on a society already simmering with anger. The official response to the pandemic can be summarized in one comment by Trump: “the cure can’t be worse than the disease.” Trump was making explicit that the usual neglect for workers’ lives under capitalism would continue unabated during the pandemic.

For two months after the first identified case, the U.S. government did nothing to contain the virus, didn’t even produce a working test. And once the lethal impact of the virus was undeniable, the authorities basically gave up mounting anything close to an appropriate response. Those in positions of power have done little or nothing to contain the virus in the interests of keeping their economies as open as possible. And even by the end of July, as many other countries were able to get the virus under control, in the U.S. the virus is raging on, with over four million infections and over 150,000 dead with no end in sight.

And into this nationwide vacuum of neglect and abandonment, working people had no choice but to respond. Health care workers created their own makeshift protective equipment, requisitioned their own supplies, and organized walkouts and demonstrations against unsafe conditions. In the wealthiest country in the world, nurses were forced to use trash bags as protection, with some later reprimanded for it.

Thousands of living rooms turned into makeshift sewing factories as people focused their efforts to making and donating masks to protect health care and other workers. Workers at Amazon, Instacart, Wholefoods, Walmart and many other food and delivery companies organized protests and walkouts. By the end of April there were over 150 walkouts, sickouts or rallies of workers across the country in many different industries, from health care to meat packing and more. The possibility of a working class fightback seemed to be increasing.

The economic crisis resulting from this pandemic has been deeper and more rapid than anything before it. In the first three weeks, unemployment claims hit 17 million, the highest three-week total ever recorded. By the end of July, over 55 million people had filed for unemployment. A record wave of bankruptcies of both large and small business is still to come crashing down. With so many out of work and in need of food across the country, food banks, with lines that stretched for miles, began running out of food by midday as the number of people on food assistance had more than doubled. And soon, when government legislation temporarily restricting evictions of those who cannot afford to pay rent will have expired, millions of working families could face the threat of being thrown out into the streets. If poor and working families weren’t already outraged, this misery was enough to push them closer to the edge.

Overall, from the federal level down to the states and cities, politicians have showed their allegiance to the ruling class, putting the needs of the economy above the health and safety of workers and their families. What has been made abundantly clear is that their system will not protect working people, whose future is now in their our hands.

An Accumulation of Social Decay

Before the U.S. government allowed this pandemic to further rip the country apart, the last decade in the United States has seen a series of attacks on the working class amidst skyrocketing inequality. Any increases in national income since the 2008 crash has gone to the richest one percent of the population. Today the average CEO in the U.S. receives 312 times the average worker’s wage. And the cost of this transfer of wealth has been paid by deep cuts to workers pensions and health benefits, cuts to social services and education, massive layoffs, and the replacement of full-time benefitted jobs with with low-paid, part-time and temporary ones.

For most workers, getting by means going into debt and living paycheck to paycheck with almost no savings to fall back on. Almost half of Americans say they couldn’t afford $400 for an unexpected expense, like a medical bill. The average American household is a record $140,000 in debt. About 40 million people live in poverty, which includes 15 million children.1 At the same time, there has been a steady rise in homelessness in major cities. While workers’ wages haven’t been going up, the cost of health care and housing and just about everything else has.

For many workers, life in America has become a never-ending nightmare of stress and insecurity. This misery can be seen in the record number of suicides and drug overdoses per year, a 40 percent increase since 2007, about 132 suicides per day. It has shown up in a declining life expectancy in recent years. It’s become visible in the record number of people living in their vehicles, unable to afford a real place to live. And for millions of retired workers, it has meant searching for a new job because they either don’t have a pension or their pension doesn’t provide enough to live on.

A System of Enduring Racism

For Black people in the U.S. this American nightmare has become unbearable. The impact of systemic racism on the Black population can be seen in all aspects of life, from poverty to unemployment to incarceration and education. Nearly every health outcome is disproportionately worse for Black people. Black people are twice as likely to live in poverty as white people, twice as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to die by suicide, and Black women are twice as likely to give birth to preterm babies. Black neighborhoods are the most polluted in the U.S., and Black people are three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than white people.

The racism of U.S. society has maintained stark segregation and inequality in schools, with many schools more segregated by race today than any time after 1967, during the Civil Rights Movement. High School dropout rates are almost double for Black students compared to white students, and the gap is about the same for college graduation rates. In 2017, one study showed that 37 percent of Black adults in Chicago ages 20-24 were neither working nor in school – that number was only 5.7 percent for whites.

Black people are regularly targeted by law enforcement. They are killed by police more than twice as often as white people, almost always with no consequences for the police. They are more likely to be stopped by the police, have guns pulled on them, or be arrested than white people are. All of this while Black people are less likely than white people to have drugs on them when searched by police. And Black people are only 13 percent of the U.S. population and are 38 percent of the prison population, and are about five times more likely to go to prison than whites.

As Black communities have been emptied of any resources that once existed that could provide some hope and stability, such as education, jobs, public housing, and other social services, the resulting poverty and hopelessness has given birth to the violence of the streets. Today Black people are about eight times more likely to die from homicide than whites.

And now the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the racism of U.S. society. Black Americans have the highest mortality rate from the COVID-19 and are 2.3 times more likely to die from the virus than white Americans. They are more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions that worsen the outcomes from the virus. They are more likely to work in essential industries that did not shutdown during the pandemic, like grocery stores, delivery, transportation, and health care, which have the highest rates of infection. Even George Floyd, a security guard, was confirmed to have had COVID-19 through his autopsy.

It’s not just the brutal murder of George Floyd that has led people into the streets. It’s the decades of dreams deferred by poverty, incarceration, degradation, and relentless brutality and murder at the hands of police that has been unleashed in this moment.

Racism in this country is as old as the nation itself, and as pervasive as it has ever been. It is not simply the remaining residue of past centuries and recurring failures to fully address it. It remains because it is an indispensable part of U.S. capitalism, and a powerful tool to obstruct people from seeing their common interests and standing together to fight for a better world. But today, with these protests, its capacity to obstruct could be waning, especially as the situation for the entire working class continues to worsen.

Further Aggravated By Trump

Trump’s presidency has been a constant promotion of racist, sexist, and xenophobic hatred. All of the underlying features of social disintegration have only been further aggravated and made more unbearable by this administration – like salt in a wound.

His presidency has helped reinvigorate far-right groups, repeatedly and openly encouraged white supremacists. When neo-nazis gathered in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump made sure to call some of them “very fine people.” His first tweet after protests against George Floyd’s murder was “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” openly inviting attacks on protesters by the police or right wing forces.

And amidst widespread protests against racism and police brutality, Trump chose Tulsa Oklahoma as the location of his first reelection campaign rally – the site of a 1921 race riot where mobs of white people brutally attacked and killed an estimated 300 Black people and burned 35 square blocks of one the richest Black communities in the country to the ground. Trump added insult to injury by choosing June 19th to hold his rally – a day that commemorates the end of slavery and celebrates the struggles of Black people in this country. There’s no question he was hoping his rally could be a rallying cry for racists around the country. But the power of people in the streets forced him to move his rally to the following day.

Trump continues to appeal to some sections of the working class even though his policies are, in reality, a systematic attack on the lives of all workers. His presidency has further accelerated income inequality through tax cuts for corporations and the rich, amounting to an estimated $4 trillion. The military budget has continued to increase to all-time highs while federal funding for many social programs have been cut. Environmental destruction has intensified. Anti-immigrant policies have expanded, including life-threatening conditions for those incarcerated in detention facilities.

The Bankruptcy of the Democratic Party

Throughout the Trump administration, Democrats have done little to actively oppose his policies, criticizing them in speeches but doing next to nothing to really oppose them. This is not a significant change. It was their failure to respond to the needs of the majority of people during the Obama administration that helped pave the way for Trump in the first place.
Obama was elected through a wave of enthusiastic voters expecting improvements to their lives and society. Instead people ended up poorer, more in debt, more surveilled, more policed, living in a more militarized society, working more hours and multiple jobs to survive, and surviving on a planet facing increasing destruction.

For eight years the Obama administration deepened the attacks on the working class, overseeing the largest transfer of wealth to banks and corporations in the nation’s history. As military budgets expanded, austerity was imposed on most social services from education to health care. The environment was not better protected under the Democrats who expanded fossil fuel extraction and oil exports, and increased CO2 emissions. And the worst aspects of Trump’s anti-immigrant polices had their roots in the Obama administration, who increased deportations of immigrants to about three million in total, the highest of any administration.

In the last two years of his administration, after the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the country, Obama oversaw the fastest increase in the militarization of the police, spending roughly $2.2 billion on military equipment for police departments. And just like Trump, Obama too referred to protestors as “criminals and thugs.”

And today, as this new crisis ravages the lives of working people, all that the Democrats can point to as a solution to these problems is to vote for Joe Biden, who stands for every betrayal of the Obama administration and has nothing to offer except that he is not Donald Trump.

These Protests Did Not Come Out of Nowhere

The last twelve years of intensified attacks on the population brought with them episodes of outrage and resistance that helped pave the way to the present situation. The young people that have been in the streets today grew up during this period, many of them participants in these prior struggles. They are the generation that grew up with the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. They are the students who protested Trump, who spoke out about sexual violence, who demanded a society that can keep them safe from gun violence. They are the children of immigrants and other minorities, enraged by the racism of the society. They are a new generation of youth who find themselves with no choice but to stand up to the destruction of the planet and the threatened erasure of their futures.

During the Obama years, there were ongoing protests against the class priorities exposed during the 2008 recession and the bailouts that followed, culminating in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In 2014, there were explosive protests after Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and too many other Black people were again brutally killed by police. A wave of street rebellions and protests spread across the country, buildings burned and stores were looted as armored vehicles roamed the streets. It was during this time that Black Lives Matter became a symbol for standing up to racism and police violence.

Immediately following Trump’s election, many protests erupted, involving tens of thousands of high school aged youth, chanting “Not My President.” Similar protests erupted in response to Trump’s frequent racist remarks and policies attacking immigrants and Muslims.

In response to the pervasive violence against women in society, there were massive rallies and marches for women’s rights with hundreds of thousands of people, eventually symbolized by the hashtag #MeToo. This movement has not only taken down dozens of high profile sexual predators, but it has also helped to draw attention to the ongoing violence and discrimination against LGTBQ people.

Young people have intensified their protests against the destruction of the environment, starting during the Obama administration and continuing under Trump’s presidency, helping to shape a new generation of climate activists. Like Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, many of these young people have begun to question the very purpose of the path laid out for them, studying only to integrate into a society that promises them no future.

The Sanders campaign in 2016 became an outlet for many young people. It succeeded in raising people’s expectations about the kind of society they wanted to live in. But these hopes were dashed as Sanders lost a second time to Biden in 2020, further weakening some people’s illusions in the electoral system.

Taken together, these movements have played a profound role in shaping a new radical consciousness among millions of young people. They have helped normalize protest and resistance. They have highlighted the pervasive problems of this society, and helped further expose the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. These protests have certainly not led to a revolutionary consciousness of young people, but they reveal a deep outrage at the status quo, a feeling of urgency for change, and an awareness of the importance to resist.

Where Can This Lead?

It is very possible that the mobilization of the considerable apparatus of the Democratic Party and their connections to the churches, unions and other organizations may be able to once again channel this anger into an election campaign – this one to bring down Trump. It just might be enough of a distraction to temporarily dampen people’s willingness to take to the streets.

But even if this does happen, and protests subside for some time, this won’t be the end. Rebellions and protest will return – just like the pandemic, there will be more waves. For young people, none of the problems that have radicalized them so far have any prospects of going away – their futures have only grown even more uncertain in this period. Whatever little hope an education may have once offered, it is rapidly disappearing as schools close and move classes online while more jobs disappear.

For the Black population, this pandemic has only intensified an already untenable situation – who knows what the final death toll will be if it ever ends. And despite the much promised reforms, the role of the police in capitalist society is not changing. They will continue to defend this system through violence, and continue to terrorize the Black population.

Will this anger impact the working class and end its decades-long passivity, drawing them into the current struggle? What will happen when workers see that the unemployment is here to stay? What will happen when rents become due and the threat of eviction is shoved in workers’ faces? What will happen when front line workers become exhausted, when health care and transportation and food and delivery workers are pushed further to the edge? What will happen as state and local municipalities increasingly face revenue shortages because there is far less income to be taxed, and they once again begin to impose aggressive austerity cuts?

How will the ruling class address the problems of this system that are now exposed for all to see? How long can the working class go on enduring this misery? Trump is sounding his racist and nationalist alarm to attempt to get white workers to close ranks around him. And some are gathering at his events, proudly not wearing masks, which has now come to symbolize Trump’s ongoing attempt to downplay the threat of this virus. Certainly most Black and Latino workers, who are more conscious of the deep injustices of the society will not be attracted by Trump’s demagoguery. And it is now uncertain whether those white workers who were previously attracted to Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric will still follow him. With the continued spread of the virus and the increased levels of unemployment impacting the entire working class, those white workers who rallied around Trump are being deeply impacted. The question is where or against whom will their anger be directed. Will they be able to see their place in this movement?

Today young people are the catalyst for this movement. The multi-racial composition of recent demonstrations may serve to begin to bridge the divides that exist in the working class. And if the working class begins to confront the crises it faces, we can expect mobilizations that could finally go beyond episodic protests in the streets and engage the social force necessary to transform society.

A revolutionary working class organization could play an important role in such a movement, but no such organization exists today in the U.S. – it must still be built. The relatively small number of individual revolutionary militants that do exist in the U.S. today are scattered in different parts of the country and often have very little connection to the working class. But the period ahead could open up the possibilities for them to forge connections in the working class as well as open up the conditions for the formation of new revolutionary militants – both necessary steps on the road to constructing a real revolutionary working class organization.

  1. The (very low) official poverty threshold is $25,000 for a family of four.