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Burn It All Down

by | June 19, 2020

The bourgeois, however, is tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be.

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia



Throw a molotov cocktail at the precinct

Salvage glorifies the burning down of the Minneapolis third police precinct. We celebrate the abandonment by cops of Seattle police’s east precinct, now taken over by activists who weathered tear gas and rubber bullets. We applaud the tearing down of monuments to slavers, colonisers and Confederate leaders. 

We salute the achievements of the Black Lives Matter movement, and this uprising. The banning of chokeholds in Minneapolis. The commitment of the city’s councillors to, as city council president put, ‘end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe’. The upgrading of charges against officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd, and the arrest of his accomplices. Forcing Boston transportation authorities to stop bussing cops to protests. Forcing politicians to discuss cutting police funding, for once, as in Los Angeles and New York. Putting defunding and abolition of the police on the public agenda, despite resistance from Democrats like Joe Biden and even the estimable Bernie Sanders. Even the expansion of the woke dollar, with anti-racist books jumping to the top of the charts, and a section of monopoly capital represented by Adidas, Lego and Netflix embracing Black Lives Matter, is a good sign. It means the ruling class is divided. Sometimes you have to burn down the precinct before anyone listens.

This uprising was sparked by the murder of George Floyd after he was arrested for allegedly trying to pay for goods with a fake twenty dollar bill. (The allegations were false – not, had they been true, that it would have changed the monstrosity of the police’s actions.) The killer cop, Chauvin, held his knee on Floyd’s neck and head for about three minutes after he stopped moving, for two minutes after he stopped breathing and he was found with no pulse, and for one minute after the paramedic arrived. He made sure Floyd was dead. The cops claim that Floyd resisted arrest, and refused to get in the police car. They claim that when he fell face-first to the ground, he was resisting arrest. They claim that Chauvin put a lethal chokehold on Floyd, applying his knee to the back of the head and neck, because Floyd was a dangerous man, over six foot and two hundred pounds. The first medical officer’s report claimed that Floyd’s death was not caused by asphyxiation, and speculated that pre-existing conditions and substance abuse brought about the death. These medical claims were disproved by an autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family. They must say all this for the same reason that they had to claim that Michael Brown was charging through a storm of bullets from 150 feet away, to kill Darren Wilson. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Tennessee vs Garner, 1985, that police may only use lethal force if they have ‘probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others’. Almost as much as the murder itself, these gaslighting rationalisations – which were even included in the criminal complaint against Chauvin – fuelled the rage driving these protests. 

Yet the uprising is not the whole of the movement, which follows a longer arc beginning in recent history with the murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighourhood vigilante for the crime of walking boldly through a gated community and failing to reassure his assailant with racial deference when attacked. The struggles in Ferguson, Baltimore, Madison, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Louisville forced into public consciousness the names of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. It was not far from Minneapolis that Castile himself was murdered. As sociologist Michael Billeaux writes for Conter, ‘in many of the hundreds of cities where they are calling for justice for George Floyd, there were already movements calling for justice for someone else the local police had murdered … All of these murders, and many more, had triggered local movements for justice that created or expanded networks of movement activists and sympathizers’.

To the cumulative struggles of the movement can be credited the sudden, salutary rift in mass consciousness on police violence and racism. Remarkably, a majority in the US supported the burning down of Minneapolis police department after the murder of George Floyd. A vast majority now support the Black Lives Matter protests, even some Republican voters. Most support banning chokeholds and racial profiling. The biggest shift has been in white opinion. Tellingly, the protests have been geographically dispersed, often erupting in largely white towns like Norwood, Ohio, Sandpoint, Idaho, Harlan, Kentucky, and Ontario, Oregon. They are almost always multiracial, in a way that the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore often weren’t. Whence this sudden explosion of ‘allyship’? It has been speculated that some of the opportunity window for mass protest is provided by lockdown and the unprecedented amount of free time that millions have. But what of motive? Could it be that the racist cops are not necessarily friends of poor, precarious and working-class white Americans? Race is, Stuart Hall once argued, a modality in which class is experienced by raced subjects. The injuries of class are distributed, if not evenly, quite widely. ‘All lives matter’ is, under racial capitalism, a lie: ‘Black lives matter’ a necessary, urgent demand. If it were achieved, however, it is likely that in absolute numbers most of the lives saved would be white.One study of police murders across seventeen American states found that while black citizens were grossly overrepresented, the majority (52 per cent) of those killed were white. The biggest subset of killings (22 per cent) were related to mental health. Kenan Malik points out that one of the best predictors of police murders is income, and that mass incarceration is not just raced but classed. This, along with the shattering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing recession on the American poor, and the drastic expansion of the unemployed and precarious, is likely to be among the reasons why the current Black Lives Matter uprising is the biggest explosion of working-class protest and riot in the US for decades.

Herein lies the mistake in seeing ‘race’ and racism as a series of individual disadvantages and advantages (or ‘privilege’), which can be enumerated and even monetized. Those disadvantages and advantages are real – if someone is being disadvantaged against then ipso facto someone else is being advantaged. But the politics implied by this position are untenable: even if the sum of all the material differences between white working class American and Black working-class Americans were distributed from the former to the latter, the gulf between both and the assets of the wealthiest 10 per cent would remain orders of magnitude larger. Even more confounding is the view of racism as a failure of ‘representation’ in the symbolic order of communicative capitalism. Such ideas replicate the notion of ‘race’ as a purely symbolic or mental phenomenon rather than a material and social relation, embedded in differential housing, education and employment prospects and, of course, state violence. There is nothing more material than a cop’s knee on your windpipe. Hence it is possible for notionally colour-blind institutions – or even, as in the case of most city administrations faced by the current uprising, those led by politicians of colour – to perpetuate and enforce ‘race’ inequality and oppression because they will not challenge the rule of private property that produces such conditions. Indeed, as Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor puts it in an excoriating op-ed for the New York Times, the limits of representation are most obvious in the failure of ‘black politics’ to alleviate any of these problems. The black political class, represented by Obama, the Congressional Black Caucus, and dozens of black mayors have all been implicated in supporting policies that keep racism alive–some have unleashed direct physical repression against Black Lives Matter protesters. The latter category includes every single black female mayor starring on CNN’s ‘Mayors Who Matter’ town hall special. Nor will the Woke Dollar tolerate being taxed and regulated enough to provide the universal public housing, employment, health care etc that would begin to undo the making of race.

Black Lives Matter is, yes, an uprising of working-class black youth. It is also a youth uprising against racism and police violence, and a revolt of increasingly precarious workers against the reactionary alliances of repression that have taken power in the US and abroad. Hence the internationalism of the movement, whose supporters have erupted in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Belfast, Dublin, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Brussels, Auckland and Ramallah. From Syria to Poland and Mexico, memorials to George Floyd have appeared. They are not just protesting against the most vicious and heavily armed concentration of sovereign racial violence in the world. They have their own disputes with their own ruling classes, their own police and their own occupying armies. British journalists have been quick to insist that ‘our’ police are not like ‘theirs’. It would be vulgar to claim that the scope of state violence in the UK approaches that of the US, even taking into account our indigenous traditions of police killings (most recently taking the lives of Rashan Charles and Edson Dacosta), incarceration and brutalisation of immigrants, surveillance and internment of Muslims, warmongering and fascist-mainstreaming press exhortations against racial Others. Traditions, be it noted, that Corbyn’s ‘unpatriotic’ refusal to defend, was one of the main causes of his public auto-da-fé. Nor is, for example, Islamophobic ‘republicanism’ on the French pattern, with its anti-hijab laws, its routine police violence against those whom Sarkozy dubbed the ‘racaille’, its disproportionate locking up of French Arabs, ‘emergency rule’ and its legacy, and its imperialist ventures in north Africa, yet approaching the Usonian scale of violence. And yet the subterranean flow of identification, the contagion of radicalisation, links concrete experience to concrete experience, producing a potentially globalised rebellion. This is a fight that has assembled those forces whom Fred Hampton called the ‘proletariat’ against the ‘reactionary pigs’.



Those who work forces

The racial state is not without its defences. In city after city, US cops have rioted. They have singled out unarmed, non-violent protesters for beatings, punchings, tear gas and rubber bullets. In Minneapolis, local officials point out that it was the brutality of the police in responding to Black Lives Matter protests that turned a protest into a blaze. To an extent, this behaviour can be ascribed to the cop ethos. Police are, in David Graeber’s pithy formulation, ‘bureaucrats with guns’. They are a lower bureaucracy trained in the application of violence to resolve problems in governance. As such, their eternal prerogative is to ‘define the situation’. This is the petty bourgeois autonomy of the cop on the beat: they are not always paid well, but the law’s role as a cultural force, defining social situations, gives them both a freedom from management and a supervisory power over citizens that they defend tenaciously. Any challenge to their prerogative is, whatever the Supreme Court says, potentially lethal. This is so taken for granted that a former cop could write for the Washington Post, after the murder of Michael Brown: ‘If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me’. This attitude, demanding docility no matter the situation, is charged with the full history of America racial manners in which the demand for deference falls heaviest on the raced. 

The US police force is not just a lower bureaucracy, however. Repeatedly, it has emerged as a political force in its own right, particularly when its prerogatives are challenged. The most dramatic example of this in living memory was when rank and file cops rioted in New York City in 1992, egged on by Rudy Giuliani, against black mayor David Dinkins and his plans for more civilian oversight of complaints. They assaulted bystanders, destroyed property and screamed racist abuse about ‘niggers’ and the ‘nigger mayor’. This was a crucial episode in the subsequent election of Giuliani on a law and order ticket. Yet, by and large it has not been necessary for cops to protest. Police unions are one of the biggest funders in state and local elections, and have been extremely effective in seeing off even the tepid ‘reforms’ supported by Democrats. In the era of the neoliberal disciplinary state, moreover, where social security infrastructure has been run down and replaced with repression, police budgets have swollen: especially in major cities such as New York (where they cost $5.6bn a year), Los Angeles ($1.73bn), and Chicago ($1.68bn). The shift of resources to policing is one reason why cops kill so many mentally ill people, who might otherwise be approached by mental health professionals: similar patterns of austerity and police killing of the mentally ill obtain in the United Kingdom. And though the police have long been pampered by both Republicans and Democrats, organised cops are in spontaneous sympathy with the proto-fascist energies circulating in the established white middle class. The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement was a source of colourful conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter being a ‘a tentacle of a Marxist, revolutionary Global movement’ well before Trump was elected on similar counter-subversive themes. In 2016, the largest police union backed Trump and his white nationalist, ‘Blue Lives Matter’ ticket. It is doing so again in 2020.

The police crackdown is not, though, just an expression of their social being. The strategy has been coordinated from above by the Trump administration’s loyalist attorney general William Barr. It is under Barr’s instructions, in faith with Trump’s tactics, that the National Guard, the US military reserve, has been deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters. The justification for this has been that the protests are being incited by ‘Antifa’, shortly to be defined as a ‘terrorist organisation’. Barr, echoing Trump’s words, called the protests ‘domestic terrorism’. The deployment of legal/police networks in the repression of Trump’s political opponents is of a piece with the general corruption of the administration. Barr has defended Trump against the legal manoeuvres against him by the liberal state, while also involving the Department of Justice in politicised investigations of Trump’s likely rival, Joe Biden. He is extraordinarily disciplined in public, defending Trump’s absurd claim that the elderly activist assaulted by police in Buffalo, New York could be an ‘antifa provocateur’. And it was Barr who, loyally, ordered police to assault a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square in Washington DC in order that Trump could stage a photoshoot.

However, the centralised unity of the state has not been able to override its fissiparousness, reflecting the broader strategic schism in the US ruling class. As evidenced by the ‘autonomous zone’ in Seattle and the burned down precinct in Minneapolis, police have often lacked the political capacity to overwhelm protesters despite their clear military advantage. The unevenness of police responses, with some local departments conspicuously eschewing confrontation, also demonstrates that the material institutions of the state are in some disarray. Trump’s legitimacy was never consolidated throughout the state apparatuses due to reserves of opposition to white nationalism, was weakened by state-level resistance to his anti-migrant project, has been weakened further still by his chaotic response to the pandemic and his exhortations – hardly convenient for local authorities – to ‘liberate’ states from lockdown. The legitimacy of his base within the state apparatuses, particularly the police as currently constituted, is also not what it was.

In this circumstance of official confusion, where state responses are still somewhat constrained by constitutional norms and democratic pressure, Trump’s best hope is a flourishing of right-wing vigilantism. Indeed, the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence has always been delegated to citizens in the United States, particularly when it comes to policing the radical order. Cops themselves are often vigilantes in their downtime. Trump has never hesitated to incite violence against his opponents particularly if, like Ilhan Omar, they can be racially Othered. He has been carefully equivocating over acts of violence by his racist, far-right supporters, from the murder of a homeless man in Philadelphia during the 2016 campaign to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. His current language about ‘Antifa’ is not just ‘fake news’, but calculated incitement. It is a call to arms, in a country overburdened with arms. The vigilantes have begun to organise, just as they did over lockdown. In the United States, there has been a sharp rise in ‘vehicle ramming attacks’ in which far right militants, emulating the murderer of Heather Heyer, plough into Black Lives Matter protesters with their SUVs. There have been a spate of black men found dead in supposed ‘suicide by hangings’. In New Mexico, a Black Lives Matter protester was shot by vigilantes while police looked on. In Philadelphia, armed vigilantes assaulted protesters, and were ‘high-fived’ by police. They have also turned up in Idaho, Ohio, California and Chicago, pointing their weapons at protesters, claiming to be protecting civil order from Antifa. An online faction of white-supremacist 4channers, calling itself the ‘Boogaloo’ movement – where ‘Boogaloo’ refers to a racist civil war they hope to instigate – has made itself known in meatspace. One of its members, a former air force sergeant, has been arrested for shooting two cops in California, evidently in an attempt to hasten the race war.

There are, in this congealing of heteroclite forces, the materials for an incipient fascist counter-subversive movement. They remain small, outnumbered, if not outgunned, marginal, and dependent for their capacity to harass and assault on the indulgence and aid of police forces. For all the strength of the hard right and far-right curious in the corridors of state, the alt-right has been somewhat on the defensive in recent years, as have many less hipster far-right iterations. This is why they are often reduced to ‘defending statues’, many of which were never even threatened, as with the decidedly un-alt-right beered-up thugs, the ‘statue defenders’, pining for football violence and racist terror in central London, or performing outrage over petty cultural squibs like television companies removing classic sitcom episodes from their catalogue. Their hope, for the moment, is to lure BLM activists into a symbol-minded displacement activity, such as a disproportionate focus on defacing or removing statues where the movement has claimed some relatively easy – and thoroughly deserved, and inspiring – victories. That terrain, of cultural resentment, is more promising for them if they are losing on the ground of anti-racism. As it is for the politicians who disavow them while empowering their spite and their agenda – hence in the British case, as countless commentators, by no means all leftists, have pointed out, Boris Johnson’s coldly cynical whipping up of a racist culture war by swearing to ‘protect’ statues of Churchill, in the same breath as his will-this-do? tutting about violent white-supremacist debauchery – a species of that endlessly useful, costlessly-condemnable phenomenon the comedian Stewart Lee once called The Bad Racism. 

Yet, were Trump able to secure a second term against the palpably decomposing Joe Biden in the US elections, this would give such forces of violent racist reaction both an enormous shot of confidence and an – emboldened – ally in the executive for a crucial interval in which their forces could assemble.



Imperialism and ‘systemic racism’

This danger lurking in the wings, taking potshots, is itself the excretion of another source of instituted racial violence: US imperialism. Thus far, despite the remarkable discursive shift, this has not been widely picked up on.

In the aftermath of the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, Cedric Robinson pointed out that the ‘extraordinary attention’ to the killing was different in tone and substance to the coverage of ‘official Israeli rationalisations for the horrific civilian deaths in Gaza’. What accounted for the difference? Why were so many journalists who had ‘feasted on WMDs in Iraq’, thus contributing to the culture in which migrants crossing the southern border could be treated as a ‘terrorist threat’, outraged on this occasion? Because the Brown story could be made to resonate with ‘a familiar, manageable, and seductive narrative’ drawn from the heroic era of Civil Rights activism, ‘which blew away all the ambiguities and contradictions’ of twenty-first century racial capitalism. Although there is as yet no evidence of the Democrats making any but verbal adjustments to the Black Lives Matter movement, one can see in this ‘erasure’ of empire the means to a future cooptation. The liberal nationalist mythology of the hard-centre can accommodate the critique of brutal cops, and even glibly acknowledge ‘systemic’ racism without being terribly clear what ‘systemic’ means. Indeed, it may find a surprisingly convivial partner in certain iterations of Afropessimism and its softer ideological cousins, on that score.

However, were the uprising to accept this omission, it would be a life-threatening mistake. As Stuart Schrader points out, the culture and organisation of American policing derives from imperialism, occupation and counterinsurgency. Beginning in the 1960s, in response to social uprisings over Civil Rights and Vietnam, the American state upgraded its techniques of social control, developing a roster of professionals who connected counterinsurgency in south-east Asia and Latin America with policing and carceralism in the US. Since the late years of the Clinton administration, the US Pentagon has given surplus military equipment to police forces. Amnesty International points out that hundreds of US police departments from states all over America, are trained by the Israeli Defence Force in the military and securitarian tactics that have racked up human rights abuses and extrajudicial murder. They behave like occupying armies because they are formed by imperialism, armed by imperialism, and trained by imperialism. The same also applies to white power murderers and vigilantes. The modern far-right gained its first major influx of recruits and its ideological stimulus from the anticommunist slaughter in Vietnam. As Matt Kennard has documented, the US military is filled with neo-Nazis and white-supremacists whose first experience of racist murder was firing on Iraqi civilians, whom they called ‘fucking hajjis’.

The centrality of imperialism to organising this assembly of repressive forces, both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the state, is indeed one of the reasons why it is so vital that Black Lives Matter is international. This does not and cannot mean the conceptual flattening of the specific race-making of racism, which is to say of race, itself. The particularities of distinct othering of specific groups and communities are not unimportant. It is one thing to insist on this due attention being granted to the specifics of anti-black racism in, say, the context of the post-slavery US state: it is quite another to suggest, as even some activists do, that making links in this moment between the BLM struggle and that against police violence against other raced subjects internationally (First Nations people in Canada, for example, and indigenous Australians) is in some way to undercut the fight against anti-black racism, or racism tout court. The opposite is true: the addition of the names David Dungay and Dale Culver and others to the litany of the dead should strengthen the fight against the murderers of George Floyd, and the system that was built on such murder. If that system of violence is international, then so must be the coalition against it. If racism doesn’t stop at the water’s edge, as Du Bois put it, neither must anti-racism. The methodological nationalism which would limit the potential of such protests, and its associated metaphysics of race, must be eschewed. If black lives are to matter, then it follows as a matter of strategic necessity, let alone political morality, that Haitian lives, Palestinian lives, Venezuelan lives and Iraqi lives must matter. Not to dilute nor disrespect nor efface the distinct history of race-making against black Americans and others, in the slightest degree: but to make sense of the murderous – national and international, imperial – machinery of race, the better to burn it all down. 

If we are arguing about whose lives matter, we can’t forget the other ways in which black and brown life is curtailed by the anti-matter of racism. In a pandemic age, raced citizens die most. In an age of climate breakdown, environmental racism puts the burden of human extinction on those with black and brown skins. Capitalist epistemology de-totalises, atomises social reality: this is capital mystifying itself. Historically, the enemies of racism have been the first to undo this de-totalisation, and to link the operations of race to the capitalist death cult. We glorify the burning down of Minneapolis’s third police precinct, as a contribution to that struggle.