my rampage on the current movement against police brutality in the united states:

cooptation from the center and (sadly, insidiously, probably unintentionally) cooptation from the left

9 june 2020

a series of social media posts made by some of my ostensibly left-wing and professedly anti-capitalist peers in the past couple of days have prompted me to write this essay. the main types of social media posts that i have encountered, and that have prompted me to write this essay are: 1. performative ones, 2. lists of black-owned businesses, urging people to patronize them, and 3. to a lesser extent, pushes for regressive reforms of the police (although #3 has been less of an issue within the group of people i am mainly concerned about— left wing, self-proclaimed anti-capitalists). (I will explain these three types of posts a little more later.)

instagram story encouraging people to support black businesses

This one in particular really made my blood boil (my blood had already been rising in temperature at the dozens of truly dumbfounding social media posts that i have seen in the past two weeks). I won’t argue that black capitalism is not the alternative we should be looking towards in a fight whose organic demand has been to end police brutality (if you disagree with this, this essay is not for you). but it really is concerning that “support black businesses” is not only being put forth as an action for ending white supremacy by literal banks and the official leaders of the BLM national organization, but even by self-identified anti-capitalists (see figure 1). and it clearly points to cooptation of the movement against police brutality from at least some source.

it’s been clear since the start that there is cooptation going on by liberal sections of the ruling class, who are collaborating with the police to quell the protest and channel demands for an end to police brutality into meaningless reforms that will largely maintain the policing system in tact. and i’ve also been aware of the problems with career-activists like the BLM founders, who have long limited their work to be within the confines of the capitalist system—ultimately concerning themselves with creating a capitalism free of racial disparity, free to exploit and destruct regardless of race, rather than with dismantling it altogether, even if they claim otherwise. but it’s the alleged anti-capitalists who give space and validity to arguments such as “support black business," as well as a host of other arguments about how this movement should play out, that has me questioning the extent to which “dismantling white supremacy,” is a useful goal to forefront in the movement against police brutality. this essay lays out a few of my considerations.

This movement has largely ignored, or has at least failed to manifest, a key fact about the nature of anti-black racism in the united states of america: that it has from its inception, since the days of slavery, been utilized to create and justify the existence of a hyper-exploited class of people by which the ruling class profits. after the abolition of chattel slavery in the US, the ideology of race has been used in various other ways to maintain such a hyper-exploited class (redlining, discriminatory and predatory lending practices, segregated work places and unions, mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, etc), meaning that black people in america today make up a disproportionately large section of the working class, and specifically the working poor. when we ignore this history, when we forget the fundamental role class relations have played and do play in the construction of race, when we assume that white supremacy is a self-sustained institution rather than a tool that has been used to divide and exploit workers, we do not simply run the risk of coming to the conclusion that race is somehow a trans-historical, natural, or even scientific (!) system— we also lose any chance we might have at abolishing racism.

Calls to “end racism” are empty unless we are also championing economic programs that would lift people out of poverty and guarantee basic human needs to all people. This seems like an uncontroversial statement to make among the left, but somehow this belief has gotten lost/overridden in the past 50 years. the civil rights movement of the 60's (and before) had racial politics and class politics go hand and hand— ending segregation and legal discrimination while also calling for universal programs to improve everyone's quality of life. martin luther king jr for example promoted the Freedom Budget for All Americans act. This bill would have: ensured that unemployment never superseded 3%; provided guaranteed liveable income for those unemployed or unable to work; guaranteed affordable housing, education, and medical care for all; improved infrastructure, improved environmental standards, and improved public transportation. here are quotes about the proposal from 1965:

[this will be the] "full and final triumph of the civil rights movement, to be achieved by going beyond civil rights, linking the goal of racial justice with the goal of economic justice for all people in the United States" and doing so "by rallying massive segments of the 99% of the American people in a powerfully democratic and moral crusade."

MLK's Poor People's Campaign called for a "multi-racial army of the poor" to attack "racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism," and insisted that doing so would require a "reconstruction of society itself." demands such as the economic bill of rights asked, again, for full employment, a guaranteed minimum wage, and low-income housing. (although these were universalist demands, i must point out that they would have ultimately disproportionately benefited black people, because black people disproportionately made up the working class.) in the midst of this struggle, MLK was shot dead while on a sanitation worker's strike solidarity campaign [1]. Clearly, he understood that ending racial inequality would require an end to end class inequalities. (and, he also knew that the defeat of both racism and economic inequality would require multiracial solidarity among the working class!)

but this new wave of protest in the present day is mostly concerned with race *at the expense of* class politics. i think what people are forgetting (or, in the case of the ruling class and their media, what they intentionally want to be forgotten) is the fact that all of the organic central concerns of the movement are issues of class. the central demand, to abolish the police, is a working class demand (the police exist to protect private property, they are a tool of the ruling class to exploit and surveil the working class). poor and working class communities feel the effects of policing every single day, and thats why i call the demand to abolish a police an "organic" demand. this is a demand formed out of people's actual lived experience.

over the first couple days of the rebellion sparked by the murder of George Floyd, i watched a lot of coverage of ground zero of the protests in Minneapolis, MN. most of the people protesting were black, many were white. most were from George Floyd’s community, clearly working class. (and there were also some white anarchists there too, thank you very much.) in other words, what sparked the protests was a working class community’s pain at the passing of a member of their community at the hands of state terrorism (I remember one white woman, a neighbor of Floyd's, attesting to his good character, that he was honest, worked, and took care of his family). but along with that were their own personal and communal lived experiences with police brutality.

so it's not just black people that have this lived experience—all races of working people do. it is true that black/indigenous/poc communities are often heavily surveilled because they proportionally make up a larger section of the working poor than they do other classes. poor urban communities are also very oftentimes racially segregated because of a history of redlining, leading to ghettoization, and urban police departments essentially putting these areas under a form of military occupation. but, it is true that all working people, especially the poor, are policed by the police. the people who dont suffer from this, regardless of race, are the wealthy (although we wouldn't know this, since major studies that look for disparities in police killings don't factor class into their analyses...)

i think we are seeing two types of cooptation right now that are equally detrimental to the movement:

...regressive outcomes, for example:

these are all, unfortunately, logical conclusions for the movement to come to, given that race has been given priority at the expense of class. and they all seem to point to the idea that it's not police killings in and of themselves that are worthy of outrage, but rather the racial disparities in these killings. if each racial category was murdered, beaten, raped, by police at the same proportion in which they make up american society, would we be satisfied then? i wouldn't.

i'm seeing this play out among my peers, college-educated, middle class, progressive and "woke", often times self-proclaimed anti capitalists. and yet, its funny that all of these things i listed (the reforms, the performative politics, the lists of black businesses to support, even the proclamation that you only care about police brutality when it is being inflicted on non-white people) are very conveniently non-threatening to, and actually conducive to maintaining, the ruling class's hegemony...! i wonder if there's a reason CNN and MSNBC have been pushing the race narrative so hard after the election of donald trump ("working class whites are hopelessly racist," etc; rather than actually addressing their economic woes); i wonder if there is some motive behind the NYT 1619 project's central premise that the entirety of american history should be read as an unending, inherent struggle between black people and white people [2]; i wonder if there's a reason the Democratic Party has recently insisted, as articulated by Stacy Abrams, that blacks and whites are separated by "intrinsic racial differences," and not to fall for the "class trap". another thing i wonder is why academia, as far as i have been able to tell, has not once included class factors in their quest to discover disparities in police killings (preliminary studies suggest that maybe, just maybe, it's a hypothesis worth investigating ☺). in the case of this particular struggle (the BLM movement), the liberal sections of the ruling class really took race as the central and *the only* issue in policing and ran with it

a note to add before concluding: the reason i’m characterizing what i’ve called “cooptation from the identitarian left” a cooptation is because i’m not quite sure that the racial narrative explaining police brutality (essentially the BLM movement) is an entirely organic one. in the case of the initial George Floyd protests, it seems to me that both the white and black people in Floyd’s neighborhood understand that police brutality is a problem they face as a community. and rather than turning this into class consciousness, various factors have turned this pain and outrage into what appears to be racial consciousness— or at least a racial narrative to explain police brutality. these factors include: the huge first wave of BLM protests 6 years ago that centered race and not class; the liberal elite’s adoption of a racial narrative (completely divorced from class, of course) to explain basically every problem facing American society today; the creation of entire fields in academia, like critical race studies, that theorize race and racism without an understanding of their fundamental class natures and are therefore unable to arrive at paths towards true liberation; a general attack on working class consciousness during the past 50 years of neoliberal terror, and anti-Communist sentiment prior to this— red-baiting which continues to this day, even in ostensibly left wing and progressive spaces. so, maybe what i should really call this phenomenon is: "cooptation from the identitarian left, which is what's left of 'the left,' after having been unwittingly coopted by the liberal capitalists."

what do you think? how organic is this racial consciousness in this day and age, where systems of visible and obvious legal racial discrimination, like segregation, are largely eliminated? do people (and i do not mean people who went to college who, apart from not truly being a part of the class of people most likely to be shot by the police or enslaved by the prison system, likely studied under the marx-ophobic academics i've mentioned previously who cringe at the thought of seriously examining class relations. rather, i am referring to common people of the working poor who bear the brunt of exploitation and oppression under capitalism) organically think of the problems they face in their daily lives as emanating from racism? one factor i’ve had to consider is that political consciousness is historical, too. in other words, history has ramifications for how people make sense of their politics today; these politics are not simply extracted from present conditions. if present conditions did exist in an ahistorical vacuum, maybe working class consciousness would be the most obvious political conclusions for both white and black working class americans to come to. but because of the history of systemic racism (for decades visible, now more or less hidden) and the civil rights struggle against it, as well as the current race-baiting from the liberal and right-wing elites (the ruling class's ever-useful divide and conquer strategy), the working class has been quite drawn to racial politics. i do have genuine questions about this, and i’m not sure what is true or what i think, so let’s talk about it if you have thoughts.

closing thoughts

so, what reforms can the BLM movement achieve to end racism while it disregards class? from least radical to most radical, some goals might include, as i’ve discussed: implementing implicit bias trainings (to eliminate racial disparities in cop killings), changes in minimum sentencing laws (to eliminate racial disparities in criminal sentencing), or abolishing the police. but even if we take “abolish the police” as our ultimate goal, and it is achieved, what are we left with? a capitalist class (the richest one of all time) that still needs their property protected, that still needs their workers disciplined and surveilled. and if this discipline and surveillance can no longer be done by local publicly-funded police departments, then county, state, and federal departments can step in — or, ultimately, policing can be privatized altogether. and it’s actually sort of surprising this hasn’t happened already, given the ever-increasing austerity measures taken by all levels of government since the inception of neoliberalism.

if, on the other hand, we stay firm to our anti-capitalist convictions, we might come to other types of reforms to address the police brutality crisis we are experiencing in this country. the intuitions coming from progressive and left-wing activists right now that we must defund the police and put this funding toward social services such as education, transportation, truly inclusive community programming, physical and mental health care, etc., are absolutely correct. we should also include programs which explicitly address economic inequality and seek to eliminate poverty to this list. ultimately, however, the working class cannot be free from policing and surveillance by the ruling class as long as that class exists— a class whose ruling power is dependent upon extracting labor from the working class, hoarding the fruits of this labor, and selling it back to their workers for profit. this class will always require some apparatus for preserving this system and to keep it running smoothly.

that means that our ultimate demand must be to abolish capitalism!

in conclusion, we can see historically that when economic inequality is high, it is easier to divide the working class into sections, to pit us all against each other as we compete for jobs, goods and services, a decent life. when we are divided, we are easier to exploit. so a hyper-fixation on race alone really becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we see our struggles as separate (ie, this is a black issue, and *not* a white issue), the more we are divided, the easier it is to exploit us, and the greater the conditions are for further divisions among the working class.

what needs to happen is working class unity across race to address the problems that are faced disproportionally by black, brown, and indigenous people, but that are faced by all working people. it's the only way we can win!

is it me who is reducing everything into an issue of class? or is what's going on here actually race reductionism? As my friend CS pointed out, there seems to be a tension in the way I'm thinking through race in relation to class. On the one hand, race can act as a distraction to class politics. On the other hand, race is a fundamental part of how class is constructed and experienced. We absolutely cannot deny that racism persists in our society. The question is, how can questions of race and class inform political strategies for moving towards a just society?

In true conclusion, here’s what i want to discuss: I really truly believed, not long ago, that there could be some balance between identity politics and working class politics. but I’m starting to doubt the efficacy and sustainability of such a balance when race takes priority every time and class goes completely out the window, only to serve the capitalist class!

what do you think? lets discuss

[1] clearly remember learning this in the second grade, and at the time i didn't really understand why he was marching with garbage men. helping me understand this might have required my public school teachers to explain class, or at least to mention poverty lol. please, revisit this history.

[2] here, I must say that WSWS's critique of the 1619 project, supported by interviews with numerous respected historians / scholars, has actually been pretty good

thanks to my friends and comrades, BA, AL, CS, SGA, RR, CK, NS, and others for your input and critiques