It took 66 days to get from the first shelter-in-place order to the first riot. Alongside the absolute outrage over the murder of George Floyd, we might also register some small sense of hope that it remains possible for people to struggle against the arrangement of the world that is for them always a source of violence, to struggle for the very possibility of their flourishing, to struggle together and in the streets. Certainly, during the interval, the possibility that this potential had been eclipsed gnawed at everyone I know. It has not.
Events are still unfolding and I don’t want to draw easy conclusions. There should be real humility in the knowledge that all theory comes from struggle, it doesn’t precede much less pretend to direct it. It feels important, for those of us who can’t be out there, to be attentive to what is intolerably familiar: the police murder of a black person, the lie that the police were acting in self-defense, the revelation that this crudest of lies covers over a lynching. The familiarity of this does not in any way diminish its intensity. The extrajudicial killing of black people is central to the ordering of United States society, central not just to how power maintains itself but how it knows itself. And the legitimacy and necessity of black rage is in part an attempt to survive this order, to make an order against it. For all the desperate bleats from news sources and politicians regarding chaos in the streets, there is disorder only in the most literal sense: an attempt to unmake the order founded on racialized violence.
This framing of disorder, moreover, is part of a longstanding tradition — present alas on both the left and right — of deciding what counts as politics. Manifestly regularized groupings with clear hierarchies and votes and funding structures and org charts and an office somewhere: yes, definitely politics. But riots not so much, without fail written off as thoughtless and spasmodic responses to the immediacy of communal suffering. This goes with the pernicious idea of the outside agitator, an idea which promises that all the aspects of a protest beyond simple communication are secretly organized by schemers from some mysterious elsewhere who take advantage of the chaos and of the legitimate grief and fury, feelings to which they are supposedly indifferent, to impose their own political ends. All of these fantasies have the same function: to exclude black people from the realm of the political, to refuse to recognize in the riot one of the most basic and longstanding forms of collective action. While the state takes ever more violent actions, the image projected equally by the news outlets and the cadre of governors blathering in their terror is of a world stood on its head: feeling is the only legitimate politics, while acting is somehow something else.
These demobilizing tactics are demoralizingly familiar. Against this, there are glimmers of the new, built as always from the shards of the old. Even as the response to SARS-CoV-2 has promised the growth of an already steroidal surveillance state, the collapse of any anti-mask laws (of the sort that Trump et al. endeavored to harden during the great Antifa crisis of 2017) seems to open at least some greater leeway for public antagonism. Certainly, the reminder that the surveillance state has not yet overcome all limits, that its desire for total information awareness can be controverted, has been for many a restorative experience. As masks are integrated into a new normal in the US, as they have been for a good while elsewhere, the balance of forces will be for a while shifted.
Among the most bizarre features of the 66-day interval were what we might call antistrikes: collective and violent demands to return to work at whatever wages and conditions were available. These were in many ways astroturfed, expressions not of the imagined worker but of the business owner trying to make the money machine go brrrr again. If these pantomimes were in this way lies, they still spoke the truth of capitalism’s incapacity to address the situation When wages mean survival, what do you do when work’s function of keeping the proletariat alive to work some more is suddenly contradicted by the fact that work may in fact kill off so many proletarians that capitalism can’t function? It would have been satisfying to watch capital’s official and unpaid spokespersons wriggle in this trap had the circumstances not been so horrifying and so deadly for people we know and love. The government, whose role as capital’s servant has never been so clear, set about the task of calculating how exactly they would set the parameters of working and buying in an adequate balance to make the economy live at the expense of however many lives, a tinkering which was adopted as the single task of the vast state apparatus until they were forced to turn their eyes to Minnesota and then suddenly everywhere else.
The entire scenario had the further effect of making property seem weird. The April First revelation that you could just…not pay your rent was surely an important tear in the ideological veil; the historically unique collapse down to a labor participation rate of barely 50% ripped the veil further. And then there was the experience of commodities themselves, those most naturalized of things. When people start to wash down their groceries with bleach wipes, that is estranging. When the entire sector charged with transforming people’s money into merchandise is discovered to be essential, on par with medical workers, and it is evident that these workers must risk their lives for that transformation to happen, that is estranging. When the government admits openly that it will, against its best predilections and habits, pay people to buy stuff to save the economy, that is estranging as fuck.
One has to wonder if this has not changed the dynamic of looting just a bit. The usual reactionaries will say the usual things, but the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves, when the question of how basic goods get from the hands of capitalists to the homes of proletarians has never been so emphasized, when the piling up of goods elsewhere has never so obviously been recognized as the hoarding of necessary social wealth — this is maybe something new. The departure of looting from immiserated neighborhoods into the crystal valleys of Melrose and SoHo has no doubt struck fear into the hearts of the very commentators who have for a long time demanded such a leap, carping against “destroying your own community” (as if a community could ever be made of commodities). Trapped in their own bad faith, they can now only pretend to a moral authority that augurs against taking anything of value, even if the obvious goal is resale for money needed to live, as this supposedly abandons any claim on necessity (as if they would defend the seizing of milk and diapers). None of this should be taken seriously by any observer, as we are all aware that these hand-wringing creatures will support looting in the singular circumstance that it is conducted by a Bezos great or small. The looters are self-evidently the good faith actors here, engaging in a plebiscite about survival. This is just one of the ways that the riots of 2020 eclipse the year’s other political lodestar. Maybe the revelation of 2020 could be not, “wow, a quasi-socialist almost became a presidential nominee,” but “whoa, we’ll never vote away the police,” and also “whoa, the barriers to accessing survival goods are absurd and unacceptable,” and lastly “woe, these two facts are one.”
The striking image from Minneapolis of a police station in the United States being overrun, abandoned by its forces, and burned is entirely new within modern memory. Think of the sacking of Minneapolis’ Third Precinct as our internationalist turn; after all, nine years ago in Egypt, 99 police stations were put to the flame in a single night. So much for American exceptionalism. Seeing images of the neighborhood, the police entirely pushed out, provided a reminder that the blockade and the barricade — so fundamental to riots and other forms of circulation struggle — want to move from being interruptions of traffic or commerce to being defense of territory. One echo hovering in the Minnesota night on May 28 was perhaps the ongoing insistence by the Oglala Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux people on forming and maintaining checkpoints to protect traditional lands, at one point even effectively banning the governor of South Dakota from entering. While the rationale offered for the checkpoints is medically clear and legally persuasive, it is not difficult to see also the afterimage of the checkpoints that protected unceded Wet’suwet’en territory from the RCMP’s incursions on behalf of the Canadian petrostate earlier this year, and behind these a host of similar struggles. Nick Estes and Glenn Sean Coulthard reminded me the other night that the American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis and began, as did the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, with community patrols. This history, of a land-based struggle for self-management that must begin by setting itself against the police, hovered around the burning of the Third Precinct. If there was ever a time to set up a neighborhood as an autonomous commune, managing itself without reference to the colonial state, this was it. Or, almost. We all knew more thugs would arrive armed with guns and flag patches, as the President dreams his imperial dream of martial law. But we must also suspect that this leap toward asserting a collective process that keeps state violence out, not new but for many made visible through indigenous struggles, is on the table if police murder is to stop and any sort of collective autonomy is to begin.
It is important that these understandings of the current state, and of the nature of property, already exist, more for some than for others — the racialized underclass, most especially people whose families have been property, must bear among other things the heavy knowledge that the property system is death, and that the police as the keepers of that system are the keepers of death. No other verdict on the institution is possible. The property system traverses racial and other lines, to be sure, and I am reminded that the still-rising tide of incarceration is swelled by rates in largely white counties, especially in opioid country. One way to account for the role of the police-prison pipeline is in its role of social dispersion and wage suppression. A recent article by Adam D. Reich and Seth J. Prins, “The Disciplining Effect of Mass Incarceration on Labor Organization,” is only the latest to demonstrate how what is politely called “exposure to the criminal justice system” serves to undermine collectivity and in the end wages. That is to say, among other things, cops make capital. They are extractive tools. It is wrested from all of the poor, albeit in disparate ways and in part via those disparities — yet another reason it would be bizarre to imagine that a national uprising in the first instance against the police would be racially monolithic. But this is not to say that all parties find themselves in the same position. In the midst of the pandemic’s enforced immobility, and now of selectively enforced curfews across the country, the slavecatcher’s history that says some humans may be allowed to circulate and some may not, is inescapable. It is present in the very image of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.
One final novelty to mention, among many that will go unsaid. It has been common, over recent decades of horrifically similar events, for riots to happen locally when the police do their killing, and to extend nationally (and beyond) when the police are found not guilty, or not charged at all. This was the pattern after the beating of Rodney King and after the murder of Michael Brown, the two sequences with the broadest reach since the summers of 1967 and 1968. This week has been markedly different, with riots extending swiftly from Minneapolis across the nation in the days after the murder. I do not want to offer any easy explanations for this development. Events are still unfolding, and it matters first to watch and learn. It seems possible that part of the explanation may lie with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia just a few months earlier, in all its own particularity and horror. We should say his name, and Breonna Taylor’s, and many others. When George Floyd was murdered, the matter of contemporary lynching was already in the air for some and for others pressed up against their hearts like a shard of glass.
One thing that stands out about the lynch mob that killed Arbery is that it was not led by the police. Not exactly. The three white men were police-adjacent, Gregory McMichael a former cop, Travis his son, Roddie Bryan the enthusiastically complicit neighbor. They collectively killed Ahmaud Arbery over a claim of theft far more counterfeit than any twenty-dollar bill. Echoes, of course, of George Zimmerman living out his thwarted dream of becoming a police officer by executing seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin. More devastating still is the fact that at least one person in the neighborhood was told previously by the police that if they had any trouble they should contact Gregory McMichael, now just some retired guy. It is a nauseating series of connections in which the Venn diagrams of whiteness and policing are drawn increasingly together by the rule of property, and the name for their shared terrain is License to Kill.
But perhaps something is visible in that. I have struggled, at my own job, to teach the concept of structural racism; we are all of us so endlessly pushed to understand bad actions as the consequence of bad ideas held by bad apples. But the casual deputization of Gregory McMichael, and really of every white person in that neighborhood, is the better teacher. When the nine-minute murder of George Floyd was circulated, it may be that part of its power was not in its exceptionality but the opposite — perhaps everyone understood that this is what always happens, more and less sudden but always this obvious and this brutal, no resisting, no sudden movements, no reaching for a supposed gun. Perhaps it was finally clear enough that his murderers were those four cops but that the killers were also the order of racial capitalism as such, property as such, policing as such. When you finally come to know this, it is inevitable to desire individual justice, but hard to imagine that you ought to wait for collective justice to be through such measures achieved.