Urban Rebellions Then and Now
An interview with Jordan T. Camp, co-editor, with Christina Heatherton, of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Now available as a FREE ebook here.
This interview first appeared on “Against the Grain” with Sasha Lilley, KPFA 94.1, Berkeley, California on June 3, 2020.
Sasha Lilley: Riots continue to roil the cities of the United States ignited by one more killing of an African American man, at a time when states have already deployed tremendous power over society during the coronavirus. Municipalities around the U.S., including Alameda county where this program originates, have imposed curfews.
To step back and look at the unfolding events through a historical lens, I'm joined by Jordan Camp. Camp is Visiting Scholar at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he's Director of Research at The People's Forum in New York City. Jordan, how do you understand what's driving the protests, and how would you situate them within the larger trajectory of urban rebellions at least since the Watts rebellion of 1965?
Jordan T. Camp: The current moment we're living through is what the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci referred to as a “crisis of legitimacy,” or a “crisis of authority.” The ruling class has lost its consensus; it's no longer “leading” but “dominant, exercising coercive force alone.” This means that the masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies; they no longer believe what they used to.
There are certain moments when struggle intensifies, when the legitimacy crisis deepens, and previously separate forces merge. These moments are very unpredictable. In my judgment they offer a unique opportunity to understand the structure of the economic system that we live in. They also help us understand how forces of opposition can chart a path out of the crisis.
The protests that have taken shape following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are part of this “crisis of hegemony” or “crisis of authority.” When the video of Floyd’s murder was viewed by millions of people, it was perceived as symptomatic of the race and class dynamics of policing in U.S. cities. There’s been a cycle of rebellion in all fifty states. Mainstream commentators have been surprised that racist state violence have provoked such large street demonstrations; a view strikingly divergent from the masses of people in the streets.
But as your question suggests, we've been here before. The Watts Insurrection of 1965 was likewise sparked when an unemployed motorist, Marquette Frye, was stopped and beaten by the California Highway Patrol. It came at a moment when, like now, the Black working class community was hit hard by unemployment. The unemployment rates in California’s Black communities then were the same for the working class as a whole during the Great Depression. When Dr. King came to Los Angeles to meet with the young, largely unemployed, and angry participants in that massive insurrection, he came away with a new understanding of what would be required for the freedom movement. Over the next three years of his life, he focused on the fundamental class questions that the Watts insurrection had raised. He recognized that the advances that the freedom movement had sought in overturning Jim Crow racial restrictions had not fundamentally altered the material conditions for the working class in U.S. cities.
But Watts was a major turning point not only for the freedom movement, but also for the forces of reaction. Ronald Reagan became California’s governor by exploiting a series of moral panics about race, and crime, and looting, and disorder. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, California became a test case for the new policies around policing and security that you would be nationalized with Reagan's ascension to the White House in the 1980s. It became representative of the form of neoliberalism that was, in turn, globalized.
Over a half century later, neoliberalism is in fundamental crisis. Capitalism has reached a dead end. It can no longer solve the problems that it creates. We're living through the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism. You can see its signs, or what Gramsci called its "morbid symptoms," all around us, perhaps most dramatically through huge increases in unemployment. We have to think about this broader political and economic context to understand the murder of George Floyd. When he died at the hands of those Minneapolis police officers, he had recently lost his job as a bouncer, making him one of the 40 million workers in the U.S. who joined the ranks of the surplus population since March 2020 alone.
Black and brown workers have been hit particularly hard, with millions losing their jobs, experiencing a rate of unemployment twice as high as a white workers. Black people have been dying at disproportionate rates from the novel coronavirus, experiencing a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than whites. At the same time, Black people are three times more likely to die from police violence. This is what Malcolm X was warning about in the 1960s when he went into Los Angeles and addressed a growing trend of police violence, where the majority of the victims had been shot in their back. There are moments where quantitative increases in insults lead to a qualitative break, the contradictions accumulate and you see them boil over. That's what we saw in Watts in 1965, that's what we saw in the Detroit rebellion in 1967, in LA in 1992, in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore 2015, and now again.
Lilley: I want to ask you how you see the role that COVID is playing in this. As you just said, African Americans, like Latinos, are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, in terms of the social effects as well of the economic crisis that has been connected to the virus. People all over the country have ample reason to be enraged about police brutality, and that by itself is enough, but do you see an element of this as being fueled by a rage around the situation with the coronavirus? I particularly wanted to see how you see that in New York where you are, since that is a city that has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus.
Camp: There is no doubt that the uprisings need to be understood as a product of this historical moment. We are living in the worst economic crisis perhaps in the history of capitalism, certainly since the 1930s; a global novel coronavirus pandemic; and a crisis of hegemony for the state. These protests are signs that capitalism and the state can no longer solve the problems that they create. The U.S. state's failure to respond, has led to over 100,000 deaths, making the US. the epicenter of deaths from the pandemic.
New York is the epicenter of that epicenter. For weeks on end, in Harlem, where I live, you could just hear non-stop ambulances. It's ravaging this city, just as it's ravaging this country. There has been over 380,000 cases in New York, and at least 30,000 deaths, over 20,000 of which have been in New York City alone. Without a doubt, race and class are the key factors in explaining who lives and who dies. Neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latino residents live have the highest death rates. Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn have been particularly hard hit. These are the same neighborhoods, that have been ravaged by decades of stop and frisk, broken windows policing, zero tolerance policing, which are analogs to mass incarceration. We would be remiss not to connect the dots between the fundamental issues that people are responding to.
In addition to the pandemic, police violence, and terror, we also have a situation where mass incarceration has completely devastated poor and working-class communities, particularly communities of color. Take Minnesota. The state has an incarceration rate of 364 out of 100,000 people, a rate that's grown dramatically over the last four decades. It has a higher rate of incarceration than the UK, Portugal, Canada, France, Italy, etc. Black and Native people are overrepresented in prisons and jails. Criminalized residents of Minneapolis migrate between jails, prisons, and poor neighborhoods in the city, in the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Of course, the U.S. incarcerates more Black people than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
These protests are a response to the nexus of problems being acutely felt in poor and working class communities of color all across this country. Amidst the failure to safeguard public health, the Trump administration has invoked moral panics about violence, crime, and terrorism to shore up consent for rapid military and police escalation. On Monday June 1st, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which would purport to justify the deployment of federal troop in U.S. cities, just as George H. W. Bush did when he evoked it in response to the uprising in Los Angeles in 1992.
Taken together these factors add up to a situation where the U.S. state has lost its legitimacy, liberalism has lost its legitimacy. We ought not to make this a partisan issue. There is a bi-partisan consensus around the prioritization of security. We see Democrat mayors, just like Republican ones, imposing these curfews—which I can talk more about—and basically tailing the Trump administration in defining the "enemy within" in race and class terms. This has the effect of reducing legal barriers to the deployment of military forces within the U.S.
Lilley: The forces of repression that you are describing, as you indicate, go back a long time. Yet much of the way they get framed, including within the left or the progressive sphere, is that the war on drugs allowed for a kind of coalescing of repression and mass incarceration that led to the increase of police brutality and the vast increase of the number of people that are locked up. You have argued in Incarcerating the Crisis that this is only one part of the story. That in fact the roots of the kind of repression that we see against African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have much deeper roots in the political alliances and militancy that even predates the Watts uprising. I wonder if you could tell us about what you mean, what kind of alliances, and how the state has seen them historically?
Camp: While the war on drugs has certainly criminalized, and demonized working class communities, particularly Black and Latino communities, in Incarcerating the Crisis I explain that it is not the engine driving mass criminalization. Political scientists like Marie Gottschalk have shown that if you took everyone who has been locked up because of the war on drugs, and released them all tomorrow, you'd still have the largest carceral regime on the planet. So, we have to ask, with so many poor people and people of color incarcerated, how has their criminalization been legitimated?
In my judgment, mass incarceration is a response to a series of political challenges that took shape from the 1930s into the 1970s. There was an alliance between anti-racist freedom, radical labor, and socialist movements, that saw as their task the abolition of Jim Crow. They sought to connect struggles within the U.S. to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles around the world. Most dramatically this took shape in the 1950s with the Korean war, and the anti-Vietnam war protests 1960s. By the late 1960s, there was Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, and the protests that took shape after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. Taken together, those events added up to a crisis for the state and what I term "Jim Crow capitalism." This led to a situation where capital could no longer legitimate a segregated labor force to keep wages down. That crisis of Jim Crow took shape at the same time that the industrial political economy of Fordism was unraveling. In response to this crisis, the political and economic elite mobilized narratives of law, order, and security to change policy. Racist narratives of law and order were mobilized to expand policing and prisons at the very moment when structural unemployment became a permanent feature of the political economy. Instead of addressing its structural issues, the U.S. state chose to incarcerate the crisis.
My argument is that we cannot understand the neoliberal turn without seeing it as the state and capital’s response to these histories of insurrection and this political economic crisis. Neoliberalization is at the heart of the expansion of policing and prisons. It is also at the heart of the current uprisings. We have seen dramatic cuts in education, healthcare, housing, etc. the kind of capacities that could have enabled the state to confront the health crisis represented by COVID-19. Instead, policing and prisons have been used to contain the social unrest emerging from surplus populations created through neoliberal restructuring. This settlement has been supported across party lines. These protests are inconceivable outside of an understanding of how neoliberalism has devastated U.S. cities over the last half century.
Lilley: And yet that actually tends to be what is missing from mainstream media reporting of what is taking place -- whether one focuses exclusively on the dimension in a sort of stripped down way, of racial oppression, or seeing that racial oppression as being embedded in capitalism itself. And what you're arguing is that since the 1960s when you had all of these urban rebellions, that put the state on the back foot in many ways, that you then had a state which itself was going into a crisis of form, and was restructured in the early 1970s, what we now term neoliberalism, with the slashing of social services, this kind of class war from above, deregulation and so on. That it was in that context, the remaking of the capitalist state in the neoliberal form that allowed for or necessitated, from their perspective anyway, the mass incarceration of so much of what is now this now surplus population.
You're saying though now, we find ourselves 50 years later, at a different place within the trajectory that neoliberalism itself is now facing its own crisis. Protest happens in all sorts of ways, and the kinds of ways people will even frame their protests can be complicated. But at this point in this trajectory of what you are arguing is a crisis of capitalism, a crisis of legitimacy for neoliberalism, and the intensification of repression --- do you feel like those of us on the left should be reframing when we're talking about what is taking place?
Camp: We always venture into difficult waters with debates on the left, which can be healthy, but also divisive. What I can say is that it would be important to wrestle with the long tradition of anti-racist Marxism, and anti-colonial traditions of Marxism that have refused the separation of race and class. I trace some of that tradition in Incarcerating the Crisis, that stretches from W.E.B. Du Bois, to Claudia Jones, to Paul Robeson, and Angela Y. Davis. That tradition’s approach to analyzing racism as rooted in the political economy of capitalism and imperialism continues to inform movements, albeit unevenly. So there are reasons to be optimistic.
One thing that this tradition makes clear is that while we've had racism, capitalism, and militarism for centuries, it changes over time. It takes a distinct shape. We have to attend to the historically specific shape that these forces take in this precise historical conjuncture. Policing is fundamentally about containing unprecedented inequality under capitalism. It utilizes a counterinsurgency paradigm, one used against enemies of the state around the world, and deploys them across U.S. cities. Protestors against police violence are treated as internal enemies of the state. To be sure, the Trump administration relies on the racist construction of enemies to justify the expansion of policing, prisons, as well as the perpetuation of permanent war.
Lilley: We're trying to situate the rebellion that is taking place right now in a larger historical and social context. You mentioned earlier the ways that the state has tried to justify and navigate the kind of repression that it has meted out under neoliberalism, and I wanted to ask you about that. You argue that resistance is always part of the story, and so is counterinsurgency, so is repression from above, and although that repression has a very long history dating to the late nineteenth century Indian Wars, that it takes different forms in different times and places. And the ideology, as you mentioned earlier, that was utilized to justify the repression and mass criminalization of people of color and poor people following the rebellions of the 1960s, was around law and order. You can see that with Nixon, obviously, with Ronald Reagan, and Trump in many ways continues in that tradition.
I wanted to ask you about the effectiveness of that ideological deployment then, and also now, and who it was effective with. Certainly, the white middle classes were very much swayed with this idea of these dangerous radicals, dangerous criminals, dangerous people from below, as you note, people who earlier in decades before, the boogey-men were communists, then became criminals later on. So you have a white middle class that is afraid of that social disorder, and that's a very effective way of getting their consent for this kind of repression. But it can also be argued that parts of the white working class, and you could make the argument that somehow even working class people of color in some sectors, in some places, have also gone along with that.
I don't know what the statistics are now, but a year ago if you looked at what were the most admired institutions in America you would see small business and alongside that the police, and that's not just for white Americans. So I wanted to know how you see how that what you term "revanchist" or reactionary ideology in demonizing the poor, particularly the poor of color, and its effectiveness historically, and if you could give us a sense of its effectiveness now, if that can be read this early.
Camp: I use the term revanchism it in keeping with Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s definition. He explained that it could be traced to the bourgeoisie's response to the Paris commune, the uprising that shook the world in 1871, and provided a new model for revolution. The bourgeoisie exploited panics about threats to the class order through populism and nationalism, and they attacked insurgents as enemies within. I argue that revanchism was renewed in response to the rebellions from below and to the organized left movements that shook the U.S. and the world in the 1960s and 1970s. It targeted Black people, poor people, women, immigrants, LGBTQ communities as the source of problems and presented policing as the solution to those problems.
Revanchism has proven to be particularly useful to the ruling class. Trump has taken up a script that was already written for him. He appeals to racism and nationalism to define the enemy as the poor and the dispossessed, rather than Goldman Sachs or finance capital writ large. Revanchism distracts our attention away from the source of political and economic problems, particularly from our bloated military budget, that fact that we are the largest imperialist state on the planet, with the most extensive surveillance apparatus in world history. There is a kind of planetary revanchism that punishes anyone who questions the authority of the U.S. ruling class. You can certainly see how this directed against the U.S. working class, but it's important to emphasize that it’s directed against people around the world. I think this is what animates the U.S.'s efforts to spark a low-intensity war in Venezuela. There revanchism is basically the U.S. state’s response to a socialist government’s refusal to bow to the confines of neoliberalism. This is what led the US. to support Bolsonaro in Brazil, who similarly exploited racist anxieties about law and order in the favelas to win consent to a neo-fascist agenda.
Racism and revanchism are very useful tools for the ruling class. They shouldn't be underestimated. One of the most difficult things to talk about is when the victims of racism and revanchism wittingly or unwittingly get recruited into those projects. Certainly, we would be remiss not to note that protests around police violence with the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter erupted under Obama. The rebellion in Baltimore took place in a city overwhelmingly run by a Black political class. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explores in her book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, we have certainly seen the emergence of a Black elite which have not always been antagonists but have often been accomplices in these processes.
We can certainly see that the problem of nationalism is a problem of American nationalism, one that utilizes racism in contradictory ways.
When we talk about the explosions that we're seeing in cities, we have to account for changes over time. Elites can now cynically exploit a kind of race discourse that hides the political and economic roots of problems of policing, and prisons, and permanent war. In doing so, they obscure the fact that the only way out of this crisis is through a multi-racial working class struggle to fundamentally alter the relations of class power. Only such an alliance can take on the U.S. state and its whole apparatus of surveillance, intelligence gathering, policing and prisons. This is an urgent lesson for us to learn.
Lilley: Speaking of that state, do you think that the U.S. state has been attuned to changes in rebellion, changes in society in terms of putting down rebellions? If one were to think from Watts or Detroit in the 1960s to the L.A. rebellion in 1992, to Ferguson, to now, can we say that the police are learning and studying in terms of refining their repressive counterinsurgency tactics?
Camp: Absolutely, there is no doubt about it. My colleague Jennifer Greenburg and I recently published an essay in Antipode exploring some of these questions. You have a whole a counterinsurgency establishment, with a network of social scientists, journalists, human rights lawyers. They study these urban rebellions from the past in the U.S., they study insurgent movements all around the world, and they develop their strategies and tactics accordingly. They are absolutely fascinated by the likelihood of urban uprisings. They’ve been planning for them. We need to pay attention to these architects of counterinsurgency. As cities have faced protests nationwide, a growing numbers of mayors have imposed curfews. Curfews, it should be noted, are essential counterinsurgent tactics of the police. They have been used to contain and confine rebellions such as the ones in L.A. in 1991, Cincinnati in 2001, Ferguson in 2014, and Baltimore in 2015. The widespread use of counterinsurgent tactics such as curfews, police helicopters, drones, and tear gas are political expression of the organized violence that's required for capitalism to survive. I argue that counterinsurgency enables capitalism to survive by overcoming geographical barriers to its strategies of accumulation.
Lilley: It could be easy in looking at this history of counterinsurgency to think of the forces of the state as being overwhelming and monolithic, that you might have moments of resistance, but then they will fade away and repression will follow. But you are also arguing something different, which is that the sort of ground on which all of these political struggles have been playing out has shifted. Shifted with the crises of capitalism, and the lack of legitimacy of the state. We have just been talking about one side: repression from above. But I wanted to ask you about the "from below" side. How do you see these moments when outrage erupts? Do you see them as entirely spontaneous moments? Do you see them as moments that can be shaped by an ideology on the left, or is this really something where people might argue on the left on the sidelines, but ultimately, aren't really going to have much impact on the forms that protest takes?
Camp: It's a tough question but I think it is an important one for those of us on the left. To your first question, events like this may appear spontaneous, sparked out of nowhere. But I think it is a mistake to define them this way. You don't see a kind of generalized rebellion and interaction outside of the organizing that has taken place for decades, that has elevated the consciousness of young people in particular. Young people are not necessarily a part of organizations, and they're not exactly in left-led situations, but they are responding to an accumulation of grievances born out of these conditions. This requires organizing. I absolutely think there's a role for the left to play.
Amidst an upsurge of interest in socialism, I think we would do well to return to Gramsci. He distinguishes between what he calls "common sense" and something he calls "good sense." The socialists' task is to go into these communities, and as much as anything else, listen. Listening means hearing what is motivating people to organize, and to rebel. There are elements of the system that people understand intuitively, but there are parts of it that often require explanation or historical analysis: international relationship of forces, the political economy of the state, the history of surveillance and of repression, COINTELPRO, or the ways U.S. counterinsurgency warfare are intimately connected to the conditions that people are protesting against in the U.S.
The task for the left is to elaborate the "good sense" that exists within the “common sense.” This requires a complicated and contradictory process of building trust. The way you earn trust, is by putting your shoulder to the wheel and engaging in a struggle against racism and police violence and terror, and teaching theory as a weapon in the struggle. In doing so, we can show that the present is not eternal. When politicians say they are trying to bring things back to normal, we say, no! Socialists are exiles from the future. We have to reclaim the future.
Lilley: Let me ask you more about the character of the protests. There's been a lot of hand-wringing about "outside agitators.” Certainly in Minnesota the mayor said that the protests were the work of "outside agitators," and then was fact-checked. Of the people who were arrested, the vast majority of them were local. On the left, there is some hand-wringing also about white anarchists invading the protests or doing harm. If one looks at footage of protests around the country, what is striking is how multi-racial they are, as well as, as you say, how young the protestors tend to be. How do you make sense of all of these ideas swirling around about who the protestors are, and who they should be and shouldn't be?
Camp: Attorney General William Barr’s threat to declare Antifa a "domestic terrorist" organization and blaming protests on so-called "outside agitators" represents what the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz depicts as the return of COINTELPRO.
This discourse of "outside agitators" has been uncritically parroted in New York City by Mayor Bill De Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. They argue that the source of violence and the protests are white people travelling into the city to whip up anarchy and disorder. This is disingenuous. In these neighborhoods with explosive conditions I can guarantee you that nobody has to whip it up from the outside.
The notion of the “outside agitator” hides people’s motivations that are generated by their conditions, by their histories of struggle, and by the theories that they study. The language of the "outside agitator" fortifies already existing forms of counterinsurgency. It legitimates intensified policing of criminalized sectors of the working class under the guise that police are protecting them from so-called "outside agitators." Attorney General Barr's words render vivid how U.S. policing has been, and continues to be, aimed at crushing insurgencies and uprisings. After all, police have been essential to the criminalization of dissent. In my judgment, the outside agitator narrative simply serves the interests of political and economic elites.
We need to understand this as a renewal of COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO came into being in the middle of the 1950s to crush the Communist Party. This FBI counterintelligence program targeted the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and anti-Vietnam war protests in the 1960s. By the late 1960s and 1970s, COINTELPRO or COIN as they call it, and its red scare tactics, had basically been integrated into the everyday and routine forms of policing and mass surveillance of working-class communities in the U.S.
You see this narrative being renewed to drive a wedge within this emerging movement. It appeals to this idea that it’s the “white anarchists what done it.” It obscures the absolutely genuine grievances that are fueling multi-racial protests. When cops have been charging protesters in different cities, activists have asked white people to get to the front of the line. And the white activists have done it. There is a multi-racial unity being forged in a common struggle.
Mike Davis, who in City of Quartz basically predicted the uprising in L.A. in 1992. How? What did Davis do? He went to working class neighborhoods. He talked to working class people and he understood that the conditions were explosive. He said was that L.A. '92 was a multi-racial, multi-cultural riot. That's what we've got again. But media narratives largely depict the events as singularly as Black and white, to try to distract from the multi-racial composition of the uprising. It also obscures the grievances emerging from the working class as a whole, who see that they have a shared interest in defeating the military state, and police violence, and in engaging in a common struggle for a different future.
Lilley: Let me end by asking you, Jordan, if there are any conclusions that can be drawn from the political consequences of urban rebellions, whether in the 1960s, or in 1992 which you just mentioned in Los Angeles, or more recently in the teens. Are there conclusions that can be drawn about their political effects, and if so, are these rebellions enough?
Camp: There are absolutely conclusions that can be drawn about the political effects. One thing is that it puts the country on notice. The events will be sketched in the collective memory of the whole world. Political and economic elites will respond to these crises by trying to justify authoritarian resolutions of those crises. Their authoritarianism works in cunning ways. They will call for community policing, for sensitivity training, for diversifying the police. But all of these efforts are just schemes to channel more federal funding to police forces, and to authorize a redirection of resources away from the social wage. But those outcomes are not inevitable. They're not natural. We could seize on this crisis of hegemony, this crisis of capital and the state, to articulate different solutions to the crisis. I think that this is a historic moment for the working class, and for the left, to seize on this crisis as a terrain of struggle.