This is part one of my “Reflections on Current Events: June 2020” I owe my readers an apology for my recent absence. I try to keep my writings up to date when big things are happening in the world, and at present very big things are certainly happening. There is no need to digress on the murder of George Floyd or the reasons for these mass protests which are institutional in nature. What is needed here is a general defense of these protests, even of their excesses, that everyone, even conservatives ought to be able to understand, and a proposed long-term solution to these institutional abuses that have for countless years gone unaddressed.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” -Vladimir Lenin
The Violence of The Protests: A Somewhat Jeffersonian View
It is worth noting that most protests have been non-violent, and that violence in almost every case has been caused directly by escalation on the part of the police, or less often, by the splitting of the general mass of protesters into smaller groups. Still though it is worth paying particular attention to the question of violence since it is a subject that many people are talking about. People in these communities where police violence and police brutality is so prevalent desperately want an end to the brutality. They don’t just want to smash shit, they want long-term solutions to the problems that face their communities. They are desperate for an end to the horrible abuses to which they have for 400 years been subjected. It is certainly true that when peaceful protests for years go unanswered that violent protests and riots become inevitable. What then, we must ask, is a riot?
A riot is the politics of desperation, the implicit threat in all healthy democracies that exists in the background of the mythic glorification of totally peaceful protest come alive. In this case it is also the voice of the unheard. I take the view that leftists should unequivocally not encourage violence, but against those who say rioters should be shot, the social rupture itself should be defended as being in the long term, beneficial to society. I am not some agitator for violence here, what I am is someone who, unlike those currently in the highest offices of our republic, understands democracy. The position leftists ought to take on this issue is precisely the position Thomas Jefferson took in his day. Jefferson wrote of the violence of the rebellious masses (in the context of Shay’s rebellion) the following:
“Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
As a side-note, these protests can be called “insurrections”, or a “revolution” only by hopeful revolutionaries or by frightened conservatives. At present a sober analysis of the conditions leads one to the conclusion that we are currently witnessing mass social unrest, not an insurrection by any meaningful use of the term. Yet even still, the Jeffersonian analysis still holds true to these events. Mass unrest can under certain conditions be called a small rebellion. I think this fits the present situation.
Every public reaction to crimes committed by those in power, no matter how offensive or explosive, is healthy for a people and their liberty. Open society depends on such periods to protect itself, both by compelling power to meet the demands of the masses and by allowing the people to blow off steam. At present my doubts as to the efficacy of long-term solutions coming from the powers that be, leads me to advocate a new politics from below, but I will discuss this later. It is also worth mentioning that the destruction of property in the long term is of no concern. Of course there is also a tragic human cost to such periods, and while such tragedies ought to be avoided at all costs they too serve a higher purpose. Jefferson himself took this view saying that “the tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure”, and of Shay’s rebellion again, “God help us if we ever go 20 years without such an event”.
In the time of the Boston Tea Party more than mere property destruction was the act of tarring and feathering. In Boston with the destruction of property we found also that British soldiers, innocent individuals, were stripped down nude by angry mobs of colonists and soaked in boiling hot tar and covered in feathers. Today the rioters we see are not so cruel, they burn buildings, not people, save some among those looting who don’t give a damn about George Floyd or fellow citizen’s lives. Such corrosive elements ought to be condemned as fiercely as the cops who killed Mr. Floyd. The peaceful protesters who throw instigators of violence to the cops are right in doing so, and should be commended.
Yet still people eager for a return to “law and order” do not understand that all this is not all for nothing. The violence, though terrible, holds social value, and is good (or in times of normalcy would be good) for the republic. The same is true of the violence in Hong Kong, it is no different. The people in the streets during these riots are not mere criminals who have broken the law but among them are the very people from which all just authority and law is derived. It is in their action and will that all legitimacy rests. Legitimate government rests solely with the consent of the governed, and no power has right to rule over the people without their consent. Unfortunately when the state does not listen to the will of its people or adhere to its own proclaimed principles of justice, rebellion is not only inevitable but justified.
Those who advocate shooting the protesters because of their violence do not understand that a closed society, that through open state violence suppresses its own social contradictions maintains “stability” only for a short time before it collapses entirely under the weight of its own social contradictions. Those who say such things consciously or unconsciously, advocate such a society. You cannot just pretend everything is okay when it isn’t. You cannot just commit a Tienanmen massacre, or arrest protesters when they show up, and expect things to be fine in the long term. A good historical example of this is the autumn of nations in 1989 when authoritarian societies literally collapsed overnight. Social progress is dialectical, at times explosive. But it is more or less consistent. You have to give storms room to occur or you will face a hurricane that will destroy everything, and I fear such a hurricane may not necessarily be for the better. Do you know how many riots happened during the 1960’s? Without such excesses the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t have been so welcomed by the ruling elite of his day. Is such violence tragic? Of course. Morally outrageous? Certainly. But when it happens do not be so quick to judge. The life of a single individual is worth more than all the property of the world.
People shouldn’t be afraid of the government, governments should be afraid of their people. What we see today is a people striking terror into the hearts of those who misrule over them. Yes it’s horrible in the forms it takes. When there is no recourse for a people, no means of ending the oppression cast over them, the destruction of everything including themselves becomes inevitable. The logic of such rebellion is that “those in power have to know that repeated injury will not be tolerated by a freedom loving people should the people’s demands go unanswered”. If the government does not fear its own people, it will be capable of doing anything against them.
Behind the mythical assurance that non-violent protests can alone effect social change is the constant fear that non-violent protest will erupt in violent rebellion should the people’s demands go unanswered. That is the entire basis of democracy.
Such rebellion we have seen just now. What frightens me mostly is that the people will ever abandon its inclination for rebellion entirely and will be content to simply stand with signs while those wearing uniforms mow them down with machine guns as we saw in The Handmaid’s Tale. Such a day will undoubtedly lead to tyranny.
Violence As A Tactic
Riots typically are expressions of instinct rather than of thought, and that is why they are so dangerous. They destroy not only property but also the cohesion of the community that is necessary to effect meaningful social change. It is like a wounded soldier who pulls the pin out of a grenade before the enemy charges him. Yes, he destroys his enemy but he destroys his own self in the process, and consequently any chance to meaningfully solve for himself the crisis at hand. Yet these riots go further than historical riots in this country, they prove that the people are more fed up with the existing socioeconomic and political order than ever. But what of it? Against poverty we find looting, against systemic injustices we find fire and destruction. No solution is found by rioting, only more pain. What is needed here are direct, coherent, logical demands to those in power, not violence. Even more so, what is needed is for the people to recognize that they themselves are the source of all civil authority. This is what the Black Panther Party did in their day. Thus we come to my proposed potential long-term solution to the crisis, which I will discuss below.
Destruction solves nothing. It does not bring power to the people, it merely leads to suffering for all. Ironically for a white, upper middle class leftist to actively encourage violence and destruction in poorer communities but to shy away in horror at the thought of it happening in theirs, is perhaps the most white supremacist thing a person can do. If you want to stand with the community, stand the hell with them in solidarity. But shame on those who are the first to rally for violence, on either side (and I am by no means equating the two).
The same is true of those who think cops are “inhuman” for merely being there, such that any violence against them is justified. Reactions of anger to police brutality against peaceful protesters is understandable, but dehumanization is counterproductive even if their actions betray humanity. Even for the most radical of revolutionaries, this mentality is beyond idiotic. Every single popular revolution since antiquity has been decided by whether or not the police and military go over to the side of the people or if they fire on them. Thus our “revolutionaries” think throwing bricks at the police and military will somehow win them over to our side, or that their victory can be won without their support.
A revolution in which individual police officers and soldiers are virtually unanimously opposed to the demands of the people is a failed one. The problem is with the institution itself which encourages police brutality, unaccountably, and corruption. Even if we could speak of “good cops” in such a situation, the surrounding institutions, not to mention peer pressure from fellow officers, nullifies whatever effect they could have on the situation.
How then can we win over those who shoot at us? The tactic I advocate for may change if they ever exchange rubber bullets for steel ones, but we cannot give up on humanity just yet. The individual alone knows what happens in their own heart and mind. We have to try to win over individuals. When a lone cop takes a knee with the protestors in genuine solidarity and his comrades lift him up, that is itself still a small victory. That means something stirred in that persons mind that led them to make a statement of support. Rebellion happens to those who were once loyal supporters of that which they now rebel against. It is not always so open and visible to all. Historically, winning them over has been the deciding factor in the victory of revolution or counterrevolution, not that we are even at the point of such an event to begin with. It is foolish to alienate those cops who would, in the defining moment, otherwise go over to the side of the people.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, said Gandhi. Dr. Cornel West is correct in arguing that if there ever was a black revolutionary Jacobinism in the early United States it would have degenerated into something even worse than fascism. With so much righteous anger, that method of addressing the injustice of slavery would have led to a genocide in its own right. Dr. West argues radical love against hate, more specifically, a radical Christian love:
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”
-Jesus Christ, Luke 6:29-35
I am not advocating theocratizing a secular movement or for absolute pacifism here. Even an atheist can embody this kind of revolutionary love. If peace is not an option in life and you must fight because the cause is just and you cannot do otherwise, you must fight like Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita.
Potential Long Term Solutions To End Police Brutality: Libertarian Municipalism and Popular Assemblies
Because the government no longer represents the will of the people in the most impoverished and alienated communities of our many urban centers, and because the police are agents of tyranny over the community, the community should organize itself into democratic popular assemblies entirely outside of state power. I am not talking about revolution here but of a new politics, in the Hellenic sense of the word, that can co-exist with, and act as a system of checks and balances against the present abuses committed by municipal state power. This is what Bookchin advocated.
The old leftist formulas of effecting social change are either impotent or counterproductive, often both. Murray Bookchin recognized that the needed social change of today can no longer be effected by a mythical industrial proletariat and its vanguard party, nor by radical unionism. These are lost causes. The best way to organize common citizens against the ruling class and the social structures that dominate them is by the formation of popular assemblies as a form of self-governance and the organized resistance to abuses of state power. Bookchin called this system Communalism, or libertarian municipalism. That is “polis” politics, in the Hellenic sense of the word, as opposed to the statecraft with which it is often conflated.
The conservatives are right in saying these protests are no longer about the murder of George Floyd, but in admitting this they only give credence to the very issues they have for years been ignoring. Beyond the murder of one individual these protests are about ending all police brutality and institutional racism for good. Beyond race they are about class, and beyond class they are about democracy, civility, and basic human decency. Beyond the prosecution of the murderers it would be well and good for the people to make additional, clear and concise demands to prevent the future murder of unarmed black men. I mean demands here like in Hong Kong, listed, organized, universally known, simple, and written demands to those in power and aims for the community to aspire to. The arrest of the killers while still a victory does nothing to ensure the continued liberty of working black people in this country. Arresting the officers that killed George Floyd and sentencing them to the highest possible sentence while doing nothing else to address the root causes of his murder is like the CCP’s formal apology for the arrest of Doctor Li Wenliang in China, the doctor who was silenced for trying to stop COVID-19 before it could spread. Yes, everyone agrees that it was wrong but the problem isn’t just individual, it’s systematic. That ought to be the target, making police brutality and institutional racism a thing of the past, and actually abolishing the poverty of black America.
How then is the radical social change necessary to solve this crisis to be effected? The left offers far too many unworkable and counterproductive solutions. What is needed today are popular assemblies, town halls, local democratic organization, and grassroots organization. Thus if I had any say in the matter I would propose popularizing the following demands such that every citizen knew them:
1.) The arrest and conviction of all four officers involved with the murder of George Floyd.
2.) The abolition of police unions.
3.) The formation of directly democratic popular assemblies and their confederation on a city-wide level into a general popular assembly consisting of directly elected delegates from local assemblies.
4.) The formation of a popular militia whose purpose is to safe-guard the community by monitoring the police and making sure everyone’s needs are met during the pandemic, especially those of the most vulnerable.
5.) The legislative power of the popular assemblies to recall individual police officers and officials from duty, to review police records, power over the police as an institution within the community through the establishment of a municipal constitution that co-exists with the official city government.
When members of the community make allegations against an individual police officer or official the council should investigate the accusation and determine its legitimacy, perhaps by some sort of judicial process. If repeated accusations are made against an individual officer the assembly should maintain the right to fire that officer by popular vote or by petition of the public. Similarly, the assembly should have power over the police as an institution, including the right to abolish its presence entirely in certain neighborhoods. The assembly should also draft a constitution, embodying the best of the enlightenment and progressive tradition in order to ensure the individual liberty of all citizens and a protection against police brutality. It should also aim to solve the problems both ruling parties refuse to address: the existence of homelessness, gentrification, education, generational poverty, gang violence, etc. Steps should be taken to prevent the over-bureacratization of these assemblies, their corruption and degeneration into a new elite that rules over the people rather than through them. All representatives should be working class citizens or known representatives of the working class, actual residents of the communities they represent. They should be elected by face-to-face elections in the assemblies of their own neighborhoods, not by campaigning and spending millions of dollars. They should have extremely short terms of service, receive no more than a living wage, and be instantly recallable by popular petition. These should be established principles of the municipal constitution. This may of course take an entirely different from from the one I propose, these are merely my speculations on what ought to be done. The point is that the people should organize themselves and create a local, grassroots democracy.
People need to stop merely demanding the government take action on their behalf after it has refused to redress their legitimate grievances since before black people even won civil rights in this country. The people need to start realizing that they themselves are the government, that they are those from whose consent all legitimate government is derived. They ought to organize on themselves and their communities on that basis. This is why I propose a Communalist solution to these problems, not rioting, not violence, but organization! Democratization! Action! Real, long-term institutional change beyond the righteous demand of Justice for George Floyd!