Ferguson and After: Where Is This Movement Going?

(This article was the editorial of Insurgent Notes No. 11, January 2015.)

The movement that has erupted after non-indictments of the cop killers of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City, one further fed by relentless continued police killings of black and brown youth on a weekly basis around the country, is without doubt the deepest social movement to emerge in the U.S. in more than forty years. The Rodney King riots in Los Angeles shook the country in 1992 but burned themselves out in a matter of days; this movement has gone on for weeks and months, and will undoubtedly continue in some form. In many places, it built upon the 2011 experiences of Occupy and was nonetheless, by the large black participation mainly absent from Occupy, much deeper. Its innovations in strategy and street tactics also went well beyond Occupy; instead of holding public spaces and remaining vulnerable to the inevitable police crackdown, kettling and mass arrests, this movement kept moving, blocking streets and
freeways here, bridges and Christmas shopping there, and generally refusing to become a stable target. The movement, unlike Occupy, focused dead center on the American “blind spot”, race. It showed a very steep learning curve from previous protests over the murders of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, which, while explosive, faded away in days. This movement kept coming, first of all in Ferguson itself, and later in a hundred different cities. The black youth of Ferguson led the way, running off the professional black politicians, the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons, and defying further vain attempts from the local black elite to channel people who had never given a thought to voting into votes for the Democratic Party. Its depth forced comment from the likes of Barack Obama and Eric Holder, frantically attempting, for their part, to find some way to throw the movement a bone and to rein it in. Perhaps it will upset Hillary Clinton’s apparent waltz toward the White House by forcing her onto the thin ice of some real issues. The ideological pretense, built up over decades, according to which Obama’s America was in a “post-racial” era, was ripped away in days. The appearance over those decades of a small but real black professional elite, in the wake of the 1960’s, could hardly compensate for poverty, huge unemployment (50% for those under 25), mass incarceration, stop and search, relentless police profiling and legalized open season on black and brown youth for the vast masses. It is not the case that “nothing has changed” since the killing of Emmett Till in the Jim Crow South in 1955; a black president and a visible black elite, one which shares real power in places such as Atlanta, tells us above all that in America, from slavery to Jim Crow to the mass assembly line of the 1960’s to the mass incarceration of today, America’s “black question”, which is in reality its white question, constantly evolves. The maintenance of this race-coded hierarchy has never, since it began in the 17th century, been so much about controlling black people as about controlling white people, some of whom might today tut-tut about police “excesses” and wish they would cease, but who above all never grasp, within the white bubble, that all of this has something essential to do with them, in their seemingly quiet lives and passivity.

Insurgent Notes therefore devotes most of this special Mike Brown/Eric Garner issue to Ferguson and what has followed. We present as a centerpiece John Garvey’s
article “No More Missouri Compromises”, which gives an in-depth historical background to Ferguson and the St. Louis area generally. We follow this with accounts by participants from the movements in 7-8 cities around the country, highlighting above all New York City and the “Bay”, the Oakland-Berkeley area where, along with Ferguson itself, the movement has been the deepest and most long-lasting. Another , more skeptical, point of view is presented by a friend of IN writing from abroad.

Our purpose is, moreover, not merely to focus on historical background and contemporary militancy, but also to trace the depths and limits of the current movement. We do so following in-depth discussions within IN as well as with the widest swath of people we know.

What has struck us throughout, with the unfolding of the very real expansion and creativity of the movement over weeks and months, has also been its weak spot,
its inability, like Occupy before it, to cross over into any notable workplace actions and in the broad working class generally. We say this cautiously and without, as yet, full confirmation from around the country. True, in St. Louis, the movement hooked up with the $15 an hour movement in fast food. Truer still, in San Diego , it apparently overlapped with not merely the $15 an hour movement but also with the movement in solidarity with the 43 disappeared students in Mexico. There is no question that many of the people, black and white, hitting the streets day in, day out, night in, night out, had jobs of one kind or another (which in today’s highly casualized economy points to the fluidity of terms such as “working people” or “youth” or “the poor”).

With all due respect to the great differences of time and place, we thought about the May-June 1968 “events” in France. There, in May, students and others rioted in the Paris Latin Quarter for a week, riots initially set off by some relatively small issue and scuffle with police. Then the rioters were “joined” (and engulfed) by 10 million French workers embarking on a month-long wildcat general strike and workplace occupation, which required all the forces of the official left (Communist and Socialist) parties and unions to contain them and herd them back to work. It seemed to us, on the whole, that it was exactly this crossover with the great mass of ordinary American working people that, this time as with Occupy, was lacking.

We are hardly unaware of the tremendous changes that have been “remaking” the contemporary working class in the U.S. since the powerful strike wave of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a strike wave in which militant black workers often played the key role, as with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the auto plants of Detroit. We know very well that most of those auto plants are today shuttered and that the most of the following generation of black youth never saw the inside of a factory or worked on an assembly line. We are acutely aware of the atomization, outsourcing, downsizing, and simple media “disappearing” of ordinary working people in America today. We have recovered, hopefully, from (some of) our former romance of the big factory and the kinds of mass struggles it so obviously engendered not so long ago (but long enough ago to be swallowed whole in the United States of Amnesia of the media, such that few people today under the age of 60 remember them meaningfully).


Yes, Walmart has replaced General Motors as the largest corporation in the U.S. , the perfect symbol of a shift from alienated production to alienated consumption, and moreover the consumption of goods produced abroad, out of sight, out of mind.   But what of its regimented, demeaned “associates” (as they are called), constantly subject to arbitrary shift changes and barely paid above the minimum wage, with miserable health plans (if any) and no benefits? Are they any less “proletarian” than the far better paid and organized auto and steel workers of the 1960’s and 1970’s? And what can one say of the millions of wage laborers in transportation of all types, ports, trucking, air and rail, of those in a myriad of low-paid “services”, in education and health care, in the back rooms of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, in Midwest slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, in seasonal agriculture, in fast food, in the vast bureaucracies at the Federal, state and local levels? And last but not least of the workers still making as many cars in the U.S. as 40 years ago, now in twenty scattered “greenfield” sites across the Sunbelt? It took the New Left of the 1960’s most of that decade to “discover” the working class, which had been waging low-intensity warfare on the shop floor since the late 1950’s; how much more difficult will it be, for the new movement of the present, to “discover” the latent power of the working class today and to find a way to meaningfully hook up with it?

To return, in conclusion, to the present movement. What exactly can be the focus of a movement which so acutely poses the question of the police and its wanton powers of life and death, exercised daily? In a capitalist society, there can be no
abolition of this “special body of armed men”, the direct enforcers, with the military they increasingly resemble, of the power of the capitalist state. A movement showing such sophistication in such a short time can readily grasp that the tried and tired palliatives of the past, of civilian review boards, sensitivity training for cops, and town hall meetings to improve “police-community” relations are and always have been a farce, hardly worth a snort of contempt. We note in occasional calls to “abolish the police” another historical amnesia at work, namely of those past episodes of our movement, such as the Spanish revolution of 1936-37, where the police (and standing army) were abolished and replaced with armed worker militias. That, or an adequate update of that for the present, is our program, as of any revolutionary movement worthy of the name.

Such a revolution is not, of course, presently on the horizon. What to do in the meantime, while we seek to build the crossover to the broad working class that will shift this movement to a whole other level? A movement capable of responding to each new police murder with days of rioting and looting, with the promise of no business as usual in response, might be a start, in the unfortunately unlikely case that such a movement could be sustained. Even better would be the prospect of mass strikes or a general strike, under the slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all”. This movement, at this stage, is not prepared for an all-out armed confrontation with the forces of the state. But the recognition that such a confrontation must one day come, and the preparation of our side for it, should be integral to our attempts to relink with the great revolutionary working-class uprisings of the past, whether in Spain or Russia
or Germany or, closer to home, the Seattle general strike of 1919 or Minneapolis
in 1934, when our forces imposed our order on the chaos and disorder which
are all the capitalist status quo can increasingly offer us from here on out.

As a coda, where a broadening of the movement to working people as a whole is concerned, we might briefly refer to the larger economic context in which it has unfolded. A cursory look around the globe might remind us that both Japan and the European Union, the other two major capitalist poles, are already locked in a downward spiral of deflation, with China is slowing as well, and that nothing whatever has been resolved in America’s post-2008 “recovery” of mainly poorly-paid jobs and scarce real productive investment, with declining real wages at that. When even the International Monetary Fund warns of years to come of a “new normal” of “secular stagnation” (at best), we might well think that the terrain is prepared for the growing anti-capitalist mood evident among American working people to finally hit the streets, as dramatically as the Ferguson movement has. It requires little argument or knowledge of the finer points of Marx for most people, today, to acknowledge that this system is in a profound crisis. The only thing lacking is a sense that there is a better alternative, the abolition of capitalism itself, and that the sole forces capable of achieving that are these same working people. A further cursory glance at history will remind us that, as in the last comparable crisis, that of the 1930’s and 1940’s, this will not be a merely “economic” crisis; we need only consider the chaos in the Middle East, or in Ukraine, or the further spread of Islamism to central Africa and Nigeria (where only days ago Boko Haram apparently killed 2000 people in the town of Baga), not to mention the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, to see that the capitalists will use the very fallout of their own global crisis to rally mass support to a dozen anti-immigrant parties around Europe or to the defense of “republican values”, as in France. The militarization of daily life in America in turn is only one such episode away from a further crackdown on any meaningful opposition. Our work in broadening and deepening the post-Ferguson movement to the larger working population is cut out for us.