Rage Is Not a Strategy

If the NYPD were an army, it would be among the most well-funded in the world. The NYPD is an army. It has at least an ~$6 billion annual budget (greater than the military spending of Ukraine or Vietnam) that, owing to lack of true public oversight, may be significantly larger. According to Wikipedia, the NYPD has ~40,000 officers and ~20,000 other employees; nearly 10,000 police vehicles; 11 boats; eight helicopters; and a number of non-human support animals who have been enlisted into the force.

We have to ask the question: Do we defeat an army of such magnitude by burning and smashing perhaps 15 or 20 of its vehicles?

Now, before anyone accuses me of being reactionary or engaging in liberal “tut tut tactics,” the problem – as I’ve written about at great length for years – is obviously white supremacy; corporate neoliberalism and its discontents; and, most immediately, the murderous brutality of the police.

That being said, I’m with Killer Mike: We shouldn’t burn our own houses/cities down, and this is “the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.”

And I share Steve Randy Waldman’s fear “of the interaction between these protests and the coronavirus, both epidemiologically and politically.”

And I do not agree with New York City’s Mayor that “the NYPD has acted appropriately,” or that the NYPD has “showed amazing restraint” in recent days, or that “if those protesters had just gotten out of the way [of the police vehicles] we would not be talking about this situation.”

We’ve seen “New York lawmakers […] pepper-sprayed by New York City police officers”; we’ve seen NYPD officers “respect[ing] peaceful protest” (in the immortal words of our Mayor, who should resign) through riotous violence perpetrated against non-violent demonstrators; we’ve seen a big male NYPD officer shove a petite female protester to  the ground, resulting in her hospitalization; we’ve seen a white, male NYPD officer pull the mask from the face of and pepper-spray in the face an unarmed black teenager who has his hands up; we’ve read of the NYPD arresting journalists; we’ve seen an NYPD sergeant assault an unarmed male protester, evidently for the crime of talking back; we’ve seen NYPD officers drive their vehicles into crowds.

What’s the upshot of all this? The liberal corporate media are coming out more on the side of anti-police violence demonstrations than I can recall them doing in my adult lifetime (as my partner pointed out, likely because journalists and media workers are being targeted by the police). Still, I’d say there’s been a disproportionate emphasis in media coverage on “looting,” “rioting,” and the like, whereas, from videos, personal experience yesterday, and many, many testimonials online, my impression is that the vast majority of protesters and protests in recent days have been peaceful (which is to say, they involved neither assaults on police, nor damage to private property), and that provocateurs, including undercover police officers, have played a disproportionate role in inciting the the so-called looting and rioting. In fact, in many instances, organizers of protests intervened to prevent property damage.

There’s also been plenty of actual looting, which is to be expected in the midst of a nationwide uprising, and there have been some smart takes on the same, including this one by Arlene Dávila who writes:

Anyone surprised that protests include looting of luxury stores in Soho & elsewhere doesn’t know the 1st thing about racial capitalism & luxury consumption. Racial exploitation is at the root of consumer capitalism built on the commodification of black bodies through slavery […]

On the flip side, NBC News reporter, Sahil Kapor, writes without much context: “A Spanish flu-type pandemic threat, Great Depression-scale job losses and 1968-style violence all happening at the same time.”

Great observations, but I prefer LeVar Burton’s take: “Don’t f*ck with me today, people. Today is not the day!”

Obviously, we’re all just living on Twitter at the moment to the extent that we’re not in the streets, in jail, or on the Right. But here’s an obvious, uncomfortable truth I haven’t seen addressed enough on Twitter or otherwise (and which I’ve written on each of the previous two days): “It’s hard to socially distance in an uprising.”

Remember the (justified) outrage at the comparatively-very-small astroturfed reopening protests? The masks are nice, but let’s not kid ourselves. There have been at least hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of people in the streets across every major US city in often chaotic and densely-packed settings, made worse by the violence and vindictiveness of the police. We know that things like singing, loud talking, or in this case, thousands of people chanting as one, increase the risk of transmission of COVID-19, and while the fact that most of this is happening outside significantly mitigates the risk, if we don’t think that these demonstrations will increase, probably dramatically, the already escalating spread of the pandemic in our country, we are delusional.

Again, even under a best-case scenario, these massive demonstrations would’ve been problematic from an epidemiological standpoint, but this is not a best-case scenario; this is the United States. Here’s how Keith Boykin of CNN and the New York Times described some of his experience yesterday in NYC:

The police locked me in tight zip ties that bruised my wrists. They held me in a van for an hour. Then a hot police bus for an hour. Then they took me to 1 Police Plaza and held me in a jail cell with about 35 others with no social distancing and many of the others unmasked.

Add onto this known police tactics like kettling (some of which I witnessed in person yesterday when a large protest march found itself temporarily trapped and sharply compressed on our block), and it becomes clear that best-laid plans to protest socially distantly will, in many cases, come to nought.

Okay. So the massive nationwide demonstrations centered in some of the already hardest hit cities and communities will almost certainly serve as an accelerant to our renewed national first wave of COVID-19 infections (and are likely to delay the much-awaited, phased reopening of New York City). It’s good not to be in denial; it’s good not to be delusional; and it’s probably also advisable to recognize that there will be not-unjustified (if opportunistic) accusations of hypocrisy leveled by many on the Right.

Coming back to where I started though, what’s the end game here? The best breakdown I’ve come across of the bind in which we find ourselves comes from this short video of a heated, loving conversation which Twitter user Momba captioned: “This shit has me in tears because what is the answer? If being peaceful and compliant ain’t it and fucking shit up ain’t it? WHAT IS it?”

For epidemiological reasons, I’ve stayed out of these protests – for which people can blame me if they like – but during a different time of life, I was an active participant in the protests against the police murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland (where I was living as a gentrifier at the time in my early, and very confused 20s) from the time of the initial explosion of anger, through the cooptation of the movement, and to the point of its eventual suppression under withering assault by militarized police and a politicized judiciary. When the man in the “FREAK” t-shirt in the video above breaks it down, to the 16-year-old to whom he’s speaking:

It’s gonna happen ten years from now […] Come up with a better way, because how we doing, it ain’t working […] He’s angry at 46. I’m angry at 31. You’re angry at 16 […] I marched four years ago. Keith Lamont Scott. Did the same shit […] night, after night, after night. […] Come up with a better way.

I believe he gets to the heart of the matter. Every major US city burned during the second half of the 1960s, and what we got from that was “law and order” and Richard Nixon. After May 1968 in France, de Gaulle won a smashing electoral victory, and across Europe, in the aftermath of early ’70s actions by Italy’s Red Brigades, Germany’s Red Army Faction, and other such aligned groups, we’ve witnessed the long, slow decline of the institutional and political left. It’s well beyond the scope of this piece to examine if correlation implies causation in these instances, but if we actually want lasting political change, we should probably examine past precedents. After the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles, triggered by the brutal police beating of Rodney King, Los Angeles saw the election of its only Republican mayor in the last 60 years. Obviously, it’s not all about Democrats and Republicans, or about electoral politics, but if people think things can’t get worse through a hard-right, reactionary turn, I fear they are mistaken.

Like Killer Mike said, “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.”

If I told you the NYPD now has 9,610 vehicles rather than 9,624, would you think New York’s police force got a lot weaker? Obviously, the bad publicity accompanying the vicious behavior of many NYPD officers may partially undermine the political position of the police in the City, but don’t count on that effect being overly powerful; a large portion of the City’s (and Country’s) population is not in sympathy with the demonstrations, and are reading these incidents in very different ways.

When people Tweet, no doubt exhilarated, about protesters “taking” the Brooklyn Bridge, they are delusional. Temporarily stopping traffic is one thing, “taking” territory or a position in the military sense, quite another; this morning, as yesterday morning, the City of New York – backstopped by its militant branch, the NYPD – controls the Brooklyn Bridge, and behind police, City, and State sits the full power of the Federal Government, as we’ve already seen in Minneapolis. The Nation reports that “The US Military Is Monitoring Protests in 7 States”; there are ample precedents of the National Guard, FBI, and other Federal agencies working to suppress movements for social change and social justice, and we’d be foolish not to think that just such efforts at suppression aren’t afoot at present.

Is there a plan for actual revolution? That is, the overthrow and seizure of the state? Does this movement have the militance and staying power to besiege unjust city, state, and national governments, as we saw other movements do during the bracing year past in Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, and many other places? The timing could not be worse to attempt something of this nature in the United States, and I have serious doubts about the organization and vision behind these uprisings.

Case in point, this is a music video or wannabe rock star exhibitionism masquerading as political action. Look at all the “protesters” streaming the episode live on their social media as the police approach, unimpeded, to begin arresting people. The antics of the dumb white guy doing the Jesus routine on top of the ruined police SUV do not condemn the entire movement, which could not be less about him, but it does force us to question: Is this a movement that has the organization, the vision, and the strategy to actually mobilize for the long haul and take political power against the most implacable of foes? A foe which has organized violence and a world-historically-unparalleled intelligence apparatus on its side? That has very clear conceptions of use of force and political power, and clear imperatives around its class goals? A foe which has at least decades of experience in infiltrating and undermining social movements?

Basically, great – you burned a few police vans (that may or may not have had bullets in the back). What next? Is this a movement at all, or is it just a bunch of angry and pent-up crowds?

Here’s what Slavoj Žižek wrote in the Guardian in 2012 about Occupy Wall Street:

Such statements [that “We have no program. We are here to have a good time.”] display one of the great dangers the protesters are facing: the danger that they will fall in love with themselves, with the nice time they are having in the “occupied” places. Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end.

In that piece, he quotes Jacques Lacan’s famous quip regarding the May ’68 uprisings: “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a new master. You will get one.”

Will we get one? After decades of failure and Left collapse, I hope we will not, but for those exhilarated into obliviousness of the pandemic; filter bubbled into numbness of the threat from the Right; or outraged into binary consciousness regarding this latest, justified explosion of anger – that either you’re in the street, now, or you’re a counterrevolutionary – I’d caution: Time will tell. You can say that if we were all there now, we’d make the revolution, and when that moment comes, rest assured, I’ll be there. I certainly thought it had back in early 2009 in Oakland, and there I was, but I fear what we’re witnessing, living through, and participating in right now is something more equivocal, the likely outcomes of which remain uncertain and, in my view, fraught with profound dangers.

Perhaps, as my partner opined, this was inevitable, because, “What else could people do?” These uprisings are, of course, about the deep history of this country – about racism, white supremacy, slavery, and genocide. They are also, of course, about the pandemic – the economic and social devastation, the mass death and criminal political negligence. The stress, the anxiety, the anger. The “volcanic rage” that Mike Davis spoke about.

What do we do? I don’t know. But it’s not enough to be angry, or to torch a few police vans and stream the torching online (to make it extra easy for the authorities to destroy the lives of those involved). We have to be smart. We have to be strategic. We probably actually have to have leaders, who know what they’re doing, and follow them. And we have to understand that our adversaries are smart, strategic, well-organized, and have the preponderance of force and capital on their side. If we fail to do all this, we’ll lose again, just like we have many times before.

Postscript: One clear tactic in NYC is building on the proclaimed support for the uprisings of certainprogressivepoliticians, and forcing them to actually take action to decrease police budgets, increase oversight of the police, and otherwise curtail police power through persistent pressure from us on these elected officials. Most of these statements read, to me, as grandstanding (especially given histories of some of the relevant politicians of voting for expanded police budgets, increased numbers of officers, etc.), but winning concessions at City Hall and in Albany would constitute modest but tangible progress.

6 thoughts on “Rage Is Not a Strategy

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