In New York City, we are witnessing in real-time the much-warned-about abuse of draconian pandemic-justified emergency powers. Having rallied the full might of the billionaire class to his aid, and under cover of suppressing looting, Governor Cuomo now seems intent on playing the not-so-petty tyrant. For those of us in New York and engaged with the uprising, or even just to anyone paying attention on Twitter, it’s been obvious from the outset of this cycle of mass peaceful protest and ever-more-brutal police repression that hand-wringing from authorities about property destruction has been a canard meant to distract from the unrelenting attempt to suppress the mass movement in the streets.
How can one easily discern this fact? Countless time-stamped videos from the past week show looting – which I’ve made clear elsewhere I think is counterproductive tactically – ongoing in SoHo and Herald Square, while, at the same time, other time-stamped videos show massive police mobilizations against peaceful protesters elsewhere in the five boroughs (though primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn). If it’s really about preventing property destruction, etc., then why not focus on the amply-documented looting and leave the obviously peaceful protesters be? Clearly, because it’s actually primarily about suppressing the uprising, even at the cost of drastically curtailing civil liberties about which our useless Mayor and autocratic Governor obviously care very little.
Okay, going to speed through some references: Doubt what I’m asserting above? Read this Twitter thread from Frederick Joseph – the Big Brother-style digital billboard of Cuomo, and the police hunting down of protesters speak volumes.
What else? As mentioned previously, white vigilante gangs have patrolled the streets of Philadelphia with bats and clubs (they “beat the shit” out of this reporter). Reporters also keep getting attacked by police, though, who, across the country, continue not to hesitate to tear-gas, beat, grope (and then beat) and shoot demonstrators. (Meanwhile, the “US Bureau of Prisons pepper-sprayed a man to death […] at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park” in Brooklyn yesterday. As Ross Barkan Tweets, the same “progressive” politician to whose post I link in the previous sentence was “supportive of an effort in 2015 to hire 1,000+ new police officers, one year after Eric Garner was killed in New York City.”) There may be Blackwater-style mercenaries patrolling the streets of Washington DC, and, at very least, the practice of police obscuring all their identifying information has, against the backdrop of the national uprising, now become commonplace, but the fucking assholes who run our City and State believe, as Mayor de Blasio put it this morning, that the NYPD has used “as light a touch as possible,” and, as Governor Cuomo put it this morning, that it is a “hyper-partisan political attack” to claim that NYPD officers were “bludgeoning peaceful protesters in NYC with batons,” which, as much of the world has now seen, they were.
As one Twitter user put it, “Trump holding a Bible upside down in front of a church he’s never been to surrounded by peaceful protesters being tear gassed by military police is absolute surrealism.”
As another put it, “Am I having a stroke or did the paper of record just publish a call to crush a popular uprising by turning the American military against the country’s citizens[?]”
This thread mocking de Blasio, at least, is very funny, and I’m heartened to see #8cantwait (“Data proves that together these eight policies can decrease police violence by 72%.”) trending, though fear the proposed reforms miss the heart of the matter – the outsized power, outsized budgets, and utter unaccountability of the police, which tend to undercut the usefulness of laws meant to check their abuses (and even the efficacy in seeking justice of video documentation of their crimes). Still, the eight proposed reforms would represent real progress if implemented widely (I’d say at a national-level, but it seems that these would mostly require police department by police department implementation and enforcement given our localized system of policing), and to some extent answer the plea, made by Steve Randy Waldman in this excellent post, “that all sides take into account the very real risk of mass [COVID-19-related] death that attends the path that we are currently on, and find ways to deescalate from epidemiologically dangerous tactics without betraying causes and values that are inviolable.” He further expresses hope, mirroring some of my own, that “the movements on the street coalesce around […] concrete demands that won’t be sufficient to remedy centuries of white supremacy, but […] will address […] urgent concerns and allow them to declare this battle won.” I don’t share his hope that the “police revert to a strategy of accommodate, protect, and deescalate” for the simple reason that I think that’s utterly wishful thinking out of step with objective reality, and, while I continue to feel that having clear legislative and policy demands is a good idea tactically, I fear that the escalations in state violence in recent days make it nearly impossible to step back from the ledge of martial law and opposition to it.
On the pandemic (still a thing, and rapidly escalating in Brazil, Egypt, India, and elsewhere around the world), my friend Frank in the UK pointed me to a study from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology suggesting that ~40-60% of unexposed [to COVID-19] individuals” may still have some level of immunity to SARS-CoV-2 owing to cross-immunity “between circulating ‘‘common cold’’ coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2.” If these results are confirmed through further research, they would, of course, be great news, and radically lower the threshold for reaching herd immunity (pending other factors, chief among them, that exposure to SARS-CoV-2 provides meaningful/lasting immunity in the first place).
The White House keeps lying about everything (but especially Antifa). Doug Henwood provides clear graphical evidence that “NYC has way too many cops.” Insurgent left-wing Democrats won encouraging local and state-level victories all across the country this week. Please do read up on the Poor People’s Campaign, if you haven’t already. And while you’re at it, you may want to continue to make connections between our struggles for justice within the United States, and the many struggles for justice globally, often against United States policies and imperialism. Also, it’s the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre (another incident of massive, well-documented state violence that no amount of denial can erase), and police have pepper-sprayed protesters in Hong Kong during a tribute to the massacre victims.
But to circle back to where I started, the police have been hunting protesters in the streets of New York, and I think we need new responses to their violence. I’ve only been at day-time protests in my own neighborhood, and have not witnessed any of this round of police brutality personally, but many reports online detail police preventing protesters from accessing – so as to be able to head home in advance of the curfew – Subway stations, only to then hound these same protesters (and, of course, those who had no intention of going home early in the first place), seeking to divide large groups into smaller ones and surrounding and cordoning off protest marches before eventually brutalizing and arresting people, and generally taking a predatory and military-style approach to the nonviolent demonstrators. While images and videos of the brutality may be swinging public opinion nationally and globally in favor of the demonstrations, I’m not sure how long that effect will hold against the propaganda apparatus that is the corporate media (see the Tom Cotton letter in the New York Times), and I question the wisdom of continuing to allow ourselves to be hunted, beaten, locked up, etc. except to the extent that this is explicitly our intention (a la the 1963 Birmingham campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
Is this what we’re doing? I can’t really tell.
Let me explore this further, lest my position seem contradictory. To the extent that an SCLC-style appeal to public and political conscience is our goal, we should probably explicitly oppose looting (unless, cynically, we hope the looting will actually encourage more police brutality against non-violent demonstrators, thus amplifying the popular emotional appeal of witnessing them being brutalized; even then, the looting serves to undermine the moral position of the movement as a whole, nor do I think the occurrence of looting is necessary to trigger police violence – the former only serves to justify the latter), and yet, it seems almost a point of doctrine on the Left that opposition to looting is reactionary because: Private property. Jeremy Scahill – whom I admire – spoke of “pearl clutching” on this front (without differentiating between the looting of corporate brands and small businesses) and Decolonize This Place, in their anti-capitalism, is explicitly in favor of property destruction as one along a spectrum of revolutionary tactics.
On the latest episode of Intercepted, Scahill’s guest, Dr. Keisha Blain – whose comments on the “Red Summer” of 1919 and the life and legacy of Ida B. Wells, I found especially illuminating – clearly struggled to address the question of property destruction, but eventually seemed to settle on an all-of-the-above framing of what makes mass uprising politically effective, and yet, it’s very clear that the simultaneity of mass peaceful demonstration and a certain amount of looting/property destruction is being used, cynically, by politicians like our President, Governor, and Mayor, to justify the brutal crackdowns. Corporate media, already not a friend to Left/progressive mass movement, then further muddies the water through both-sides-ism in their reportage, seeming to suggest that the occurrence of any looting at least partially justifies the police brutality. (Readers who have followed corporate media coverage of “the Israel-Palestine conflict” will be intimately familiar with this form of journalistic sleight of hand.)
For 50 years, mass urban uprising as undisciplined melange of protest, burning, looting, and all the rest, has patently failed to win meaningful victories in this country – limited counterexamples exist, but the very fact that we are here, today, facing these circumstances more or less makes my point for me. People on the Left don’t want to oppose looting because they fear their stance will be interpreted as reactionary and might serve to divide the movement, but a wedge is already clearly being driven by those in power – a distinction being made and exploited – and, as again evidenced by Twitter, many everyday people, including many sympathetic with calls for justice, are disgusted and outraged by instances of looting of small businesses (videos of which are, of course, being circulated and exploited by enemies of the uprising for their own reasons which have little to do with the destruction of mom-and-pop’s life’s work).
An undisciplined movement will eventually be divided, worn down, and crushed, just as past such movements/uprisings have been, and what feels like principle – in affirming the understandability, the justifiability, the inevitability, etc. of looting – is actually just laziness and fear of confronting the question: What would it actually take to organize and win?
A march that crescendos with tens or hundreds of thousands of participants can end with a few scattered and isolated groups of tens or hundreds of courageous individuals, afraid, alone, and picked off one by one by the police. If our hope is that protest-porn videos of outrages and brutality will so transform the conscience of the country that, at last, real political progress becomes unstoppable, then I guess we should keep doing what we’re doing, but even then, one has to wonder: What will make this go-around different than all the others past? Perhaps the answer is the scale, the duration, and the intensity of the uprising, or simply the unique – and uniquely, terrifyingly fraught – historical moment at which it comes.
We can hope.
Final thoughts: My partner commented the other day, in reflecting on lessons from the anti-CAA protests in India, “New York needs a Shaheen Bagh.” At the time, I couldn’t quite imagine what this would look like, but as the Post reports that the “NYPD faces first major budget cut in decades” (with City Council leadership asking “the NYPD for a list of proposed cuts equaling 5 to 7 percent of the agency’s budget by Monday after [NYPD] brass offered to eliminate just under 1 percent”), and as the City faces multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls, perhaps the place for New York’s Shaheen Bagh – which is to say, it’s standing occupation of public space to demand political action commensurate to the scale of the targeted problem – is City Hall itself. Already, de Blasio has introduced $2.7 billion in budget cuts – in large part from programs benefitting young people, schools, and the environment – and yet, isn’t the NYPD budget nearly $6 billion per year?
I can imagine a standing, 24-hour-a-day occupation of the entire, large, triangular block with contains City Hall, a round-the-clock occupation for “the city that never sleeps” demanding that the Mayor and the City Council drastically reduce the NYPD budget, slash the size of the force, and take other steps within their purview to increase police accountability. (I’m being intentionally vague here because many of the relevant steps probably have to be taken at the state level, and, of course, the point can be made that past such occupations – in the US and outside of it – have failed just as past mass uprisings have.)
Immediate, foreseeable pitfalls will be that police – if their budget is threatened – will move to make life in the City harder than it already is. After years of organizing led, at last, to bail reform last year in Albany, we witnessed an immediate backlash and concerted public relations campaign to make it seem as if these modest reforms had led to a massive city-wide crime wave. And that was just bail reform. Think back to the early days of de Blasio’s time as mayor, when he took a stand – in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder by NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo – that was viewed, by the NYPD writ large, as “anti-police,” and then two police officers were murdered, for which de Blasio was, by the NYPD writ large, blamed. Take note that one police officer was stabbed last night in Brooklyn and two others shot. Now imagine the public relations push and campaign of police subversion of basic municipal functioning that would likely follow if a few billion dollars came out of that bloated NYPD budget.
We have an impossible struggle on our hands, but it looks very much like the fight for the future. We don’t make it easier for ourselves by repeating old mistakes, nor do we strengthen our position by making ourselves easy prey to a militarized and predatory opponent eager for any opportunity to pounce.
Post-script: In the face of all the white flailing, the “listening,” the absurdity of #BlackoutTuesday, the long lists of unsolicited “recommendations” from white people, I’d like to again quote my partner (“People in this country don’t even know how to bandh right.”) and to point to a tremendous Insta post from Queens rapper, lyrical virtuoso, and my former student, Archduke Redcat, in which he points out that #BlackoutTuesday was “created literally yesterday” but has “[m]illions more […] posts” than #BlackLivesMatter, and that, “People publicly stating my life, and many others, matters is meaningful,” while #BlackoutTuesday is just “an instagram trend.” He goes on to urge people:
Now again, there is a link in my bio for things you can do, even if you don’t have any money, even if you need to avoid coronavirus, even if you posted a black square, do something. For once. Do something. Anything. Link in my bio and make something happen. Being silent for a day is LITERALLY the opposite of the goal here. Solidarity isn’t take a break to think about black people, it’s doing anything to rectify the wrongdoings of this nation’s dominant populace. and btw KEEP DOING STUFF. Keep reflecting, keep thinking, keep protesting, keep donating, keep sharing, keep learning, keep informing, keep on keeping on. #protestsafely and happy pride.
Please, go check out his post, and after you have, go check out his music as well and consider making one of the things you do buying an album or two by this rising star out of Queens. Redcat EP and I still Wanna Have Fun are two great places to start.