This piece, republished from Counterpunch, explores the current uprising against police brutality in the context of the struggle against capitalism and asks: what are the most effective forms of struggle going forward? Join the conversation in the comments section.
by Vincent Emanuele / Counterpunch
“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
— Henry Kissinger
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
— Sun Tzu
Over the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder. Police stations have been commandeered and torched, corporate stores destroyed and set ablaze. In Seattle, people have constructed the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,’ otherwise known as CHAZ, which encompasses several city blocks, a police station, apartments, and storefronts. Protests and actions ranging from nonviolent marches to small-scale rebellions and uprisings have taken place in over 2,000 cities across the United States.
Before the uprisings, the U.S. was crumbling under the weight of its bloated empire, vicious economic system, and ossified political institutions. Not only has Trump’s response to the pandemic been criminal, to say the least, the political system at every level has failed to respond to the crisis.
The U.S. has been exposed as a failed state.
GOP Senators wheel and deal stocks, including ‘Human Capital Stock,’ as White House adviser Kevin Hassett put it. Meanwhile, Democrats respond to the current crisis with half-measures and symbolic (and absurd) acts of solidarity. So far, the pandemic, which has killed over 115,000 Americans, accounting for 25% of the world’s total deaths due to COVID-19 (the U.S. has only 5% of the world’s total population), continues to spread like wildfire, yet most of the country has gone back to business as usual. Prior to the pandemic, over 140 million Americans lived in poverty.
Now, with 40 million additional Americans out of work, with no end to the pandemic or job prospects in sight, those numbers have and will continue to increase dramatically. Millions of Americans are incapable of paying their bills; tens of millions endure mounting student loan, credit card, and personal debt; and hundreds of thousands face evictions in the coming weeks. At the same time, Wall Street loots trillions from the Treasury and Federal Reserve.
From the very beginning of the pandemic and economic crisis, the state has refused to enact even small-scale economic measures or social programs that would benefit poor and working class people. As a result, tens of millions remain jobless, with no hope in sight. On July 31st, the CARES Act provision that provides an extra $600 a week to Americans receiving unemployment benefits will expire.
People are tired, angry, and rightly so.
Unsurprisingly, many corporate media commentators suggest that systemic racism and policing are the driving factors of the current wave of protests and rebellions. Without doubt, those are the issues that sparked our current ‘Movement Moment,’ but they’re not the only factors playing a role in the uprisings. Class is front and center, though ignored in mainstream political discourse, which seeks to frame everything through a racialized lens. If the corporate media spent some time in the streets, they’d understand that the uprisings have as much to do with class as they do about race.
Corporate Media Lags Behind
During the initial days of the Minneapolis Uprisings, the independent media outfit Unicorn Riot (UR), which describes itself as a “decentralized, educational non-profit media organization of artists and journalists,” was my preferred outlet for on the ground reporting. Journalists at UR don’t necessarily provide commentary as much as they document events in real-time. Outlets such as UR report directly from the streets, with the people, long before or after the corporate media outlets arrive or leave. Young people appreciate and trust UR (UR started during the Standing Rock protests), so they’re given access to moments and events that cable news journalists cover from miles away, if at all. While protesters were smashing up CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta, UR was documenting those actions on the ground, talking to people in the street (CNN commentators were hiding in their studio bunkers high above the streets, shocked that non-Trump supporters also hate their guts).
It’s hard to downplay what Unicorn Riot does: namely, report from streets and document what’s happening from Ground Zero without commercial breaks or talking heads to provide out of touch commentary. Corporate media outlets lack legitimacy. When they do show up to a protest or uprisings, they misinterpret or outright lie about what’s happening. UR, on the other hand, shows up, starts their livestream, and allows anyone and everyone to grab the mic and speak to those watching at home.
Their work is phenomenal and necessary.
At one point during their live broadcast, hundreds of thousands of people were watching the uprisings in real time, along with hundreds of thousands watching live on mediums such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. In Minneapolis, hundreds of protesters got on camera and spoke at length about the horrors of capitalism, why they’re angry (issues ranging from poverty to housing, gentrification, climate change, corruption, and wars), and why they were in the streets with such fervor (because they see no hope in existing political institutions). I haven’t seen any such interviews on corporate news outlets.
The uprisings do make one thing very clear: Americans under 35 years old are not getting their information or commentary from traditional news sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or even cable channels such as CNN or MSNBC. The Old Guard was caught flat-footed. Professional class liberals, major NGOs, prominent progressive and leftwing thinkers and writers admit they were shocked at the scale of the uprisings. This isn’t surprising. Professional class commentators live in a different world, socially, culturally, and economically, than the younger generation. And that gap only widens with time.
Poor and working class teenagers and Americans in their 20s, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, receive most of their news and information, for better or worse, via social media and various other digital platforms/modes (podcasts, videos, memes) — those are the entities shaping young peoples’ consciousness and ideologies. Young Americans are much more sophisticated than many older people assume. The recent wave of protests and uprisings show that to be the case. Likewise, poor and working class Americans are much angrier than the professional class could possibly understand. There’s an entire underbelly of seething anger and resentment just beneath the surface of our society: the 50% of Americans who don’t vote
Their voices are now heard loud and clear. Bernie’s campaign asked, “Where are the young people?” They’re in the streets, Bernie. And they’re more radical than you. And their voices will only grow angrier with time, as they realize the current government is incapable of responding to their needs and that Wall Street would rather see them die than enjoy healthcare or UBI. The younger generation, as always, is way ahead of the eight ball with their demand to ‘defund the police.’
Defund the Police
Right now, activists and organizers throughout the U.S. are debating what it means to ‘defund the police.’ This demand is very strategic, and for many reasons. Not only does it allow for a conversation about the redistribution of material resources, it also responds to the demands of those on the ground. For better or worse, this is the demand that organically arose within the context of our current struggle. In other words, leftists can choose to ignore or ridicule this demand (I’ve seen both), or they can respond to popular demands and find strategic ways to connect those demands to broader class issues and larger institutional change. If leftwing organizers and intellectuals are interested in meeting people where they’re at, but not leaving them there, it would be wise to take the latter approach.
Since others have written at length about the details about what it would mean to ‘defund the police,’ there’s no need to rehash those points, though the details are interesting and important. Leftists who shrug off this demand for not going far enough, or not encompassing enough class politics, are missing the boat in terms of how powerful this demand could potentially prove to be.
Capitalism has three primary weapons: 1) capital itself, which can engage in capital strikes, divestment, capital flight, and broader forms of economic warfare, 2) the police, who break strikes, arrest protesters, and protect private property, and 3) the military, who also protect property and break strikes, but whose primary function is to express power on an international scale, securing and opening new markets, protecting business interests abroad, and so on.
Defunding the police not only saves black, Latinx, and poor white lives, it also takes away one of capitalism’s primary weapons.
Without overfunded and highly militarized police forces, it becomes much more difficult for the state to protect fossil fuel infrastructure, banks, government buildings, corporate headquarters, and a host of other potential targets. Nonviolent protesters would no longer face the wrath of racist and militarized police departments. Communities would no longer live in fear of being pulled over, harassed, arrested, tortured, or killed by the cops.
Defunding the police also provides an opportunity to dismantle one of America’s favorite sacred cows. The fact that the majority of Americans side with the protesters is a profound ideological, political, and cultural shift. The police, much like the military, regularly rank in the top five in terms of the jobs and institutions most respected in U.S. society. Dismantling the police is a significant step toward eventually dismantling the U.S. Empire. Redistributing funds from police departments to social programs could serve as an example and model for how to proceed with defunding the military, the logical next step. Since the police have limited funds (the NYPD’s operating budget for 2020 is $5.6 billion), the only way to actually meet the needs of poor and working class people will be through a radical defunding of the military, coupled with the nationalization of critical industries, and a broader redistribution of wealth from corporations and the rich to social programs and the poor.
Defund the Military
The U.S. Empire operates 800-1,000 military bases stretched across the globe. The U.S. ‘Defense Budget’ for 2020 is $721 billion, but if we tally the cost of maintaining its nuclear stockpile, intelligence/spy agencies, Veterans Affairs budget, homeland security budget, international-affairs budget, and its share of the national debt, the total cost of maintaining the U.S. Empire in 2019, according to William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger, was $1.25 trillion. Without question, a tremendous amount of resources could be redistributed by defunding and dismantling the military. According to the National Priorities Project, the $712 billion the U.S. spent in 2018 to maintain its empire could have provided 49 million Americans monthly relief payments of $1,200 for one year, or 20 billion COVID-19 tests for one year, or 209 billion N-95 respirator masks for one year, or 9 million elementary school teacher salaries for one year, or 20 million Head Start slots for four years, or 300 million children receiving low-income healthcare for one year.
Overall, the total cost of Uncle Sam’s post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ comes to $6.4 trillion, money that could’ve been used to pay off the $4 trillion in outstanding consumer debt Americans suffer. Aside from the potential social and economic benefits, it’s equally important to note the massive amount of death, pain, and suffering that would be prevented by dismantling the U.S. Empire, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted over 50 years ago. Since King’s assassination, millions have died as a result of U.S. militarism, with tens of millions forced from their homes and turned into refugees.
Yes, there’s much to gain from dismantling the empire, not the least of which being America’s soul.
Seeing as more and more Americans are beginning to understand that the primary task of police forces within the U.S. is to protect property and repress popular rebellion, it’s a great time to connect the same critique to the U.S. Empire, which performs the same function on the international stage. The U.S. Empire crushes international revolts and anyone who dares to dream of alternatives to global capitalism and so-called ‘American values.’ Doing so, however, would require activists to fundamentally challenge U.S. nationalism, an inherent component of the imperial project, both at home and abroad. Even amongst poor Americans, there remains a sense that Uncle Sam is a force for good in the world, and that the U.S. military ‘protects our freedoms.’ Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
The concept of American Exceptionalism must be challenged head-on if we hope to transition to defunding the U.S. Empire. It’s not surprising that the U.S. government has deliberately hidden not only the financial cost of war, but the images, pictures, and stories of its post-9/11 wars. After all, most Americans would be quite upset if they saw the death and carnage unleashed in their name, with their tax dollars. Important distinctions exist between the military and police, as my friend and former Army Ranger, Graham Clumpner put it:
“The U.S. military doesn’t have the same relationship with Americans as police departments do. Americans interact with cops all the time, and usually those interactions are bad. Cops also sign up for careers. Military personnel sign up for 2-6 year contracts, with the overwhelming majority leaving after their first enlistment ends. The contradiction is that the military is much more powerful and destructive than domestic police forces, yet it’s much easier to organize dissent within the military than it is to organize dissent within police departments. U.S. history shows this to be true. GIs have mutinied throughout the history of this country, from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We should build on this tradition.”
If activists in the U.S. seek any level of partnership and solidarity with individuals inside existing repressive state institutions, they should look to the military before they look to the police.
Additionally, it remains unclear how the military would respond to a call for genuine Martial Law, whatever that may entail. Certainly, many active-duty troops and veterans are not motivated by the idea of patrolling the streets of America. In fact, “a majority of U.S. veterans believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a mistake,” as recent polls show. An even larger majority of U.S. veterans are opposed to a potential war with Iran. Indeed, more and more U.S. troops understand they’re being asked to fight unwinnable, illegal, and immoral wars, and they’re sick and tired of it. That’s a good thing. Troop morale is low after 19 years of war and civil unrest at home. Antiwar activists should build on this momentum, which will require a new antiwar movement, one led by U.S. veterans, the families of U.S. veterans, and the primary victims of Uncle Sam’s wars: Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, and so on.
Defund the Empire
Without the military and police at its disposal, the repressive arms of the state, American capitalism would be amputated, if not crippled. Political movements in the U.S. would greatly benefit, as would revolutionary political movements abroad. The cause of Internationalism would benefit. The planet would benefit, as would human beings in general. In short, there are countless upsides to dismantling the police and military.
Hell, why not extend the same treatment to the FBI, CIA, DEA, NSA, ICE, and a host of other repressive, violent, and inherently undemocratic agencies? Defund them all. After the police, military, and national security state is defunded, and their resources redistributed, why not defund the fossil fuel industry, Israel, Wall Street, the prison-industrial complex, and every other subsidy and corporate handout the state provides to entities?
Violence, Nonviolence, and Resistance to Capital
Discussions concerning violence and nonviolence always pop up during ‘Movement Moments.’ Usually, conversations about violence are overplayed, unhelpful, and totally detached from reality. This time, however, such conversations have entered mainstream political discourse for perfectly good reasons: Americans are engaging in more militant actions than at any point in recent memory. Police stations have been occupied, ransacked, and burnt to the ground. Government buildings have been stormed by leftwing activists and occupied by armed rightwing militias. Gun stores are empty. And Americans are stocking up on ammo. The situation in the U.S. is ripe for political violence.
Some on the left are actively promoting armed struggle, but the left in the U.S. isn’t prepared to engage in guerilla warfare against the military or the police, nor is the left prepared to face off against rightwing non-state actors. The left is disorganized, small, undisciplined, and fragmented. Even if the left generally agreed, which it doesn’t, that armed struggle is strategic, reasonable, or ideal, it wouldn’t matter because the left in the U.S. is simply incapable of waging an armed campaign against the military, police, or rightwing militias.
That said, coordinated, sustained, and dynamic nonviolent actions, including massive acts of civil disobedience, strikes, walkouts, and direct actions such as blockades, occupations, and various forms of sabotage could create a series of crises significant enough to bring the current regime to its knees, if not topple it. At this stage in the game, an overemphasis on weapons, self defense, and militant posturing could prove detrimental.
The U.S. military is far more fragile, unorganized, and ideologically incoherent than many Americans realize.
Even leftists have a view of the U.S. military as an omnipotent force capable of locking down the entire country, maintaining the empire abroad, and imposing martial law throughout the fifty states. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Department of Defense Manpower Data Center, “There were a total of 1.3 million active duty military and more than 800,000 reserve forces as of September 2017 . . . Total active duty personnel for the five armed services were approximately 472,000 for the Army, 319,000 for the Navy, 319,000 for the Air Force, 184,000 for the Marine Corps and 41,000 for the Coast Guard.” About 1.1 million Americans are in military reserve units, which only train periodically and lack the combat skills or experience to effectively engage in serious counterinsurgency efforts.
Remember, only a tiny fraction of soldiers (15%) and marines (12%) perform infantry functions — most active duty troops are ‘Personnel Other than Grunts,’ otherwise known as POGs. They drive trucks, fix vehicles, run supply warehouses, conduct logistical operations, set up communications networks, work on computers, answer phones, file paperwork, conduct ceremonies, and a host of other non-combat related tasks.
The U.S. military doesn’t actually have the manpower to keep the country locked down.
Sure, one could argue that the U.S. military has the capacity to carpet bomb the entire country and turn the landscape into rubble, true, but it’s not clear whether or not the military would actually respond to such orders, or initiate such actions, especially if massive numbers of Americans were engaged in nonviolent acts as opposed to offensive guerilla assaults. Again, if the left can effectively organize within the ranks of the military, the odds of such calamity decrease significantly. That’s why the work of groups such as About Face: Veterans Against War and Veterans For Peace is so important. Their efforts should be supported.
Right now, members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and United Electrical workers’ union (UE) are organizing non-unionized workers in a wide-range of industries. Their efforts should also be bolstered and supported. Defunding the police and military, at best, allow us to amputate capitalism, but the ultimate goal is to decapitate capitalism, and the only way to do that is through highly coordinated actions that include massive numbers of people, particularly workers who have the ability to shut down business and bring society to a halt. It also requires a vision of what we want after capitalism (a topic for another day).
Students, mothers, nurses, teachers, the disabled, and unemployed have a role to play. Bus drivers, healthcare workers, retail, and restaurant workers as well. Workers in the most critical industries: railroads, trucking, warehouses, shipping, and factories, will play a vital role in determining how things play out over the coming months and years.
If the current wave of rebellions can result in long-lasting revolutionary organizations and institutions that operate coherently and cohesively with national and international movements, while building up bases of support at the local level through deep organizing efforts, there’s a serious opportunity for radical political change in the U.S. If not, it’s easy to see this entire wave of protests dying out, being stomped out, or morphing into a spectacle of violence utterly void of substance and detached from reasonable political ends. Now is not the time for posturing. Now is the time for deep organizing.
Vincent Emanuele is a writer and organizer born and raised in America’s Rust-Belt. A former US marine and Iraq War veteran, Vince refused orders for a third deployment in 2005 and immediately began working with the anti-war movement during the Bush years.