Racism, Capitalism and Rebellion

This is a transcript of a talk given by Haley Pessin to Madison-Area Democratic Socialists of America on June 3rd, 2020.


I want to start by acknowledging the significance of what has happened in the last ten days. We’re now in the midst of what we can definitively say is the biggest wave of mass protests in the United States since the 1960’s. Protests have emerged in all fifty states, in every major city. The character of these uprisings has been less like protests and more like a rebellion with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets, blocking highways, burning and destroying police cars, tearing down confederate monuments and every symbol they could think of economic and racial oppression.

In New York City alone, 47 police cars have been damaged or burned. More than 11,000 people have been arrested around the country. In DC, protests outside the White House temporarily forced Trump to hide and flee to his bunker – he’s claiming to inspect it and not because he was in abject fear of the rioters. The police already function as an occupying force in black communities and today they’re responding to this uprising as if they’re at war. They’ve sprayed tear gas and launched rubber bullets even when confronted with peaceful protesters. This week police killed David McAtee, a 53-year old black restaurant owner at a protest in Louisville, KY. In New York, corrections officers killed a prisoner named Jamel Floyd, who died after being pepper sprayed in a cell.

We know that the police regularly kill black people with impunity, even when there’s no social unrest and there’s little reason to believe they will stop now unless we make them. The immediate cause of this rebellion is of course George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, MN. In death, George Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” – the exact same words Eric Garner spoke six years ago as a New York police officer choked him to death. So, nothing has changed significantly in those six years to stop police from killing black people with impunity, or for seeing them as a threat even though they’re unarmed.

There have been multiple murders by racists and police over the last few months that speak to just how much black people are targeted and treated like criminals, even when they’re acting in fully ordinary ways. Ahmaud Aubrey was followed and lynched by racist vigilantes when he was out jogging; Breonna Taylor was killed by police while sleeping in her apartment; even George Floyd was killed basically because police accused him of using counterfeit money, and there’s no way to understand that except as a crime of poverty at a time when 40 million Americans have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

These protests are not just about police brutality. They’re also a reaction to state government and the utter failure of the Trump Administration to respond to the mass deaths and mass unemployment due to COVID-19. There’s now an effort by both the Republicans and Democrats to reopen the economy and return to business as usual, and that’s despite the fact that COVID-19 related deaths continue to rise in one third of US states.

These protests are not just about police brutality. They’re also a reaction to state government and the utter failure of the Trump Administration to respond to the mass deaths and mass unemployment due to COVID-19.

Virtually every medical expert has made it clear: if we reopen now many more people will die, and what the ruling class has said is That is a price we’re willing to pay. That price is not being felt equally. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting black communities in every city. In Cook County (Chicago) for example, 70% of those who have died due to COVID-19 are black. In New York, the Bronx is the borough that is the most affected and is predominately black. And that’s no coincidence. The history and ongoing practices of racism have ensured that black people are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage jobs that do not allow them to work from home and ensures that they’re denied access to adequate health care. On top of these problems, racist police brutality has continued with police violently arresting black people for violating social distancing orders while leaving people unharmed.

None of this would have happened without these rebellions

What is different today is that the protests against police brutality have been more militant and widespread than those even at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement six years ago. People are risking their health and defying curfews in order to protest and they continue to come out despite police repression. It reminds me of something some of my comrades from Egypt noticed about the Egyptian Revolution in 2011: they said, “The first step was that people lost their fear.” People are at a point where we feel like we have nothing to lose. As police repression backfires, mayors across the country have been forced into lifting the curfews.

Even at the top of society, people will have seen the kind of a bit funny but remarkable fact that people like Mitt Romney are joining the protests. The Pentagon is bucking Trump’s call to shoot looters and to send in the army. Evangelicals are coming out in defense of Black Lives Matter. Its almost like a bizarro world from the last two weeks, let alone the last decades.

Another difference is that today’s protests have been more multi-racial than in 2014. Although they’ve largely been led by young black people, as opposed to existing organizations. This is not only true for liberal cities: there are anti-racist protests in rural majority-white towns. According to polls, a remarkable 54% of Americans support the protests, while 74% understand Floyd’s death to be a matter of racial injustice. That’s a 30% jump from a similar question that was asked right after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police.

That’s not to mention the massive protests that are happening all over the world, from London to Japan, Australia, France, Mexico, Canada; everywhere in solidarity with protests in the US and against racism also in their own countries.

I think this speaks to how important the previous upsurge of anti-racist struggle was to de-legitimizing the criminal justice system and exposing the systemic nature of police racism. While the most visible Black Lives Matter protests disappeared from the streets, we cannot underestimate the massive impact that they had as a shift in political consciousness. But today’s protests are going even further: they are also delegitimizing the economic and political forces that enable these systems. After all, when the government responds this quickly to stop mass protests but says they can’t find the resources to fight a massive health crisis it becomes clear that our health and safety are not really the priority.

Demands that were once only being raised by the radical left and smaller circles of anti-racist activists have virtually gone mainstream. Even more remarkable is the fact that we’re starting to win some of those demands and raise our horizons about what is possible. For example, the call to defund the police has gone viral. People are calling to divert these funds to healthcare, education and community resources, especially in black communities where austerity and police violence are two sides of the same coin.

Demands that were once only being raised by the radical left and smaller circles of anti-racist activists have virtually gone mainstream. Even more remarkable is the fact that we’re starting to win some of those demands and raise our horizons about what is possible.

Incredibly, the Minneapolis City Council has voted to disband the police department! I didn’t know that was going to be something I’d see in the next few years let alone within two weeks of the protests. The fact is if they can do it there, it raises the question: why can’t they do it everywhere? We should be thinking about that. None of this would have happened without the militancy of these widespread rebellions.

Some on the left think that the political radicalization that we’ve witnessed over the last few years is primarily attributable to the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, and that the main expression of this radicalization has been the growth of our organization, DSA. But I want to argue that these protests suggests that that radicalization actually goes much further and much deeper than either of those phenomenon.

By showing extreme bravery to leave their homes, risk their health and fight for black lives, the protests have revived militant mass action as the way to produce social change. It took months before the men who killed Ahmed Aubrey were even arrested, but it only took a few days for the person who killed George Floyd to be charged. We know how rare that is in this utterly top to bottom racist criminal justice system, and it never would have happened if people in Minneapolis hadn’t rebelled.

The Black Struggle in Motion

I wanna take a step back and explain why this particular struggle has been so explosive and transformative right off the bat. There’s a spontaneous character to the protests that we’re seeing and at the same time they’re the reflection of decades of struggle. I think about what happened in the Civil Rights Movement where you have Freedom Rides as early as the 1940’s, you had legislative efforts to try to get the walls of Jim Crow to finally crack and things did not change. Then suddenly in the 1960’s, kids start sitting in at lunch counters and the walls of segregation come tumbling down. I almost feel like we’re in a moment like that. What felt like intransigent systems and for decades people protest against police brutality are now suddenly at their breaking point and are being utterly discredited.

The reason that police killings of black people represent the sharp edge of American racism is that they’re the starkest example we have of how little black lives matter in a society that devalues black people in every arena, whether its health, the wealth gap, access to jobs and quality education, everything that you can name is fundamentally affected by our racist and segregated society. Police racism and the criminal justice system are just the tip of the iceberg.

I want to quote a young black high schooler that I heard speaking at one of the protests I attended on Saturday. She said, “Our ancestors were literally considered capital. This is a capital society.” Racism has been built into the foundation of the United States since the very beginning. This is of course a country founded on the genocide of indigenous people and on the kidnapping, enslavement and cheap forced labor of Africans, and that was the basis for the primitive accumulation of wealth that allowed capitalism to succeed as a system.

The Police Have One Color: It’s Blue

Throughout its history, the US ruling class has used difference systems to define non-whites as second-class citizens. Its why, despite the abolition of slavery, racism has had such staying power whether it was through the convictry system, the Jim Crow system, and today through mass incarceration. That role is not simply a system of ideas. It is the most effective that the capitalist class to divide the working class in order to prevent a unified challenge to its rule. Its not just a byproduct of capitalism, it is the most successful to use at every juncture of social unrest to divide our side from being able to use our strength as the majority class.

The social role that the police play is to regulate and control the most oppressed and economically deprived segments of the society and also to reinforce and push through that second-state status for oppressed populations. That’s true whether an individual cop is particularly racist or not. For example, although black police officers account for only 10% of fatal police shootings, 78% of the people they kill are black. As a protestor from LA explained, “The point is not about individual bad apples, its about the social role of the police in enforcing racism. Its not about whether it’s a white cop or a black cop or a Mexican cop, the police don’t have color. The police have one color: its blue.”

But because racism is so central to the functioning of capitalism, this means that resistance to racism, particularly anti-black racism, has always had an explosive character. Whenever the black struggle goes into motion, it has never been confined to a struggle for equal rights within the existing order. Instead it always tends to throw up bigger questions about the entire society. It was the development of abolitionist movement against slavery, the experience of witnessing black soldiers fight more effectively and determinatively against the Confederacy, and the self-activity of slaves themselves to break their own chains that turned the Civil War from a war of western expansion into a war to abolish slavery, overturning the entire economic edifice of the South.

The social role that the police play is to regulate and control the most oppressed and economically deprived segments of the society and also to reinforce and push through that second-state status for oppressed populations.

In the Civil Rights Movement, what began as a struggle for equal rights ultimately developed into a much more radical movement that came up against the limits of simply overturning the explicit Jim Crow order and came up against the ways that poverty, police brutality and many of the things we’re experiencing today are still reinforced despite the fact that Jim Crow segregation is over. Its why figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers and many other figures within this movement began to draw more radical socialist conclusions about the need to take on economic inequality and to take on the capitalist system itself in order to actually win black liberation. Its also why the ruling class has worked so hard to put the genie back into the bottle and to decimate the gains that were won in the 1960’s.

Not only did the black liberation struggle inspire other black people, it inspired other oppressed groups to fight on their own behalf: the gay liberation struggle, the women’s liberation struggle, any number of struggles against the war, and ultimately within the labor movement getting into the very edifice of the profit system itself. They don’t want to see that happen again, and we gotta make it happen again.

The Real Looters and the Challenges for the Movement

Where do we go from here? There are obviously significant challenges to realizing the radical potential that this moment has thrown up for us. I think we need to find as many spaces as possible to think that through collectively; it’ll be interesting to hear what people think in this discussion. But first I think one issue is how to make protests as safe as possible during the pandemic. Because the entire logic of protests is that we are coming together to keep ourselves safe from police breaking us up and kettling us and throwing us in jail, to have the greatest numbers possible to come out to be more effective. So we need to build on creative methods of protests, like car caravans and virtual rallies to amplify our physical presence in the streets and to navigate the dangers of a resurgence of COVID in the fall.

A second is how to navigate the ways the ruling class has attacked these protests. There’s obviously the fact that Trump is doubling down on portraying himself as the President of law and order. Not withstanding the setbacks he’s faced in doing that, as I mentioned the Pentagon and others breaking rank, there’s also another way he’s trying to divide the movement and that is by calling antifa a terrorist group, focusing on “outside agitators” (that’s something that the liberal media has absolutely repeated). That’s an effort to divide the so-called “good” peaceful protestors from the “bad” militant, destructive protestors who are destroying property or looting or whatever. And in fact, what that is designed to do is to condemn all of us. What we need to do is reject any such efforts to divide our side.

At the same time, its unlikely that we’ll be able to sustain this level of militant struggle over time and we need to find ways to get organized and finds spaces to discuss and better develop our tactics. There’s a lot to be learned from international struggles as well, as evidenced by militants from Hong Kong who have been tweeting out advice to the protests from their own pro-democracy struggle about how to resist tear gas and overcome the cops. We have to learn those lessons too.

Finally, despite the nascent grassroots organizations that have formed since 2014, there remains a real vacuum of spaces where new layers of activists, particularly black youth who are leading right now, can connect with existing anti-racist organizations in order to develop a long-term strategy for the ebbs and flows of protest. This is especially important because I think we’ve seen that without independent organizations, where we can actually wage our own demands, there’s a danger that those demands can be watered down. The demand to “defund the police” can mean many things, so we need to make sure that the content of it is actually geared towards breaking the power of police and beginning to think about ultimately abolishing the police, not towards strengthening them or reforming them in piecemeal ways. We’ve seen the way demands like “medicare for all” or “abolish ICE” in the hands of different Democratic politicians have been a way to say, “We support the movement!” and actually end up being a set-back to our side. Our own organization has to be part of that struggle.

There have been many inspiring examples that the role of organized labor can play in this fight. In Minneapolis and New York City, bus drivers and their unions refused to transport arrested protestors to COVID-19 filled jails. Rank and file educators, parents and students are now leading anti-racist struggles to get the cops out of schools, which are like jails in the way they crack down on people of color.

The demand to “defund the police” can mean many things, so we need to make sure that the content of it is actually geared towards breaking the power of police and beginning to think about ultimately abolishing the police, not towards strengthening them or reforming them in piecemeal ways.

Ultimately, activists and labor militants must find ways to connect labor actions against racism to the fight against reopening that will only result in more deaths. Instead, we must insist on a humane response to the pandemic that addresses the communities most impacted by COVID-19 while taking power and funding away from the police. This goes hand in hand with the demand to make the real leaders pay: we must tax the rich, and insist on a country founded on genocide and slavery finally pay its due in reparations.

While mainstream media are fixated on incidents of “looting and property destruction”, we need to point to who the real looters are: the wealthiest Americans during this pandemic have collectively made $400 billion richer than they already were. At a time when 40 million people are unemployed this only serves to highlight the greater value that this entire society puts on profit over human lives. The rebellion against police brutality has exposed these priorities like no other force.

The Left in the Uprising

I want to point to the role that the organized left, and especially that DSA can be in these fights, because I think we have a really essential role to play. I think its clear that many of us are already showing up to protests, I’m really happy to see that folks in Madison have already put out calls to finally kick the police unions out of the AFL-CIO, which is an excellent development. People have been providing mutual aid, there are a lot of ways that people are contributing to these protests. But given our size, I think there’s much more that we could be doing to facilitate the creation of national networks with existing anti-racist coalitions that are already involved in this work.

While black comrades are already heading up this work around the country, it should not fall on members of the Afrosocialist Caucus to do this alone. We can host local and national organizing calls that are open beyond DSA, co-sponsored by other anti-racist organizations to provide new layers of radical activists who are becoming leaders in these struggles to actively shape the demands of the movement and decide the next steps. Most importantly, we should argue for these networks to be politically independent because in the long term we want these to be linked to the goal of a fully different society.

The stakes of this movement winning are high. We need to be clear, the socialist left should have one position. We would do a great disservice to our own movement and the struggle for black liberation by downplaying questions of oppression, equating them with bourgeois identity politics, or suggesting the problem this movement points to can just be solved by pointing to “universal” economic inequality. Class and race are fundamentally intertwined. We must wage a struggle specifically against oppression as well, which has been the primary way that the ruling class has been able to maintain such great levels of inequality in the first place.

In this way, our role as socialists is winning the working class as a whole of all races to our collective interests in the fight against all forms of oppression. The struggle for socialism is impossible without the struggle against racism, and winning the entire class to that interest is fundamental to the struggle for black liberation as well. I want to quote at length the great Caribbean Marxist CLR James, who in 1948 laid out exactly what I think our position today should be:

We say, number 1, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number 2, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a real contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights.

So, comrades we must stand together in solidarity, not merely because it is a moral fight and not because it is charity but because fundamentally is bound together. Thank you so much.


Haley Pessin is a member of the Queens branch of New York City Democratic Socialists of America, and the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus.

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