It is nearly impossible to describe the political excitement and promise of this moment, in which millions have taken to the streets of cities, towns, and rural hamlets, in sustained protest against the policing and incarceration of Black bodies in America. Better to listen to the music1 the Uprisings are inspiring, the viral videos they have generated, or the deeply thoughtful reflections on confederate monuments, looting, reparations, and protest itself they have spawned.2 The precipitating event was the May 25th police murder of George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man who was not armed, dangerous, or resisting the police. But a backlog of anger and visionary energy powered the original protest into one of the most extraordinary political movements in the United States in more than half a century.
The kindling for this political explosion came from many sources. Most importantly, Black people, brought to this settler colony as slaves to build its wealth, have since “emancipation” endured land dispossession, lynching, vicious as well as “polite” segregation, police brutality and white vigilanteeism, and unequal treatment in accessing justice, housing, employment, credit, education, and more. In recent years, smartphones and social media combined to disseminate widely images of often deadly racist policing, giving birth to the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement. Then came Trump-era racism that brought the Klan and other neo-Nazi groups into the public squares, and cast the country as belonging to whites while depicting Blacks as soaking up unearned advantages and entitlements.
Covid added more kindling. It revealed in bold terms the racialization of American’s economic extremes. Black, Latinx and Indigenous Americans are contacting and dying of the virus at a rate approximately five times that of whites. They are less protected from the virus as they make up a disproportionate number of essential workers, especially in healthcare and agriculture, food preparation and delivery. They are literally serving white America and dying for it. Moreover, the pile-up effects of poverty and racism make them less likely to survive the virus when they get it: poorer health and poorer access to healthcare; living conditions offering limited capacity to quarantine or socially distance; higher unemployment rates and thinner cushions to fall back on when regular incomes vanish and schools close. Blacks have endured the highest rates of unemployment and small business collapse during the pandemic and the most compromised access to government assistance.
At the same time, the Trump regime seized the occasion of the pandemic to continue to enhance white wealth and loot the poor. Indeed, in May, as food pantry lines lengthened around the country, the Trump regime sought to remove nearly a million recipients from the federal food assistance program. And the CARES Act, the emergency “stimulus” program for the economy, was a scandalous upward redistribution of wealth: it sent trillions in credits, transfers and tax-cuts to America’s (almost entirely white owned) corporations and (almost entirely white) wealthy individuals while distributing tiny one-time sums to medium and low-income families during the Covid shutdown.3
The shutdowns featured another ticking-time bomb that would help build a protest in a national uprising. Young working and middle class people of every hue, many already despairing of their own future and that of the planet, and now disgorged from shuttered universities or jobs, were manifestly available—emotionally, intellectually, politically, and physically—for the cause. Many already had a basic knowledge of systematic racial inequalities, the climate crisis, the failures of capitalism, and the role of the police in enforcing racial subjection. Others quickly got their education from the protests themselves. Thus, a generation that had been steadily moving left in the wake of Occupy, earlier iterations of Black Lives Matter, the Sanders and Warren campaigns, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and the outrage of Trumpism, now tore leftward. The combination of what Covid laid bare in the social and economic fabric, the Trump regime’s pure focus on the stock market in responding to the pandemic and the racial inequality brutally enforced by American policing and tweeted from the White House on a daily basis—all of ripped the ground from centrist, gradualist politics.
The Uprising has achieved more in police reform, challenges to city budget priorities, toppling the whitewashing and glorification of America’s slave past, and tolerance for ordinary racism in one month than occurred in the past half century. What started as rage against racist policing quickly escalated and deepened into a demand to abolish the systemic and structural racism of American society—its economic, juridical, carceral, political, and social planes. The demand to “abolish the police” was not aimed exclusively at policing but at public policy and budgets prioritizing militarized repression of underclasses rather than provisioning housing, healthcare, incomes and education generative of social equality. Similarly, reparations for slavery and its racist aftermath, long confined to the margins of political conversation in this woefully unhistorical political culture, have leapt into mainstream political discourse. And of course, the ferocity of the movement and pace of changes draws other change makers and inspirits other movements—for economic justice, planetary survival, LGBTQ and gender justice, and more.4
Serious reckoning with American origins in Native American genocide and Black chattel slavery, and the institutions securing white supremacy since, is centuries overdue. Yet in a single month of 2020, during which the police continued to deploy exorbitant violence5 and persist in casual racist chatter, and during which the American president re-dedicated himself to securing white power and wealth, the uprisings shattered political despondency among Blacks and woke up millions of other Americans to the importance of this reckoning. It is a rare historical rupture, full of hope and possibility.
1 https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/new-protest-songs-george-floyd-black-lives-matter-1010037/ and “March, March” by The Chicks.
2 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/24/magazine/reparations-slavery.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/opinion/ confederate-monuments-racism.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/opinion/george-floyd-protests-looting.html.
3 https://www.propublica.org/article/the-cares-act-sent-you-a-1-200-check-but-gave-millionaires-and-billionaires-far-more; https://static1.square space.com/static/5df44e0792ff6a63789b5c02/t/5e973cdcb00b992d1ceb9b50/1586969820773/Corporate+Power+Quick+Takes_1_CARES+Act+Explainer.pdf.
4 The irony, of course, is that a centrist candidate had already emerged as the Democratic Party challenger to Trump in the November 2020 election.
5 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/police-violence-george-floyd.html; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/police-violence-protests-us-george-floyd; https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/16/us/martin-gugino-protester-skull/index.html; https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/what-we-know-about-the-killing-of-rayshard-brooks.html.
Wendy Brown is Professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Berkeley. Brown’s fields of interest include the history of political theory, nineteenth and twentieth century European philosophy, critical theory and theories of contemporary capitalism. She is best known for intertwining the insights of Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud, Frankfurt School theorists, Foucault, and contemporary Continental philosophers to critically interrogate formations of power, political identity, citizenship, and political subjectivity in contemporary liberal democracies. In recent years, her scholarship has focused on neoliberalism and the political formations to which it gives rise. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages. She lectures around the world and has held a number of distinguished fellowships and visiting professorships, most recently at Columbia, Cornell, Birkbeck and the London School of Economics.