The Day After — America Hung Over?

David Finkel

Trumpsters chanting “Stop the vote!” outside the central counting board in Detroit after an election official closed the door on them. Nov. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

[This initial response was authored by David Finkel for the National Committee of Solidarity. We continue to follow events. By late Wednesday afternoon, with the Electoral College result appearing to swing narrowly toward Biden in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, the Trump campaign is beginning to file stop-the-count lawsuits and a rightwing crowd is trying to break into the counting center at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit.]

As the sun rises on a COVID-ravaged and politically fractured U.S. homeland the day after November 3, the main networks are telling us that the unresolved presidential election comes down to a two-states-out-of-three contest in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The results won’t be known till tonight at the earliest, probably later and not for days in Pennsylvania as late-arriving mail ballots need to be counted.

In short, it’s all over but the counting, recounting and probably litigating. If America isn’t hung over this morning, it probably will be before it’s all done.

We want to hear from members and friends of Solidarity about what’s happening in your communities during and after the election. Let us hear from you at webzine@solidarity-us.org!

Here’s some of what we know:

For the second straight election, U.S. voters have actually repudiated Donald Trump’s repulsive, racist and nativist message — but this time, contrary to expectations, by a smaller percentage than in 2016. At this writing (7 am Wednesday) Biden has 68,867,000 against Trump’s 66,643,000 votes — a margin of two million but way less than pollsters indicated. Of course, none of this matters in a system governed by the anachronistic Electoral College.

As expected, Donald Trump made a “victory” declaration in the middle of the night and proclaimed “we’re going to the Supreme Court” to stop the vote count while he’s ahead. Importantly, it doesn’t look like the Republican leadership as a whole is backing up this widely anticipated Grand Theft Election gambit — at least for the moment. Prospects for a Trump-engineered “electoral coup” appear to have dimmed.

By most indications, the Republican majority in the Senate will remain intact at least narrowly and the Democrats will hold the House of Representatives by a smaller margin yet to be determined.

Third-party campaigns appear to have been pretty much overwhelmed by the polarization of the two main capitalist parties. The Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker is showing a 0.23% vote, but we’ll need more time to see where Green results may be significant in local or state races.

But whatever the Electoral College sausage machinery ultimately turns out — even if Biden ekes out a narrow win — the Democrats’ expectation of a massive “blue wave” taking back working class and sweeping Latino votes has largely failed. Biden’s centrist, soporific “unify the country” message — with little beyond hollow phrases about what to unify around — failed fairly dramatically, when it’s set in the context of the expectations and the coronavirus and economic calamity that Trump’s presidency has produced.

While the country remains semi-comatose awaiting the presidential results, it must be said that this is no Democratic sweep and certainly no big breakthrough for the party’s “progressive wing,” which has pockets of strength but can expect little or no serious influence on neoliberal party policy. Republican control of the Senate and the conservative Supreme Court is likely to give Biden an excuse to avoid fighting for meaningful reforms. What Trump might perpetrate in the interim before Inauguration Day is another dangerous unknown. Meanwhile, COVID rages on.

The socialist left, essentially a spectator in electoral terms, needs to be with the movements fighting the battles that most matter — around racial justice, police brutality and prison abolition; on the sadistic treatment of asylum seekers, family separations and terror raids in immigrant communities; on the climate catastrophe; on defending reproductive rights and Queer communities from what Trump’s Supreme Court might inflict.

A fundamental discussion is needed about what independent political action means today and how to move it forward. Solidarity hopes to help advance that discussion among activists looking for a way to break out of the crippling two-party political trap.

2020 Elections: What is to be done?

We publish here several contributions to the debate about how revolutionary socialists should engage with the 2020 Elections. Faced with the all-powerful, two capitalist parties’ domination of electoral politics, the revolutionary socialist left has long debated how to engage with the bourgeois electoral system in the U.S. Solidarity comes to this argument with a long history of work for and an organizational commitment to building a political force independent of the Democratic party. For many on the left the swing of the Republican Party toward white nationalism under Trump and the rise of “Trumpism,” has raised the stakes of this Presidential election in ways that requires a shift in strategy with a temporary focus on the electoral defeat of Trump through critical support of Biden.  For others, the dangers posed by Trumpism do not justify supporting the Democratic Party and they advocate support for the Green Party candidacy of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker.  For both sides, building our movements is integral to bringing about real political change. Our recent poll of our members shows there are a variety of views on this election in particular.

Readers, you are invited to send us your comments.  If you would like to contribute an article to this discussion, you can submit it at webzine@solidarity-us.org.  Please note that we have an editorial process for selection of comments and articles to help us have a comradely, well-rounded, representative and lively discussion.

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  • The Day After — America Hung Over?
    Trumpsters chanting “Stop the vote!” outside the central counting board in Detroit after an election official closed the door on them. Nov. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

    [This initial response was authored by David Finkel for the National Committee of Solidarity. We continue to follow events. By late Wednesday afternoon, with the Electoral College result appearing to swing narrowly toward Biden in Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, the Trump campaign is beginning to file stop-the-count lawsuits and a rightwing crowd is trying to break into the counting center at the TCF Center in downtown Detroit.]

    As the sun rises on a COVID-ravaged and politically fractured U.S. homeland the day after November 3, the main networks are telling us that the unresolved presidential election comes down to a two-states-out-of-three contest in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The results won’t be known till tonight at the earliest, probably later and not for days in Pennsylvania as late-arriving mail ballots need to be counted.

    In short, it’s all over but the counting, recounting and probably litigating. If America isn’t hung over this morning, it probably will be before it’s all done.

    We want to hear from members and friends of Solidarity about what’s happening in your communities during and after the election. Let us hear from you at webzine@solidarity-us.org!

    Here’s some of what we know:

    For the second straight election, U.S. voters have actually repudiated Donald Trump’s repulsive, racist and nativist message — but this time, contrary to expectations, by a smaller percentage than in 2016. At this writing (7 am Wednesday) Biden has 68,867,000 against Trump’s 66,643,000 votes — a margin of two million but way less than pollsters indicated. Of course, none of this matters in a system governed by the anachronistic Electoral College.

    As expected, Donald Trump made a “victory” declaration in the middle of the night and proclaimed “we’re going to the Supreme Court” to stop the vote count while he’s ahead. Importantly, it doesn’t look like the Republican leadership as a whole is backing up this widely anticipated Grand Theft Election gambit — at least for the moment. Prospects for a Trump-engineered “electoral coup” appear to have dimmed.

    By most indications, the Republican majority in the Senate will remain intact at least narrowly and the Democrats will hold the House of Representatives by a smaller margin yet to be determined.

    Third-party campaigns appear to have been pretty much overwhelmed by the polarization of the two main capitalist parties. The Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker is showing a 0.23% vote, but we’ll need more time to see where Green results may be significant in local or state races…

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    Few, however, have explained a plausible path that Trump could follow that would allow him to overturn the results of the election…

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University of Michigan grad students strike for COVID-19, anti-policing demands

Robin Zheng

Photo: U-M Graduate Employees’ Organization

During the 1975 month-long strike that garnered the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) its first contract, agreements on affirmative action and non-discrimination were secured within the first week after more than half the undergraduate students boycotted their classes in solidarity.

Since then, GEO has maintained a consistent record of hard-fought, precedent-setting contract victories that prioritize the well-being of historically disadvantaged groups, both within and beyond its own membership. These include childcare subsidies (2002, after a one-day walkout), trans-inclusive and trans-specific healthcare (2006 onward, including significant gains in 2020), improved disability accommodations (2011), fertility treatments (2014, a benefit secured for employees across the university), and the creation of paid positions for graduate students performing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work (2017, after a strike authorization).

On the picket line in 2020, GEO members regularly invoke this history of “bargaining for the common good” (or “social justice unionism”) as part of their motivations for striking. Their demands for “A Safe and Just Pandemic Response for All” boldly address the two intertwined global crises that have come to define our times: the disastrous failure of our institutions to respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deadly state-sanctioned violence ceaselessly inflicted on communities of color by the police.

GEO’s COVID-19 demands include a more robust testing and contact tracing program, a universal right to work remotely, more flexible subsidies for parents and caregivers, and support for international students; while their anti-policing demands include disarming and demilitarizing campus police, reallocating 50% of U-M Division of Public Safety and Security funds, and cutting ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and ICE.

This is an abolitionist strike, a historic development unimaginable (and, to many, unintelligible) just a few years ago. But over the span of a summer, the American populace has been confronted head-on with the glaring fact that the people in our society who perform the most valuable work of all — the essential work of caring for others — are also the most exploited of workers, who are disproportionately people of color. Instead of funding health, education, housing, jobs and benefits for all who need it, our collective wealth is poured into the prisons and police forces whose function is to protect private property and profits.

This obvious betrayal of the “Wolverine Culture of Care,” widely recognized across the campus and broader community, has been critical to GEO’s strike. One day after GEO celebrated Labor Day with news of their strike, over 40% of the undergraduate residential staff (residential advisors and diversity peer educators) declared their own strike. The day after that, undergraduate dining hall workers also announced plans to walk out.

These non-unionized student workers have witnessed first-hand how promised safety measures were ineffective (as when university-issued branded facemasks failed the “flame test” recommended by the university’s own residential staff training) and unenforced (as evidenced by shoulder-to-shoulder lines outside dining halls). At least one residential adviser was put directly in harm’s way in carrying out orders to interact with a COVID-positive student.

Such conditions appear even more outrageous when we recall that these workers represent precisely the population of financially and otherwise disadvantaged students — who must earn their room and board to stay in school — that deserve the most protection.

Thus, when the union claims that it is striking on behalf of the entire community, it is no mere slogan or rhetorical flourish. GEO members feel keenly that all the benefits and protections of being in a union, earned by prior generations of graduate student workers fighting tooth and nail before them, simultaneously produce serious responsibilities.

Right up until the strike authorization ballot went out, much of the membership remained unconvinced that it was the right course of action. A decisive factor in changing their minds was witnessing the concerns expressed by the U-M Faculty Senate, which is expected to hold a (mostly symbolic) vote of no confidence in the U-M administration on Wednesday, September 16.

Similarly, during a 4-hour virtual General Membership Meeting on the second day of the strike, in which a record 1,250 members deliberated over whether or not to accept the administration’s initial offer, a majority of the membership started off in favor of accepting the tiny concessions that had been delivered alongside a threat of retaliation. But by the end, the offer was rejected by a margin of about 2 to 1.

Many were swayed by the evidence of widespread community support as well as emotional testimonies from their fellow members, which included perspectives on being a member of color and being out on 5 AM picket lines in the pouring rain.

Perhaps still feeling the weight of contract negotiations settled earlier this year during which the university refused to bargain over planks on disarming and demilitarizing the campus police (as well as divestment from fossil fuels, ICE, and the private prison industry), members asserted that the meager wins on offer simply did not represent what and whom they are fighting for.

As part of a well-organized union, GEO members are capable of coordinating a large-scale action that (1) has a real shot at forcing concrete concessions, due to its disruptive potential, and (2) does not leave isolated individuals or groups to shoulder the challenges and risks of speaking out. Clearly, they see it as their duty to use this collective power — including their most effective weapon, the strike — on behalf of not only GEO membership, but all the other students, staff, and even faculty on campus who have been trying but not been able to make their voices heard.

GEO has worked assiduously to build transparent lines of communication with these wider constituencies, using a variety of innovative means. They wrote a letter to parents of U-M students, explaining: “We have voted to strike because it is the lesser of two disruptions to our students’ education… Many of our demands will directly improve the quality of your children’s instruction.”

They scheduled “virtual picket lines,” open to supporters anywhere, in which participants collectively made phone calls, sent emails, and reflected on the strike. They held a Town Hall for faculty, attended by 600 people and repeated a second time by request, after which meeting minutes were made publicly available.

They wrote up an FAQ in response to U-M leadership emails painting the strike as unnecessary and illegal, and conducted an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. They created a link tree with easy access to information on joining pickets, donating supplies and money for the strike fund, and a live-updating compilation of media coverage.

When striking residential staff broke the news that COVID-positive students in quarantine were provided with virtually no supplies and given chips, nuts, and granola bars in lieu of hot meals, GEO organized donations of food and toilet paper.

The tremendous outpouring of public support for the GEO and residential staff strikes is a testament to how successfully their message has been understood by the local community (and beyond). Since the very first day of the strike, significant numbers of undergraduates have turned out for picket shifts beginning at 5AM, distributed flyers, offered strikers free produce, and, according to one touching account, pooled their money to buy sandwiches for the picket line.

A U-M faculty letter of support had 436 signatories by the time it was published in the student newspaper; indeed, a number of faculty themselves participated in the nationwide #ScholarStrike for racial justice that dovetailed with the first two days of the GEO strike.

U-M Facilities and Ann Arbor Area Transport Authority bus drivers honked their support when passing the picket. Community organizations like the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, Washtenaw County Poor People’s Campaign, Ann Arbor Tenants’ Union, and Huron Valley DSA published statements of support and sent their members to the pickets.

Strikers spontaneously started car rallies, faculty and students organized solidarity marches and rallies, and a virtual university-wide Speak-Out was organized by the U-M All-Campus Labor Council (ACLC) which prominently featured the voices of non-tenure track lecturers, nurses, and hospital workers across all three Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn campuses.

On social media, GEO received support and donations from academic labor unions around the country, public figures ranging from Keaanga Yahmatta-Taylor to N. K. Jemisin to Rashida Tlaib, and Black Lives Matter Michigan — to which GEO replied: “We owe our momentum, especially for our anti-policing demands, to the history of Black-led abolitionist activism in Washtenaw County and beyond.”

Perhaps most significantly, a sizable number of unionized workers on campus construction sites, including electrical workers, bricklayers, plumbers and pipefitters, steelworkers, operating engineers, and the laborers’ union, walked off their job sites in solidarity, despite heated disagreement over GEO’s anti-policing demands.

When GEO members (AFT Local 3550) were confronted with the charge that teachers often cross other picket lines, they were able to point to their recent participation in a successful 7-day informational picket organized by IBEW Local 252 that forced U-M to reverse its decision to hire a non-union contractor (an attempt to “test the waters” after the 2018 repeal of prevailing wage legislation which was widely viewed as an attack on the wage rates of all the local building trades).

Still, they were forced to acknowledge that GEO must in turn do more on their part to show greater and more consistent solidarity with local unions — particularly if they hope for the broader labor movement to adopt their social justice demands. This is a lesson, of course, that all progressive movements would do well to learn.

There can be little doubt that we will soon see more attacks on labor unions; on U-M “workers, patients, students, and the community” (in the words of the ACLC); and on communities of color. On Friday, September 11, U-M filed an unfair labor practice in an effort to quell the strike rather than address the issues that led to it.

Meanwhile, GEO has signed up more than 350 new members and received over $40,000 in donations over the past week. As one member put it: “The historical conjuncture calls for boldness and people feel it in their bones.”

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the GEO strike, which was re-authorized over the weekend for another 5 days, at the very least they will have shown us the critical importance of “whole worker” solidarity in the darkest moments of crisis — and the ability of organized labor to stand on the frontlines of struggles for transformative social change. They will have given light and hope to supporters everywhere, a voice to the most vulnerable, and a powerful demonstration of what it means to fight back.

Robin Zheng is a University of Michigan alumna and former president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

The Pandemic and the Vote

Against the Current Editors

Detroit, Michigan – The Black Lives Matter Memorial. John Thorn placed the crosses on the lawn of his home to represent the many African-Americans who have died at the hands of police or in other violent incidents. (Photo: Jim West)

BY ALL POLITICAL leading indicators, Donald Trump is taking down the Republican Party to its most shattering electoral debacle in decades. “Presiding,” if that’s a word for anything Trump does, over the entirely preventable health and economic COVID-19 calamity, he’s proving himself willing to sacrifice anything for his own interests.

As Dr. Anthony Fauci warned of 100,000 new daily coronavirus infections by November, Trump’s dispatching federal marshals and border patrol thugs to face off against Black Lives Matter marches, was deliberately calculated to inflame chaos in American cities on the pretext of “restoring law and order.” When that didn’t work he turned to another chaos-inducing ploy, announcing that the November election is “rigged” by mail-in voting. In anything like normal political times, a poll-slumping president’s call to “postpone” a looming election would be an occasion for his party to save itself from oblivion by dumping him.

That same day, we learned that the Census Bureau was ordered to cut short household visits in order to deliberately undercount communities of color. This happened immediately after the White House instructed hospitals to report COVID statistics to Health and Human Services instead of the Centers for Disease Control — where the HHS bureaucracy can bury and falsify them. Mercifully, after Trump’s super-spreader campaign rallies from Tulsa, to Phoenix, to the Black Hills of South Dakota left more virus outbreaks in their wake, the GOP convention in Jacksonville, the Florida epicenter of the pandemic, finally had to be cancelled.

This administration — tragicomic in its incompetence, vicious and sadistic in its treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers, grasping dangerously although ineptly for authoritarian presidentialist rule — presents the most repellent picture to an increasingly desperate domestic population and a disbelieving world.

At present, the likely margin of Trump’s defeat looks to be too great to allow the election to be stolen either by rightwing voter suppression or, as several widely circulated articles have warned, post-election manipulation by Republican-controlled state legislatures. In the present climate, however, no outcome can be taken as certain. Polls have been wrong before; voter intimidation and suppression are escalating; dirty tricks close to the election are inevitable; and we know too well that the anachronistic Electoral College can produce fluky and disastrous results.

At the outer improbable extreme, a Trump/GOP Grand Theft Election could create not just a contested outcome but an existential crisis for the constitutional system that has served U.S. ruling elites so well through more than two centuries. That’s another whole scenario. But here’s what we know for sure: Following the November vote, the United States will remain a country bitterly polarized — between insurgent anti-racist and social justice movements, and vicious reaction spearheaded by white nationalism.

The United States will still face a coronavirus calamity and severe economic shocks, neither of which are ending soon — with tens of millions of people facing eviction, long-term unemployment, loss of health care, the destruction of public education and whole communities, with the prospect of mass misery on a scale not seen since the 1930s Great Depression.

The unfolding climate catastrophe, and a global pandemic with huge loss of life in the global South, are layered on top of numerous looming international conflicts, particularly the U.S.-China confrontation. The cancer of rising authoritarian regimes is spreading. And we know that win or lose, some 40%+ of the U.S. electorate will cast its votes for the candidate, and what has become the Trump party, of open white supremacy.

Is this really new? No, and yes. Certainly we’ve seen blatant racial presidential campaign appeals before — Richard Nixon’s 1968 Southern strategy, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “welfare queens,” George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton ad, and plenty other repulsive spectacles. Yet not in living memory has a sitting president actively embraced the Confederate flag, the symbol of human slavery in America — not since Woodrow Wilson proudly screened “Birth of a Nation” in the White House.

The Trump reelection campaign is reduced to its essentials: open promotion of white racism, pandering to corporate greed, and Trump’s incomprehensible denial of the scale of the COVID-19 nightmare that exposes even his own support base to the risk of mass death. With the economy cratering, he has nothing else left to run on.

What’s New, and Not

There is indeed something new here — both in the magnificent rise of the Black-led, multiracial insurgency against murderous police brutality and the systemic racism and obscene social inequality at the roots of this society, and in the virulence of the entrenched opposition. The tectonic conflict of these forces will define the coming decade.

If the gulf on social issues between the two U.S. capitalist parties has grown to historic levels, what’s not new in any fundamental sense is the Democratic Party. Much attention focuses on the growth of a “progressive” and sometimes oppositional wing of the party, which has energized the voting base. But the levers of policy-making and power remain firmly in the hands of the Pelosi-Schumer leadership, which answers to the party’s corporate donors.

The Democratic candidate Joe Biden offers a hardly inspiring option — continuation of the stagnant neoliberalism of the Clinton, and with some variations the Obama, administrations. Despite its verbal gestures toward the progressive wing and (much more) toward the movements in the streets, the Biden campaign is a consistent message of No: No to Medicare for All, No to the Green New Deal, No to defunding and demilitarizing police. Yes to platitudes, no to meaningful concrete change.

Some of Biden’s announcements, on the environment for example, look half-decent on paper, and so does the Democratic platform — that meaningless document, influenced as usual by the liberal and progressive wing. What counts aren’t words, but what a president and potential governing party will be prepared to seriously fight for. Remember for example how president Obama in 2009 put forward a “public option” for health care but withdrew it without a struggle. As for Biden, behind shopworn phrases about “healing America“ that mean nothing substantive, his honest campaign theme might be: I’ll fight for nothing, and that’s what I’ll deliver.

It should hardly be necessary to detail the fact that nothing in Biden’s political record deserves progressive, let alone socialist, support. His Senate career runs from presiding over the Senate character assassination of Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, to enthusiastic advocacy of “tough on crime” legislation leading to mass incarceration in America, to supporting the disastrous and criminal Iraq war, from “ending welfare as we know it” to sweetheart sponsorship of the interests of the credit card industry headquartered in Delaware.

All this establishes Biden’s credentials as a 100% corporate Democrat. Like the Clintons, Biden has performed the formidable political trick of winning the support of blue-collar working class and especially Black voters, while spearheading the awful neoliberal programs that have brought pain and destruction to so many in those communities. Those very policies ultimately brought us the Donald Trump presidency, from whose disintegration Biden now stands to benefit.

Dozens if not hundreds of Trump executive orders need to be immediately cancelled — the Muslim travel ban, mass immigrant detention and family separation, massive assaults on the environment and women’s rights. It’s entirely unclear whether Biden would repeal these peremptorily, or even if he’s been asked about them. Beyond that, it should be clear by now that facing the economic carnage caused by COVID-19 requires a massive economic stimulus, to bail out people not banks and corporations — by some estimates amounting to 40% of the annual U.S. GDP (as estimated for example by leftwing economist Jack Rasmus).

That’s vastly beyond the inadequate post-2008 program of the Obama administration. Nothing suggests that Biden is interested in fighting for anything on that scale, without which the likelihood of a prolonged and deep Depression looms.

The Alternatives?

The horrific implications of a second Trump term can’t be overstated, however unlikely it may presently appear. An irresistible imperative — the removal of Trump and the white-supremacist Republican administration, by the largest possible vote — confronts an immovable object, the corporate neoliberalism of the real Democratic Party led by Pelosi, Schumer, Biden, the Clintons, and, yes, Obama.

We don’t think that many folks on the left have illusions that Joe Biden himself represents anything positive beyond being not-Trump. There are, and will be, differing views about how much the Democratic progressive wing could influence his administration (more than verbally). In any case, the difficult choice facing serious progressive folks in this presidential election, we believe, needs to be posed this way: What electoral choice can both oust Trump and advance the prospects for the movements that are challenging the brutal racial capitalism of this society and spearheading the struggles for social justice, for human rights, for labor, for a future without climate and environmental collapse?

The argument to “vote for the Democratic lesser evil to defeat the rightwing menace,” repeated on an endless feedback loop ever electoral cycle, has no attraction for us — but that doesn’t automatically tell us what’s appropriate this time.

There are two basic options (in addition to work on local races and ballot initiatives). One is summed up in the formula “Dump Trump, Fight Biden,” seeing a vote for Biden and Kamala Harris as an unavoidable necessity — at least in states where the outcome is not certain while the struggle against what he represents must also begin immediately.

This argument holds that the imperative to defeat Trump in 2020 outweighs whatever openings might exist for an independent progressive, third-party alternative — and that no such alternative is presently strong enough to be meaningful.

The alternative argument contends that precisely now, the importance of supporting independent, anti-capitalist politics is paramount, and that in the 2020 election that option is embodied in the Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, on an unabashed ecosocialist program. (See Howie Hawkins’ “Which Green New Deal?” and his statement on running for president published in ATC 203, November-December 2019.)

Throughout his campaign for the Green Party nomination, Hawkins has stressed not only its program but also the importance of building the party as a meaningful political force and voice of the movements. Due to restrictive and oppressive ballot access laws backed by both capitalist parties, the Green Party is on the ballot in between 27-32 states. [See Angela Walker’s statement in this issue.]

Hawkins has stated that “for the Greens, every state is a battleground,” and we have no doubt that the consciousness of many dedicated activists is a battleground as well. Among members of the socialist-feminist organization Solidarity that sponsors this magazine, opinion is divided — as we expect it is in other currents on the left. (While making no formal endorsement, Solidarity held a poll of the membership to establish the balance of views.)

In any case, we don’t see “sitting it out” as a viable option.Whatever choice any of our readers make, the crisis and the struggles ahead will last long past the nasty, brutish and long U.S. electoral slog. The changes we most desperately need will come, as they always do, through mass action from below. The mass movements have won the significant gains in recent years for LGBT rights, progress toward decent wages, and a modicum of protection, however fragile it remains, for immigrant youth.

Most dramatically, #Black Lives Matter has put racial justice, police violence and mass incarceration on the political agenda and in cultural expression, from street paintings to sports uniforms and even corporate promos. To be sure, all that’s both a signifier of changing consciousness and the system’s effort to safely contain it. What’s been achieved remains a very long way from the deep changes we need, but the discussion in society has changed, and the task is to sustain and accelerate it.

This article will appear in the September-October 2020 issue of Against the Current.

U.S. Troops Out of Portland Now! (Also: Baltimore, Kansas City, etc.)

Scott McLemee

SOMEDAY HISTORIANS WILL look back on the cascade of events in 2020 and probably conclude that developments in the United States took a sinister turn on or about July 15.

That day, troubling reports started coming out of Portland, Oregon, where, as in countless other parts of the country, mass protests against racism and police brutality were underway. The word among activists on social media was that protesters were being grabbed up by people in military fatigues bearing patches that identified them only as “police” who were cruising the streets in unmarked cars and vans.

Cellphone video recordings soon proved that this was no wild rumor. One individual, shown being carried off to a van, later reported that he was held at a federal courthouse, where he was given the Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent…”) but was never told the grounds for arrest or what agency was holding him.

Following media inquiries, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a statement that it acted on “information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.” CBP also claimed that its agents had identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia.

“I have a pretty strong philosophical conviction that I will not engage in any violent activity,” the detained protester told The Washington Post. After refusing to waive his rights, he was released from custody but given no record of the arrest.

The number of people detained in this manner is probably known only to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP. More than a hundred DHS agents (including some from Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were in Port­land in July as part of Operation Diligent Valor — despite clear indications by the city’s mayor and Oregon’s governor that they were neither welcome nor needed.

Expanding Deployments

By early August, DHS was circulating “open access security reports” on two reporters covering Portland for the national news media to law enforcement agencies. They consisted largely of material culled from the journalists’ Twitter accounts.

In addition, the department circulated information on arrested protesters presented in “baseball card” format. The intention to provoke or prolong harassment was clear in each case.

In the meantime, Department of Justice sent 200 federal agents to Kansas City on the pretext of fighting violent crime. While slightly less grandiose-sounding than DHS’s Diligent Valor, the DOJ’s Operation Legend (also called Operation LeGend) was no less an effort to derail social protest.

The mean streets of Kansas City seem far less credible as a concern of the Trump administration than protesters’ demands that local law-enforcement funds be redirected to meeting residents’ health, education, and housing needs.

Other cities targeted for LeGend deployments are Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleve­land, Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, Phila­delphia, and St. Louis.

Who Is Being Targeted — and Why?

Far less worrying to federal authorities throughout this period have been the right-wing protesters who, besides denouncing efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus, are prone to issue death threats and march around with weapons to back them up. (Some also bear swastikas and Confederate flags, suggesting that the inalienable right not to wear a mask is, at most, a secondary issue.)

During rallies against stay-at-home orders in Michigan this spring, gun-bearing protesters threatened the governor with lynching. In his testimony before Congress in late July, Attorney General Bill Barr pretended not to have heard about it. Nor did he bother to make the faintest of half-hearted gestures of concern.

The viciousness of reactionaries tends to grow in direct proportion to the urgency of the social demands being made, and the course of 2020 has been no exception.

With deaths from the pandemic in the United States in the six figures while the unemployment rate remains double-digit, teachers around the country prepare to go on strike if necessary, rather than let their schools reopen as centers for the spread of disease. People whose right to a living wage has been denied find themselves classified as essential workers — without whom nothing else functions, even badly.

The potential for rent strikes and militant resistance to eviction grows, as does recognition that universal healthcare and a basic income are reasonable demands.

At the same time, everyone paying attention realizes that for the white-nationalist Republican party to remain a factor in American politics, it has to suppress the vote among the communities hardest hit by the pandemic. And those throwing protesters in vans aren’t just curiously neglecting to notice the paramilitary right but hanging out with them on social media.

As we go to press in August 2020, one year has passed since the investigative site Pro Publica revealed the existence of a virulently racist and xenophobic Facebook group with 9,500 followers drawn from past and present agents of the Customs and Border Protection. Following a remarkably under-publicized investigation, CBT fired four agents, suspended 38 without pay, and warned a few more to knock it off.

The impact on the other 9,400 or so has not been reported. But one thing seems clear: Whatever else it may have been, Portland in July was just practice.

Scott McLemee is a Solidarity member living in Washington, DC. Links to his reviews, essays, and other work can be found at the website www.clippings.me/mclemee.

This article will also appear in the September-October 2020 issue (#208) of Against the Current.

July 4 speech signals new stage in Trump’s race war

Malik Miah

Photos of the victims of police violence line the waterfront in Seattle. Photo: Lisa Ahlberg/lisaahlberg.com

“America in crisis” is a reality.

The US is experiencing twin pandemics: a health and economic crisis due to COVID-19; and a race crisis due to state violence against Black and Brown lives. There is no national governmental leadership to fight both.

The “American Spring” of protests is changing that. The 50-state upsurge, declaring Black lives matter as much as white lives, has led millions of whites to look themselves in the mirror and begin to reject the revisionist history taught in schools and institutions.

The movement has also provoked Trump and his white nationalist supporters to go on the offensive. Many shout “White Power”, and Trump embraces them as “patriots”.

At the same time, many Democratic Party mayors have retreated from taking on the criminal cops, even as they continue to beat and kill innocent people of colour. Most police reforms proposed by liberals are modest and can easily be ignored or reversed.

As the Trump regime downplays medical science and states that COVID-19 will eventually fade away, the facts say otherwise. The US population is 4.25% of the world but 25% of those infected by COVID-19 and 25% of deaths, impacting disproportionately on African American lives.

Trump’s race war

At a July 3 speech in front of four dead presidents carved on sacred indigenous people land in South Dakota, Trump went all in on his race war agenda.

He attacked the BLM movement as advocates of “far left fascism”. Trump defended Confederate monuments as “American Heritage” and defended his Executive Order making it a felony to vandalise such symbols.

Trump called BLM a “symbol of hate”. Former New York City Mayor and Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani said BLM is “a Marxist organisation”.

Indigenous people protested outside the July 3 “Mount Rushmore” race war event. Secret Service and police pushed demonstrators back and arrested some, as pro-Trump white extremists shouted at Native peoples to “go back home”. Only anti-Indian, anti-Black bigots could attend what was called a public White House event.

Trump has positioned himself as the political heir of segregationist (and former governor of Alabama) George Wallace, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston. Brinkley told the Los Angeles Times that Wallace and former Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina both failed in their attempts to win the presidency on openly white supremacist platforms.

“History will look at the Trump years as being a reactionary right-wing movement that saw America was becoming 60% nonwhite and panicked,” Brinkley said.

“When the economy crashed and George Floyd was murdered, Trump had cement feet. He went back to a tired old playbook, and he lost the centre in America. If you were a conservative, centre-right voter, you’re now looking to get rid of him.”

Only 35% of voters have confidence in Trump’s ability to “effectively handle race relations” and only 15% are “very confident”, according to a Pew Research survey released on June 30.

A majority of those polled ‒ 55% ‒ also said Trump had “changed the tone of political debate in the US for the worse”. Just 25% said he had changed it for the better and 19% saw not much change, either way.

Yet, it is not clear Trump will lose in November. Racism and defence of white grievance is his strategy to win and he doubled-down on white grievance in his July 4 speech at the White House.

Trump is threatening to veto the US$740-billion Defence Authorisation Act, should it include a measure to rename military installations that honour Confederate figures.

Trump’s defence of police “unions” (which are, in fact, cop cartels) and threats to deploy the National Guard against peaceful protesters are pressuring Democratic mayors and governors to weaken the mass movement.

Trump believes his white “silent majority” will win the election, stop the Democrats and the Black-led movement.

Many establishment liberals, while giving lip service in support of BLM demands, are retreating on the issue of defunding the police and moves to bring about fundamental changes.

There are four months until the presidential election. In politics, that is a lifetime.

Three examples of cities led by liberal Democratic mayors shows this. It was only six weeks ago on May 25 that George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis cops.

1. Occupy New York City Hall

In late June, activists in New York City pushed the City Council to cut the largest police budget in the country by US$1 billion, and to redirect the funds to other socially needed programs. Mayor Bill de Blasio pretended support, but then deployed the cops to shut down the week-long protest and occupation.

“Shortly before 3am on Wednesday [June 1],” reported The Nation, “several hundred protesters gathered in the plaza directly east of City Hall Park in downtown Manhattan.

“A few were new faces, but many had been there on and off for a week, when activists set up an encampment and declared that they were occupying the space as part of the nationwide movement against racism and policing.

“The protesters had a lot going against them. Less than 24 hours earlier, the New York Police Department had staged a violent raid at the outskirts of the encampment, injuring several people.

“Just hours before, those in the [protest] encampment watched as local legislators, while negotiating and voting on the city budget for the next fiscal year, brushed off their calls to defund the police.”

De Blasio was elected in 2014 as a police force critic. Since then, he has solidly supported the cops in their anti-Black and violent actions. He preaches there are only a few “bad apples”.

The Occupy City Hall campaign was aimed at defunding the police and making other fundamental changes as the city discussed its new budget. The new budget, however, turned out to be a sleight of hand.

For example, about $400 million of the $1 billion the city is said to be cutting from the Police Department’s $6 billion budget will be achieved by moving school safety officers under the Department of Education. But according to the city’s Independent Budget Office, the Education Department already sends the Police Department $300 million a year to operate the school safety program.

Activists are continuing their fight for real cuts in the police budget and transfer of funds to other programs.

2. Minneapolis mayor retreats

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the City Council — with a veto-proof majority — immediately pledged to defund the police department there.

Amid a massive crowd of protesters, Mayor Jacob Frey was pressed on whether he would commit to defund the police. When he said he would not support the full abolition of the police, he was booed with chants of “Go home, Jacob!” and “Shame!”.

In an interview with National Public Radio, Frey expressed support for major structural reform, but reaffirmed his opposition to disbanding the police.

“We need to entirely shift the culture that has for years failed Black and Brown people. We need a full structural revamp,” he told NPR. “But, abolishing the police department? No, I think that’s a bad idea.”

Leaders of the Minneapolis BLM movement are determined to keep pressing the City Council to move forward. As in most cities, the activist Black leadership has pursed this demand for years. Frey and the establishment liberals hope the mass upsurge will die down, but are willing to challenge it anyway.

3. Seattle’s mayor sides with cops

According to local media, heavily armed cops swept into Seattle’s police-free “autonomous zone” on July 1 and arrested dozens of people, after Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an overnight emergency order declaring the weeks-long gathering an “unlawful assembly”.

The move to disband the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) and reclaim an abandoned police precinct nearby followed a series of violent crimes that included the fatal shootings of two teenagers. None involved peaceful demonstrators.

Durkan’sorder to clear the occupied protest area remains in effect. Customers and residents must check in with police as they enter and exit the cordoned-off areas.  Many are waved through without delay. Others have reported run-ins with police and, especially at night, intimidation by heavily-armed police in ready mode for continued protests.

Durkan has also called for an investigation into socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, for allegedly violating her office. Sawant has been active in the protest movement.

Vanguard leadership by Blacks

The history of the US is one of thievery and national oppression.  Whites rarely know the truth about the history.

The Black leadership of the current upsurge and the BLM organisations know the truth. Their vanguard political role has inspired other oppressed peoples to stand up.

The white backlash, led by Trump, is seeking to use more violence to suppress the movement and encourage liberals to protect the police institutions. In the past, that “law and order” message has worked.

History shows that Democratic elected officials and establishment liberals, including Africa Americans, have supported the police, the “law and order” agenda and mass incarceration. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has already declared he will increase police budgets if he is elected president.

What next?

This is why the left wing of the protest movement is not shifting their focus away from peaceful street action to campaign for Joe Biden. The gains won so far are due to mass struggle and must continue no matter who is president and which party rules Congress.

The American crises cannot be solved by liberalism and electoralism.

Trump’s race-war strategy can only win if the movement leaves the streets. As the examples in New York City, Minneapolis and Seattle show, protests will continue so long as killer cops are not prosecuted and put in prisons.

A Third Radical Reconstruction (Revolution) is needed now.

This was originally published in Green Left on July 7, 2020

Defend the Hong Kong Democracy Movement!

Solidarity National Committee

Protesters vs. police in Hong Kong in May. (Photo: Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times)

In an act of retribution to the Hong Kong movement beginning last year, which has seen prolonged street clashes between the police and protestors, China has decided to unilaterally impose new national security laws to Hong Kong.

These laws severely circumvent the city’s existing autonomy, mandating the establishment of Beijing-appointed security bureaus and more police to clamp down on individuals suspected of breaching ‘national security’ — defined very broadly and up to Beijing’s authority. The laws even threaten to target Hong Kong permanent residents living outside of Hong Kong.

The details of these laws were scant to Hongkongers until after the bill was officially passed on Tuesday, including to Hong Kong’s highest officials: even the Chief Executive and Secretary of Justice have no say in the process to shape the bill.

Many legal experts and activists have noted that these laws effectively spell the end of the “One Country, Two Systems” as the city knows it. These laws reflect Beijing’s eagerness to prioritize authoritarian state control at the expense of its constituencies’ right to determine their own political future. It is no coincidence that devotees of Nazi statecraft, like Jiang Shigong, have been increasingly appointed to influential positions in Beijing’s policymaking structures for Hong Kong.

International socialists must stand with the people of Hong Kong’s struggle against Beijing’s state repression. The movement is extremely diverse, containing a number of different ideological elements, including pro-U.S. and left-wing factions. We condemn the Chinese government’s efforts to stoke up nationalist divisions to neutralize Hong Kong’s attempts at building links of solidarity with people in the Mainland and beyond. We also strongly oppose the xenophobia some in the movement exhibit toward Mainland Chinese people.

Hong Kong’s movement is not one of national independence — a position that remains a minority in the movement — though undoubtedly one for self-determination, trying to stake its own voice in the inter-imperial rivalry between the U.S. and China.

This new Cold War dynamic between Washington and Beijing covers up the real division of power in today’s world: between the capitalist state elites and the international working-class. China’s miraculous economic growth in the past decades has depended on super-exploiting its own working-class, and perpetuating the extraction of resources from the global South to provide low-cost commodities to the global North.

Beijing’s accusation of Hong Kong protestors being backed by “foreign interference” is also hypocritical. It falsely generalizes the movement’s association with U.S. regime-change outfits like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), while pro-Beijing groups have long had their own NED connections. The regime is more than happy to court U.S. surveillance and riot control technology firms — many of the same ones used to assist the murder of Black people and protestors against police brutality in the United States today — to assist its repressive campaigns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

U.S. political elites’ response has been ineffectual and self-serving: the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act offered no substantial support for the movement, while insidiously implicating the movement in support of the U.S.’s inhuman sanctions on Iran and North Korea. On the other hand, the “Protect Hong Kong Act,” which would have prevented some U.S. firms from supplying teargas and other weaponry to the Hong Kong Police Force, has been stalled in the Senate.

In addition, the Trump administration has shown that even the smallest gestural support for dissidents in Hong Kong, the Mainland, and Xinjiang takes a backseat to the interests of economic elites in the volatile U.S.-China trade relationship. With the interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese markets, Hong Kong would only be trapped in a vicious geopolitical bond; finding a third way is the city’s own chance of liberation.

We condemn the U.S. political establishment from intervening in Hong Kong’s affairs for its own imperial designs. But we also recognize that links between the United States and a small minority of protestors do not delegitimate an entire mass movement’s fight against one of the most exploitative governments today. As Lenin writes, “the fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain circumstances, be utilized by another ‘Great’ Power in its equally imperialist interests should have no more weight in inducing Social Democracy to renounce its recognition of the right of nations to self-determination than the numerous case of the bourgeoisie utilizing republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial robbery.”

As the Hong Kong people enter an even darker phase of the struggle with these security laws, we call for other socialists to continue forging lines of support from below to support and empower the progressive elements of the movement.

One immediate obstacle for solidarity comes directly from elements from the Western left, those who have spread disinformation to whitewash the Chinese government’s crimes in the name of “anti-imperialism.” These efforts are especially shocking in the midst of a global movement against policing, just as China continues to quietly learn from and adopt U.S. counter-insurgency and policing methods. The left must vigilantly combat these narratives to truly build an effective mass movement against all imperialisms.

Lastly, we invite unions, community organizations, and other mass movement organizations to show Hongkongers that there are practical alternatives to lobbying the U.S. government for support. Just as anti-democratic governments from the U.S. to China continue to work in tandem to suppress people’s voices and rights for capitalist profit, mass movements must reach beyond national borders toward building a democratic, revolutionary and socialist future.

COVID, A Glimpse of Our Future: On Mutual Aid and the Self-Organization of Working People

Kristian Williams Founding member of Rose City Copwatch, Interviewed by Bill Resnick

Bill Resnick: This COVID crisis may well be giving us a glimpse of our future when supply chains collapse under assault from a more serious pandemic coupled with more frequent and damaging climate disasters. Survival will require a tremendous cooperative effort, coordinated to produce and maintain life necessities and make sure everybody had them, this resembling mutual aid on a vast scale. Of course, without cooperative efforts, other outcomes, quite horrific, can also be imagined. So Kristian, tell us about the genesis of mutual aid and its challenge to capitalist understandings of human nature.

Kristian Williams: Well, the term “mutual aid” was coined by the anarchist Peter Kropotkin at the end of the 19th century in a series of articles in the journal The Nineteenth Century, then collected and revised into a book that appeared in 1902.

Kropotkin was one of the most important figures in the history of anarchism. A Russian prince who did a stint in the military, he got himself assigned to Siberia so that he could study the geography of the region. He later became involved with anarchist movement. His efforts to spread anarchist ideas among the workers and peasants led him to prison and then a life of exile.

Toward the end of the 19th century, he entered into a debate against what was at the time called Social Darwinism, a theory, proclaimed as scientific by its proponents, that those who reach the highest positions in society do so because they have evolved to become superior beings able to outcompete those in the lower ranks. Of course, this “survival of the fittest” theory fed very nicely into the class hierarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy. And the basic assumption is that human society is a ruthless bloodstained competition between self-interested individuals trying to get ahead at one another’s expense, and that the drive to do it is biologically programmed into us.

Kropotkin looked at examples from the animal kingdom, and also what at the time were called primitive societies, what we now call indigenous societies. He also examined the history of free cities and the guild structure of the middle ages. In addition, in Kropotkin’s own time there were examples — like burial societies, food coops, early labor unions. From these cases, he determined that the whole prevailing view of human nature was profoundly wrong and the whole view of nature was profoundly wrong. Animal species tend to hunt in groups, share food, warn each other of danger, and the group dynamics that result from that sort of cooperative impulse mean that species that cooperate tend to do better than any individual in it would on its own. There is an evolutionary advantage to cooperation. Thus the title of Kropotkin’s book is Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

Bill Whitfield of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969.
Photograph by William P. Straeter, AP

From his observations of the natural world, he hypothesized a possibility for a human society based more on cooperation and simply looking out for each other, a solidaristic model, rather than the ruthless capitalist competition that people like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer arguedwas just part of the natural order of things. At root, this is a debate about human nature, and about what sort of society is possible.

Since 1902, the evidence has very much been on the side of Kropotkin and not on the side of Huxley or Spencer. The advances in evolutionary science have tended to emphasize the cooperative aspects within species and sometimes even between species. This has shown up and been validated by social science, by psychology experiments, and by computer models that work on game theory. These have tended toward confirming the mutual aid hypothesis. Even economics, which you would think would be the ideological enemy, has come around to recognizing the importance of cooperative relationships as well as competitive relationships.

Resnick: Yes, economics is coming around. For most of the last 50 years, until fairly recently, they were under the spell of neoliberalism, and seemed to convince themselves that really, “There is no alternative” to ruthless capitalism. But now some are recognizing that our current arrangements are destroying societies through growing inequality and destruction of the ecosystems upon which life depends.

Williams: There is a very real sense in which mutual aid is what makes society possible. It’s also what makes communities resilient in times of crisis or after disasters. But, the hierarchical society with its concentrations of power and its inequalities of wealth is very corrosive of the principle and tends to break down the solidaristic bonds which would otherwise exist. It rewards sociopathic competition and therefore gets us in the habit of not viewing people as our neighbors and possible collaborators, but instead viewing them as competitors and enemies. And so the very structure of the society that we have tends to create the kind of behavior that it then uses to legitimize itself. It sees the world as this dog-eat-dog place, and then it creates the conditions that make it that way. At the same time, it puts us on a course where to some degree, community survival depends on a resistance to that overall capitalist ideology.

Resnick: Many on the left have critiques of mutual aid — that it’s like putting a band aid on a gaping wound. As much as the people involved have good intentions, we can’t let private good works and charity substitute for public programs, like health care and raising the minimum wage.

Williams: Well, I think that’s right as far as it goes. Again, taking the concept back to Kropotkin, the idea was never that in times of scarcity, people pooled their resources and, for example, share food, and somehow that’s enough. In addition to being the scientist who developed this observation about the need for cooperation and its importance in evolution, Kropotkin was an active revolutionary anarchist. The idea was not simply that these sort of voluntaristic relationships within the capitalist state system were going to be somehow good enough. It was that the entire social arrangement needs to be reinvented along more solidaristic lines, rather than perpetuating a system in which a very few people hoard and control most of the resources of society.

So, yes: To the degree that mutual aid substitutes for structural change, I think it’s being misapplied. The principles of mutual aid need to operate alongside of and to facilitate social struggle of other kinds. In your previous interview your guest mentioned some of the mutual aid networks that are developing in the course of this pandemic. Hopefully those relationships that people are forming now and those networks that people are creating now will outlast the pandemic and will provide both the motive and also the structure for other kinds of organizing.

The networks that get set up in the crisis so that people check on their neighbors and make sure and that there are healthy people to bring supplies to the sick people or the elderly, those could also become the networks that will resist evictions, that will organize rent strikes, that will engage in community self-defense of other kinds.

This interview is a transcribed and edited version of a radio interview of Kristian Williams by Bill Resnick on the on the Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO, 90.7fm Portland, OR.

Bill Resnick co-founded the Old Mole Variety Hour. He’s practiced law, taught, and organized. He’s published in Socialist Review, Against the Current, and the Columbia Law Review, among others. He also wrote for, edited, and chaired the editorial collective of the Portland Alliance, for 30 years the voice of radical Portland.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Whither Anarchism?, and Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde. He was a founding member of Rose City Copwatch, remains active in his union, and serves on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies.

“Normal” No More

Against the Current Editors

Capital Hill Autonomous Zone, formerly the Seattle East Precinct building and the surrounding blocks, June 10 (Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

A nationwide uprising against murderous racialized police brutality has broken out in the streets of U.S. cities — even amidst the considerable risks of mass protests during the coronavirus pandemic, let alone threats from rampant militarized police violence. An enormously positive development is the fact that it is both Black-led and multiracial in its actions and demands, relative to historic urban rebellions from the 1960s onward. The central demands to “Defund the Police” and “De-militarize the Police” stand out for their clarity and radical character — and their necessity.

The broad-daylight police lynching of George Floyd, on top of other police and vigilante murders (Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many more) brought much of American society face to face with our real condition. The eruption of open white-supremacist politics in the Donald Trump era is real and dangerous, but we are now assured that it does not go unchallenged, particularly among courageous young white people as well as communities of color. It’s also clear that while there are a beautiful panoply of Black, Latinx and allied anti-racist formations, these actions are on a far larger scale than any organization or combination could mount on their own.

Beyond that, a perspective on this insurgent movement requires a whole discussion of its own, beyond the scope of the present statement. We would suggest that people are marching not only for, and in solidarity with, Black lives — as critically urgent as that is — but also from a certain consciousness that survival is on the line for us all.

Well before the most recent string of high-profile police and vigilante murders of Black civilians, there’s been a spreading sense of all-encompassing crisis, and no wonder. It’s important always to remember that the root of the interlocking crises is systemic, not subjective: in other words, not even Donald Trump on his own could have screwed this whole thing up so completely. We must emphasize this point, precisely because Trump’s buffoonish and sinister daily spectacles make it all too easy to forget.

We are living in the worst global public health disaster since the 1918-19 flu pandemic; a potential economic slump on a scale still unknown, possibly rivalling the 1930s Depression; and the unfolding climate and environmental catastrophe that threatens mass species extinction and the survival of human civilization by (or before) the end of this century. What was “normal” is no more, and may never be again.

The United States in particular is governed by a U.S. administration that’s the most overtly racist since Woodrow Wilson, the most incompetent since Herbert Hoover, headed up by the most personally corrupt president ever. The country faces a November election with the least inspiring available Democratic presidential candidate, and the real possibility of systematic rightwing electoral theft organized from the top levels of the federal executive and voter-suppressing state legislatures.

We will focus first on the coronavirus pandemic, which (like America’s racial and policing crises) was entirely foretold many years ago. “(I)n one vital area,” Laurie Garrett wrote in the 1995 edition of her pioneering report The Coming Plague. Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance, ”the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases, we can already predict the future — and it is threatening and dangerous to us all. The history of our time will be marked by recurrent examples of newly discovered diseases…{including] diseases which spring from insects and animals to humans, through man-made disruptions in local habitats.”

Referring to the specific circumstance that terrified the world at the time, Garrett continued: “The global epidemic of human immunodeficiency virus is the most powerful and recent example. Yet AIDS does not stand alone; it may well be just the first of the modern, large-scale epidemics of infectious disease.” The crusading anti-AIDS hero Larry Kramer could hardly have put it better.

The subsequent quarter century has seen plentiful outbreaks to validate this warning. Scientifically, with regard to virology in particular the advances in basic research and technical understanding have been breathtaking. Socially and politically, not so much — to put it mildly. Why such poor preparation for the COVID-19 mess?

The answers are well known. Partly it’s because a public health emergency doesn’t heal or reduce social inequalities and injustice — it magnifies them. The slogan “we’re all in this together” is exposed as a well-meaning platitude when frontline health care providers, essential service and meatpacking workers protest lethal workplace conditions, as Black and Latinx and Native American communities suffer two and three times the national U.S. infection and death rates — while overwhelmingly white demonstrators encouraged by the White House and the right wing demand “open everything.”

The workplace actions and demands of Amazon, meatpacking, nursing care and designated essential workers for protection represent today’s face of class struggle in the half-locked-down United States, where by late May close to 40 million workers had filed for unemployment and terror swept through prisons, immigrant detention centers and longterm care facilities.

With official unemployment at 20% (and the labor participation rate somewhere around an incredibly low 60%), “reopening the economy” became the rage. What’s deemed “essential,” whose lives and which communities are expendable, which industries get the bailouts and which go under, are shaped by corporate lobbies and political interest — not by deep considerations of human need, and certainly not by democratic discussion.

The same will apply, even more diabolically, to the development and deployment of therapeutic treatments and eventually vaccines. Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine and bleach is the stuff of the continuing White House craziness, but the bigger problem isn’t that POTUS is a doofus. It’s that the capitalist market dictates how vaccines must be created and distributed for profit, complicated by national rivalries and inevitable quarrels over patent rights (“intellectual property”).

The Worst of the Worst

We now know that the novel coronavirus had begun travelling from China by early winter. Since then, three governments stand out for the most complacent, arrogant and incompetent response: the United States, Russia and Brazil, under the ruinous rule of Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro. Those countries happen to be, of course, the giants of North America, Eurasia and South America, helping ensure that the spread would be global and maximally destructive.

A second tier of regime malpractice would have to include mullah-ruled Iran, Boris Johnson’s Britain, and Mexico where president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador caved in to Trump’s demand, forcing the reopening of maquiladora plants for the sake of the U.S. auto supply chain. One should also add Narendra Modi’s India, where the no-notice lockdown sent millions of workers walking from the cities to their rural villages, inevitably circulating the virus to the most vulnerable regions.

The rapid full decoding of the genome of the present deadly new coronavirus is an amazing tribute to what science has achieved. Meanwhile the spectacle of the U.S. and Chinese governments spewing garbage at each other about which side “created” or “unleashed” the virus speaks volumes about the condition of global civilization.

Put to proper use, scientific knowledge of the virus — combined with early full disclosure, flawless coordination among governments, plentiful global supplies of protective equipment for medical workers, testing and quarantining capacity in case of need, and a strategic national plan in each country about which sectors of the economy were “essential” to maintain and which would need to be shut down in an emergency — could have contained COVID-19 with relatively minimal damage.

That’s not the world we live in. It’s not the world that Donald Trump inherited when he won the U.S. presidency, and international cooperation and massive investment in global public health certainly were no part of his agenda to “Make America Great Again.”

Notoriously, Trump blew off a detailed blueprint prepared by the Obama administration for dealing with a pandemic, and dismantled the inter-agency office that was actually in place to handle such an emergency. That’s criminal negligence, on steroids. Yet it can be seen as a perfectly rational political calculation at the time.

Think of a parallel with the threat — a certainty, without dramatic immediate action — of catastrophic climate change. A given politician may or may not care about the impending disaster, but the truly horrific environmental consequences will not hit (at least in the rich developed countries) during their present term of office and next reelection campaign.

Similarly, even assuming (against the weight of evidence) that Donald Trump understood that the threat of a deadly global pandemic was real, it made sense to calculate that the risk of it happening on his watch was small. Why then spend money on replacing the surgical masks and equipment used up during a previous flu emergency that you’d probably not need, compared to the urgent priorities of wiping out Obamacare and shoveling tax-break money to cronies, corporations and billionaires?

Short-term political rationality translates to ultimate insanity. Almost certainly, thousands in the United States alone would have died in the best-case scenario, but what could have been a costly but probably contained epidemic in 2020 has become an open-ended calamity for the U.S. population and economy, and the entire world. Epidemiology experts like the fired Dr. Rick Bright fear that the coming winter in this country “may be the darkest in modern history.”

In a country with no national health service or universal insurance, tens of millions of laid-off workers have lost health care — and many who get called back will find their employers no longer providing it. The insurance industry’s increases in premiums getting ready to hit next year can only be imagined.

What is the future of public education, already facing a federal administration committed to destroying it? When filling classrooms with 30+ students is out of the question? When reliance on “online learning” is an educational and social disaster for kids and their families? When the race and class gap between those with and those without reliable internet access and technology is enormous, and when so many students depend on school-provided breakfast and lunch meals?

Whole economic sectors stand on the brink. While some like major airlines with political clout and claims to be “essential,” will probably be bailed out, others such as hundreds of thousands of non-chain restaurants and myriad small retail outlets will disappear. Musicians and cultural workers relying on live performances and art fairs, seasonal workers in tourist and travel sectors, all kinds of small businesses and their work forces, face ruin.

With state and local government budgets in catastrophic shape, the jobs and crucial services they provide — along with public workers’ pension plan and union contracts — will face the chopping block. On top of so much human misery and insecurity entailed in all this, the cascading collapse of purchasing power and consumption feeds on itself, creating exactly the conditions for a possible prolonged Depression. The absurd claim that May’s slight decline in unemployment signals a “V-shaped recovery” is not taken seriously by any economist/

Coronapolitics Inflames Everything

For a long time now, the racialized inequalities of America’s neoliberal regime have been leading toward some kind of social explosion. Its timing and the form it might take were not predictable — whether it might be mass strikes and community mobilizations, or uncontrolled rioting, or something in between.

We now have a somewhat better idea — the hybrid combination of workplace actions at “essential” work places and hospitals, and the anti-police rebellions all mark elements of a mobilization responding to the crisis of a devastated capitalist society. The coronavirus crisis, which will not go away quickly if ever, further inflames everything.

We can barely imagine what might occur if the 2020 election culminates in a shambles and a full-scale crisis of political legitimacy, but that too requires a subsequent discussion. Immediately, can sustained organization and a new mass socialist movement crystalize from the current crisis and struggle? That may be the central question in a situation where we can no longer speak of — nor can we survive — a return to the death spiral that used to be called “normal.”

This editorial will appear in Against the Current #207, July-August 2020

Reopening and Rethinking Schools: Care vs. the Carceral Continuum

Anastasia C. Wilson

The coronavirus pandemic has acutely exposed a fundamental contradiction of capitalism: as the Ricardo Levins Morales poster states “capitalism is not healthy for children or other living things”. The false tradeoff between the economy and life now holds many working people and children hostage: go back to work and back to school, or the economy tanks. But in an age where the politics of austerity have cut off material resources to public K-12 schools, while simultaneously maintaining reliance on policing and punishment in schools, we have to ask, what exactly does it mean to safely reopen schools?

One of the most gaslighting tendencies of the discussions and think-pieces on reopening schools, is magical thinking about the resources actually available to schools: plans without real substance, ideas without the funding, training, and staffing behind them to actually be implemented. Schools were already the shock absorbers for a broken capitalist economy augmenting its austerity with carcerality at the expense of Black, Latinx, Indigenous people and people of color, and undervaluing the care provided by this last lifeline of a social safety net. Realizing this has implications for how we actually reopen and rethink schools going forward.

First, I do not claim to be an expert on reopening K-12 schools or on how to run a public school. I do however claim to be an economist with an okay understanding of labor economics and of the scope of inequality in public schools. From a labor economics point of view, it is clear that those who work on the shop floor of K-12 schools should be the ones consulted for planning a reopening: teachers, school nurses, school lunch staff, counselors, janitors, and other school support staff and their unions have the expertise on what schools will need in order to operate healthfully in a global pandemic that disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. Similarly, parents and children need a say in what their needs are going forward. Economists have urged workplaces to have worker-run health and safety boards; schools are no exception. Recall, before this health crisis even began, it was unions — like the Chicago Teachers Union — fighting for more teachers, nurses, and counselors in our schools in order to meet the physical and emotional needs of students. The 2019 Chicago Teachers Union Strike was exactly to demand a nurse in every school.

A Safe School for Who?

School safety implies a healthy environment, but discussions around safety in past decades have conflated safety with control and over-policing- — the so called ‘school to prison pipeline’ So, we need to interrogate what terms like “safe” school have meant up to now, and what they will and should mean going forward.

In my dissertation research on understanding the economics and political economy of how the carceral state intersects with public schooling to produce and reinforce racial inequality, and how schools are a part of the dynamics of mass incarceration, I have spent time interrogating exactly what we mean when we assert the need for “safe” and “good” schools. Like many words we use to describe institutions and economies — for example, “efficient” — these words are not neutral and have a direction. Economists fetishize the notion of efficiency, developing entire theories on tradeoffs and methods of cost-benefit analysis to determine if something is or is not efficient. If there were a singular lesson from the world of political economy and heterodox economics -or just critical thinking — that I could convey to all, it would be to always question the direction of words like “efficient”. “Efficient” for who? “Efficient” for what? For example, poverty wages with no benefits and no paid sick leave are efficient for profits, but disastrous for workers. Similarly, just-in-time PPE supply chains are efficient for the bottom line of private-equity backed hospitals, but not for health and safety of healthcare workers and patients during a pandemic.

Like efficiency, words such as “safe” carry a similar veil, appearing on the surface as unquestionable moral or economic imperatives, but questioning “safe” for who, “safe for what”, by whose standards?, reveals something different. One example of this is the idea of a “good” school being one conforming to the neoliberal metrics of high test scores and high completion rates. But we know these measures themselves are biased and accessible mainly to the privileged. Pauline Lipman’s book on the New Political Economy of Urban Education brings together how these metrics coupled with neoliberal school reforms like “high stakes accountability” facilitate dispossession and displacement of Black and Latinx communities in urban spaces, contributing to urban gentrification. What about the word “safe” — is that also a word we can interrogate, even in an era where the term conjures memories of abhorrent acts of mass violence in schools? The word “safe” is not neutral. “Safe” for who and from whom? The notion of safety too has a direction. The 1980s War on Drugs, conjuring fears of the mythical “superpredator” and “youth violence,” coalesced to create a notion of school safety that is distinctly racialized. Policing in schools, physical security measures like metal detectors, and surveillance all target Black students and students of color, amplify the already existing disparities in being disciplined in school, and treat students like suspects or criminals rather than children. Actual acts of mass violence in schools, usually perpetrated by students not targeted by these school safety measures, become fodder for further fortifying our schools, despite no clear connection between supposed safety measures and reducing these acts of violence. So when we ask “safe for who?” and look at how “school safety” is actually implemented in schools, it’s clear that many forms of supposed safety are in fact safety for white folks, or at least for the white imaginary which projects criminality onto Black children and children of color (for further insights into interrogating safety and innocence, see Jackie Wang’s insightful essay Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety).

The Carceral Continuum

In many schools, budgets, staffing, and priorities have shifted towards serving the interests of the carceral state rather than focusing on the care that children need. One example of this is the No Excuses school model. The No Excuses approach is popular with the charter school movement, where schools look a lot like a discipline boot camp and some even explicitly adhere to a “broken windows style” model of school discipline focusing “relentlessly on appropriate consequences for small issues”. Research has shown this model of schooling explicitly conflates punitive discipline and caring for students. But the No Excuses model is found beyond just the charter schools formally adopting this approach. Schools across the United States take on a carceral environment in the name of “school safety” with policing and security staff, using physical security like metal detectors and surveillance, and adhering to harsh disciplinary policies that disproportionately target and punish especially Black students and students of color, with detrimental impacts on their lives, especially those then pushed into interactions with the criminal justice system. Students attending schools with police are 3.5 times more likely to face arrest. Black students, Latinx students, Native students, and students with disabilities disproportionately are criminalized in school. These measures make schools part of the carceral continuum — a term used by Carla Shedd in her work Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice which critically examines how this nexus of public schooling and the carceral state operates in the schools and spaces traversed by students in Chicago Public Schools.

With so much focus on discipline and punishment, are schools prepared and staffed sufficiently to actually care for students, or will the pandemic reinforce the dynamics of the carceral continuum?

A 2019 report from the ACLU titled Cops And No Counselors starkly outlines the underinvestment in school support for students, and overinvestment in the carceral continuum. The report analyzes data from the Civil Rights Data Collective which tracks the demographic composition of schools, use of school discipline across schools, as well as staffing and expenditures in schools. These data show the skewed staffing levels across many schools: an estimated 1.7 million students attend a school with police but no counselor, 3 million attend a school with police but no school nurse, 6 million attend a school with police but no school psychologist, and 10 million attend a school with police but no social worker. Many schools and districts across the country do not meet the recommended student-to-staff ratios for nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers. In 2018, National Association of School Nurses also reported extreme shortages of school nurses in schools. Even before the pandemic, we urgently needed to be rethinking why schools have become an apparatus of the carceral state, and how to radically change schools into transformative sites of care. But especially now, as the pandemic highlights the lack of appropriate staffing to deal with the physical health as well as emotional and social health of students, reprioritizing school budgets and staffing towards care and away from the carceral continuum is critically urgent.

Rethinking and Rebuilding Schools as Sites of Care

What if we could rethink schools altogether to focus on being sites of care? Reopening schools particularly during a health and economic crisis brings forward this possibility. So what do schools already do? In a recent Haymarket Books livestream, Eve Ewing (author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side amongst many other incredible projects) and Jen Johnston of the Chicago Teachers Union discussed What A School Means during this pandemic. The conversation emphasized things that many teachers, children, and families already know: as one of the very last universal safety nets, schools and specifically teachers and support staff, are often on the front lines of providing care, nutrition, health services, counseling and mental health services, and generally helping to meet the material needs of students. Some districts now are finding ways to continue to provide these crucial materials and services, offering to-go meals and even stipends for families. In the livestream, Ewing and Johnston discussed important considerations for reopening: what about making space for grief and feelings? Can these emotional caring functions also be part of our metrics of a good school? What if we rethink schools to include the important caring work of cultivating physical and emotional health?

A reopening will inevitably have to contend with the aftermath of the pandemic, including grief and feelings, as well as the material struggles faced by children and families in one of the worst economic crises in history. The pandemic made stark the importance of care already happening in schools: in the U.S., over 50 million children attend public schools for at least 180 days of the year and 6.8 hours a day. Schools are often the frontline for families lacking resources, while schools themselves are under resourced. Before the pandemic, 30 million children and families were deeply reliant on the food available in schools, and food insecurity is amplifying each day. Many schools already face issues of overcrowded classrooms and inadequate staffing. Most children in public schools are living at or near poverty. Austerity economics and a rigged labor market coupled with the carceral state has left many schools unprepared to reopen in accordance with the guidelines of the CDC. The current economic crisis is putting further budgetary pressures on schools, with many districts already facing cuts, constraints, and what NPR described as a financial meltdown.

But without radical reinvestment in the caring capacities of schools, how exactly do we plan to reopen schools as healthy environments for children and for workers?

I would suggest that any school reopening plan is guided by its workers — especially teachers, nurses, support staff, janitors, and so on — and the needs of children and families, and such a plan radically reinvests in the caring and support functions of schools: teachers, nurses, counselors, social workers, safely maintained buildings, and so on. Further, we know virtual schooling for now is flawed, but we are also beginning to understand that the value of care and education provided by schools also might imply compensating families and students for the work of homeschooling. More basic, as virtual learning continues and the digital divide compounds, offering universal internet access seems more important than ever. As concerns about how the pandemic will impact issues of surveillance and policing arise, we can’t overlook how these issues already overlapped with schools. Both the disparities in schooling and the disparities of the coronavirus pandemic are rooted in and directly caused by racial capitalism. The carceral state upholds racial capitalism, both in neighborhoods and in schools. But if we can rethink and reopen schools as sites of care for everyone, especially those students most impacted by this pandemic, and maybe even undo racialized notions of safety — perhaps we can build schools as truly safe and transformative spaces that focus on care instead of perpetuating the carceral continuum.

Anastasia C. Wilson is a PhD candidate in economics at UMass Amherst and incoming assistant professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.