Liberal Cooptation of the George Floyd Protests

Over the past few weeks, we've collectively witnessed the widespread anger over George Floyd's extrajudicial murder by Derek Chauvin follow the prototypical Ferguson path. Widespread anger and property destruction have led to performative protest, with the underlying power structure remaining undismantled. Granted, the movement won some tactical victories: protesters have declared an autonomous zone in Seattle and forced the Minneapolis and Seattle Police Departments to abandon certain satellite stations in their respective cities. Minneapolis recently elected to dismantle its police department altogether. One of the key successes of the George Floyd activists is that the present movement has activated many white Millennials and Zoomers, many of whom bring significant financial resources to the table. However, these successes fall short of the stated objectives of the movement, which include the total destruction of the carceral system in the United States.

Instead, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for President, Joe Biden, has publicly distanced himself from calls to defund the police. Congressional Democrats staged a ludicrous photo op featuring Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi kneeling in kente cloth. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser rechristened Lafayette Plaza and emblazoned it with the magic words "Black Lives Matter." These performances are utterly unconvincing to anyone who subscribes to the movement's core ideals, given, for example, Joe Biden's support for the 1994 Crime Bill and Muriel Bowser's calls for additional funding for policing in the District of Columbia.

If this movement is to be successful, political leaders will have to be forced to move beyond platitudes to endorse a genuine change in the fundamental structure of policing in the United States. How this is to be done is, at the moment, unclear. Violent direct action invites brutal repression and the activation of the National Guard. By contrast, protests, even when large and intimidating, tend to be ignored. Economic direct action, in the vein of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is perhaps the most promising option.

Lasting for over a year, the Montgomery Bus Boycott forced the city of Montgomery, Alabama, to desegregate buses by pulling Black support from the system. This was a tactical victory, but one that drew comparatively little national attention and press coverage when compared with Bull Connor's brutalization of protest marchers, which was a spectacular display of white supremacist violence that was highly amenable to the TV broadcast format. Ultimately, that lack of coverage didn't matter in terms of the achievement of its stated goal, which was comparatively limited and small in scope. In the present political context, in which a national movement has taken root in the country's largest metropolitan areas, economic direct action is still a most promising route because it hits the powers that be where it hurts them most: the pocketbook.

What might that look like? With high levels of unemployment nationally as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, rent strikes are already underway in New York and other cities, but many with families, in particular, would be unwilling to support such a tactic because of the dangers involved in an eviction proceeding. Attacking public transit, following the example of Montgomery, would be a misjudgment because the support public transit workers have shown toward the movement has been highly visible and widely observed.

A more effective strategy would consist of a multi-pronged assault on the status quo. Movement participants could redouble their efforts to develop alternative means of achieving community safety to demonstrate their efficacy while refraining from dialing 911 in cases of emergency. Many municipalities depend on fines and tickets to meet the financial demands of administering their governments. Refusing to pay would constitute a significant financial blow for them. Many police departments rely on traffic violation quotas for officer compensation, so such a strike would hit police officers squarely in their wallets. Tactics such as blocking traffic on major transit arteries using car caravans are preferable to marches because they can appeal to those who have been rigidly observing the ongoing quarantine measures by reducing epidemiological risk for participants.

I do not pretend to have all the answers, but it seems transparently obvious to me that this movement runs the risk of fading into obscurity, as other mass protest movements have in the past, while achieving few of their concrete goals. In order to sustain the momentum, protests alone are not enough.

Recent Posts

See All

Useful Apps for Text Mining

Text mining is one of the most powerful tools in the modern historian's toolkit. Now that truly vast collections of digitized text are freely available, perusing them effectively requires more than si

Citizen History Online

There are myriad ways laypeople can get involved with the historical process, but one of my personal favorites is crowdsourced transcription projects. Many exist, so I'll just feature a handful here.