England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Black Lives Matter: The George Floyd rebellion four years on

By Andy Moxley, ISA International Committee

This summer will be four years since the police murdered an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, USA. Racist police terror is not, nor was it then, a new phenomenon in the United States. However, the nature of the murder, with police officer Derek Chauvin caught on video standing on George’s neck for almost 10 minutes while he struggled for breath and pleaded for his life – once again brought into sharp relief the naked, racist violence of the capitalist system.

Further fuel was thrown into the fire when the video gained wide release and revealed the initial claims by the arresting officers that George Floyd was resisting arrest were patently false and they had ultimately been complicit in a de facto public execution – keeping bystanders from intervening. In fact the original press release by the Minneapolis Police department initially described the murder as “Man Dies of Medical Incident After Police Interaction”.

The result was a wave of righteous anger reigniting the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and also sparking a wave of mass protests against police violence and racism in many other countries around the world. In the US, it would become the largest protest movement in the history of the country with tens of millions participating – surpassing even the historic Black freedom, anti-Vietnam war and other movements of the 1950s-70s.

Masses around the globe poured into the streets as well, despite fear and uncertainty in the midst of the early phases of the Covid pandemic, to express their indignation and join the calls for justice for George Floyd, an end to police and racist violence.

In some countries, including Britain, the movement looked for a way to translate itself into local conditions – to build on the momentum of the protests to take up the most pertinent homegrown manifestations of racism. It was very natural for this to be the case, as the British Empire, in addition to its general colonialism and racist policies historically, was one of the main forces behind the transatlantic slave trade that forcibly brought the ancestors of Black Americans like George Floyd to the US in chains.

While the scale of police violence against Black people in the United States is not replicated in many other supposed capitalist ‘democracies’, the question of police brutality and racism in general are not unique. Capitalism relies on racism to divide the working class and the police to maintain the rule of the status quo, in other words the preservation of systemic exploitation and oppression by the ruling class. So what did the movement achieve? What were its strengths? Its weaknesses? Where are we now in relation to the issues of racism and police violence? To get to the heart of these questions it’s necessary to both look back at the time of the movement as well as subsequent developments. 

From a spark to a wildfire

Within hours of George Floyd’s murder, several thousand people rallied at the Minneapolis cross-street that was the site of his murder and then proceeded onto the precinct headquarters of the police officers that were responsible. This march, through a diverse, mainly working-class neighbourhood, was greeted by signs and shows of support for the marchers from houses along their route. The instinctive solidarity of workers against this grave injustice, and the acknowledgement of the need to act, was on full display. In the days to follow, these feelings of solidarity would echo nationally and then internationally as protests emerged in hundreds if not thousands of towns and cities across the US and then the world.

As would go on to happen in several other cities, this largely peaceful demonstration was met with a fierce response from the state. Protestors’ calls for justice were met with tear gas and other tools of repression, including the National Guard being brought in. When it was announced that the four police officers involved were simply sacked it provoked more indignation and confrontation.

This reaction was in part what brought the situation in Minneapolis into full-scale revolt, including the burning down of the precinct police station five days later – an act that was more popular in US polls at the time than either of that year’s presidential candidates from the two main capitalist parties.

That poll was quite significant. Like most major US cities, Minneapolis was ruled top-to-bottom by the Democratic Party which, despite always presenting itself as the ‘progressive’ of the two main capitalist parties, ruled these cities with an iron fist for the ruling class.

This meant attacking the living standards of workers and the poor and overseeing and maintaining the gross militarisation of the police and extraordinary inflation of their budgets. This contradiction was now being bluntly exposed in the eyes of millions and expressed, even while the reactionary Trump regime was still in the White House!

Militant mass protest movements emerged in cities across the US, with some cities like Seattle seeing protestors establish a quasi-autonomous protest occupation ‘zone’ of the city where the police were not welcome. While this ‘zone’ had significant limitations as a way forward for the movement, its establishment saw just how deeply the capitalist order was being shaken.

By early June, the state began fighting back significantly. Curfews were brought into hundreds of US cities. The military mobilisation in response was the biggest non-war mobilisation in US history, amounting to over 96,000 personnel across the country. The Minneapolis mayor, a Democrat, appealed to Trump’s FBI for intervention as well.

Under pressure, Derek Chauvin and company were indicted and Chauvin eventually charged with and later convicted of three counts of murder or manslaughter in 2023. This clearly would not have happened without the movement. However, the fact that such a massive uprising garnered so little tangible in response revealed, despite it being undermined during the course of events, the continued strength of the US imperialist state, and how pivotal the maintenance of racism and police violence are to maintaining its rule.

In reality the the establishment of an organised and sustained mass social and political force, fighting for revolutionary change, will be necessary to challenge it more significantly.

Demands and strategy of the movement

One of the main demands of the movement was the same as previous incarnations of BLM – the simple and just demand of ‘jail the killer cops’. Many other demands and features of the movement showed that things had evolved significantly since many of the previous uprisings against racist police violence over the preceding decade. For instance, the arrests of the officers involved did not quell the protests as they had in previous instances of BLM.

There were also some instinctive positive attempts to link the protests to broader working class methods of struggle and organization. A demand to ‘defund the police’ – reflecting the decades of their inflated budgets while social services were slashed – gained popularity among sections of the movement. Even the previously fringe idea of police abolition began to have a wider audience.

This reflected a feeling, particularly among the Black population, that despite the indelible mark previous BLM protests had made on consciousness, they had not achieved more substantial victories. There was a search for ways towards more fundamental change. The period from 2005 to 2020 saw only six police officers convicted of murder in similar cases. And other than some cosmetic changes, the main semi-universal policy change had been the introduction of body cameras for police (though often controlled by the police themselves as to when they were on or off) – which essentially served as a livestream of the carnage. 

The role of socialists

Socialist Alternative (ISA in the US) was on the ground from the beginning, trying to play a role in pointing a way forward for the rebellion. Perhaps most prominent at the time would have been some of the initiatives taken by SA members within the trade unions. This included a member in Minneapolis itself, himself a trade union member and bus driver, who refused to allow his bus to be used by the police to transport arrested protestors.

This, in the midst of the early days of the rebellion, was a powerful example of the power of the working class and the role it could play, especially through the trade unions, within the struggle. It led to similar actions being taken in New York and a call by the trade union nationally to echo the action. SA members put forward and led the call for strikes in key cities.

We put forward the need for the movement to take up clear demands. Some of these included establishment of committees with democratic control over the police, slashing police budgets by 50%, taxing corporations to fund housing, jobs, healthcare and education as part of taking up racism in broader society.

We also called on the labour movement to play an active leading role in the fight against racism and for BLM to prepare to stand independent left candidates against the Democratic establishment politicians in control of the cities. However, we also pointed out that whatever reforms we could gain, it would necessitate a struggle against the capitalist system, for socialism, to ultimately end oppression and violence.

As well, we argued there was a critical need for organisation. This is not just an administrative need for social movements but a political one. There need to be spaces where ideas about the best demands, strategy and tactics can be debated out and democratically decided on. It allows the movement to sustain itself in an ongoing way. It would not have been possible to sustain such a movement purely through near-constant protest attendance. It also gives a level of accountability to the movement, as it can elect and recall its own representatives, rather than allowing opportunist politicians and leaders to swoop in and speak on its behalf – a key strategy of many Democrats and aligned organisations during the rebellion.

Such organisation is also crucial to organising self-defence of the protests – as they often became targets not just by forces of the capitalist state, but also white supremacists and other reactionary groups.

Where are we now?

The lasting impact of the George Floyd rebellion is that it was a huge turning point in history. The global impact of the struggle on the consciousness of millions cannot be undone. However, it has done little to stem the tide of racist violence – killings by US police have actually increased every year since and still disproportionately affect Black and other people of colour.

Moreover, despite many promises by Democratic politicians around policing (including the Minneapolis City Council’s supposed plan to ‘abolish’ the police), police budgets and policy have largely returned to normal.

Despite the ferocity and scale of the struggle, the movement lacked a strategy to move forward including developed demands and organisation. This allowed the capitalist establishment to regain the upper hand. The movement was followed by a period of backlash that the state used to reassert itself. This included the introduction of hundreds of anti-protest laws across different states and reprisals for those who participated in the movement.

The struggle against racism will never be a finished one under capitalism, which relies on it to maintain its rule. But history shows powerful movements of the multiracial working class can win important victories with coherent strategy and organisation. It also shows that despite defeats, new struggles against racism will emerge at an even higher level in the future. As the George Floyd rebellion shows, they can open up even potentially revolutionary moments. If they are linked to the need to overthrow capitalism, they will be part of a powerful revolutionary movement.

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