La Prensa Obrera, 7 de junio de 2020
“The demands of the movement will clash with the Democratic Party”
Testimonies of the popular rebellion in USA; interview with Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine New York
-What has the conflict been like this week in your area?
-In New York there’s been, as throughout this country, a mass revolt. Tens of thousands of people in the street, multiracial, significantly and confronting extreme police violent as are people throughout this country and throughout the world. On the one hand the terrible brutality of George Floyd’s murder and the murder of so many other black and brown people is almost insufferable to watch. But at the same time, this rebellion that’s happening now is so inspiring. The courage and the militancy that’s out on the streets and the understanding that this is not a question of a few bad police apples or something that is unordinary, but rather something that is quite common and relates to the legacy of slavery and of capitalism in this country.
The militancy and the radicalism of the demands that have come out of the movement. To defund the police, dismantle police, abolish prisons. Not that everybody has those positions. But nonetheless the widespread demand for those changes to the system itself. And not just changes, but an end to the system in many cases. Whatever people mean by that, it’s impressive and striking.
-What reaction have you seen in the movement to Trump’s announcement of the army being on call as a means to upscale the repression?
-It’s interesting I think that there hasn’t been a retreat of the protesters in the face of that threat or of the existing mass violence that’s coming from the state. Thousands and thousands of people are out in the street. They may be more than before. The police have been able to inflict tremendous brutality on the movement, but they have not been able to back the movement down at all. If anything, the brutality that the state has inflicted against the protesters has only reinforces people’s determination to be out and to resist martial law, to resist the curfews, to resist the ongoing daily violence, and the specific violence that’s being launched against them by the police.
And, also I think it’s interesting that despite the lipservice that liberal politicians have given to the movement, they in fact are the ones who are helping to orchestrate the mass violence. So, in New York City, for example, which has a liberal democratic mayor, the violence that is being rained down on the protest is coming directly from that administration. I think that deepens everyone’s understanding, if they didn’t already know, that despite differences in rhetoric from Trump, from Biden, to in our case, mayor Di Blasio in New York City, and across the political spectrum, whatever politicians may be saying, their deeds speak for themselves.
When they send out police to brutalize protestors, as happened in New York City repeatedly, including last night (Wednesday June 3rd), that is not an aberration, that comes from the top. Those are orders that go out from the administration. Whether that’s Trump, or the governors, or mayors. This kind of violence is systemic, and it’s organized and it’s coordinated. We saw this with Occupy Wall Street almost ten years ago, when the mayors were given the order by the Obama administration to shut down Occupy. That happened everywhere, very systemically, across all political lines. And we’re seeing the same thing now in regards to repression against the movement.
The strength of the movement is also clear from the fact that the politicians, and even the former defense secretary, has to give lipservice to the movement. You see these pictures of police taking the knee. Now, that’s obviously disingenuous. That’s completely ridiculous. I mean, there may be a few police officers who actually feel that way, but when the top uniformed police chief in New York City takes the knee as he did the other day, that’s simply an attempt to confuse people about the role of the police. It’s also interesting that the former Defense Secretary James Mattis, has been criticizing Trump for calling out the troops. It’s significant because he’s thinking “are the troops going to, in fact, obey orders to attack and, if necessary, fire on the protestors?”. Because, unlike the police, the army and the national guard come from the same working class communities as the protestors do. The number of people of color in the military is over 40%. And, if you go back to the 1960’s you see that there were examples where black troops called out to repress protests in the cities refused to deploy, most notably in the case of the Fort Hood 43, a group of black troops who refused to go to Chicago in 1968 to shoot and brutalize protestors.
I think that the ruling class is very aware that this is a concern, that the military will have absolutely no credibility with anyone if they engage in that kind of behavior. Which is not to say that they won’t. But it shows the power of the movement that they have to pay lipservice to those kinds of concerns.
-What are the most important social and political sectors that make up the demonstrations?
-I think it’s a confluence of different forces. At the heart are black youth in particular, who everywhere have been at the forefront of the rebellion, as has been the case going back to the 1960’s and even beyond. What is different about this particular time, say from 1968 (this is the biggest mass rebellion in the states since 1968), is that though there was a large movement of radicalized whites and other sectors, against racism and against the war, black people in the rebellion were largely segregated and kept separate from the rest of society.
I think a major difference in this rebellion is that though it’s in the same scale and echoes that rebellion in 1968 following the murder of Martin Luther King, it’s drawing out huge numbers of white people, many of whom have been involved in other protests in the past, for Black Lives or Occupy, or against Trump, or any number of things that have been going on.
So when you see the images of these protests you are struck by all these forces coming together to support black people, to oppose the system, to call for radical change. Sometimes openly, explicitly anticapitalist in its expressions, and certainly against the institutional racism that the George Floyd murder reflects.
And, that’s quite a different thing than you would have seen in 1968. I remember the rebellion in 1968. I was 12 years old, I had been marching all my life with my parents. We had seen police violence. But if you look at the newsreels from 1968 you will see a much more segmented society. And even though today’s society is totally segregated in many ways, these protests have somehow overcome that to come together on a multiracial basis against the system itself. And every time the police attack and every time the military is brought out and threatened with it only deepens the radicalization and the understanding in the movement, that these are not aberrations, this is not simply a problem of retraining police or anything like that, which we’ve heard talked of in the past sometimes. Rather there is a call to demolish and deconstruct the police, to end the police, to abolish prisons. Again, I’m not talking about everyone, but these ideas are widely circulated. They’re even reflected in the corporate media. Which is a tribute to the power of the movement. So I think there’s a growing awareness among protestors of the power of mass mobilization. And how that has immediately changed the political terrain, overnight, throughout this country. Of course that coincides and overlaps with Covid-19. The tremendous impact of Covid-19, especially on poor and working class people. Black victims of Covid-19 are grossly disproportionate to the proportion of black people in society. So on every level this is bringing together these concerns and awareness.
-What are the main slogans and demands that the movement is calling for?
-Defund police I think has become one of the most prominent single demands. Together of course, with the demands to prosecute police and to convict police. Not just these police, but all police who are committing brutality, which is to say, police as an institution. But, as far as a program, we’re seeing defund the police emerge. This is a movement where so much is decentralized, this doesn’t reflect a high level of organization and structure, the movement for Black Lives is the closest thing to a centralized voice. If you look at their website and the things they are putting up “defund the police” is the major demand that they have put out. Now, the question is, what does that mean? People have different views. Does it mean reduce funding to the police but keep the police as an institution? There are a wide range of opinions. Certainly many poor people and black people are fearful that if we abolish police they will be unprotected from daily violence within the community, or whatever. I don’t want to overstate. I’m sure many people feel that way. However, it’s significant that if we look back to before Black Lives Matter emerging out of Ferguson in 2014, and you look back to earlier movements against police abuse, even in the last 20 years. For example during the protests that took place after the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999,a young black man who was unarmed, shot at 41 times by the police. He was killed, outright. And many of the demands in those protests were for much more limited things, for most people. Arrest, prosecute, more training for police not to be violent and things along those lines. You don’t hear any of that now. You don’t hear about training police or more community based policing, that’s all gone. And I think that’s a good thing, because even in 1999 these were not going to be meaningful demands. You were not hearing these demands to abolish or defund police in the movement as a whole. Now you’re hearing it across the board.
It’s opened the door to a discussion. What does this really reflect? What is the point of the police as an institution? There is a widespread understanding that the police as an institution is a criminal enterprise, that it is a source of violence in our society. If the military comes out and does the same thing, the same will apply to them. That’s why the former defense secretary says “let’s not go down this road”. That’s why the current defense secretary is saying “we’re not going to mobilize troops right now, because we don’t need to do that yet”. It’s an attempt to insulate the military from being viewed also as an institution of repression and oppression, both at home and abroad. And it’s also an attempt to make sure that there’s not a breakdown in the military in the rank and file as happened during the Vietnam years, both in Vietnam among black and other poor troops, with mass mutiny that took place and helped bring down the American war machine during the war, and made it impossible to deploy troops in the cities against urban rebellion on an ongoing basis.
-The rebellion is evidently centered on racism and police brutality, how big a role do you think the social and economic catastrophe being lived plays in it?
There is an intimate connection. Some people have called it a perfect storm. In 1968 of course there was the war, there was mass violence against black people, there was very high unemployment in black and brown communities. But there wasn’t a pandemic. So this pandemic of Covid-19, together with the underlying, ongoing pandemic of racism and anti-blackness has created the grounds for this kind of radical analysis that people are bringing to these protests, and to what they’re saying about this country.
The fact that the system has proven itself so clearly to be unable and unwilling to deal with any of these things. What Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”. Even at the height of this pandemic, there is no pretense that the state is able or even trying to do anything meaningful to protect people. Especially in the most vulnerable sections of society. Particularly black people, who are just viewed as expendable.
It’s not hard to imagine what Trump and mucho of the ruling class are thinking. In regards to Covid-19. Something like “that’s fine, if this helps us get rid of large numbers of black and brown people, and old people of all colors and “baby boomers” who we would have to have on social security, and so on”. So, it makes a lot of sense that they’re not terribly concerned about Covid-19. You see as much being said by the white supremacist right and that’s what’s being discussed. This reflects the same dynamics that went on during Katrina or any other natural disaster that you can think of, regarding the unwillingness and inability of the state to provide the most fundamental public health.
Of course public health in this country almost doesn’t exist. There’s not even the pretense of a national health system. So what you have is privatized, defunded healthcare, save for that which only a few have access to. So that’s part of the context in which this is happening.
And, even before these protests, there’s been growing worker activism especially among the unorganized, like in Amazon, with walkouts over lack of safety conditions regarding Covid-19. I don’t think that’s connected yet in terms of the demands of the movements. But, clearly people are bringing all that awareness, that whether it’s Covid-19 or its institutional racism and police violence, this system breeds these things. This system is not broken, it’s working just the way it’s supposed to.
Capitalism is being shown, perhaps more now than in any moment in living memory, to be completely unable and unwilling to protect even the most fundamental aspects of life, for most people.
-Are you aware of any initiatives to try to coordinate protests or discuss a common platform across the country?
-I am not aware of a unified attempt to do that. Of course, it’s going on. There are discussions happening everywhere, from the protests, to online. Again, the movement for Black Lives is an attempt to do that, and a couple of years ago they issued a platform which is wide-ranging and essentially comes across as anti-capitalist. It includes things ranging from “abolish prisons” to the need for healthcare and housing and employment.
Interestingly one of the key things that came out of Ferguson and the previous Black Lives Matter movement was a growing identification and solidarity with Palestine. Of course there’s solidarity in many directions and it’s not the only example. The Black-Palestine connection has grown, it’s increasingly seen as critical, because of the great similarities of their oppression, and the fact that the perpetrators of that oppression are the same governments and the same system.
It reclaims a tradition that goes back at least to the 1960’s of black support for Palestine in this country coming from Malcolm X, coming from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, coming from the Black Panther Party, coming from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, who made those connections and who insisted that that connection had to be stressed. That in turn has been reflected in Palestinian support for black uprisings in this country, particularly in regards to Ferguson and the current uprisings. There’s been strong support from Palestine. The understanding is that although this country didn’t need the Israelis to teach them brutality, racism and oppression, the ties between the American and Israeli regimes are particularly clear in things like coordination between police forces in Israel and US, the increased militarization of police in US and of course the 3.2 billion dollars a year that the US government gives to the Israeli apartheid regime every year.
So there’s the intifada in Palestine and what is essentially a domestic intifada in this country now, though it’s usually not called by that name; and there’s a growing understanding that these resistances are connected, and that the right to resist is connected.
-What do you think is the perspective for this movement to defeat the Trump government and its repressive onslaught?
-Well, that remains to be seen. I’ve lived through the last six decades and have seen many movements rise and fall. Under repression and also internal divisions and the combination of the two. I don’t pretend to know where things are going to go. I do take heart from the tremendous resistance that’s going on. The fact that the police and the military are not able to put this back in the bottle, at least so far. If anything it’s causing some cracks in the ruling class’s rhetoric and that shows the power of the movement. I believe the key is to build alliances across all sections of the oppressed, of the working class.
Unions in this country are very weak, not just in their numbers but in the politics of their leadership. Although some unions have issued statements against the murder of George Floyd and against broader institutional racism and violence, you don’t see the unions as institutions or their leaders in the front of this. To the extent that they have been visible, they have not articulated radical visions of what needs to be done.
Union members are out on the streets, just by virtue of the sheer number of people out resisting. But not the unions as institutions and this will not happen from the top, it has to happen from below just like everything else. Because union leaderships are compromised.
One of the issues that comes up is the unions relationship to police unions. Police unions are among the most racist institutions in this country. The debate of whether police are simply workers and should be unionized versus those of us who feel that police are not workers, police are simply agents of the ruling class. They’ve always been that and they have their roots in the slave patrols of the 19th century and are inherently racist and violent towards the population. Nonetheless within the AFL-CIO, the main union in our country, there are unionized police officers who have been allowed to be a part of the labor movement, even if just in name. That has to end.
Police do not belong in labor. Police are not workers. They are an inherently oppressive institution. Unions need to make that clear. I think that that’s one of the demands that union members who are involved in these protests will be bringing to their unions.
-Do you see any debates regarding advancing towards independent organizations of the working class, outside the traditional bipartisan system?
-I haven’t seen much organized discussion about that. Discussion on trying to set up a Labor Party again or whatever you want to call it. An independent third party of the working class and the oppressed.
One of the big debates will be how to respond to the neoliberal leadership of the Democratic Party’s attempt to coopt the movement into the Biden campaign. Biden who on the one hand is saying he opposes the murder of George Floyd and on the other suggests police should be shooting people in the legs. Exactly what Israeli police do to cripple Palestinians protestors in Gaza, every day.
So, the major political question that’s going to arise is, should the movement essentially fold into the democrats’ campaign against Trump? That’s obviously what Biden and Hillary Clinton and so on are trying to do.
Hillary Clinton issued a great tweet the other day. “Trump has called on troops to repress peaceful protests in this country for a photo op.” It sounded great. But it ended with “Vote”. For Biden, obviously. Last night Barack Obama was on TV and sent a similar message. These are all people who have reserved their greatest criticisms for the left, for black youths, for the Black Lives Matter movement for “not being willing to work within the system”.
There’s nothing new about these debates. This goes back in this country to the 1930’s and earlier. What relationship should mass movements have to the Democratic Party. There will be different views in the mass movement about that. There will be some who are susceptible to those arguments, who will think that it’s great that they are coming out and saying this. And I think it’s great because they’re being forced to come out and say these things in support of Black Lives.
However, it’s a two-edged sword, because they will attempt to demobilize the movement into voting. And whether people vote or not is less important than whether they demobilize the movement. Clearly some people are going to vote as a protest for anyone who is going against Trump. That’s sort of inevitable. But the real question is if the movement can give rise to new institutions, anti-capitalist institutions, independent and opposed to the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party.
I don’t see a lot of that being discussed in the protests right now. But the demands that the movement is giving rise to clearly are going to clash what the neoliberal Democratic Party wants to do. Cornell West has been talking a lot about this in his interviews about the rebellion. About the attempts by the neoliberal Democrats to coopt and demobilize the movement. That’s the discussion going forward.