Magic Actions: Looking back on the George Floyd rebellion - n+1
Damn. I don't have enough adjectives for this one. Vast. Heavy. Perspicacious. Meditative. Exuberant. Just...damn. Such an amazing reflection on last year's riots and rebellion in the wake of George Floyd's murder and so much other police violence and the utter failure of the state to protect its most vulnerable people during COVID. Race, class, history, and the riots yet to come. You just have to read it.
King’s nonviolent protest was the fruit of a rigorous spiritual discipline—as well as a tactic, deployed pragmatically, before a scrim of mounting chaos. This was a theory of “direct action.” Tension and confrontation were fundamental to the task. By applying unremitting pressure to every facet of civic life, he wished, as he wrote in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to foment “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” The backdrop to that negotiation was the black rage breaking out in cities across the country; armed resistance groups were forming in black enclaves in the north and west. Here was another “crisis-packed” possibility, so some of the state’s concessions to the Baptist reverend may have been clinched by the urban rebels. And by the late 1960s, as King’s vision swept beyond mere equality before the law, he came to see revolt as a simple fact of his political moment. Nothing to relish or openly cultivate—or bombastically decry. “The constructive achievement of the decade 1955 to 1965 deceived us,” he wrote. “Everyone underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the vast amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.”
Prisons mop up poor people, not bad people. (Last year’s decarceration program—a measure adopted in many, but not enough, jurisdictions as a means to curb the spread of Covid—has yet to be statistically linked to rearrests.) Vital to abolitionist thought is, as a first step, a redistributive mission. The extraordinary amount of money spent on punishment in the US should instead go to preventive and rehabilitation programs—a “nonreformist reform”—but more crucial is an assault, on every level, on the political consensus that’s ripped the welfare state to ribbons. This will raise the “social wage” and drive fewer to the desperation simply classified as crime.
So it’s possible that the death of Floyd reverberated so painfully because under the delirious conditions induced by the pandemic, sections of the middle class seemed to walk through the political looking glass. In an instant they were poorer and even more insecure, their noses bluntly rubbed in their disposability to capital. Left without a livelihood by callous fiat in a moment of crisis, they were treated to that peculiar mélange of state control and state neglect—the punitive abandonment that paints the lives of the black poor.
It’s impossible to say what comes next, either for the black movement against state terror or the state-facing redistributive effort, but short of a defeat of capital in a single, stunning stroke, any left that hopes to assemble its flailing forces must find a way to join the two clearest fronts of conflict: on one hand build class power by wresting benefits from the state, on the other slay the beast that eats the dark and poor.