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Jul 23, 20

Nothing is as Deceptive as the Situation… Because Nothing is so Changeable

This conversation started between two comrades (a first generation non-black POC based in the States and an Iranian translator and militant living in exile for political reasons) and took place over the course of two weeks.

Its main purpose is to update comrades living outside of the United States on the current developments of the ongoing uprising. Additionally, it should be noted that what follows in no way serves as the totality of events thus far. Rather, these responses draw the contours of the singular points that give shape to the current moment here in the States; and this is partially due to the differential nature and incredible number of daily actions.

That said, some of the most immediate effects of the ongoing uprising spoken of here touch on the status of collective desire, the grammar of the movement (i.e. the language and symbolic gestures assumed in the course of this struggle), and the material gains made thus far.

1. The anti-police uprising that came as a response to the murder of George Floyd has been widely covered and has inspired similar protests in many countries. In your opinion, are there any signs that it can have sustainable effects on American politics? And if so, what are the nature of those effects?

At the level of collective desire, we have recently seen popular support, the nature of which was not only absent from previous cycles of anti-police struggles. In comparison to how the general public expressed their support for the rebellion by the surplus populations in Ferguson (2014) or Baltimore (2015), the current level of popular support would have been viewed, at that time, as decidedly criminal. As of June 3rd, however, the US media reports that 54% percent of Americans think that burning down the 3rd Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department was justified in response to George Floyd’s death. On May 28th, masses of people took to the streets of Minneapolis and would ultimately run the cops off the city’s streets (a scene that has become commonplace in various cities across the country). And on that evening, the world watched as those comrades – the majority of whom are young, black, and brown – whose daily life is a constant negotiation of territory with the police issued their judgement on just exactly what a police station, and police in general, are worth. Direct action is sometimes caricatured as ‘adventurist’ or ‘opportunist.’ Come the evening of the 28th, however, such worries were put to rest for a majority of the American population. To be clear, those rebelling against a nation-state that is more willing to gun you down in the street or leave you homeless and in debt than, say, provide adequate healthcare and housing in the midst of a pandemic, taught the world a lesson: setting fire to a precinct has proved to be a better avenue of social change than any election ever could.

Now we must always be careful when invoking the language of “the people,” since this sacred pillar of the “free world” substitutes the difference at the heart of economic, racialized, and gendered oppression and their struggles for liberation for the generic nature of citizenship and national-identity. And yet, when the majority think a police precinct serves the community better when it is set on fire than when it is left to stand, the very institutions that ostensibly rely on the “people” for their “legitimacy” reveal the public secret of every contemporary democracy: the people are missing. In other words, the State and its institutions are bereft of the grounds that justify their existence. And in situations such as these, the rendering of justice to an institution whose existence is illegitimate and unjustified means nothing short of that institution’s non-existence. All of this is still only part of the larger meaning and content of the level of militancy and rebellion that we witnessed during the later parts of May and for the first couple weeks of June. In the weeks that followed, the popular support backing the burning down of the 3rd precinct assumed the language of abolition. Moreover, it would be around this time that attempts would be made to commandeer this desire for abolition just as quickly as struggles develop a lexicon adequate to themselves, giving rise to a split between two qualitatively different sets of demands, brought under the headings of  “8 Can’t Wait” (demands the nature of which produce minimal changes at best) and #8toAbolition (demands that take a redistributive approach to the complete defunding of police departments across the country).

In terms of the material gains made by the uprising, these have been radically uneven and differ from city to city. In Minneapolis, the City Council voted to disband the police department and draft up a new model of community safety, while its Public School Board voted to terminate all contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department. What comes next will be determined by the antagonism between the people of Minneapolis and their governors, but the removal of police officers from schools has been a long-time struggle of organizers in Minneapolis and cannot be overlooked. In the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, an “autonomous zone” was established after days of street confrontations, which saw the police fire tear-gas at protestors after it was publicly announced that tear-gas would no longer be used by police officers as a de-escalation tactic. After days of stand-offs with protestors, the police abandoned the neighborhood and saw the precinct renamed as the “Seattle People’s Department.” And at the time of this interview, federal agents are currently mobilizing their counter-insurgency strategy on the ground in Portland. Over the past week, agents have been driving around in unmarked vans and abducting protestors off the streets for no other reason than their public display of dissent against Statist repression. However, after several nights of protestors showing up en masse, federal agents have retreated to the local court house due to the size and antagonism of the protestors, effectively blocking their ability to kidnap anyone who they deem to be a “threat to civil society.”

New York City also saw the construction of its own “autonomous zone” in the shape of the so-called “occupation” of city hall. The purpose of this action was to pressure local politicians into defunding the NYPD by $1 billion. However, as the vote passed and the details of the budget were made public, the so-called “reforms” addressing the “autonomous zone’s” demands proved to be nothing but thinly veiled attempts to buy off and placate protestors. As others rightfully pointed out, the mayor’s claim to have cut and redistributed “approximately $430 million” from the NYPD’s budget is perfectly misleading. The number de Blasio so proudly announces here does not refer to a monetary decrease in the current NYPD budget; it refers to a monetary decrease from a previously drafted budget for 2021. In other words, this “$430 million” does not have any immediate effect on the NYPD, nor does it translate into the NYPD having less funding in 2021 than it did in 2020. The remaining $537 million of the “$1 billion” in cuts shifts funding from the NYPD to the youth programs and improvement of broadband services overseen by the city’s Housing Authority. However, also included in this budget are cuts to school funding and a $2 million cut to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene budget, which houses NYC’s Disease Control and Epidemiology unit. Lastly, given the City University of New York’s recent firing of 2,800 adjunct and part-time workers and deepening unemployment crisis, the budget failed to provide New Yorker’s any sense of relief; with the mayor’s spokesperson passing off this responsibility to the federal government. Here as elsewhere, the dominant class pronounces against itself a judgment that only those in the streets can execute.

2. During the lead up to Trump’s election, some believed that, unlike a Clinton presidency that was deemed hypocritical and was viewed as essentially covering over the neoliberal governments antagonism with its people, a Trump presidency presented an opportune set of conditions that would benefit the Left’s own self-organization. Three and a half years on, would you say that the current moment gives any credence to this idea of Trump’s election benefiting organizing done by Leftists?

Advancing a Leftist set of politics hasn’t been made significantly easier by the current administration. What this presidency has done, however, is embolden the latent white supremacy that founded this country and summoned forth its foot soldiers in the form of various far-Right organizations (e.g. Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Identity Europa, Boogaloo Boys, etc.). The consequence of this being that, for better and for worse, Trump’s presidency has effectively polarized the entirety of the social field such that, today, everyone feels forced to take a side on every issue. This fact of having to take sides definitely aids the Left here in the States insofar as those who have sided with the Party of Order and the ruling class have made themselves hyper-visible, whether on television, social media, or on the streets with their red MAGA caps. But does this mean that Trump’s election, with this symbolic or semiotic effect of polarization, created favorable material conditions for the Left to act as an agent of counter-power or abolition? No, since no president or administration can and/or would do that. Why? Precisely because the nature and function of the presidency compels anyone who occupies that seat to prevent any possible insurgency; and after McCarthyism (late 1940s-50s) and COINTELPRO, particularly any possible black, communist, insurgency. And although counterfactuals will always belong to the domain of the unknowable, considerations as to what a Clinton presidency would have brought are still helpful in understanding one aspect of the continuity between previous administrations and the current regime. While Trump has escalated US imperialism in Latin America and the Middle East, we would be hard pressed to say that Clinton wouldn’t have advanced the US’s imperial interests albeit by other, less “controversial,” means. We should remind ourselves that it was Clinton who was central in orchestrating the 2009 Honduran coup, which led to the undoing of socially progressive reforms implemented by Manuel Zelaya’s government.

That said, if there has been an increase in Leftist activity and organizing ever since the 2016 election, it is solely due to the part of Leftists facing down an ever more authoritarian regime. While part of this is undeniably due to the rhetoric of Trump’s presidential campaign, another determining factor is the Sanders campaign and his social democratic platform that spoke to a wide range of demographics given his campaign promises (e.g. free healthcare for all, free university education, increasing taxes on the wealthy, reinvesting in public infrastructure, among others). However, electoral politics are only one of a set of causes, which includes non-electoral forms of leftist organizing (e.g. antifascist protests against the far-Right and neo-Nazis), the mutual aid networks that have been set up in light of the pandemic, and so on.

All of that is to say, Trump’s presidency has created an environment wherein the Left must organize, agitate, and struggle under threat of far-Right attacks. Two examples, one from 2017 and another from the past month, help drive this point home: the use of cars as weapons to run over protestors. This tactic was first used at the counter-protest against the neo-Nazi organized ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where the antifascist comrade, Heather Heyer, was killed by the driver of the vehicle. While the prevalence of this tactic subsided in the wake of Hayer’s murder, it has reemerged in various parts of the country over the course of the uprising. The first instance of this, here in NYC, was a police SUV driving into a crowd of protestors that had surrounded the vehicle while the most recent instance came just a few days ago (an action which, according to the the city’s Democratic Mayor, Bill de Blasio, was justified since it was the protestors who were at fault for standing in front of a police vehicle in the first place). Regarding the most recent use of automobiles as a weapon against unarmed and “peaceful” protestors, the NYPD arrested one of the drivers who drove their car into a crowd of protestors near Time Square and let them go without any charges (this is not to imply that the police are there to protect protestors but that the police are happy to receive the unofficial support of the more violent wing of the far-Right here in the US).

So it is safe to say that, over the past month, we have seen this far-Right tactic spread across the country: in Seattle, antifascist comrade Summer Taylor was killed after a car drove into a group of protestors (another protestor remains in critical condition) while in Bloomington, Indiana, a 66 year old white woman drove her car into a crowd of protestors who gathered to protest the attempted lynching of a Black man during the same week.

That said, during the second week of the uprising, protestors here in NYC were hearing rumors and seeing posts on social media about the FBI questioning protestors at the police station after their arrest. These rumors were soon verified to be true. In a move that heightened tensions between the mayor, the NYPD, and protestors, it was also around this time that de Blasio ordered a curfew beginning at 8 p.m. This effectively meant that the police had the total authority to arrest anyone who was out in public past curfew for the simple fact of being outside. However, while imposing curfew conjured images of martial law in the minds of some, what was soon realized in the streets when people actively defied the curfew was that this was a tactic used by the mayor, in coordination with the NYPD, to divide the protests into two camps: the orderly and legitimate and the disorderly and criminal. Thus, protestors quickly realized that it was in response to a week and half of direct action, looting, and people feeling emboldened to defend themselves (e.g. throwing water bottles, lighting cop cars on fire, defying the mayoral decree while chanting “Fuck Your Curfew!”) against an institution whose only function is the use of violence as a way of resolving social problems, that this “curfew” belonged, not to a situation of martial law, but to a public relations campaign waged by the mayor to criminalize the collective practice of the basic fact that “it is right to rebel against the reactionaries.”

As a final remark, and to hopefully clarify the specificity of this presidency, I think something needs to be said regarding the charges of fascism that have been leveled against this administration. While I understand and sympathize with the content and affect of those who call Trump and his administration a fascist regime, it would not be entirely correct. The reason for this is that, here in the US, what has historically played out is not a fascism of the German or Italian kind, but a logic of white supremacy that governs America’s settler-colonial project. That is, if we speak of “American fascism” what we are really referring to is the white supremacy of a settler-colonial country. This would be the first point to make. Additionally, and again for historical reasons, the fascism that emerged in Germany and Italy after the First World War drew its inspiration from the US’s policy regarding the treatment of indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, immigrant labor, and the US’s colonies abroad (e.g. Puerto Rico, Philippines). The US’s policy for these populations was based on a racial hierarchy, which viewed non-Anglo-European persons, not only as sub-human, but as irrational and potential carriers of disease. Thus, not only did the US State preemptively justify its genocide of the Indigenous people’s of the so-called United States, it also gave itself the pretext to use the highly toxic chemical DDT and gasoline baths in the “cleansing” of Mexican workers who crossed the US-Mexico border; actions carried out on the pretext that subhuman species are more likely to introducing harmful viruses into American soil.

When one considers this history alongside the McCarthyist program that immediately followed the Second World War, which targeted and criminalized communists, socialists, and queer folks, the US is, perhaps, better seen as a settler-colonial state whose founding racial hierarchy continues to influence class inequalities and for whom anti-communism is but its “secular religion.” And it is partially for these reasons that the US media has done such a poor job reporting on the phenomena of “antifa” — precisely because the antifascists here are anti-racists and abolitionists. However, Trump’s presidency has done enough to borrow from and adapt elements from historical fascism that antifascist tactics have been adapted to this most recent cycle of struggles, beginning with the protest against Trump’s inauguration known simply as “J20.” Moreover, it is for these reasons that we have seen various terms used to characterize the Trumpian style of governing, the most duplicitous of which is the term “populist.” I say duplicitous because, on the one hand, to win an election in the United States one does not actually need a majority of the votes (i.e. popular vote); that is, elections are not the tool of majority rule but a tool of a minority of the population to govern. On the other hand, one of the most oftenly used tactics by Trump is turning to, and stoking the resentment of, his base and main constituency. So while Trump may lead the country by minority decree, his style of governance relies on continuously emboldening more and more of the general population. And here again we run into the absent “people” at the heart of American democracy, for Trump’s style of governance is not so much a proof that the “people” have elected him and more an attempt at creating the very “people” that democratic regimes rely on for the legitimacy of their Statecraft. And it is perhaps this attempt at “forming a people” that obscurely and incompletely leads some to view someone like Trump as merely a mere instance of some abstract idea of Fascism.

Ultimately, I would say that Trump brings together neo-colonialism (in the form of US imperialism) and a type of neo-fascism (in the form of a decentralized and rehabilitated neo-Nazi ideology); and this being an intensification of what Glen Sean Coulthard has helpfully called “settler capitalism.” And against the backdrop of an ongoing islamophobia ever since 9/11, this synthesis of two techniques of governing diverges from historical atrocities such as Nazi Germany’s holocaust in one important respect: the figure of the Muslim has come to replace the figure of the Jew. Despite the alt-right marches where neo-Nazis and white supremacists have chanted, ‘Jews Will Not Replace Us,’ the primary targets, by and large, of this neo-colonial and neo-fascist form of governance has been racialized and gendered populations. This isn’t to discount anti-Semitic violence, but to highlight the shifting disposition within neo-Nazi ideology from the figure of the Jew to that of the Muslim.

3. Trump was hailed by his ultra-nationalist supporters as a candidate who opposes foreign interventions. However, what we have seen over the past few years is an intensification of the US’s long standing Imperialist presence in Latin America and the Middle East. Given this discrepancy between campaign promises and policies and executive orders enacted while in office, do you think the Trump administration’s foreign policy is actually based on the principle of isolationism as the Democrats put it? Couldn’t we say that this administration’s foreign policy is more aggressive than previous administrations? Would you say that, at the very least, there is some continuity regarding foreign policy between the current and previous administrations?

When Trump says he is against foreign interventions, it means he is against foreign interventions of a certain kind. Thus, he can simultaneously claim to be pulling the troops out of Syria, which can be seen as a non-interventionist move, while relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem; an interventionist move that, while not militarized, still escalates tensions in the region and puts the US at odds with a longstanding international consensus regarding Jerusalem as equally accessible to all regardless of religious or ethnic identity. As with any president of this country, non-intervention is always conditional upon the self-interests of the administration and their overall vision for the future of the United States. That said, and regarding questions of long term strategy, the continuity or similarities between this administration and previous one’s certainly do exist; with the second Bush administration, for example. Similarly inept though not as overtly “fascistic,” George W. Bush surrounded himself with individuals like Rumsfeld and Cheney — dependable war hawks that Bush trusted to finish the job that his father started during his presidency with the First Gulf War, as it is called here in the States.

With the Trump White House, there is Stephen Miller, Trump’s Senior Advisor and the architect of multiple ‘travel bans’ ordered by Trump. In a leaked recording of a phone call with conservative supporters, Miller stated that the purpose of the travel ban passed in April—which suspends the validity of immigrant visas (with few exceptions)—is to “turn off the faucet of immigrant labor.

There is Jared Kushner, who has been successful in convincing Trump that the threat posed by COVID-19 is merely fake news and is currently overseeing “The Trump Peace Plan” for the Middle East. Most notably, Kushner serves as the US’s ambassador and mediator regarding the relations between Israel and Palestine. Included in his team is David Freidman, a lawyer with close ties to the Zionist campaign of the Israeli State and who has questioned the very necessity of a Palestinian State altogether. Moreover, while it remains unclear if it was Kushner, Friedman, Trump, or someone else from Kushner’s team, what is clear is that, in 2018, the group assigned to deal with issues concerning the Middle East convinced the President to cut US funding for Palestine.

William Barr, the most powerful law enforcement official in the country given his role as Attorney General, not only organized counter-protests against the Vietnam war while a student at Columbia University, he coordinated the Federal government’s response to the L.A. riots (1992) and built one of the war on drugs’ phone surveillance program.

And of course, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the administration’s resident war hawk. Each of these individuals have put forward policies and talking points that have reconfigured the function of the US, both domestically and geopolitically. What both Republicans and Democrats deem as Trump’s aggressiveness in terms of foreign policy is simply this administration’s attempt to give a new shape to globally integrated capital; an ordering of the world that violates the sensibilities of what now seems to be a quaint neoliberalism. To what extent this gives rises to a fully developed isolationist policy is a question of the success or failure of the current administration’s strategy.

4. Student life has now been disrupted due to the coronavirus. According to recent reports and documents released by ICE, foreign students are going to be forced out of the country. How are the students (and the student movement, if it exists) dealing with the situation?

While this governmental measure was eventually blocked, it marks a further development in the ongoing expansion of the material reality of “border police.” This goes hand in hand  with the larger immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration, which have agreed to prevent the free movement of people across their borders in return for economic aid. Thus, along with this expansion of border surveillance via other nation-states acting as border controls for the United States, ICE’s attempt at deporting students without citizenship status signals the administration’s long standing desire for increased domestic repression against oppressed communities.

5. Do you expect there to be a substantive change at the societal level in light of the protests and despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic in the US? Did the pandemic open the space for new lines of alliance or a new struggle?

As many have pointed out, this pandemic has accelerated and compounded the effects of multiple crises, while posing a direct threat to the very reproduction of living labour readied to be bought and sold on the market. Hence even the most conservative governments were forced into implementing measures that would have previously been viewed (wrongly) as “socialist,” whether it be the most minimal of rent relief bills or the one time check for COVID-19 relief issued by the US government. As governments and states continue to adapt capitalist solutions to the pandemic, the very legitimacy of State institutions are increasingly called into question: if the government was already able to spend 20% of its total GDP in the first pandemic relief bill, what that tells people is that the absence of any social safety is not an immutable fact of social life but an effect of policy making itself. This, however, cannot be taken to simply mean that the absence of political will is the sole bulwark to resolving crises of social reproduction. Rather, it is a moment in mass pedagogy regarding how the US appraises the worth of those who reside within its borders.

The electoral Left, in light of the defeat of the Sanders campaign, has seemingly reoriented itself around local and State elections. However, given the differences among each city, it is not clear that an electoralist localism is sufficient to the task ahead. That being the construction of new lines of alliance capable of waging a struggle on many fronts — whether it be housing, food, debt, healthcare, jobs/wages, immigration, policing, and so on. And this need for establishing new lines of alliance is made all the more urgent given the fact that, ever since the mid-70s, economic recoveries are increasingly jobless recoveries: “Between 1947 and 1973, the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent on average; after 1973, it rose to 6.5 percent. Since 1973, there has been one exceptional period, 1995-2001, when the unemployment rate returned to its pre-1973 level. Excluding these years, the post-1973 unemployment rate rises to 6.9 percent, or 43 percent above the previous average. This rise is not only due to the fact that unemployment levels have been higher during recessions. Economic recoveries are increasingly jobless recoveries. Reductions in unemployment have taken longer every decade. Following the 1981 recession, it took 27 months for employment to attain its pre-recession level; following the 1990 recession, 30 months; following the 2000 recession, 46 months. After the 2007 recession, a labor market recovery took 6.3 years.

Two things are worth recalling at this point. First, here in the US, it was not an election that allowed a national uprising to realize itself at the global level, but the burning down of a precinct and the state repression that has followed since. Second, it was not an election but a year of relentless street demonstrations that saw property values drop by 25% in Hong Kong. Between these two waves of urban revolt, it has been insurrections, and not elections, that have proved to be the more effective modality of struggle. What is more, from the vantage point of the US government, an increasingly ungovernable population coerced by what is rightly perceived as an illegitimate government is a situation that this country knows all too well since it is the type of situation that it itself has created with every coup it has helped carry out (hence the language of ‘counter-insurgency’ to describe State and Federal responses to the uprising). That said, I have no interest in suggesting the form that practical actions should take moving forward. All I would say is, provided that the explicit demand and desire for abolition is placed front-and-center, all forms of action are good, and those who create the most scandal are the best.

6. And finally, what do you think about the coming election?

“To judge from the current disposition of people’s minds, communism isn’t exactly knocking on the door. But nothing is as deceptive as the situation, because nothing is so changeable” (Blanqui).



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