“Is this the Revolution?” I asked, half in jest, half in hope. Demonstrators protesting the murder of George Floyd, yet another African American man killed by police, had stormed a Minneapolis police station the night before; officers gunned down seven people in Louisville Kentucky as protesters surged into the streets, demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, shot to death by police in her apartment.
Over the next few days, the uprising – variously described in the media as “unrest” or “riots,” depending on the political slant of the observer – spread to cities across the country. The images of cities ablaze seem to herald something important.
Yet, if the history of righteous uprisings against police violence – from the Twin Cities, to St. Louis and Milwaukee, to Ferguson and even to Los Angeles in 1992 – has shown anything, it is that, in America, rebellion is soon crushed under the force of the state and the pious words of its political leaders. There might be cosmetic change; Derek Chauvin might be offered up on a third-degree murder charge; there might be even be a period of peace, when African Americans are not routinely murdered by the police. But a revolution, real structural social change, is probably too much to hope for.
The uprisings have however, brought crystalline clarity to the profound fissure in America’s social order. Not only have they highlighted the racist brutality of the police, yet again, but they have forced the reality of the American social order to reveal itself.
The headline to Robert Reich’s opinion column in The Guardian on Sunday proclaimed that the US is “a country at war with itself,” yet, nothing could be further for the truth. The evidence of our own eyes, and the images in every video, and on every news site is clear that this is no civil war between factions of the American body politic. This is not a struggle between citizens arrayed on opposite sides of a political cause.
America is most assuredly at war, not with itself, but with a subject population. The images recall nothing so much as the Soweto uprising, when Apartheid South Africa brought the full weight of its police power down on the people of a Black township south of Johannesburg in June 1976. The visual impact of militarized policemen and National Guardsmen deployed with armored vehicles and automatic weapons against demonstrators with placards and brickbats in American streets is a kind of eerie déjà-vu.
The causes were different – the Soweto Uprising began as a demonstration by school children against a decree that forced them to learn the Afrikaans language in the classroom, while the American uprisings are inspired by a horrific act of police brutality. But the response by power is identical.
Soweto’s students walked out of their class rooms, and the police sent attacks dogs at them. The students killed the dogs, and the police opened fire. By the next day, with 1,500 heavily-armed police deployed to the township, and the South African army standing by in readiness, as many as 700 Sowetans lay dead, and 4,000 injured. The troublesome township had been “pacified,” reported Soweto’s white police commander S.W. le Roux. President Trump wants the protesters to be “dominated.”
Indeed, the horrifying reality of America’s historical moment is embedded in the rhetoric of power: President Trump has denounced the demonstrators in Americas streets as “thugs.” That was the word used by Brigadier le Roux in 1976, and echoed by South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster in a statement to the media a few days later.
As Prime Minister Vorster did 44 years ago, President Trump – and even more, the political movement that he speaks for – has made a great deal about “law and order.” He is, in the words he spoke more to his followers than to the country, “your president of law and order.” Yet, like Vorster, he does not mean “law” at all. For centuries, since Enlightenment thinkers first theorized democratic government and “the Rights of Man,” the idea of The Law has been inseparable from the “rule of law,” which is predicated on the idea of “equality before the law.” It is an instrument – albeit an imperfect one – to obtain justice. The Law is universal, applied equally, and without favor to all citizens, and it is obvious that this is not what the president or his mass of keening supporters means.
President Trump’s point, however, is not to obtain justice but to secure order; in his mind, the injury to the body politic was not the crime committed by the ostensible guardians and enforcers of the law, but the demonstrators’ challenge to a social order where George Floyd’s murder was a routine occurrence. To the president, the protests are thus more dangerous than the incident they are protesting; the death of an African American man deserves no more than pious blandishments, while disorder in the streets demands the full mobilization of America’s police might.
At the heart of these events is the centrality of The Police to America’s social order; not police departments as state institutions, since the state is built on laws, but The Police as a social institution beyond and, in the minds of the president and his constituency, above the state. For them, The Police are both the instrument and embodiment of the social order. It was no accident that Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office deputies replaced the Stars and Stripes that had gone missing from in front of a Cincinnati court building last weekend with the “thin blue line” flag.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil later claimed that his men raised the banner, in place of the national flag, to honor of police officer who has be shot. Yet, even if that was the case (and this is doubtful), the flag’s iconography – a single blue stripe in a black and white parody of the Stars and Stripes – articulates one of the foundational tenets of contemporary white nationalism, indeed something central to the ideology of “American carnage” the president first enunciated on Inauguration Day. This is that the police are the fortified line that defends and defines the body politic.
Beating and gassing protesters in the streets, even shooting them en-masse, is thus not an unfortunate accident, or a bug in the system, it is a feature. It is the dynamic process of “holding the line,” and defending the body politic and, in so doing, defining what is excluded from it, but within the social order. As in Soweto, The Police draw the line that sets a supposedly dangerous, but still necessary, subject population apart from the body politic, and secures their obedience.
Vorster’s “thugs” were tens of thousands of Black school children who had walked out in protest over decree requiring them to learn the parochial tongue of the hated Afrikaner oppressor. The deputy Education Minister at the time blithely explained that Black South Africans might have to work for Afrikaner bosses as well and English bosses someday; the implication that they would grow up to work for white masters and not be bosses themselves was lost on no one. It was the reality of Apartheid.
The reality of the American social order is that African Americans, and nonwhites generally, are economically essential. Their labor is critical to late-stage capitalism, particularly in occupations where they serve the white middle class and, like the students of Soweto, work for white employers. But that does not mean that that they are welcomed as full citizens; they might be participants in the social order, but they are on the other side of the thin blue line, alien to the body politic.
None of this is new. Indeed, the exclusion of African Americans from citizenship – “separate but equal” – has been the central drama of American history since the adoption of the 14th Amendment. Segregation – American Apartheid – whether as a body of racist laws, or as a racist practice of capitalism, has defined our history since the abolition of slavery. The police, the National Guard, and the Army, have been deployed to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds in Black neighborhoods like Watts, Newark, Harlem, South Central Los Angeles too many times to count in the last half-century, but never once to a white community.
In Philadelphia in 1970, police bombed a whole block in a Black neighborhood. The fact that they used the kind of weapon typically – indeed, exclusively – used against outsiders was a clear and eloquent expression of the status of the target population.
So we have been here before. What is new is that President Trump, and the movement he speaks for, isn’t even pretending that the violence is “regrettable” anymore, or that the injuries and death are “unfortunate accidents.” The demonstrators are, in his words, “thugs,” and “anarchists,” and “terrorists,” objective enemies of the body politic even before their names and motives are known. We are witnessing the dynamic production of naked power through police violence. This is not, after all, the breakdown of social order in an America based on justice, rights, the state, citizenship; it is the consolidation of a social order that denies the universality of rights based on state and citizenship.
If there is hope, it is this: The 1976 massacre in Soweto sparked outrage around the world and, more importantly, among white South Africans who were appalled at the revelation of the violence upon which their social order was built. More important still was the clear moral case that ANC and Black Consciousness activists could then make to South Africa and to the World. It would be a long, bloody road, but it led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, and the death of Apartheid four years later.