The George Floyd Protests – a view from Philadelphia: Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul

Guest post by ANIA LOOMBA AND SUVIR KAUL

Protest in Philadelphia, June 7, 2020 (Video by Teren Sevea))

In 2002, when we moved to Philadelphia to join the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, a friend invited us for breakfast to his home in West Philadelphia, abutting the university. We learned then that in May 1985, rowhouses in this area, then a largely African American residential neighborhood, were bombed by the police (a military-grade explosive was thrown down from a helicopter). The police action followed a confrontation with a group called Move, whose members combined Black liberation and environmentalist ideals. When flames spread, the then Police Commissioner decided to “let the fire burn.”11 of the 13 people in the Move house were incinerated; 5 were children between the ages of 7 and 13.

Four years earlier, in another well-publicized case that scarred Philadelphia, a Move associate and Black Panther, Mumia Abu-Jamal was incarcerated for the murder of a police officer; he, considered by many to be a political prisoner, remains in jail. In 1963, just when Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream speech,” a Black family who moved into a white working-class neighbourhood faced a mob of 1500 shouting “Two, four, six, eight—we don’t want to integrate!” In 1967, a man called Frank Rizzo became Police Commissioner, and led a brutal attack on school students who demanded that Black history be included in their curriculum. Dozens were injured. In 1972 Rizzo was elected mayor of the city, a post he held for eight years. His tenure was so notorious for brutality against African Americans that the U.S. Justice Department sued the city’s police department, saying that its use of excessive force “shocks the conscience.” In spite of this terrible history, or more probably because of it, his statue loomed for years near the City Hall, a symbol of racist policing and governance in a city which is 44% African-American and one of the most segregated cities in the country.

Until last week.

On May 30, it was defaced by people marching to protest the murder of George Floyd. Then, on June 3, as the protests mounted, the current mayor ordered the statue removed (a wall mural honoring Rizzo was also painted over). During this week, Philadelphia, like the rest of the United States, was convulsed by protests against systemic racism and the violent, unprovoked killing of African-Americans.  Philadelphia saw its largest demonstration in recent years on Saturday, June 6, when a mighty river of people, perhaps 100,000 strong, flowed from the Art Museum to City Hall. Marches like this one, albeit smaller, have continued for 9 days now, generating the kind of civic and political pressure that lawmakers and politicians have not faced for a generation now. The crowds have been resolutely multi-racial; African-American organizations have been joined by a rainbow spectrum of allies to help mobilize people, and white people, particularly the young, have turned out in very large numbers too. (In fact, in small communities with few minorities, white people have come together to protest and to reflect upon the historical weight of their racist history).

These protests are on-going, and in many cases, so decentralized that it is not always clear who is organizing them, although they represent years of mobilizing and education by groups such as Black Lives Matter.  But there is also a larger ferment visible. A few days ago, we passed a group of ten or fifteen young people, all carrying protest banners, headed towards the center of the city. We asked where the protests were that day. “We don’t know,” they called out, “but join us, and we’ll find them.” While the major metropolitan cities have seen massive mobilizations, equally heartening have been the marches in small towns, sometimes no more than a few score people walking together, all emboldened by the need to say again and again, and as one, “Black Lives Matter.” Some of these rallies have been organized by school children (in one case, a nine-year old child marched alone up and down his street holding a placard). Others have had their ranks swelled by people who do not belong to organized groups but feel the need to demonstrate, to speak out, to participate in this remarkable outpouring of collective rage. For them, and thousands of others who may not have been politically active earlier, the present state of race relations and of militarized policing is untenable.

While political leaders and even senior police officers have spoken with respect and sympathy about these mass protests, and some have joined protesters in going down on one knee to atone for the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, police officers in different parts of the US have continued to behave as they have long done with protestors, particularly if they are minorities. They have precipitated violence by charging at and beating people, they have driven their official vehicles into crowds, they have tear-gassed them without provocation or manifest need, and have arrested people who were exercising their constitutionally-mandated rights. Philadelphia is no exception—in one of many incidents, a student at Temple University was arrested, even though he was the one who, without provocation, was beaten on the head by one police officer, while another held his head down with his knee, in an act that replicated the circumstances of the brutal killing of George Floyd. The charges against the student were dropped. Joseph Bologna Jr., the officer who beat him has just been charged, but was applauded by over a hundred of his colleagues as he surrendered.

But for these protests, and the ubiquity of cellphone cameras recording such actions, Bologna, like so many other violent police officers, would have gotten away scot-free. Of course, the problems of police violence and racism are not about to disappear so easily. The protestors know this. And they are demanding systemic change, not simply the cessation of violent policing. They have turned their attention to the inflation of police budgets at the expense of public education, health, and social services, and the increasing and horrific militarizing of the police force. The numbers are breath-taking. To take one example, the New York City Police Department annual budget is $6 billion, which, the sociologist Alex Vitale reminds us, is more than the budget of the “Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined.” To put this number in international perspective, he goes on to add that it is larger than the budget of the World Health Organization or indeed that of the GDP of 50 countries across the world. Philadelphia, which is much smaller than New York City, has 6,500 officers and a $726 million police budget for this year; its annual funding has increased $120 million since 2016. Today, a majority of its City Council members wrote to the mayor saying they cannot accept the $14 million increase that proposed for this year while the city budget cuts “spending on public health, housing, social services, violence prevention, youth programs, libraries, parks, recreation centers, and the arts.” The City Council of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, has decided to disband the Police Department. Council members do not yet know what a new public safety system will look like, but have pledged to rethink the entire process.

Does this mean that we are about see a systemic change in the United States? Before addressing this question, let us remember that the disproportionate emphasis on policing and incarceration, including torture, is very much the legacy of the history of slavery and, post-abolition, of the development of new techniques to deny Black people their rights. As Michelle Alexander has brilliantly shown, this history has culminated in the mushrooming of institutions that are deeply vested in the status quo. Not only are police unions powerful—as voting blocs with deep pockets, as determined lobbyists who refuse to allow corrupt and brutal police officers to be disciplined—but even more consequentially, the profitability ofthe entire system of privatized jails requires a steady stream of undertrials and convicted felons. As a consequence, the United States not only imprisons, but shoots and maims, more people than other developed nation; last year, the police killed 1098 people, 24% of whom were black.

The egregious divisiveness fostered by Donald Trump, whose racist, majoritarian (and sometimes unhinged) pronouncements have also galvanized common people into resistance. He has had no qualms about threatening to use military resources against common Americans—the violence that usually targets minorities now threatens the majority. But there are structural reasons for the massive turnout of protestors. The economic miseries precipitated by the COVID-19 epidemic have played a powerful role in reminding people about their tenuous access to healthcare, and their precarious livelihoods, in this market-fundamentalist economy (conversely, “pandemic profiteering” has made billionaires even more grotesquely wealthy). Here too, the bio-medical and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic is felt disproportionately by African-Americans and other minorities. As Dr Uché Blackstock memorably put it to a House of Congress subcommittee enquiring into health disparities, “Living in this country has essentially made black Americans sick.”

It has clearly sickened many others too. Indeed, as Keanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us, “we see a lot of—hundreds, if not thousands, of young white people in these uprisings, making these multiracial rebellions, really. . . . we cannot dismiss in a widespread way the participation of young white people, because we have to see that what has happened over the last decade has gutted their lives, too.” The present crisis is not only a problem of rogue police officers, but stems from a range of causes, “from the excesses of the criminal-justice system and the absence of a welfare state to the inequality rooted in an unbridled, rapacious market economy.” Taylor is unsparing in her critique of past Republican and Democratic administrations, including those of President Barack Obama, whose economic policies only worsened the disparities that define racial capitalism in the United States. There can be no redemption from the prison of racism, Taylor notes, without systemic socio-economic change; she quotes Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s recognition that those who marched in support of civil rights were in fact “engaged in the class struggle.”

Change does not come easily, particularly not in a country that has long celebrated itself as the home of liberty (even as it has, for over a century now,intervened militarily, and fostered authoritarian regimes across, the world). Indeed, Cornel West says the ongoing protests are a sign of “the Empire imploding.” He insists that “there is a connection between the seeds that you sow of violence externally and internally.” He too is unsparing in his critique of the Democratic Party, and its ideological overlaps with those in power now. He argues forcefully that the legitimacy of the entire political class “has been radically called into question, and that’s multiracial. It’s the neofascist dimension in Trump. It’s the neoliberal dimension in Biden and Obama and the Clintons and so forth. And it includes much of the media. It includes many of the professors in universities.”

While some may see these uprisings as a sign that Trump’s days are numbered, we should not be so sanguine. There are a vast number of white Americans, including those in political power, who see any changes, even reforms, as a challenge to their domination of public life and spaces in the United States. They have called for more policing, and have urged the government to “call in the troops.”  On the other hand, Trumpand his allies have unequivocally called on their followers to mobilize, to arm themselves, to storm state capitols in heavily-armed protests, as well as to discredit these ongoing protests by accusing them of unwarranted violence and looting. There are reports of extremists turning up at protests, and calling for a “boogaloo”—a code word for civil war. The combination of such right-wing vigilante activity and structural racism, according to at least one commentator, means that “Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state increasingly organized on fascist principles. We also do not yet know what else the fascists may do during the pandemic, amid mass unemployment, and when faced with unprecedented resistance ahead of a Presidential election.”

What they are doing right now is blaming the “left-wing” and “antifa” (antifascist individuals and collectives); Trump even declared that he would designate “antifa” a terrorist organization. But of course, “Antifa” is not an organization at all, but an umbrella term for radical activists who trace their lineage to the opposition to Mussolini and Hitler in Europe. Just today, Trump tweeted that a 75-year old protestor in Buffalo who was badly injured after policemen shoved him violently to the ground “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.” Trump’s pronouncements contribute to the recent resurgence of alt-right groups all over the country. In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 940 “hate groups” all across the United States. Today, armed right-wing vigilantes have taken to patrolling the streets and threatening those organizing the anti-racism protests.

On the other hand, hated symbols of slavery and the Confederacy are being dismantled, and there is a national discussion on racism, on violent policing, and on the role of the judiciary in perpetuating the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans. In a startling development, 9 judges of the Supreme Court of the State of Washington have issued a statement acknowledging that “As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives.” However, there is great danger that the radicalism of this moment will be appropriated and defused by the Democratic Party establishment, particularly in the lead up to the election. Joe Biden has no vocabulary for, or interest in, structural change. He is very much part of the old guard, the establishment, and cozy with financial elites. But his politics, and those of the conservative sections of the Democratic Party, are no secret to the millions of young people who now demand change. Theirs is the halting march towards the future, and they know that the battles they fight are not won overnight, and without pain.

Hope may lie in people demanding and forcing changes in institutions across the spectrum. As we write, a petition calling on the University of Pennsylvania to end a campus “police state” has gained more than 12,000 signatures within a week of its initial circulation. The petition, among other demands, asks the university to stop “racially biased surveillance, reporting, arrest practices, the advocacy of militarized models of campus policing, and the implementation of policing measures that cut Penn off from the communities surrounding it.” Ever since Trump took over, we have seen an escalation of  local protests here in Philadelphia and across the country against racist immigration policies, fordecarceration and prison reform, and for housing rights. Today’s protests should be understood as drawing organically from ongoing work at the grass-roots level, in which local activists have addressed very many different social and economic issues. There is no question that such local activism has swelledthis powerful national movement, a movement that is now resonating across the world, and creating solidarities at a national and international level.

For those interested, John Oliver’s recent show offers a succinct  introduction to the question of racism and policing. Do also watch this fuller version of the hard-hitting and powerful statement by Kimberly Jones on the question of racism, looting and violence with which Oliver ends his show.

Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul teach at the University of Pennsylvania

One thought on “The George Floyd Protests – a view from Philadelphia: Ania Loomba and Suvir Kaul”

  1. Great article and analysis, though the situation is evolving and by November we could see many surprising turn of events, hopefully for better outcome. As a visitor to our son at Wharton for two years we have first hand the place.

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