Longtime activist and writer Bill Fletcher Jr. speaks to PCIM Director Raza Rumi about the ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Fletcher says a variety of pressures exploded into a spontaneous, multiracial uprising rife with demands against not only the police, but against the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. For the movement to maintain momentum, “left organization” must broaden and unite demands into a people’s anti-oppression front advocating for socialism and consistent democracy in the U.S.
RAZA: So, Bill, the first question that everyone has been following: a dramatic and perhaps unexpected mobilization that has taken place right amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as the issue of police brutality, of structural racism, is well known. But how do you view these protests as they are growing and multiplying and as a variety of groups show solidarity with the protesters? So, just to make sense of what’s going on, maybe you can help us understand as a longtime activist.
FLETCHER: You know, there’s an interesting thing about capitalism. You can never be certain when there will be an uprising. But you can absolutely be certain that there will be uprising. I think what we have seen is that certain forces came together with factors that contributed to the nature of this explosion for the last two weeks. And I think there’s historical precedent in 1919 in the U.S. Following World War I, there was a depression. There was a so-called Spanish Flu, which was actually American Flu, as it started here. There was Red Summer, which were programs against Black communities. And there was the Red Scare with the attacks on radicals by the U.S. government, and 1919 became a very explosive year. There was also the Seattle general strike. It was sort of the fusion of these different components that made for the turbulence of 1919. I think what we’re seeing today is COVID-19; the economic collapse; the lynchings, three lynchings of African Americans in as many weeks; and Trump doing something that was really unprecedented, as far I can tell, where a president didn’t even pay lip service to the idea of getting together and addressing grievances, but instead did everything he could to enflame the situation. Then there’s environmental crisis. So, all these things came together and we had this explosion.
Now, there are a number of interesting things about this explosion. One is that this has been far more multiracial than anything I can remember. This was not about people burning down their neighborhoods—in many cases, this was targeted at symbols of power. And it has lasted a long time, in the context of a very real pandemic, which has many people concerned that this could spread. But I think there was a deep level of frustration, like a pressure cooker—and boom, then we had the blow-up… Those are the outlines of what I see.
RAZA: More and more evidence shows that, in the U.S., the ethnic minorities and the African American population have been at the receiving end of it. Twice the number of those who died due to COVID-19 were African Americans in many states, in the U.K. the people of color have suffered the most as well. I mean, look at the data there. The mainstream media here is trying to separate COVID-19 and these uprising as two distinct developments. I personally think they are not, what do you think, Bill?
FLETCHER: It’s all related. If you look at who’s dying in the U.S. and U.K., as you identified, all sectors are threatened. However, disproportionately, older people and those who are from traditionally racially oppressed groups, such as Native Americans, face deadly threats. It was interesting because in Britain, there were reports of the impact of COIVD on South Asian communities and on doctors dying at an exaggerated rate compared to non-South Asians. I think we see COVID is definitely coinciding with racist oppression and that has also contributed to the anger.
Look at the way the Trump administration has responded to COVID. First, denial, then trying to claim that they were ahead of the curve, and then easing back, suggesting that it’s really not all that bad. And why would they suggest that? Part of the reason is that they looked at the demographics for who was especially being harmed and decided: that’s not their base, that’s not who they’re concerned about. I have said that capitalism has a genocidal gene inside of it. And I put it that way because we often think of genocide as a conscious effort, like sending Jews to gas chambers or the Rwanda massacres. But there’s another way that genocide can play out, which is by the system in effect saying that it’s OK for certain populations to die. Or as we saw here, the reemergence of social Darwinism. It’s the suggestion that some populations are going to have to die, to sacrifice themselves on the altar of capitalism. So, I think we’re seeing that. And this has contributed to the anger that blew up.
RAZA: Coming back to nature of protests, as you mentioned earlier, they have been multiracial in terms of the composition of those on streets or those expressing solidarity. Is this something new or different from earlier uprisings of the past few decades?
FLETCHER: Yes. I think it’s really complicated when you look at a riot or a rebellion that is not a conscious organized effort. So, there’s gonna be all sorts of forces involved. You have opportunists, who are gonna break into stores to steal TVs. There are gonna be people simply angry enough to burn down a police station. You are also gonna have provocateurs. The Trump administration has focused on left wing provocateurs. The more dangerous element has been right wing provocateurs, white supremacists and other fascist elements that appear, by different reports, to have gotten very involved in these demonstrations as a way of provoking what they call Boogaloo, which is their term for a racial civil war. Then you have a lot of young people from different racial and ethnic groups and I think they see people are suffering. You know, the millennials, even before the economic collapse, were stressed out. And then the economic collapse happens and they are especially victimized by it and the possibility that there will be no return to anything close to normal. So, you have all of this, of course led by Black rage.
RAZA: This leads us to the next important issue on the kind of demands protesters have. There’s a whole list. If we were to summarize that, some are talking about the structures, the long-term historical imbalances and inequities, injustices, which have been sort of institutionalized in organizations such as the police force. One very popular slogan is about defunding the police. It has generated a lot of commentary and lot of debate. What do you think of that? Is defunding the police the way forward?
FLETCHER: So, in a spontaneous uprising or rebellion, there’s going to be a proliferation of demands coming from different sectors because you don’t have a leadership team or one organization—it’s not led by a party. So you have all sorts of different forces and demands. The demands for defunding the police, abolishing the police, I think more than anything, reflect the frustration with what many people have seen as piecemeal reforms that were supposed to address the belligerent behavior of police departments. I think there’s a problem with that formulation even though I think the intent is well made, well stated. I think the broader demand that better encapsulates much of this would be “demilitarize the police,” and demanding a major restructuring. And the reason I say that is that no one can quite define what they mean by “defund the police” or what’s gonna come next, just like abolishing prisons. When I hear people talking about abolishing prisons, the reality is that there’s all kind of [dangerous] people in prisons. A demand to break from Imprisoning people for non-violent offenses, or a demand for an alternative to armed policing makes a lot sense. If you say defund or abolish the police, you gotta say what’s gonna replace it, particularly because we are not in a revolutionary situation. It’s not like there is dual power. And if there’s a revolutionary force that’s on the verge of superseding the existing state, you’ve gotta answer the question that the masses are gonna ask: if I get held up, who do I call, Ghost Busters? If someone breaks into my home or if I get raped, what do I do? It seems to me that an answer has to be provided. You can’t simply say, “we’ll get to that.” Because we gotta convince people that there can be an alternative.
I think there really can be an alternative to this kind of policing. You could redirect funding away from current policing in a number of ways, like demilitarizing. The federal government has provided police departments with surplus military equipment and the police end up looking like mercenary units. We gotta break from that and get rid of that kind of equipment. We need to have a broad discussion of the role of police in a democratic society. What should they be doing? When I was a young radical, I was inspired by a group called Young Lords party in New York. One of the things they were trying to do was to set up what they called “committees for the defense of the community,” which were community-based organizations that looked at the social needs of the community. They engaged people, the community, looking at issues of crime, of childcare, of jobs. Tying these things together—that’s the direction we need to go. I suspect that the intention of many protesters is to refocus attention on how to break the militaristic model of police where the solution to every situation is a weapon.
RAZA: Yes. And this also reminds me that congresswoman Ilham Omar was preparing a bill, and there have been other representatives who are working on different legislative proposals. So, do you see those going anywhere, particularly given the current political climate and the impending presidential election?
FLETCHER: I think at the local level, like in Minneapolis, there are a lot of real possibilities. At the federal level, the issue becomes much more difficult. Several members of the House and the Senate introduced legislation, just the other day, major police reforms. But more than likely, Mitch McConnel and the Republican majority in the Senate, along with Trump, will block those efforts. So, this is one of the things we’ve gotta thinks about as we’re approaching the November elections: what kind government do you wanna have? I want one that is going to be responsive to the needs of regular people.
RAZA: Right. And so of course, regarding the change in president, we have seen that President Obama, in two terms, could not really achieve a lot. He made many promises, but when it came to actually changing and shacking up the system, he could not get very far.
FLETCHER: That was our fault.
RAZA: Please elaborate.
FLETCHER: See, in 2008, too many people misread who Obama was. And I say that as someone who voted for him in both elections—and I have no apology for that. But Obama was never a radical. He certainly wasn’t a socialist. He was of the Democratic Party establishment. When he was elected, the biggest mistake progressive forces made was allowing themselves to be demobilized. He basically demobilized his campaign organization “Obama for America” and turned it over to the Democratic Party, which wasn’t interested in doing anything with it. Obama was repeatedly willing to compromise with the Republicans even though they aimed to cut his legs off. Now, a lot of Obama supporters—I say this speaking both about the Black Freedom movement and the Labor movement—were willing to give him a grace period. And I remember before he was elected, I was asked a question: “If Obama is elected, should there be a honeymoon period?” I said yes. And they asked, “how long?” I said 24 hours. For 24 hours it’s OK to party but in the 25th hour, we have to be kicking his rear end. The problem is that we weren’t, that there was such jubilation about his election, the historic significance, that people forgot he was a political leader and needed to be pushed. Because if we weren’t pushing him, the other side was pushing him. And I think we made a terrible mistake taking him for granted.
RAZA: Coming back to the current uprisings and protests: where do you see them going? Is the momentum going to increase to transform into a sustained, coherent movement in the coming months and beyond? I’m looking at the larger horizon.
FLETCHER: There was a very famous exchange that happened with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China, back in ’69 or ’70, and it was misunderstood at the time. He was asked, “What was the long-term implications of the French Revolution?” and he said it was too soon to tell. For years, people thought Zhou Enlai was talking about the 1789 revolution. as it turned out it was a mistranslation. He was talking about the French upsurge in 1968. [RAZA laughs.] And so, he was saying, correctly so, it was too soon to tell what the ramifications were going to be. I would say that about this. I can suggest, however, certain possibilities. One is very ominous. All too often when there is progressive rise and insurgency that is largely spontaneous, when it declines, the right wing swoops in and grabs back any victories won and sometimes it is even able to flip the script. Italy in 1919 is an example. Massive worker risings. Many in Italy thought they were on the verge of socialist revolution. Three years later, Mussolini came to power. And so, one of the big dangers we face is that the right wing could swoop in. On the other side, the progressive side, there are a number of possibilities. One is that new leaders will emerge, and probably new organizations, and in some cases, existing organizations will be revitalized. I believe that what we need very desperately at this moment is a people’s anti-oppression coalition that attempts to link together existing organizations and aspiring organizations and leaders under a general platform: no troops in cities, demilitarize the police, justice for those who have been lynched and anti-austerity. In other words, grab the spontaneous movement and demands emanating from it to tie them together in a broad united front. I think that’s what we need to do at this very moment.
RAZA: Exactly. There have been calls for that. I think that is required at this juncture with so many localized movements, you know, working at the same time. And perhaps it’s the right time to bring all these forces together.
FLETCHER: Absolutely, we’ve got to. We need to do this, and it needs to be broad. I am not just talking about the usual suspects, people on the left. I think it needs to involve trade unions, human rights groups, some of the new organizations rising among youth. They need to be brought together and it needs to be broad and comfortable. Demands need to reflect the moment and connect with masses of people. So, demands can’t be so far ahead that regular people look and say, “Man, these people are nuts.” It’s gotta be something that people see and say, “Yup. I may not agree with all of the formulations, but these folks get it.”
RAZA: The task ahead is rather complex and long-term in many ways, given how the capitalist structures, as you mentioned at the start of our conversation, influence the perpetuation of inequalities and structures. There have been people predicting shocks to the capitalist system and the demise of the neoliberal order. But at the same time, we see corporations are profiteering from the pandemic. The stimuli packages in the U.S. and globally are directed to the already advantaged or rich sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these issues into sharp relief: who has health insurance, who has a home, who has a livelihood, and this notion of essential labor being sacrificed for the greater good of the capitalist order. Do you see the current mobilization moving towards that direction as well, I mean beyond its immediate goal?
FLETCHER: Elements of it. I think this mobilization is really challenging the state and capitalism. The demands against the police really need to be understood as demands against the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state. It’s not that the police behavior is unusual or without precedent; it is consistent with policing in a racial settler capitalist state. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be demands, it doesn’t mean that things can’t change. But what police are doing is consistent with the past. And the racial disparity in policing is completely consistent with the way that a racial settler state is going to operate. You are going to have differential treatment. So, these things are raising people’s consciousness. However, in the absence of organization, and I mean in this case, left organization, people will fall backwards. And so, this is a moment when we need a broad united front of something like a people’s anti-oppression coalition, while at the same time leading a nationwide left organization advocating for socialism and consistent democracy.
RAZA: I think that is very well put. I guess we can continue our discussion in the next session as things evolve. Thank you so much, Bill, for your time. This has really helped us make sense of this mobilization, where sometimes I get lost in the detail and various messages. But certainly, we will pick up from there next week. Once again, thank you so much.
This conversation was published in video format at Ideas and Futures and has been lightly edited for clarity. Watch the video here.