Of all the memorable scenes in Boots Riley’s enchantingly bizarre Sorry to Bother You, the most politically salient is when union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) tells the fuming, disillusioned Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) why simple awareness isn’t enough. To truly puncture the veneer of spectacular (mis-)information, you need to cut off its ability to reproduce itself. “If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it,” he says, “then you just decide to get used to the problem.” Calling congresspeople, petitioning, going through the channels designed to politely listen to dissent, simply make that dissent more easily managed. “Speaking truth to power” is a nice phrase, but all too often it’s made out to be enough. As if the system quaked at it being spoken. As if it hadn’t developed countless mechanisms to turn the truth into a minor inconvenience.
Last week, we saw the union drive at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse go down to spectacular defeat. It isn’t a final defeat, and good on the organizers and pro-union workers for resolving to just have it be the first step, but we would be absolutely derelict if we didn’t call it a defeat. Jane McAlevey’s piece in The Nation does an excellent job laying out the many mistakes that the union made along the way, its many miscalculations and failures to overcome Amazon’s many shady tactics. These mistakes are indicative of a deeper rot that runs through the American labor movement, the confusions and timid behaviors that come from decade upon decade of compromise with business and fealty to the Democrats.
From the outside, however, one could be easily convinced that the drive was destined for victory. The truth about the atrocious working conditions for warehouse and delivery drivers has been out in the open for a very long time: harassment, ever-increasing and arbitrary quotas, electronic tracking of employees’ movements, and of course the infamous stories about pissing in bottles so that productivity is kept up. We would all like to believe that this outrageous treatment, framed with a basic sense of humanity would be enough to ensure a blowout victory. When Twitter handles with Amazon location numbers started popping up, heaping desperate praise on the company, the union seemed even more certainly destined for triumph.
And yet here we are. A blowout. Somewhere in Amazon’s public relations department, someone is patting themselves on the back for realizing that flooding the information channels with nonsense works not in favor of the truth but of the maker of the nonsense. Of course it was also prima facie absurd. No employee, even an anti-union one, would be going out of their way to set up Twitter accounts just to tell the world they don’t have to pee in a bottle. Amazon did it anyway. We knew they were behind it, and they knew we knew. They also knew that they could get away with it, a show of smug impunity.
What could have overcome this is the kind of pushback that is constantly spoken of in labor circles, its lessons nonetheless completely ignored. The left and the labor movement both love to talk about the Lowell textile strikes, the Minneapolis Teamster rebellion, the rank-and-file organizing that turned Flint into a battleground as auto finally fell to the UAW, but we don’t talk quite enough about the organizational infrastructure that was needed to really disrupt and disturb the flow of things when the company tried to intervene. The best examples of any kind of organizing, labor included, is that which sees a new member not as another unit for dues and practical support, but as a living and breathing human being with a creative mind, whose knowledge and passion can be collectively harnessed to scare an employer into submission. This is what the union drive in Bessemer lacked. It had a great media game, a great lineup of outward-facing agitation, but when faced with the bullshit factory of PR, it just got buried. It should serve as a reminder that war for ideas are only ever fought on enemy ground so long as they are only fought in the realm of ideas.
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Compare this with today’s news: Derek Chauvin, the cop who kneeled for almost ten minutes on George Floyd’s neck, found guilty on all counts. That’s second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It’s a victory. It’s not enough, and it should never have had to be fought in the first place. And there’s still a question of how light or heavy a sentence the judge will give him. But it is, again, and with no uncertainty, a victory. Precisely because it takes place in a country whose existence is predicated on the devaluing of Black existence, the over-policing of daily life, the reckless unaccountable power of police themselves.
If George Floyd’s murderer stands the chance of spending the rest of his life in prison today, it comes after years of other juries and judges letting the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and countless others off the hook. Some of their killers – George Zimmerman, for example – have gone on to build an entire public persona around the fact that they managed to kill a Black human being and get away with it. Look at how many cops donated to Kyle Rittenhouse’s legal defense and you start to get a sense of how vicious it can be, how unaccountable the whole culture considers itself.
When the officer who strangled Eric Garner was let off, some expressed shock at the brazenness of it all. After all, the entire thing was caught on video. The proof was evident and had been seen by practically everyone who watched it. This of course assumed that the American conscience was essentially good, that it could be moved by simple exposure to what actually happened. A man bothering nobody save for the selling of loose cigarettes did not deserve to have the life throttled out of him. Surely there was no way this case would go south. But five months later, there we were, with Daniel Pantaleo walking free, a signal that the mass proliferation of Black death could ultimately be used as a tool of enforcement and repression.
So why now? How is it that Chauvin was found guilty after all these other murderers weren’t? There is already a glaring gap in official narratives. Nancy Pelosi’s ghoulish words today, outright thanking George Floyd for “sacrificing his life for justice,” is the prime example, cut from a different side of the cloth as cops’ impunity, but still the same cloth. As if by dint of Floyd’s death alone we have finally entered the era of judicial accountability. And there will for sure be an overwhelming chorus in the coming days from pundits and like: “See? The system works! Now stop protesting and let us get back to business as usual! (…emphasis on the business part…)” It’s how recuperation works.
This nastiness is preferable to speaking the facts, however, allowing fact to present itself as is. That is that, frankly, on a big enough scale, riots work. That if there is enough of a disruption in every major city, including the shutdown of highways, the pulling down of statues, the destruction of stores whose wares are increasingly and prohibitively expensive to most of us, and yes, even the obliteration of police stations, courts may finally be forced to regard Black life as life. The spread of bullshit, of smug “you know I’m acting in bad faith so what are you going to do about it” info-dumps and harrowing footage, was unable to so easily assimilate this level of disruption. And if the mass urban rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore were unable to get the same for the cops who killed Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, then it may be, at least in part, because those rebellions were confined to a single city. Save for a flourishing of much smaller solidarity protests, these uprisings did not spread.
There’s a risk here of falling into the mentality of riot porn, of fucking shit up for the sake of fucking shit up. There are always going to be those characters in the left’s midst taking this cavalier attitude, perhaps a few of them agents provocateurs, most of them just adventurists. What I am talking about here is something altogether different, often lost in the rhetoric. It is a question, simple yet eminently meaningful. That if a nationwide uprising, in which this much business is ground to a halt, is what it takes for a single life to be regarded as worthy, then what do you think it’s going to take to make sure everyone’s is? How unmanageable will we need to become?