From Plague to Rebellion

“When history is written as it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.” – CLR James

Already the air is febrile, anxious, begging to move. It is easy to find the demonstration, with so many walking in the direction of the park. Everyone wears masks. Most wear black, many carry signs: “George Floyd did not deserve to die,” “ACAB,” “Fuck12,” “Defund police,” and, of course, “Black Lives Matter.” A police helicopter hums overhead, the first of at least five we will see over the next few hours.

It’s Saturday. Six days since George Floyd died, the wind squeezed out of him by a vicious, petty cop. Six days since Floyd gasped those haunting words, “I can’t breathe.” A week ago, the defining factor of American politics was the pandemic that still has most of the world – including the US – in its grip. Now it’s different, strange, new. What started as protests in Minneapolis became mass protests, then showdowns with cops, then looting of a big box store, then finally the burning of a police station. Young people – mostly black, but also Latino, white, and others – jump, cheer, dance, their fists in the air, as the flames consumed the precinct of the officer who killed Floyd.

It moves. Other cities are now ignited. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, Phoenix, Louisville, Los Angeles, so many others. The return of urban rebellion to LA is auspicious. There are inevitable comparisons with the uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Also Ferguson and Baltimore. This is on a far more massive scale, far more widespread, not isolated to just one city. It is the largest nation-wide urban uprising since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. LA is one of many today.

In each city, George Floyd is naturally at the front of people’s minds, but so are other victims of police violence and racism from the past several years. Breonna Taylor, shot in her own home in Louisville, two weeks before Floyd’s death, while police served a “no-knock warrant.” Laquan McDonald, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, countless others.

In each city, police attempt to drive protesters back indoors, inflaming outrage and provoking pushback from protesters. Many times, the cops are driven back. Urban space is, at least temporarily, reclaimed.

The march today is touching off from Pan Pacific Park. Perched on the southern edge of the Fairfax District, it directly abuts the famed Grove shopping center. Other high-end shops and boutiques are peppered throughout the district, and the average price of a home around the area is $2 million. Beverly Hills is not far. Dr. Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State Los Angeles and founding member of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter will later tell LAist that the choice of venue is “very deliberate.”

“Going to Pan-Pacific Park was absolutely about letting white folks who are from more affluent backgrounds understand or get a little glimpse of what we experience as black people every day,” says Abdullah. “White folks who are from affluent backgrounds aren’t going to experience that, but at least they can experience the frustration of not being able to make it through traffic. And so those are the kinds of things that we try to do when we go to affluent spaces that way.”

There is a remarkable sense of fearlessness among demonstrators. Entering the park, several tables are set up by high school students and community groups. Some handout free food and water. Others are handing out masks, while still others are giving away bottles of water and baking soda, for use in case of tear gas. Very few of us are shaking hands or otherwise touching, but we are talking and introducing ourselves to each other. Given that we have spent the past two months socially isolated – either shuttered indoors or only traveling outside for our “essential” work – there’s a certain thrill to being around other people.

At the baseball field where the starting rally is held, people climb the cage at home plate to listen to the speeches and hold up their signs. There are now two police choppers overhead, as well as a small drone buzzing around, ten or twenty feet above our heads, adding to that hackneyed and tiresome feeling of cyberpunk police state.

On Friday Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, was arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers who stood by and watched are still free. It is an attempt to placate, to convince protesters that they have won and therefore consent to the “bad apples” thesis of police brutality. It does not work.

“We have a right to our rage,” Abdullah tells the crowd at the park. “We have a right to our rage and them arresting one officer and then saying that’s justice, that shit doesn’t settle well with me. And it’s about those four officers who killed George but it’s about all these officers including the ones who are standing in our midst.”

By the count of Black Lives Matter LA, police have killed 601 people during the Democratic administrations of mayor Eric Garcetti and district attorney Jackie Lacey. Lacey, the first black district attorney in the history of Los Angeles, has yet to prosecute a single cop. She has repeatedly promised to meet with BLM and the families of victims, but has yet to make good on that promise. Over the past few years, BLM has escalated its visible tactics against Lacey. They have held weekly vigils outside the city’s Hall of Justice and crashed fundraisers for Lacey. They have even showed up at her house, the day before elections in March, only to be greeted by Lacey’s husband pointing a gun in their faces.

That was three months ago. Since then, forty million have lost their job. The real unemployment rate is predicted to surpass twenty percent in June. Aided by Donald Trump’s blustering incompetence, Covid-19 has killed over a hundred thousand people in the US. This is more Americans than died during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the entire “War on Terror” combined. Hospitals have been pushed to the breaking point. With no meaningful investment in healthcare or the social safety net, the White House has pumped trillions into the stock market, into banks and airlines and the luxury cruise industry. Aid for ordinary people has thus far been limited to a single $1200 check (unavailable to the families of immigrants) and $600 supplemental unemployment insurance through the CARES Act, expected to expire in July.

With no expectation of a vaccine anytime soon, and with very few safeguards in place, most states are reopening their economies. For the past two months we’ve listened to unhinged public officials and elected representatives tell us we should be grateful and eager to die for the economy. Herds of braying far-right psychopaths have egged them on, strutting around state capitols with fascist signs and AR-15s.

Trump has called the high number of Covid cases a “badge of honor” for the US, said that we should expect as many as 3,000 deaths a day. The reopening of states and businesses will effectively kick millions of workers off unemployment and force them to work in conditions that are literally contagious and deadly. The danger is amplified for black and brown workers, disproportionately represented in low wage work, the public sector, and the service sector, all of which have either been working through this pandemic already or are now being pushed back to work. If you want to know what it looks like when poor and working people have nothing left to lose, this is it.

It would be a mistake to view the fallout from the pandemic as altogether separate from police racism and brutality. There has always been a highly racialized necropolitical calculus in American capitalism, formulae by which it can be determined who is expendable and who is not. See, for example, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s frequently referenced definition: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” All Covid has done is bring this out into the open.

Speeches wrap at 1pm, and the march starts. By now the crowd is probably 20,000 strong. We flood 3rd street, just south of the park, and head west. We are all angry, fed up, but also looking out for each other, knowing that it very likely is going to go down and that when it does we will need to have each other’s back.

Very few are outwardly fearful. Protesters break out spray-paint cans and start tagging street signs, shopping centers, luxury condos. Even buses and postal vans are tagged as their drivers lean out the window to show support, willfully looking the other direction as their vehicles are scrawled with slogans. “RIP George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe,” “ACAB,” “Fuck the police.” Considering how often youths of color are targeted, even killed by police for being caught drawing graffiti – from Michael Stewart to Israel Hernandez – this is significant. It is being done in broad daylight, and can only be interpreted as an act of extreme defiance.

When we have marched about a mile and a half to the corner of 3rd and La Cienega, we stop. We are in front of the Beverly Center, an upscale shopping mall with stores for Fendi, Prada, Gucci, and other expensive brands. Through megaphones, organizers ask us to take a knee. We yell, in unison, “I can’t breathe!”

We stand up and turn north onto La Cienega. Chanting continues. So does the tagging. When we turn back east onto Beverly Boulevard, there is a noted shift in the crowd’s mood. After a few blocks we see the first line of police. They tell us to go back the way we came, and we comply.

A comrade calls a member of the small group I’m with. He’s in another section of the march, back at 3rd and Fairfax. There, police officers are firing rubber bullets at a crowd of demonstrators with their hands in the air. A few minutes later, an unmarked police car drives through a crowd of people taking a knee. The cops have officially gone on the offensive.

The march splits. As our group heads back going east on Beverly, we start to see billows of smoke. Windows are busted along the high-end shopping district. Same at the Beverly Center and the Grove. Tear gas is launched at crowds of demonstrators, with some hurling the canisters back at the police lines. As we keep going up Beverly, we find lines of police cars, still burning.

Then, a convoy of police cars, sirens blaring, heads toward us. We think they are headed for our contingent, but when we look closer, we see a huge crowd running behind them. This is another fragment of the march, possibly the one fired on just twenty minutes earlier, that has circled back around. After the cop cars pass, we run to join them.

“Did you chase them off?” we ask. Several reply: “Hell yes.”

We later learn this is half true. Some reports have the cops fleeing because they were unable to stop the wave of people, others that they were needed at Beverly Hills. The largest remaining contingent of the march – still several thousand strong – is marching on Rodeo Drive, chanting “eat the rich.”

Later that evening, the mayor imposes an 8pm curfew. He announces the closure of all public Covid testing facilities through the weekend. On Monday, Los Angeles County does the same. Official excuses are concerns for public safety and the like, but it is hard to see it as anything other than punishment, particularly given the disparity in cases among black and brown communities. Similarly, curfew notices are sent out with little warning, with public transport shutting down almost immediately, leaving many people – again, disproportionately people of color – stranded.

And yet, the stories from around LA and the country are the same. The marches are peaceful before the cops intervene. The only way to make this untrue, the only way to paint protesters as responsible for violence, is if one conflates violence with the destruction of property, a durable trick of bourgeois morality.

There has already been so much said regarding property destruction during this uprising. Most of it, at least coming from the media, has been simpering moralistic dreck. Protesters can read between the lines. The shrill denunciations of smashed windows and stolen merchandise are an extension of the arguments used to put people back to work during a pandemic: “If you don’t do as we say then you are worth less to us than what you should be producing.” This by itself is enough to justify the looting, regardless of who struck first.

At midnight, the National Guard arrives in Los Angeles. Same in several other cities. The same National Guard that somehow can’t be mobilized to distribute testing, water or medical supplies during a pandemic.

On Monday, news breaks that Louisville police have shot and killed David McAtee, a black man who had been providing protesters with food. The police chief is immediately sacked. In Omaha, Nebraska, the owner of a bar shoots and kills a 22-year-old black demonstrator. The county announces that the bar owner will not face charges. In Philadelphia and Chicago, there is news of armed white vigilantes looking for looters, with the blessing of the cops.

In Washington, DC, battles between protesters and cops in front of the White House become so pitched that Trump retreats to an underground bunker designed for shelter during terrorist attacks. The next day, cops tear gas protesters so that he can cross the street and hold up a bible in front of the church that hates him. He plans to invoke the Insurrection Act, deploying military to disrupted cities. This would be the first time that act has been used since the ’92 uprisings in LA. He tweets that Antifa is to be designated a terrorist organization, criminalizing any dissent that smacks of anti-racism, anti-fascism, or anti-capitalism.

Neither, it turns out, is actionable. In the case of Antifa because Trump lacks the legal authority and in the case of the Insurrection Act because the military brass has publicly lined up against the idea. Rank-and-file troops are already exploring legal recourse if they refuse to go point weapons at their own communities.

Whole swathes of government, state, local and national, are caught on the back foot. In the following days, the other three cops who stood by and watched while Chauvin killed Floyd are also arrested and charged. Minneapolis city council considers disbanding the police. Riots, it seems, work.

This is a volatile situation. It is also one that has produced an unanticipated level of solidarity and support with the movement for black lives. It is obvious to sectors of society well beyond the radical left that the police in America are out of control, far too militarized, clearly racist and quick to use deadly force. Owners of ransacked small businesses and restaurants are supporting the protesters. “We can rebuild,” they say, “but George Floyd cannot be brought back.” Reality TV stars – people whose job it is to be politically inoffensive – are posting Angela Davis memes. Even major corporations – including Target, one of the first major stores to be looted in Minneapolis – are releasing expressing support for BLM; a cynical and opportunistic move for sure, but one that reflects how dramatically the ground has shifted.

This means that there is clear room for the movement to spread, evolve, capture other spaces physical and political. Bus drivers in Minneapolis, New York and Cincinnati have refused to transport arrested protesters on their buses. What other cities can replicate this? What role can teachers and their unions play in demanding that their school districts follow Minneapolis terminate their contracts with cops? What links can be fostered to the ongoing workplace and rent strikes across the US?

The idea of this movement deepening, spreading, throwing open new doors of possibility, contrasts with recent history. The neoliberal era – which we may or may not be exiting now – has shown a talent for isolating, co-opting, and fizzling out movements, with those who build them left wondering how to ignite wider layers in conditions of demoralization.

Compared to this, we are very much in uncharted waters. This current moment has presented people with a distinct and unfamiliar feeling: the freedom of being ungovernable. Whatever happens in the coming days, weeks, months, it is not a feeling easily forgotten.

Detroit’s Exterminating Angel

Before RoboCop was released in theaters thirty years ago this month, it was given an X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. Director Paul Verhoeven, knowing that this was guaranteed box office death, went back and scrubbed his film no fewer than eleven times trying to achieve its eventual R rating. He toned down at least three execution scenes and cut out countless blood spatter shots. He also, in what would prove to be one of the film’s most ingenious features, added in the humorous advertisements for such products as the 6000 SUX sedan (8.2 miles per gallon!) and the Nukem board game.

The MPAA relented and RoboCop was a box office success. The irony of Verhoeven’s addition of the satirical commercials, however, is that their flagrant profiteering off of degradation and suffering made the violence in the rest of the film register as more callous, less remorseful, and the world that formed it less worthy of redemption. Verhoeven knew this. The MPAA didn’t.

There is a similar irony to watching RoboCop today, as world events have apparently transformed it from a cautionary tale into a rather twisted blueprint for salvation. Consider how riot cops dressed in 1990, three years after the film’s release:

And compare that to today:

(This is to say nothing of last month’s underreported story from Dubai, in which one of the world’s richest cities is now pilot-testing a robot to patrol and identify criminals. Though unarmed, the real-life RoboCop will be the first of many. If the pilot is successful then the aim is for the robots to eventually make up 25 percent of the city’s police force.)

Adopting the dominant logic regarding crime and policing today, RoboCop watches as a fun-mirror equivalent of how it was intended. The militarization of police is no longer read as an exacerbating factor in the rise of cruelty and crime. Instead, these points of reference can very be easily seen as reversed, the militarization justified by street thug depravity. There was certainly, in the midst of Reaganite “law and order” rhetoric, always the possibility of this misreading. But it is important to acknowledge that the a priori setting of RoboCop – a bankrupt Detroit hollowed and devastated – seemed far less real than it does today.

Verhoeven’s choice to set the film in Detroit was deliberate. There was, by 1987, plenty of worry regarding the future of America’s car hub, spurred on by jingoistic fears of Japan’s seemingly unstoppable entry into the world auto market. (The embarrassing third entry into the RoboCop franchise shamelessly tapped into this jingoism; thankfully Verhoeven was long gone by then.) No doubt, anyone who was honest about it could see that Detroit was in decline. But even as it was released twenty years – almost to the day – after the urban rebellions that rocked the city, RoboCop appeared to emphasize the “if” in “what if” by an extent far more measurable than today. That, along with an uninspired script, are likely why the 2014 remake failed to gain any substantial praise.

There is of course a narrative relentlessly pushed by establishment politics as to what caused the collapse of America’s fourth largest city and center of industry. The dominant take is a mixture of social irresponsibility and indulgence of greedy union workers swirled together into a world where the untamed hordes have to be kept in check. Any institutional excesses toward that end are merely a necessary evil.

It’s here that a few speculative thoughts are merited for the upcoming film Detroit. An attempt to portray the social explosion of the rebellion through the murders that took place at the Algiers Motel, critical reaction has been mostly positive. Plenty have noted how impossible it is to view the film without thinking of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile.

It’s more than a passing temptation to assume the worst of this film considering its director and writer. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are the team also behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Whatever handwringing they as generally liberal artists might have exhibited over the notions of militarization were long finished by the time they began making these films. It would be truly monstrous of them to use one of the turning points in the transformation of civil rights into the Black Power movement as an excuse to promote that same notion. It seems clear that Bigelow and Boal acknowledge American racism as a reality, but the usage of the revolt as context (and therefore its being painted as somehow “senseless” instead of as a reaction to that reality) seems to create problems in the filmic portrayal of a structural problem.

K. Austin Collins at The Ringer:

In Boal’s script, it’s easier to imagine that there were good cops – even amid what the movie characterizes as systemic police violence – than it is to imagine just what effect this event had on the black community. History, it seems, stands in for all of that: We apparently already know how the community feels. This is how I felt about David Simon’s HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, too; it’s how I generally feel about the work of liberal artists who seem much more invested in wrestling with how to represent black victimhood than they are in wrestling with what comes after. These are two parts of the same story. And the gaps here more or less mean this movie isn’t really about black people as people, nor history as a lived experience, but is instead invested in a dutiful, “just the facts, ma’am” reenactment that pretends those other things are already a given. Boal, and Bigelow beside him, refuse to speculate about – or imagine – the rest.

If Collins’ review accurately captures the film’s shortcomings, then he is describing a blind spot that most of Hollywood suffers from: namely that it has no clue how to tackle themes related to the institutional or systemic because it accepts the fundamental narrative of those systems and institutions. Even when liberal filmmakers attempt to take on “issues,” they end up sliding into trite and sloppy ruminations on human nature.

This isn’t to pass premature judgment on Detroit, but merely to illustrate how well-meaning liberalism constructs an aesthetic rationale (a myth if you will) around its fundamental belief in how the world works. Bigelow and Boal exemplify this rationale. Zero Dark Thirty is not intended as a pro-torture movie, but purposefully or not it becomes one through the course of its story of a good person trying to do right in a world spun by vicious anti-Americanism. Likewise if the bigotry of Detroit is one of personal belief then we are left with demands that the system merely “do better” both in regulating its own racism and in quelling social unrest.

This logic constitutes a very slippery slope in a world where policing is increasingly used as a substitute for a social safety net. Basic rights like food and healthcare are increasingly framed as “benefits” and those who demand them as adding to social discord. Stability is found in social regulation, by force if need be. Rather than fix the broken infrastructure of New York City’s subway system that is leading to massive delays and overcrowding, MTA head Jake Lhota proposes removing seats and adding more cops. The decay of one institution allows for the further ascendance and bolstering of another that simply speeds up the process, creating new problems that exacerbate the old in all-too-familiar ways.

RoboCop, at its strongest, both illustrates and anticipates a step in this spiral. Its sympathetic portrayal of Alex Murphy, Anne Lewis and other Detroit police officers doesn’t reflect a sympathy for police so much as it poses a very unsettling question: What happens when the only industry with any stable investment left is that of policing? In real life, police unions behave more like organized crime than any kind of organization dedicated to the defense of labor, but in RoboCop they are pushing back against another, far worse institution directly fomenting and profiting off the chaos. RoboCop/Murphy is a conduit for this tension, an avatar both for a human nature that is far more complex than many of Verhoeven’s contemporaries can muster and what happens when this nature becomes entangled with a very inhuman (or at least anti-humanist) drive.

For sure, there is a lot of money to be made off chaos. And a lot of political clout to be built off playing it up. Donald Trump’s speech earlier this week made that very clear. Verhoeven, when he originally made RoboCop, intended its satire and grotesque violence as a method of achieving critical distance from the cycle that pathologizes violence both materially and ideologically.

The very real militarization of law enforcement in the thirty years since its release reveals how little it was listened to – or, perhaps less sensationally, how limited the impact of art really is on policy. The artistic pranksters who have for the past six years been planning and assembling a giant RoboCop statue in Detroit may have been couching it in at least a healthy dose of irony, but they also (perhaps inadvertently) exposed something rather troubling about the embrace of the idea by their city’s government and police department. In 2014, Detroit decided to put on a “RoboCop Day,” coinciding with the DVD release of the mediocre remake. A costumed RoboCop threw out the first pitch at Comerica Park on that day. Though ultimately canceled, a ceremony was planned to unveil the molds for the bronze statue… in front of Detroit’s police headquarters, and attended by hundreds of police officers. All less than a year after the city declared bankruptcy.

The point here is not to say that there is some conscious decision on the part of policy makers to mold the world in the image of a 1987 movie. Nor is it to say that Paul Verhoeven – a director of definite left sympathy – has the ear of these same politicians. Capitalists have their own angels of history, their own archetypes adopted and memed through their universe in order to mediate the wreckage and rubble thrown at their feet. With the late capitalist imagination becoming more and more enfeebled, is it too great of a stretch that, to some, the logic skewered in the figure of RoboCop becomes that angel?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.