Over the weekend Marx21 members and friends joined the protests against the police murder of Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. From Downtown Los Angeles to central Portland, the San Diego freeways to rural Alabama, upstate New York to the center of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, our members report days of mass outrage, diverse protests, and police instigating the violence in cases where confrontations have taken place.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Victor Fernandez • Friday, May 29
I live in Downtown LA and for the past few months, because of COVID-19, it has been pretty quiet. But for the past couple of days, there have been protests on a scale much larger than usual as a result of the murder of George Floyd. In the next few paragraphs I will discuss my experience with the protests and some takeaways based on my experience in organizing and participating in protests and movements.
All I had to do was walk out the door and walk a block over where the police had shut down an intersection in order to stop about 40 people who were protesting on the street. However, the majority of the people out were not involved in the protest but just standing around seeing what was going on. Yet there was a police presence with full riot gear. Eventually more police arrived at our location, but given that there were larger protests at city hall, they were called away to defend city hall. At that point, our crowd had grown and we decided to march to city hall and meet up with the other protests. By the time we reached city hall, we had about 400 people and were met with a line of police that blocked us. Closer to city hall, there were other protests that were met with a similar response. At that moment, the police tried to surround our protest and not give us a way out. This escalated the situation and we had to break through some police lines in order to give ourselves a way to escape. This escalated the situation and forced an ongoing confrontation between the police and people, in which the police would advance against the crowd and people would resist their advances. Eventually the crowds started diminishing and that emboldened the police. I left at about 11pm. Given the spontaneous nature of the protests, the people who were willing to resist the police incursions were a self-selecting group.
As I am writing this, there are still protests going on in Downtown LA, the Fairfax District, Echo Park, and other places. Meanwhile, the media narrative is sensationalizing the looting and arrests and creating a dynamic of good “peaceful” protester vs bad “violent” ones. This brings up a few points.
These protests are relatively peaceful when they begin, however, the police response escalates the tensions between the police and protesters. Unlike news reports, the protester aren’t out-of-town anarchists looking to have a good time destroying property. Most are young people who are rightfully angry at police brutality. While there are some activists who are willing and prepared to get arrested, a majority of the people I met were not looking to get into a fight with the police. The overall feeling of the protests was that we were angry but mostly just standing around seeing what was going on. There were many times where we would all fall back at the first instance of possible harm. At many of these protests, there are people who are willing to engage in civil disobedience and come up face to face with police lines. However, when police crack down on peaceful protests, this instigates people to defend themselves and fight back.
It’s important to see why there is such a strong police response. The day Donald Trump was voted in as president, there were spontaneous protests in Downtown LA. Hundreds of people converged in City Hall and marched up and down streets with no police resistance. There was a protest that burned a Trump piñata on the steps of city hall. These protests continued for days with little to no police crackdowns. However, these current protests are challenging the state, police power, and a sacred part of that power: police immunity.
Having this rebellion come at the heels of the right wing, heavily armed anti-lockdown protests, it is clear that the right to protest and the enforcement of laws under US capitalism are based on both the politics of the protests and the race of the protestors themselves.
Now, the mainstream media is doing is best to pivot the conversation away from the murder of George Floyd and into discrediting the movement as a result of the looting and vandalism. We must not let them do this. The movement has been clear in its demands for arresting and charging all the officers involved with murder, and it is clear that the powers that be would rather have cities looted and burned than make police officers accountable.
It is ironic that much of the looting in LA happened in Melrose, which thrives on selling overpriced and overhyped street-wear to people of color, many of whom cannot afford such expensive and trendy clothing. The calls for civility and to follow the rule of law also ring hollow when the whole point of these protests is to call out the unwillingness of the system to follow its own laws in disciplining its own police force, the long list of crimes against people of color, and their squashing of protestor’s rights to free speech. As Martin Luther King said:
“Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”
Like the people who say “All Lives Matter” as a counter to Black Lives Matter, there is a renewed call by people for peaceful protest. However, the history of civil rights is full of peaceful protests that were dismissed, ridiculed, and put down with violence. The result of this suppression is the current situation we find ourselves in. Another irony is that many who judge the current protests as violent use King’s nonviolent movement as an example of what protestors should be doing instead. Yet here is Kind in his own words: “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
I would add to King’s comment that it is not only about being unheard, but also not having a ready alternative channel that anger into. Since the civil rights movement, the US government has done its best to undermine the left and its organizations. This was done so that they could push forward the most onerous neoliberal reforms that have crushed the standard of living of the American working class, with special destruction to the livelihoods of people of color. The Trump presidency and the COVID crisis has laid bare the way that the rich in this country don’t care about the rest of us. The killing of George Floyd was just the final spark. Thus, the anger we are seeing in the streets is more than justified.
The role of the left, socialists, and revolutionaries is to grab this anger and channel it in organized and effective ways to fight the system. Otherwise, it could just dissipate as it has done many times before. Only then can we build the new movements that will be able to hold police accountable, but also win the liberation for people of color that is so badly needed.
Leon Drake & Sean Cummings • Friday, May 29
As the uprising in Minneapolis continued for a third night around 3,000 Portlanders joined a vigil demanding justice for George Floyd. Participants wore masks as they tried to maintain the recommended 6 feet of social distancing. From the stage local activists and Black community members spoke of the history of racism in Portland, of redlining, gentrification, descrimination, and police brutality. Portland had seen recent demonstrations against police violence. There were similar vigils and demonstrations, albeit on a smaller scale, in 2018 after Portland Police killed teenager Quince Hayes and ex-serviceman Jason Washington.
The vigil ended at 9pm, with a large section of the gathered crowd marching some five miles into the city center, ending their march at a park across from the Multnomah County Justice Center; home to the police headquarters, a federal intake prison, and the sheriff’s department. Along the way, protesters chanted in support of last year’s striking food service workers as windows were smashed at a Burgerville restaurant. Other chants heard included “A C A B / All Cops Are Bastards”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”, “Say His Name: George Floyd”, and general cheering when residents and passersby demonstrated their solidarity.
Symbols of Portland’s vast inequality were ransacked or broken into, most notably Louis Vitton and Chase Bank. All along the route, graffiti denounced police brutality, proclaimed George Floyd’s name for all to see, and called out inequality.
At the Justice Center, windows were broken and a small fire started inside, although no one was injured. Along the march route, the police had seemed entirely absent, content merely to monitor the march from the air, and had said they would allow protestors to assemble freely. This seemed to be a turning point in Portland Police Bureau’s response, they arrived in force, firing tear gas, flash-bangs, and rubber-coated bullets. While more vulnerable members of the march broke off and went home, remaining protesters continued to lead the PPB on a game of cat-and-mouse for several hours afterwards. This was enough for the city mayor, Ted Wheeler, to issue an 8pm-6am curfew order for the weekend.
Wheeler, deeply unpopular, and facing a mayoral runoff from the left, has promised to increase the police’s budget if reelected in November. He has lined up time and time again to denounce protestors and stand beside Portland’s brutal, racist police force.
The curfew looks set to be broken tonight (Sunday) but how the city will react remains to be seen. Given their record, it seems unlikely that the PPB will show any restraint. The hope is that last night’s action will be the beginning of a larger movement that can not only pull large numbers of people onto the street but also organize to beat back racism and exploitation in both the city and the state.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
Rebecca Gilson & Christopher Reed • Saturday, May 30
Marx21 members in San Diego attended a protest in La Mesa, a city in East County San Diego, on May 30, 2020. We arrived at the protest outside the La Mesa Police Department headquarters at 4:30pm, where a crowd of around 1,000 people had gathered to protest the recent murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. The protest was also in response to an incident in which a La Mesa Police Officer forcefully detained a young Black man outside of a trolley station. The man, Amaurie Johnson, was at the station waiting to meet up with friends when he was arrested for “assaulting a peace officer,” though video of the encounter shows clearly that Johnson was in no way acting aggressively towards the officer. It was in this context, fueled by the national outrage over the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (murdered by police in Louisville, Kentucky), that the Saturday protests took place.
The protestors outside the station were angry but peaceful when we arrived. The crowd threw up calls of “I Can’t Breathe!”, “Say his name! George Floyd!”, “Black Lives Matter!”, and “No Justice, No Peace! No Racist Police!” There were many volunteers moving throughout the gathering to provide water and snacks to protestors. Shortly after we arrived, a group of us began walking down the street towards the entrance to the 8 freeway, where earlier protestors had successfully pushed through a California Highway Patrol blockade and shut down the freeway. By the time we arrived, the crowd began moving back to the station. Back at the police station, protestors continued to chant. Some took down the US and Californian flags and attempted to light the US flag on fire. Anti-cop messages like “ACAB” and “Fuck 12” alongside “BLM” and “George Floyd” where spray-painted on the police station.
At around 6pm, several cops began gathering on the roof of the station, dressed in riot gear. They announced that the demonstration was unlawful and ordered the crowd to disperse. Around the same time, they drove an armored vehicle into the parking lot, which immediately escalated the situation. Protestors formed a barrier in front of the vehicle, preventing it from moving forward. They began throwing bottles and other objects at the vehicle and spray-painted the sides. After a few tense minutes, the vehicle was forced to back away. At that point, dozens of officers and County Sheriffs had amassed in front of the police station and began firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd and setting off flash-bangs. As the cops began firing into the crowd some of the protestors began to smash windows at the station. Some of the crowd dispersed but many stayed in place and continued to chant. The cops repeatedly fired into the crowd every five or 10 minutes, and the situation remained this way for the next couple of hours. As we retreated from the tear gas, a group of white men in a truck began an altercation with peaceful protesters. They attempted to run us and other protestors over, making fast u-turns and driving onto the sidewalk. One protestor was hit, although we believe that they are okay.
We left around 7:30pm and learned later that at around 8:00pm the cops began a coordinated effort to clear the area around the station. The rioting and looting that occurred in La Mesa later that night appeared to have been carried out by different groups of people that had not been a part of the earlier protests. Several businesses were looted, and two banks were burned down. Rioters also set fire to a fire department vehicle.
Like many of the actions occurring across the country, the protest in La Mesa was very loosely organized, and there was much confusion leading up to the event over whether the action had been called by legitimate activists, individuals, or groups more interested in getting into altercation with the police than political protests. In any case, the outrage in the community had reached a point where any action called would be attended in significant numbers.
The protestors were angry, brave, and powerful. From our viewpoint, it was clear that the police escalated the situation, not the protestors, and had the police not taken actions to disperse a peaceful protest it is likely that the later rioting would not have occurred. Assessments of the protests the next day in the local news focused primarily on the rioting and looting that occurred later in the evening. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, there was little context around the broader social conditions that have led to the upsurge in protest and rebellion in communities around the country.
Michael Shallal • Saturday, May 30
“You either racists or anti-racists. You either pregnant or you ain’t, there ain’t no in-between”
Words from one of the speakers at today’s rally and march in Decatur, AL.
The rally was organized in large by Lawrence County NAACP, I also met a group that was more grassroots called “Standing in Power” which is about six months old and was working on a local anti police brutality case. Some of the speeches ended with Amen and the crowd held a prayer with a local pastor.
There were about 200 people at the protest which had your basic BLM chants, “Say their names, black lives matter, hands up don’t shoot, I can’t breath.” We went on a short march from the courthouse and rallied next to the road where we had support from drivers (not all).
Definitely a different vibe in this small town compared to the cities.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA, CALIFORNIA
Fernando C • Saturday, May 30
There was a gathering here yesterday, but no national news coverage of it last night. It seems to have followed the same pattern as others. People were gathered peacefully, but confrontational regarding the police. There was an attempt to take the Bay Bridge. Police held us back. At that point I went home with the intent to return after I’d eaten something and changed because I had joined them haphazardly at noon. There had been no announcement of the event and though there were organizers, I don’t know nor can I find any information on who they are. By the time I was ready to go out, they had left the police station where they had been staring down the police. That’s the last I could find of them until around 8pm when I found video of people beginning a riot. Importantly, like the one in LA, they seemed to maintain most of the damage to giant corporate things like Starbucks and huge stores. The best thing was definitely a group that went to the mayor’s house and was just letting off fireworks.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Thomas Hummel • Sunday, May 31
Over the past few days, the country has been transformed into what Lenin called a “festival of the oppressed.” New York City is no exception. What I saw firsthand over the past few days was not mindless rioting and looting, but the euphoria of people realizing their own political agency.
I saw people dancing in the streets, singing in unison as fires burned around them and the glass from stores shattered and came tumbling to the ground.
I saw young men and women climb on top of police vans, smash their windows, and spray paint their doors with “Fuck 12,” and “ACAB.”
I saw the police beat protesters with their nightsticks. I saw them lose their composure and chase people into the crowd to assault and arrest them. I saw the NYPD tackle young black men to the ground for doing nothing but yelling insults at them.
I saw the police charge a crowd that was sitting on the ground to express their peaceful intentions. The police swung their nightsticks, punishing these people with heavy blows as the crowd ran in panic.
Fire engines, their alarms blaring, went every which way around the city, putting out the small fires as they arose.
I heard the deafening explosion of flashbang grenades going off behind me sending massive quantities of adrenaline to my heart and sending our group into a panic.
I watched as a group of about 500 walked by a family-owned grocery store in lower Manhattan at about 11pm, with produce and flowers on display for the taking. Only one person took a piece of fruit and was told by another marcher to put it back, which he immediately did.
A few hours later, I saw this same group shatter the glass of the boutique stores which have gentrified this neighborhood. I saw a young man smash the glass of a clothing store, bolt inside and come back to the window frame, throwing out clothing and shouting to everyone, “Take this shit!”
I saw solidarity among people of all races. People from every background under the sun came together to support the struggle of black Americans.
There have been three nights of intense protest in NYC. The police are losing their nerve. Yesterday a police officer was caught on video taking out his gun and pointing it at protesters near Union Square.
It’s hard to say how long this will go on. People are furious with the racist state and the inequity of the pandemic and economic collapse. At this point, these protests are showing no signs of slowing down.
Beacon, New York
Marie Edwards • Monday, June 2
In addition to the large manifestations in major cities, there have been thousands of smaller protests in small towns across the US, many of which have never seen a Black Lives Matter protest.
Organizers in Beacon were surprised on Monday, June 1st by the multi-racial turnout of over 1,000 people. Numbers were swollen by a large turnout of high school students and other young people, and people traveled in from surrounding cities. Ben, from Hudson, New York, said he had been to a rally there at 10am, but then traveled to the Beacon march at 3pm “to show support.”
Just a few days earlier, a local progressive group brought some 100 people out to gather at their usual rallying place in Beacon, a small town on the Hudson, some 60 miles from New York City. Although small compared to the big cities, that protest was spirited and received a lot of support from honking cars driving by on the busy Saturday. That crowd was mostly white, of all ages, but totally resolute in tracing the problem to the systemic racism rampant in the country and the brutal police forces that carry out their vicious work. Many signs held by protestors also emphasized that ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER, some signs listing the numbers of murders of black men (and women) by the police. My one suggestion for the organizers was more outreach and involvement from the Black community next time. But no one was suspecting that organizing was already happening by a few young people of color online.
It brought tears to the eyes of organizers, and a father speaking of his fears for his Black child brought tears of empathy to the crowd. Opening speeches emphasized the beauty of the solidarity shown, the need to keep marching, and the need to stop and figure out what to do next. Some of the young people called for everyone old enough to vote out Trump and racists, but there was no enthusiasm for any candidate still in the race. Everyone felt a part of protests going on everywhere, and speakers at this peaceful protest refused to condemn the “rioting” and anger seen in other cities.
After a march that closed down streets for a mile, we stayed for a closing rally near the Hudson River with impromptu speeches. One young woman spoke of how she had not really known racism until she started work at a local Dunkin Donuts, and how we can’t put up with that shit. A local white man named Ben spoke of how a small group at the top “want to divide us,” that racism and the police hit Black people especially hard, but when they get away with that they can also move against anyone, so the “love and solidarity” we saw today is in the interests of us all.
The rallies in Beacon were only some of many in the surrounding towns.The city of Poughkeepsie with a sizable Black population held a much larger rally, and so did New Paltz, a college town another 30 miles away. Although these rallies did not get any coverage in the national press, it is quite probable that they have taken place in many cities around the country, adding up to a sizable number of people of all colors who have become totally disabused of the so-called greatness of this country. The hope is that we can start to build a big and strong united movement against racism and all the forces that aim to divide us and oppress us.