Anti-fascism, Anti-racism, Covid-19, George Floyd Rebellion, US Politics

Faced with a national uprising against racism, Trump attacks Antifa to deflect anger

Iannis Delatolas reports on Trump’s plans to make Antifa illegal and the underlying causes of this anti-racist rebellion, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a bipartisan inability to deal with the health and race crises in the US.

Trump, in the hopes of deflecting anger against the racist murder of George Floyd and the pandemic crisis, used his address to the nation on Monday night to threaten the movement and attack the left. Having been forced to spend two nights in the bunker over the weekend due to protests and clashes outside the White House, Trump emerged from it and Tweeted that he would declare Antifa a terrorist organization. The White House was under siege by protestors as teargas was used to clear the way for Trump’s photo-op in front of a church on Sunday. 

Antifa is an umbrella term for various radical anti-fascist activists and groups, and not an organization. Antifa and anti-fascist protests have kept the far right and thugs like the “Proud Boys” off the streets across the country. Trump’s threat was meant to encourage his far right and racist base. And true to precedent, Trump has been eager to call on the far right to use violence and bullets against the left. Trump’s declaration of Antifa as domestic terrorism may be legally baseless. But in the real world, it is an attack on the multiracial movement that is driving the rebellion against the racist police and the horrific murder of George Floyd, another innocent Black man, at the hands of the racist cops. The fact that Antifa may be designated as a terrorist organization, while the Ku Klux Klan is not, says a lot about what the US ruling class considers dangerous.

In this context, Trump’s statements have two functions. It is a call for even more aggressive repression of the movement by police, National Guard, and even the military. It is also an appeal to the far-right and the fascists to take the initiative to come out and attack the movement and the left overall. And by singling out “Antifa,” Trump is attempting to signal that the state will clear the way for the independent far-right to act. Shortly after Trump’s tweet, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted in response. “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them like we do those in the Middle East.” 

The Law and Order President

Yesterday in his speech from the White House, Trump threatened to bring out the National Guard in DC effective immediately. He also threatened to bring in the United States Military if the governors did not call out the National Guard to contain the demonstrations.

Despite the explicit threat of the use of force coming from the White House, last night the clashes and the riots were even more widespread and violent. They even reached the working class borough of the Bronx where I live in New York. Tear gas and concussion grenades were fired as protestors faced off with the police. 

The barbaric murder of George Floyd that was filmed in its entirety by outraged and shocked bystanders has sparked a nationwide rebellion. There is no other way to describe what is happening. It is an uprising with protests in 140 cities and the National Guard has been activated in 21 states. We have had protests against police killings in the past, but what is different this time around is that the demonstrations are much angrier, confrontational, and more multiracial. These two characteristics are what makes this unstoppable wave of protests a real threat, not just to Trump, but to the entire political status quo in the US. 

Underlying Causes

This rebellion comes in an era of growing inequality, and on the heels of the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign. And the COVID-19 crisis still rages on. In two months of the pandemic, more people have died in the US than died in the whole duration of the Vietnam War, and the deaths are not evenly distributed. It has left Black and Latino working class New Yorkers decimated. The rate of deaths for Black people has been double that of the general population; the working class neiborhoods have been hit the hardest; and the mostly undocumented workforce the city depends on were left to fend for themselves is “essential” services. Living in overcrowded apartments, with no health coverage and under threat of arrest and deportation by ICE, many immigrants did not seek medical help. Neither did they qualify for the $1,200 stimulus payment. So the few that have jobs were not able to stay home, making them and their families vulnerable. 

Compare this to how empty the affluent and mostly white areas of New York are, as the rich fled to their posh residences in the Hamptons and their country homes. In fact, as they drove in their SUVs to their second homes, they caused a crisis of supply in the working class communities in Long Island because they used their wealth to hoard essentials, leaving the local community vulnerable. This inequality, laid bare by the pandemic, is partly what fuels the rebellion on the streets. 

COVID-19 exposes all the failures of US capitalism. It has highlighted the gap between the rich and the poor, institutional racism, and the lack of any healthcare coverage for 27 million workers. It has revealed the inadequacy of the existing healthcare system that can still throw jobless workers and working class families into debilitating debt. As unemployment has reached 20% and those out of work number 38 million, millions have lost their health care coverage. The COVID-19 tests, as limited as they were, were free, but if someone had to be hospitalized they would have to foot the bill or get hit with overwhelming copays in a time of mass unemployment. At the same time, the government gave massive bailouts to the corporations with the stimulus package. The rich looted public money and threw some crumbs to the rest of us.

This rebellion is angry and sustained in a way that other police brutality protests over the last few years have not been. This is because it runs deeper than George Floyd. It is about the structural racism in US society, shown clearly through the pandemic, and a bipartisan political inability for either major party to deal with the crisis. Millions of people were looking to the Sanders’ campaign with optimism and hope for solutions to these issues before the pandemic reached the US. Both the ruling class management of the pandemic and reaction to the rebellion are raising important questions about the Democrats. 

In New York, Governor Cuomo was seen as a hero compared to the Trump circus during the worst days of the pandemic. But Cuomo is not our friend. During Cuomo’s political career he has spearheaded cuts to healthcare. He mentioned that 20,000 hospital beds were lacking at the start of the pandemic in March, but not that that is the number of beds that were slashed in the last 20 years in New York. And Cuomo is responsible for a lot of these. As the pandemic was killing thousands of people in New York State, Cuomo continued implementing Medicaid cuts. The people who need Medicaid the most are the poorest and workers in poor health. Precisely those who were hit the hardest by COVID-19, the inner city Black and Latino poor working class with pre-existing health problems, rely on Medicaid for life saving care. This barbarity even in the height of the COVID-19 crisis shows the twisted logic of capitalism and has not been lost on the minds of millions of people across the country. During the pandemic, people’s daily concerns and needs have been ignored as the rich loot public funds.  

United Movement

The government’s inaction and callousness has been compared to the early days of the AIDS epidemic as the Reagan administration stood by watching people die without lifting a finger. This was until Act Up came onto the scene and over years of very militant and confrontational demonstrations not only forced the government to take action, but also shifted public opinion.

Trump’s statements (perhaps ineptly extreme) are also part of a strategy to split the movement on the streets. The statements by Mayors, Governors and Police Chiefs, on both sides of politics, about “outside agitators” is an attempt to counterpose peaceful protesters and “rioters.”. The media emphasis on looting is a way to make people afraid to participate, delegitimize the rebellion, and get people to side with police repression. But it was the rebellion that forced the speedy firing of the cops and arrest of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis—even if that is not enough to get justice. 

After Eric Garner’s cries of “I Can’t Breathe” and death by chokehold, it took five years of protests just to get his killer fired from the NYPD, and he was never prosecuted. Police around the country now are scared of massive opposition and defiance, reacting both with faux sympathy (the kneeling and statements of solidarity with right to protest) and with violent reprisals—sometimes from the very same police. 

We need the movement to be united if we want to keep winning. The ruling class is terrified of that. Trump’s threats against the movement are dangerous. But with so many having already entered the streets around the country crying “Black Lives Matter,” his attempts at repression and division could blow up in his face. Veteran and GI rights organizations are already reporting queries from GIs and National Guard members who want to refuse to be sent into US cities against these demonstrations. Going forward, we need continued solidarity and organization of opposition.  

Government Repression

Most commentators are saying that Trump’s statement designating Antifa as a terrorist organization has no legal standing. There are extreme legal repercussions for being a member of, or supporting, a designated “foreign terrorist organization,” entailing loss of many civil liberties, but there is no legal standing for a domestic one. The US Patriot Act did expand the state’s legal powers to investigate terrorism, including “domestic terrorism,” and made it easier to seize related assets, but it did not create a new crime of “domestic terrorism.” Besides the problem of a legal definition of “Antifa,” there is no official list of domestic terrorist organizations. 

But legal technicalities are not the main point. Attorney General William Barr’s statement the same day as Trump’s read: “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.” This, combined with Trump’s statement that “The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups” suggests, despite the legality, a ramping up of the targeting of left groups and individuals by the FBI and other repressive arms of the state.  

Trump’s tough Law and Order speech yesterday is history repeating itself. And the last time we saw riots and clashes anywhere on this scale was in the late 1960’s when Nixon campaigned under a similar Law and Order policy. Nixon also declared war on the left and the Black Panther Party paid a heavy price when the FBI declared war on its militants.

In the last week, we have seen a popular uprising that shows no signs of stopping. In the midst of the pandemic and its aftermath, the demonstrations are very inspiring. A multiracial and united movement is taking to the streets in hundreds of cities. There are several more protests planned across New York City today. Curfews will be defied and clashes will take place, just like yesterday, and this will be reflected nationwide. 

Labor Solidarity

There have been very important interventions by workers in this rebellion such as bus drivers refusing to collaborate with the police to transport arrested protestors, as we saw in Minneapolis and New York. The Minneapolis school board has ended its relationship with the police, finally getting them out of schools. We have also seen encouraging statements by National Nurses United and several education unions, including PCS at New York’s City University standing with those “rising up and bravely demanding that racial terror…must end.” Unions including the United Steel Workers, USW, IATSE, AFA-CWA, UNITE HERE, UFCW-Latinos, and others are also standing in solidarity with Black lives.. 

If labor union involvement  continues to grow, it will help to guarantee the longevity of this movement by raising demands to defund the racist police, abolish ICE, and create jobs instead for all those recently unemployed. They could also exercise their strength by challenging Trump’s menaces, the far right threat, and by taking on the US capitalist class’ barbarism and greed. Socialists and others on the left should participate in this tremendous movement, fight against racism, and push further to a society where racism and the repressive police force are smashed once and for all.

Iannis Delatolas

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