Thursday 18 June 2020

Something Very Big.

Freedom Now: Residents enjoy the new order established in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone of central Seattle in Washington state, USA.

IT’S DOUBTFUL whether many of those applauding the current US protests grasp fully the enormity of what is happening there.

Take those six city blocks in Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington State. By ordering the Seattle Police to evacuate their East Precinct station-house – the city’s mayor effectively acquiesced in the creation of an “Autonomous” and “Police-Free” Zone in her city’s heart. Not even in the wildest dreams of the Black Panthers – the black revolutionary movement of the 1960s – was such a development ever seriously anticipated. Wanted? Yes. Fought for? Definitely. Achieved? Never.

And, as if the creation of “CHAZ” – the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone – wasn’t enough, the adjoining Cal Anderson Park has been converted into a “people’s park”. This development, too, links back directly to the radical struggles of the 1960s.

In 1969, students at the University of California at Berkeley had attempted to thwart the university authorities’ plans to “develop” what had been a free space frequented by the local community, by setting up a “people’s park” and planting a garden. The area was cleared with considerable brutality on the orders of the then Governor of California – Ronald Reagan.

Peoples Park protesters, Berkeley, California, 1969.

What we are witnessing in Seattle – and in a host of other cities across the United States – is an astonishing eruption of ideas and projects long since consigned to what their critics assumed was “the dustbin of history”. That this is so clearly not the case raises some quite intriguing questions about what we are actually seeing in the United States. Perhaps the most important question is whether these events, taken together, constitute a pre-revolutionary situation?

In the CHAZ, for example, the watchword has been “self-management”. The local inhabitants have collectively taken over the functions of the exiled police officers. Health care facilities have been established, along with food distribution centres for the poor and homeless. In short, CHAZ has taken on all the attributes of an anarchist “commune” – something not seen (at least not on anything approaching this scale) since the anarchists took over the Spanish city of Barcelona back in the 1930s. (If you want to know what that was like, then read George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”.)

I would be most remiss if I did not also mention the fact that Seattle, itself, has long been a city where progressive ideas and actions have flourished. It was the famous “Battle of Seattle” which, 20 years ago, called a halt to the hitherto unstoppable forces of “free” trade and globalisation. And 80 years before that, the quasi-revolutionary Seattle General Strike, not only struck fear into the capitalists of Washington State, but also into the entire American ruling-class.

The Battle of Seattle, December 1999.

Similar terrors must now be disturbing the sleep of the USA’s present rulers. In the months following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 they had been perturbed, briefly, by the Occupy Movement. The ease with which the Occupy protests were crushed, however, put them off guard. America’s masters allowed their neoliberal ideologues to persuade them that the youth of America had lost all capacity to organise effectively and, accordingly, posed no serious threat to the status quo. Their big mistake was to assume that all American youths were white and college-educated. As we have seen over the course of the past three weeks, there are others.

More worrying still, for America’s rulers, must be the way so many authority figures: mayors, police chiefs, media bosses; have openly expressed their support for the ongoing protest demonstrations and – even worse – indicated their willingness to meet many of their demands. Since Neoliberalism and History don’t really mix, the vast majority of the American ruling-class will be unaware of the ominous historical precedent in which ordinarily reliable defenders of the existing order suddenly embrace the key demands of the revolutionary masses.

On the night of 4 August 1789, the French National Assembly, overwhelmed by the giddy elixirs fermented by the revolution then convulsing the country, voted to abolish the feudal system. The entire edifice of aristocratic privilege came tumbling down in a single night – laid low by the aristocrats themselves.

Watching the Minneapolis City Council vote to disband its own Police Department, or the entire Democratic Party membership of the US House of Representatives “take a knee” in remembrance of George Floyd, indicates just how powerful today’s messages of resistance have grown.

The key question, of course, is: Where will it stop? Or, perhaps, more darkly: Who will stop it? Certainly, President Donald Trump would like to stop all of it immediately. He was quick to insist that the “ugly anarchists” be driven from Seattle’s streets. The rest of the Republican Establishment: Senators, Governors, Mayors; must similarly be asking themselves when the counter-stroke will fall. When will law and order be restored in the streets? When will the revolution gathering pace across America be asphyxiated in a cloud of tear-gas – or worse.

Because there is much, much worse lurking in the shadows of American society than rogue police officers. Those determined to Make America Great Again have a very different utopia in mind from the one taking shape in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle. Such people will be pulling out their well-thumbed copies of the murderous “Turner Diaries” and just waiting for the word to split-open American society like a rotten log. That’s no idle boast, because, as we all know, not only are these Far-Right fanatics extremely dangerous, but they are also fearsomely well-armed.

But, they are not the only men with guns. When the truly serious shit hits the fan it will be the armed forces of the United States that has the final word. Over the course of the past fortnight the world has been heartened to learn how seriously America’s most senior military officers take their oath to “uphold, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States. In the end, however, it is the common soldiery that will have the final say on who they will – and will not – slay.

If they decide to heed their Commander-in-Chief, then the Republic will fall. If they decide to defend the Constitution, then a new birth of freedom can, indeed, be expected in the USA.

In the powerful invocation of Leonard Cohen’s revolutionary anthem, “Democracy”:

Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of state
To the shores of need, past the reefs of greed,
Through the squalls of hate.
Sail on, sail on, sail on.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 16 June 2020.


Jens Meder said...

I still think common sense and centrism will prevail in the U.S.

Nick J said...

I recall as a student in the late 70s a lecturer excitedly recounting to us about the wonderful revolutionary things a fellow called Pol Pot was doing in Cambodia. Utopian projects tend to make fools of their supporters.
I'm in no hurry to excitedly wave a flag for CHAZ, nor the abolition of the police. When you get mugged or robbed, you can't call Ghost Busters and expect action.

My take on this whole outburst of civil unrest is that it demonstrates the corruption of the US body politic against the people. And not just the people rioting. How they respond in this year's election may prove instructive, a Trump victory would likely see the Dem party implode as a pack of scheisters overdue for the dustbin of history. That event in itself would leave the Republicans as the only option for the corporate elites who have hidden behind this two horse facade for too long. That could represent a revolutionary moment as the emperors nakedness would be exposed for all to see. Speculation on my behalf, real events however don't always follow our scripts.

If I were to wager on CHAZ, I'd say Trump will call in the military, seal it off and cut off water, power and food. That way he's not going to be seen as weak or reckless. Doing a Waco won't get him re-elected. Doing anything violent will just play into the Dems hands, and despite all the noise to the contrary for the last 4 years Trump, ignorant and flawed as he is is not stupid.

Is the US going to fracture? My bet is possibly but its proven durable enough to get through a civil war, great depression, civil rights, cold War, assassinations, Vietnam. What's new?

sumsuch said...

Oh, what a rotten log. When you've ignored everyone but the powerful for 40 years. 'Defund the police' is their peculiar way of saying the police aren't the main way of addressing social problems as per those 40 years.

John Hurley said...

That’s no idle boast, because, as we all know, not only are these Far-Right fanatics extremely dangerous, but they are also fearsomely well-armed.
I just heard those sentiments on an Intelligence 2 Podcast. I wondered if "Comrade" Ardern used the mosque shootings as an excuse to buy back firearms?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I'm in no hurry to excitedly wave a flag for CHAZ, nor the abolition of the police."

There is a very basic misunderstanding of what defunding the police actually means – at least to most people. It means taking the money that has gone into the militarisation of the police, buying armoured personnel carriers and other military weapons, and putting it into social services which might actually do something about crime. I don't think anyone but the most extreme is talking about abolishing the police altogether. But if you took an interest in this sort of thing which I do, you'd notice that a number of people have come out and said that in fact in some places in the US the police do more harm than good. Over policing of the black communities contributes to criminality by ensuring that many young men in particular get criminal records for Bullshit minor pot busts, which make it difficult for them to find a job and fit into normal society. And contributes to the inequality of outcomes between them and the white community. In fact it has been admitted that over-policing in black communities is simply a revenue gathering exercise which wouldn't for one minute fly in the white middle-class communities. When I was in the states it was common for people with out-of-state plates or rental car plates to get pinged in speed traps for doing 1 mile an hour over the limit when the speed limit signs were obscured by bushes at the beginning of town. More revenue gathering. Personally I think defunding most US police forces would be an excellent idea.

Unknown said...

Why is this uprising happening now in the United States? Police violence against black people has been the norm ever since Reconstruction ended in the 1860s. Why is it now that so many people, black and white, have declared that they ain't gonna to take no more? My guess is that the pandemic, the consequent economic crisis and 4 years of being governed by Trump and a deeply corrupt and anti-democratic Republican Party have opened people's eyes to the country's slide into a militarised authoritarianism.

The health and economic crises have shown that the country's rulers regard millions of people as disposable assets. They are incapable of generating any sense of common purpose; the events of the last three months have laid bare their moral, intellectual and political bankruptcy.

History has moved reality to the left