A critical look at the role of Left activist groups and reactionary identity politics within the recent rebellion that broke out across New York after the police murder of George Floyd.
Originally published by Its Going Down.
We start this communique with an acknowledgment that struggle is messy and things don’t come about into a perfect formation right away without some work. Despite this, we feel it necessary to put this out here as a response to and critical analysis of the state of autonomous social movements and Left in general, with a particular focus on New York City, the dynamics of which probably took its first root during the 2016 election. All too often, leftists recall events a lot more idealistically than realistically, which is understandable as we’ve been heavily demoralized and burnt out by this capitalist system that robs us of our creativity and agency, and the State that upholds it. However, unless we engage with and see things the way they really are, we’ll never escape it.
The state of the Left in New York is precarious. On one hand, we just went through the biggest uprising the city has seen in decades. On the other hand, the revolt, led by mostly proletarian black youth with no connection to activism, has essentially been gentrified by liberals and the upper class. What used to be uncompromising rebellion in the initial first week has ceded to chants of “no justice no sleep,” “this is what democracy looks like,” protesters kneeling with cops and amateur actors dressing up as militants and taking lead of protests to boost their own careers. Both situations have one thing in common. The typical radical leftists, anarchists, and communist activists were notably absent from both (aside from a few select collectives and organizations which have been consistently involved).
From the moment Donald Trump was elected until now, the resurgent far-Right presented a threat to marginalized communities and leftists. This promoted a resurgence in anti-fascism which was definitely necessary and a step in the right direction. From the shut down of Milo Yiannapolous on the UC Berkeley campus to the brave fighters who faced down the far-Right in Charlottesville, anarchists and other radicals put themselves on the line to combat vicious political enemies and racist murderers. This became somewhat of a dominating trend in anarchist circles: as time went on, every gear shifted to combating the far-Right. Anarchists began being commonly called “antifa,” as if it was a political ideology unto itself.
One problem that arose from this was the trend of careerist journalists making a name for themselves through filming these actions and getting involved in activism specifically for journalistic purposes. Many of these people have gone on to work for mainstream news outlets and magazines while still maintaining a connection to the anarchist community. This led to a wave of antifascist social media personalities and twitter accounts, whose politics were often murky. Suddenly, organizing against the far-Right became more important than organizing against the State; some considered it acceptable to work with the state to identify and arrest fascists, and a sort of “big tent” approach was adopted which encouraged anarchists to unite with liberals, social democrats, and other contradictory forces for the purpose of “drowning out the fascists with numbers.”
This encouraged a watering down of many long held anarchist political lines and an encouragement of bourgeois liberal culture and attitudes. Between 2018-2019, the NYC anarchist movement was in a feud between 2 main factions: those who believed in being uncompromisingly anti-state and anti-capitalist with all that it entails, and emphasizing direct action, anonymity, opposition to mainstream media, and organizing with the working class and the young, and those who believed in the big tent approach of trying to recruit liberals into the movement by appealing to vague commonalities, rejection of direct action for the stated purpose of “making anarchism look less scary,” and promotion of “harm reduction” politics. Many of these people came from bourgeois backgrounds and some of them even started advocating for joining the DSA and voting for social democratic politicians, such as AOC and Bernie Sanders to “push the Overton window left.” All the while, organizing took a backseat and the radical anti-capitalist protests that were common place a few years ago seemed more and more sporadic.
No New Jails and FTP Coalition
In September 2018, a new coalition called No New Jails formed, in opposition to Mayor De Blasio’s plan to close Rikers and in turn construct four new massive jails in New York City. The coalition was politically diverse but focused mostly on putting pressure on elected officials to oppose these new jails. Meanwhile, on September 1st 2019, a new coalition calling themselves the FTP coalition, made up of several NYC collectives (Decolonize this Place, Why Accountability, NYC Shut It Down, and Take Back The Bronx) held the first Fuck The Police (FTP) march in Brooklyn. Sparked by police brutality against black teens on the subway system and a frustration over increasing fares, the march took to the streets of Downtown Brooklyn with no permit, smashed several windows including banks and a recruitment center, and left anti-state graffiti all over nearby subway stations. By their own admission, this action took the NYPD by surprise, as there hadn’t been a radical demonstration like this in some time. FTP 2 was held in Harlem on Nov 23rd, and carried much of the same energy, but also a heightened version of the same problems which were inherent in the first march.
From the get go, organizers and marshals in the November 1st march were intent on dividing the crowd by race, with white people in the back, black people in the front and everyone else in the middle. However, in the weeks preceding, the collectives heavily promoted affinity group formation and direct action through social media. This led to conflict between participants, as marshals hawked orders at comrades who had arrived together in an attempt to split them up. Some comrades of color were assumed to be white by over zealous marshals and told to go to the back. Many comrades resisted these orders and carried out their actions together. Obviously, this is contradictory and counter productive, and sows seeds of disunity in the face of the State.
FTP 2 had similar issues. This time around, the question of why a radical demonstration should include marshals at all was countered by organizers as a form of protection against police. The speeches by organizers were long and dragged out, giving an initially confused NYPD the chance to amass their forces on all sides. Organizers gave speeches harping on identity politics, and in one case, refused to finish their speech until the crowd moved around to their liking and “all white people went to the back.” RevCom, the infamous Bob Avakian cult, protested these orders and complained that they didn’t want to be split from their comrades. Organizers responded by shaming them. But as embarrassing as RevCom is, they had a point. Throughout the day, protest marshals repeated many of the same errors they made in the first march but worse. Multi-racial groups were yelled at to split up, marshals policed each other before realizing they were both marshals, and repeatedly assumed people’s racial identity at point blank and yelled at brown and indigenous comrades who had their faces covered to go to the back as “white allies.”
The march seemed to have no clear direction, resulting in many unnecessary stand-offs at intersections with police and many protesters getting arrested and brutalized. It eventually split into multiple marches, and when one section went over a bridge into the Bronx, youth of color started tagging buildings and real estate signs. Some protesters took it upon themselves to become peace police and decry the “white agitators” and “vandals,” while others stepped in to their defense.
This is the logical conclusion of the structure FTP was using: despite the fact that once again organizers spent weeks heavily promoting images and videos encouraging militant action, their behavior fit into a familiar pattern that most activist groups employ that stifle autonomous action. Furthermore, by the Harlem march, it became unquestionably clear that this coalition’s main political base was the same white activist crowd that they often claimed they didn’t represent. In effect, on the street, it looked like a large mass of white protesters arguing with each other about who goes where, while in Harlem.
FTP 3 was held on January 31st, 2020. The same issues were present as in the last two marches; many people were kettled immediately before the march even started. In the weeks preceding, disputes between various abolitionist groups and coalitions broke out between each other. FTP IV was held on June 4th 2020, and is widely understood to be a failure. We will cover that in the next section.
COVID-19 and the George Floyd Rebellion
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the contradictions of capitalism and the State for all to see. Such a disaster could’ve been completely avoided, and the US proved to be totally incapable of even marginal mitigation efforts. In New York, black and brown communities were the hardest hit, with elderly black folks at the highest risk for death, while gentrifiers fled the city and the remaining hipsters and yuppies held coronavirus parties, and later blamed people who had to remain at work for putting them at risk. The city banned homeless folks from sleeping on the increasingly dangerous subways, and dumped them on the steps of non functioning and overrun homeless shelters. The $1,200 stimulus was widely disparaged and Governor Cuomo refused to institute a rent and mortgage moratorium. The anxiety across the country was high. A powder keg was being filled.
On May 25th, that powder keg met its match. George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis after a convenience store accused him of passing a fake $20 bill. A racist pig kneeled on his neck until he suffocated. In his last words he cried out for his mother who had passed away and said, “I can’t breath.” Eerily similar to the murder of Eric Garner, the video of the incident sent out a revolt the likes of which the country had never seen before.
Spontaneous protests kicked off almost immediately in Minneapolis. Mainstream media journalists and liberal organizers were kicked out. Eventually, a multi-racial crowd of working class people pushed back a squad of cop cars and smashed their windows; the cops were running and the people advancing. The people realized they had power.
It seemed like the whole country had its eyes on Minneapolis. Despite the usual propaganda stories of white agitators, undercover cops and white supremacists/antifa/jihadists being the ones behind the riots, a large portion of people didn’t believe it and were cheering on the black led, multi-racial working class rebellion. We all know what happened in the days proceeding, but when the 3rd precinct went up in flames, things reached a whole new level.
Riots kicked off across the country. Even red states and small Midwestern towns were getting in on it. What started out as a reaction against police murder became a full blown class revolt. Across racial lines, oppressed people stood in solidarity with one another. Glimpses of class consciousness seemed to be forming.
In New York, a protest was called for in Union Square. This would be the first time that the Left mobilized since the pandemic. The protest was fairly rowdy for an NYC demonstration, but it was still mainly the usual crowd of college students, transplants, and middle class mostly white academics. The next day, however, was completely different.
A demonstration was called for Friday May 29th at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The area is a long standing target of gentrification with some surrounding hold out areas. The organizers who called for a 3pm demonstration were fairly liberal, imploring folks not to show up in black bloc because “cops have been observed in that style of dress.” A more radical contingent was called for 6pm, with a flyer stating “Prepare to escalate.” Liberals and NGOs were meeting in Foley Square with a stated goal to keep things “peaceful,” and included astroturf groups, such as Justice League NYC, infamous in the city for repeatedly hijacking demonstrations and snitching on radicals to the mayor’s office, and GMACC, a Crown Heights based group comprised of ex-gang members whose stated goal is to reduce street violence, but also often acts as muscle for the mayor’s office and runs interference for the NYPD at protests in black Brooklyn neighborhoods. They declared their intention to march across the bridge to Brooklyn and join the demonstrations down there. The stage was set.
As 3:00pm approached, the call for liberalism seemed mostly ignored. Many people showed up with their faces covered, comrades in black were already tagging sidewalks and young people climbed the nearby train station and dropped a banner over the ledge. Undercovers were about, but ineffective due to the size of the crowd. The organizers quickly lost control, as the crowd seemed more interested in engaging police than listening to the same old tired speeches. The police were pelted with projectiles and fireworks in front of the Barclays center; the cops were only able to arrest stragglers on the periphery. Shortly after 6, a portion of the crowd started to march down towards Fort Greene Park, a hub of gentrification and bourgeois culture, as radicals and black and brown youth joined together in tagging buildings. Many others stayed at the Barclays center and continued to fight the cops. The energy was exuberant, as rebels worked together to block streets and avoid the cops at intersections. The march went up and down side streets and blocked the roads to prevent police from following, rich people hurled insults and debris from their brownstones, only to have their vehicles vandalized in response. It’s important to note that there was little if any hostility towards residents until they displayed hostility towards the crowd. The march went through Fort Greene park, tagging anti-police slogans and Justice For George Floyd and setting trash cans on fire. Local youth on the streets joined the marchers. Eventually, the window of a gentrifying cop supporting bar was smashed, which caused conflict in the crowd between the rebels and a few undercover peace police, who immediately jumped out to the defense of property and threatened those taking action.
Despite this, they were ineffective, as the young black crowd shouted them down and the rebels kept taking whatever actions they saw appropriate. These kinds of skirmishes continued throughout the day; the radicals (mostly anarchists) and the proletarian forces (mostly youth) were united in action, while peace police, mostly older liberal folks, tried to discourage them with the usual tired lines of, “you’re putting black people in danger!” Or “Hey white man! This isn’t your lane!” Ironically these peace police often called people of color and even other black folks out as “white,” which further de-legitimized them in the eyes of many. In most cases, the 3-4 liberals would leave in frustration at the crowd of many who refused to listen to them. Folks from nearby projects joined and rebuked the peace police’s attempts to sow racial tensions amongst the crowd–one man stating, “Nah it ain’t about that right now! It’s Us vs the police and if you ain’t about that then get the fuck out.” As darkness approached, police vehicles were torched and smashed along with gentrifying condos and 2 precincts were directly attacked. Cops locked down all other precincts in the area, and the mayor declared, “The city never wants to see another night like this again.”
In the next days, similar events played out all around around Brooklyn and eventually reached into lower Manhattan, with the famously ritzy SoHo neighborhood, and mostly gentrified Lower East Side, attacked and looted. The riots reached into Midtown Manhattan, where Park and 5th Avenue were repeatedly attacked. Gucci, Chanel, Michael Kors, Macy’s, Rolex, as well as various yuppie cafes and businesses, banks and police vehicles were vandalized and looted every night, with de-arrests common and cops being powerless to stop it, and often being physically attacked themselves. Fordham Road in the Bronx eventually had their own rebellion. This is highly significant because these famously wealthy districts of Manhattan, with constant heavy police and federal agency presence, have never had these types of events take place. Activists used to joke about riots in Park Avenue as an impossible scenario. Except it was now a reality.
Equally important to note was the notable absence of almost all the typical who’s who of NYC protest culture, even the radical Left. The radicals who did come out were in the minority, but many formerly disillusioned radicals, burnt out by years of NYC’s particularly toxic and drama filled clout chasing activist culture that had reached its peak in recent years, were overjoyed at these events and felt renewed energy. The make up of the crowd at these protests was majority working class black youth, with the rest being working class, mostly young folks of all other races, and in Manhattan, the remnants of the Lower East Side punk community, long affected by gentrification, often joined in.
Class unity had formed, as all these demographics realized their common enemy. Looters and rebels could be commonly seen distributing liberated goods to homeless folks and one another, chatting and laughing with each other, as the sound of breaking glass and falling trash cans repeated in the background, and peace police were almost absent and the few that popped out were ejected from marches, had their recording phones smacked out of their hands, and mainstream media reporters received the same treatment. Frantz Fanon says in Wretched Of The Earth that, “Violence is man recreating himself,” and notes how the cathartic act of violence against the shared true enemy of the masses, the ruling class, the State, and the agents of settler colonialism, is the beginning of the transitional period between capitalist individualism and a collective, community defense based society. Most of the time, the only chant being used was “NYPD suck my dick,” from the first day to the last. Sporadically, other chants, such as “Whose streets? Our streets!” and various slogans about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were also used.
Eventually, an 11pm curfew was implemented, which did little to stop the rioting, but did a lot to galvanize liberal and right wing forces to come out and put a stop to the rebels, who they viewed as “the ones” who instigated the curfew. News agencies gave interviews to liberal protesters, who waxed poetic about how their peaceful demonstrations were destroyed by outside agitators. Local politicians did the same. It’s important to note that these reporters gave particular attention to black liberals, and pushed a heavy line about “listening to black leaders,” and “white agitators.” The curfew was eventually moved to 8pm, and the rebels were mostly absent, replaced by liberals kneeling with and hugging cops, displaying signs promoting the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders and voting, and the ever present “NYPD suck my dick” was replaced by “peaceful protest.” Sporadic groups of 10 or so people would occasionally try to loot a store, but unlike the collective atmosphere of days prior, fights over looted goods were common.
Arguably the final nail in the coffin was the aforementioned FTP IV, called a full week after the initial rebellion, which drew a small crowd and resulted in a kettle and mass arrest. At the time this is being written, NYC protests are being led by actors, models, and Instagram influencers grifting off the movement; a City Hall occupation that initially was sanctioned by the city and led by NGOs is now a contested battle between different factions, as various players threaten each other publicly and release condemnations every hour.
What started as a spontaneous, leaderless black-led class revolt has been thoroughly co-opted by opportunists, many of whom are sanctioned by the State. This includes the radicals who were completely absent from the first week and rode in the wake of what the liberals created for them.
What Can We Learn?
For one thing, activist culture, including radical media and actions, have very little reach outside their own social circles. Their events and actions cater to university students, petty bourgeois folks and academics, have a whole set of language that nobody else uses, and are more interested in policing perfection rather than meeting people where they’re at, or at the other end of the spectrum, rebuking and criticizing everyone else while covering up the oppressive behavior of their friends and social circle. This is not only alienating to people, it’s outright destructive.
What Marx disparagingly called the “lumpen-proletariat,” the unemployed, hustlers, those living month to month on whatever short term work they can find, is the strata of society, which the Panthers noted, has the most revolutionary potential. The participants in the uprising were clearly not from the activist movement–the language in the streets can attest to this fact–and as one would expect, the situation was wildly more fluid, liberatory, and open to people of different backgrounds. While the movement claims to “make space” for people who are marginalized, their behavior actually ensures most people, who should participate, cannot.
At one march from Union Square, comrades reported that the first acts of property damage were done by young black fighters who loudly declared, “This peaceful shit does nothing! Let’s hit em where it hurts! Let’s take their shit!” This was often met with condemnation, and sometimes aggression from liberals, but they were originally beaten back. But as the police, the liberals, the State, and the vast majority of the radical movement became more involved, it became untenable for the real militants to stay in the streets.
In actuality, identity reductionism and weaponization was the most crucial tool pacifying forces had in their pockets and this should prove once and for all how the Left needs to abandon this vapid poisonous politic and speak to reality.
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