Tuesday Sep 22

Back Story: Fueling the Fire of Protest

What happened? Three and a half years of Trump shaking the can, and all of a sudden BOOM The lid came off, and the stuff hit the fan everywhere. Was that it?

Maybe, that’s part of it, but this fire has been banked, but never put out. There’s a body count that is ignited by police forces in cities, big and small, all over the country. There’s a litany of victims and a catalogue of incidents where police and race come together and are always combustible. George Floyd was simply the latest, and thanks to the courage and technical dexterity of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier and her cellphone camera, the evidence was incontrovertible. There was no room for the usual cop talk, my-word-against-your-word, he-say-she-say. No need for fast-talking lawyers in this case. Backwoods, country juries aren’t going to help any uniform this time.

But, why now, and what next?

The community and, frankly, all of us were at a tipping point. Forty million workers were unemployed, angry, and weren’t going to take any more of this. When people saw the video and got the word, people hit the streets and stood up for Black Lives Matter all over the country. Add that to the fact that millions for the first time in the country’s history are being paid to be unemployed, and in many cases, better than what they made while working, which meant there was literally a “reserve army of the unemployed,” but this time it was not in reserve for jobs and lower wages, but ready to stand up, hit the streets, and demand change. It wasn’t everybody, but it was enough bodies to make a difference.

Sure, Trump helped fuel the fire. Not just in the way he overstepped in clearing out peaceful protests with strong-arm tactics, teargas, and helicopters for his phony, hypocritical photo-op at the church, although that moved more of the public against him, but because it was clear that he was scared, he was hiding, and we had him on his back foot and on the run. There was blood in the water and all of us could see it. We could smell his fear, and it was sweet on the streets.

Credit to where credit is due, the police fueled the fire. In most cases, they couldn’t look and listen now as the country erupted, but defaulted into their usual crouch where they see the citizens as part of the vast enemy, and they are the occupation force. They couldn’t seem to help themselves and doubled down in city after city, triggering more protests and creating the framing for local issues and local campaigns around their brutality and abuse, which is precisely what a social movement requires to go national, and perhaps grow globally.

Ironically, we weren’t winning on the demands for the police, as much as we were winning on the undeniability of police discrimination and the fact that it was a manifestation of systemic racism. Corporations tried to hide behind money with donations for this and that. Apologies from the high and mighty grew like weeds in a vacant lot. Brands went belly up. Judges admitted that their courts were racist. Trump’s calls to shoot and kill backfired even with many Republicans and conservatives. Newspaper and media poohbahs found their pens were swords that they could fall on, as they mis-stepped or were forced, like so many others, to be accountable for their practices. It was a small terror after a mini-revolution, but it has been a partial cleansing with much, much more to come in the reckoning.

Is this a moment or a movement? Who knows, who cares? It is powerful now and changes are happening, so it’s time to make the most of it. One reason to believe, whatever this might be, that there will be many more moments like this is that many police departments holed up in their militarized bunkers, tragically, won’t be able to change without deep and comprehensive reforms. They have proven that as a bureaucracy they are not able to weed out bad apples from the good. Mayors in this pandemic depression will find the bloated police budgets too inviting not to cut, especially since police departments have grabbed more tax revenue from cities even as crime rates have been plummeting across the country.

Even more tragically, the police are armed and dangerous, and until they are stopped, they will keep killing unarmed people, especially minorities, for trivial offenses. We have already seen this since Minneapolis in Atlanta and elsewhere. Families will cry for justice. In the future, we now know we must all respond quickly to win what is right and just.

These moments will add up, as fires of rage are fueled and explode in one city or town after another. Looking back, it will seem like a movement, but these are moments to savor, join, and support. Later we’ll learn what to call them.

WADE RATHKE is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU).

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