The answer was in the crowds

This summer's antiracist protests highlighted a crucial source of power and ideas.

Hello friends,

This edition of the newsletter has a 3 to 4 minute read time.

One item: Notes on why this summer’s protests should not be forgotten as we enter the next chapter of this political era.


Elsewhere:

  • My NBC News article on how older Black voters are playing a pivotal role in the Biden coalition. It’s a straight news piece so it’s not voicey, but I learned a ton and the interviews were just extraordinarily fun and interesting. I’m also very intrigued by the shift of younger Black voters toward Trump.

  • On Sunday I appeared on the podcast “Give Them An Argument With Ben Burgis,” which I believe you can find anywhere you find podcasts (Spotify, Apple, etc.) and also in video format on YouTube. The panel I’m on with Rolling Stone’s Katie Halper, Jacobin’s Luke Savage, and Majority Report’s Matt Lech starts at 24:30. We start off talking about my recent op-ed in the Times and the issue of how the left should think about voting, and go on to discuss topics like what a potential Biden presidency might look like.


The answer was in the crowds

Some days I will reach a point in the afternoon where my mind is incapable of sitting still and my body is aching from stillness, and the only way to remedy it is to put on a mask, step out of my apartment and walk until I find somewhere quiet or interesting. One Friday afternoon in June when I had this itch I bolted out the door and walked along Eastern Parkway under a big and bright sun.

I spotted a large crowd at Grand Army Plaza, under an arch dedicated to the Union Army. Every single person in the crowd was wearing a mask, and most kept some distance from others. (On my way to the plaza, maybe 7 out of 10 people were wearing masks, and an unmasked runner grazed my shoulder.) People were handing out free sandwiches, free water, free masks and free hand sanitizer. On the outer rings, people of all colors milled about, chatting, sharing pamphlets. On the inside, the crowd throbbed to the rhythm of a drum circle.

A tall man held a large placard with nothing but a photo of Breonna Taylor on one side and a photo of George Floyd on the other, which he methodically swung every 10 seconds. As people danced through rage and joy around the sign, my throat constricted and I cried. People tooled around with their bikes, talked about marches and police, and shouted slogans calling for justice and equality. An older white man cycled by with a t-shirt which had “I follow black leaders” hand-written across its front. Signs with grievances and demands about prisons, schools and health care dotted the crowd.

To call the gathering a protest or a rally would be a shallow rendering of the event. It was a funeral, and a festival. It was a laboratory of democracy — a place for deliberating over ideas about what our society looks like, and what it should look like. Moreover, it was a microcosm of social democracy, with citizens using mutual aid to provide food and personal protective equipment to the community for free. (I’m sure the People’s Bodega was somewhere nearby.) It was also an experiment in defining public safety — at this point in the pandemic, it was unclear exactly how risky it was to march in masks — but participants were as diligent as possible about minimizing transmission while pushing for safety from a police state, creeping authoritarianism and unvarnished white nationalism. (We now know the protests as conducted were probably low-risk and not associated with upticks.)

Since the pandemic began, I’ve not witnessed anything that compares to those gatherings in their bold experimentalism and attempt to provide a communitarian answer to the crises before us.

On any given day of our lockdown era, I’ve not been quite sure that the world is real. Most everything novel about the world comes flattened and pixelated on a screen; I have such a small radius of movement that I am unable to confirm that I’m not the subject of a Truman Show experiment. In the news, current events are transpiring, but in my apartment it’s not particularly clear what separates yesterday from tomorrow. Yet that day in the crowd, I was out of my head and in my body, and I was certain of the lives of others and the matters that concerned them.

The racial justice protests that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder have largely died out, but they should remain with us, both in real life and also in our hearts as we navigate what could be an extremely volatile post-election period, and as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rock this nation to its core. They were not just inspirational and culturally influential — they were packed with democratic vitality, and modeled potential futures in a more compelling manner than what Republicans or mainstream Democrats have presented so far.

The energy of an antiracist radical left protest movement will be needed regardless of how the election turns out. If Trump wins reelection, massive mobilizations will undoubtedly be needed to mount a resistance to the second stage of Trump’s reactionary agenda (…and in the process, progressives will traverse new frontiers in activist burnout).

If Biden wins, these protests could be more powerful, particularly if they expand to grapple more explicitly with questions of health and economic life. As I’ve written before, the common belief among liberals that Anthony Fauci is one of the great rebels of the Trump era has deferred many of the huge, complex questions about what the government owes the public in this crisis beyond providing public health guidance and overseeing a vaccine rollout. There’s only so much refuge we can take in expertise — scientists and doctors can help address how the virus affects people, but a much broader set of thinkers and the public are needed to discuss how the virus affects society.

Should we revisit the idea of economic rights in America? How much economic relief should the public get, and how frequently? What kinds of businesses deserve support and how should they get it? How should we balance freedom of commerce against freedom from illness? When will the barbarism of private health insurance end? Will we do anything to reverse the swiftly widening achievement gap in schooling under Covid? How will the poor survive a slow recovery? The Democratic Party establishment does not provide a serious forum for these questions.

A Biden White House is likely to be far more effective and certainly more humane in its approach to the pandemic and our economic challenges than Trump’s has been. But there’s no reason to have faith it will be close to adequate without outside pressure. The last time Biden was in the middle of managing a response to a major economic crisis, he and Obama sided with banks over struggling homeowners, and plainly chose preserving the status quo over reorganizing the financial sector or consumer protection. Worryingly, the head of Biden’s current transition team has been trotting out economically illiterate warnings about deficit spending, an outlook that could spell the end of ambitious stimulus packages. And Biden has declined to signal whether he’d expand the Supreme Court, a precondition for protecting and passing any serious progressive legislation.

I have written critically in the past about the limitations of horizontally arranged protest movements which are overly reliant on trending hashtags and lack organizational structure for long-term durability. Those critiques remain. But the power of fierce protests cannot be underestimated, and a still-nascent radical left will need them to express power. Organizations on the left must strive to keep a public presence and keep in mind the very real way that formations like Occupy and the post-Floyd protests really did change, even if only for a moment, what people felt was possible.

Of course there are outcomes other than a clear Biden or Trump victory — Trump and the GOP could blatantly try to steal the election through lawfare and their assault on mail ballots, throwing the legitimacy of fundamental state institutions into question. In that case the protests will be absolutely essential for defending what little semblance of democracy we have left.

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