Black Lives Matter, Violence & Marxism

George Floyd’s murder in Milwaukee under a policeman’s knee on May 25, 2020, sparked massive and mostly peaceful anti-racism protests worldwide by millions under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Millions poured into the the streets. Across the United States, there were more than 550 marches, rallies and vigils (photos). There were also protests in at least 40 countries beyond the U.S. DW News out of Germany posted this report.

This map posted by NBC News shows where protests had been held as of mid-June.

Source: NBC News

These protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful — but not entirely, which is causing a serious problem. The early protests included break-off contingents that rioted and looted, usually later at night after curfews and after peaceful marchers went home. As the initial wave of protests subsided over the weeks, groups remained that have given events a new character with ongoing violence, looting, harassment and provocations. Most notable is Portland which has seen violence and mayhem practically non-stop since May 25th, almost 130 days.

This violence does not represent the intent and aspirations of the millions who marched after George Floyd, nor the wishes of Floyd’s family, nor the family of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, nor the family of Breonna Taylor in Louisville —
and worse, it sets back the cause of racial justice and equality.

Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC, on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
Image: Clay Banks on Unsplash
Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC, on Saturday, June 6, 2020.
Image: Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Black Lives Matter Attacked as Radical & “Marxist”

Trump has been attacking Black Lives Matter as “radical” and “anarchist” since the Floyd killing. A month ago this tweet was posted to Facebook with a warning that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist organization attacking whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and also LGBT people as this tweet documents. (The person attacked in this case, Brandon Straka, is a Trump supporter who founded #WalkAway, an organization opposing the Democratic Party and liberalism in general.)

Labeling the overall violence and the specific attack on Straka as “Marxist” is factually incorrect, but this is just one way in which the violence is driving misconceptions and setting back the movement. I decided to respond to the Facebook post:

Neither the attack described here nor the violence and looting have anything to do with “Marxism.” If these people are calling themselves Marxists — and I’m not aware they are — they’ve never seriously studied Marx and Marxist theory. Opponents of Black Lives Matter who label all this as Marxism are likewise misusing the term.

It’s the flip side of people labeling things “fascist.” Trump and his administration are often called fascist. They aren’t. Fascism is a specific political formation that doesn’t currently exist.

This violence is caused by a variety of people. Many are probably disaffected middle-class youth calling themselves anarchists who are acting out. Others may be well-meaning but naive and inexperienced people who got sucked to believing this violence is real “politics.” Others are probably people who are more organized and believe in mayhem for mayhem’s sake. And finally, some may be provocateurs, right-wing or government, deliberately provoking violence for its propaganda value to discredit BLM and to set people up for victimization.

None of this represents the millions of people who believe that Black Lives Matter, many of whom marched peacefully in cities across the U.S. and the world in the weeks immediately following George Floyd. 

The genuinely Marxist approach is to build a mass movement of millions from all walks of life — students, workers and farmers of all races, ages, religions, etc. This movement would organize and march peacefully as we saw initially, drawing together the largest numbers possible. Doing so peacefully is essential so that people can feel safe and comfortable joining. This is how the Vietnam War was ended, through sustained peaceful mass mobilization.

Back to the tweet from Brandon Straka… Sadly in addition to the violence, some of these people harbor all manner of regressive ideas and prejudices. The anti-LGBT attack seen here is one example. Something else we’re seeing is a disturbing rise in anti-semitism.

I received a response linking to a New York Post interview from June 2020 featuring a co-founder of ‘Black Lives Matter’ following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. In the interview Patrisse Cullors described herself as a “trained Marxist.” She said “We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories.” Her description struck me as “sort of” odd, so I did a little homework. I found an August 2017 interview in the Los Angeles Times in which Cullors said “I believe in direct action, but nonviolent direct action. And our movement believes in that nonviolent direct action.” She also cited homophobia as an evil in this society to be overcome.

I looked further at Cullor’s website for Black Lives Matter. On the “About” page it states,

“We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

I see nothing in Cullors’ interviews or on her website that advocates or endorses violence, rioting, looting or attacks on LGBT people. These things are happening, certainly, but they have nothing to do with “Marxism” whatever her perception of it may be.

Black Lives Matter is an Organic Movement

Of more immediate importance, the violence has nothing to do with the genuine Black Lives Matter movement as represented by the millions who marched peacefully. Indeed, despite Cullors’ website bearing the name “Black Lives Matter,” there is in fact no established national organization with a designated leadership and program. Black Lives Matter is an organic movement in which the protest actions have been locally organized and largely spontaneous. Those who riot are acting ad hoc and represent only themselves.

Ant-Semitism: A Festering Poison on Both Sides

While we’re discussing the problem of violence and looting, there’s another issue that needs to be addressed: anti-Semitism. This is a festering poison that’s appearing on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum.

On the Left. The kind of undisciplined and ungrounded politics that lead to violence also harbor all manner of scapegoating and conspiracy thinking. As we’ve seen too often, Jews are increasingly a target these days. Anti-Semitism does incalculable damage. And it’s not just at the fringes. Too often it pops up in the mainstream.

Pictured here are two examples of virulent anti-Semitic tweets from seemingly “respectable” sources. On the left is a tweet posted in June by rapper, actor and filmmaker Ice Cube. On the right is a tweet from actor, producer and screenwriter John Cusack. Cusack later apologized, but how did he think it was OK in the first place?

Anti-Semitism is a classic tool used by those seeking to divide workers from one another, and to divide one oppressed group from another oppressed group. Tweets like these, and the thinking behind them, have no place in the Black Lives Matter movement — or anywhere else. It can rot a movement from within.

On the Right. The right-wing has no compunction against employing anti-Semitism against working people. This month I saw a video posted to Facebook making the case that “Zionist Communists” are controlling Chief Justice John Roberts, supposedly explaining recent rulings that the right-wing thinks are too liberal. One key ruling this summer was a major advance for the rights of LGBT people — and I suppose they worry about rulings that might benefit the Black community.

The Way Forward

What millions envision is a movement like we see below. This picture shows a veritable sea of people marching across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on Sunday, May 31, 2020. They were demanding “No Bail!” for Derek Chauvin, the police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Thousands march across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on Sunday, May 31, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Travis Underwood

Several important articles have appeared this past month in The Militant, a socialist — that is, Marxist — newsweekly that’s been published since 1928.

The first article from the issue dated September 7 discussed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr., in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the protests afterward which included rioting.

Despite their son being shot seven times in the back at near point-blank range, and now paralyzed from the waist down, Blake’s parents were deeply upset by the destruction following the shooting.

Screen shot from BBC

Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, said “As I was riding through here, through this city, I noticed a lot of damage that doesn’t reflect my son or my family. If Jacob knew what was going on as far as that goes, the violence and destruction, he would be very unpleased.”

Naomi Craine, the Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois, drove to Kenosha to participate in the protests and talk with workers there. She said,

“I don’t think this [the burning] is the protesters. It’s opportunists. Why do they burn down the neighborhood? The people who live here don’t own anything. They need education, good jobs. It’s not like when Martin Luther King was marching and people stuck together.

“We need to build a disciplined mass movement like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The breadth of the response to the killing of George Floyd and the recent labor strikes over wages and working conditions, like the 63-day strike by shipbuilders in Bath, Maine, show the potential to build such a movement. That would make growing numbers of working people feel comfortable to join our actions and push aside the small minority that want confrontational violence against police, wanton destruction and looting.”

The Militant issue dated September 21 presented clear renunciation of the violence as a threat not only to the cause of Black rights but to all working people of all races, creeds and colors.

The Militant, September 21, 2020

Quoting from the article,

“As they glorify violence, the embittered middle-class forces of antifa rail against ‘the elite,’ elevate small group action above political struggle and remain deeply alienated from the working class. They have much in common with fascist groups they claim to oppose. Others have traveled this road previously, like Italian Socialist Party leader Benito Mussolini who went on to lead fascist forces to power in 1922…

“The furthest thing from the minds of people like this is mobilizing working people to fight together for what we most need — jobs, unemployment relief, better wages and improved working conditions…

“The violence and thuggery practiced by antifa and Black Lives Matter is the opposite of the broad, inclusive mobilizations that were organized in late May, largely by young people in thousands of towns large and small across the country in response to police brutality.

“Other fights are unfolding today. Families who have lost loved ones to cop violence haven’t given up pressing to get the cops prosecuted. Unionists are standing up to bosses’ incessant attacks on wages and jobs, like striking retail workers at Dominion stores in Newfoundland. Such struggles merit solidarity and point a way forward for building the fighting labor movement we need.

“It is in the course of these fights and broader struggles in the years ahead working people will learn how to defend ourselves in disciplined ways from assaults by the bosses and cops who protect their rule. And we will see more clearly the middle-class character and dangerous anti-working-class course of antifa and the Black Lives Matter leadership.”

I differ with the Militant assessment only to the extent that I’m not willing to lump all ‘Black Lives Matter’ in with antifa and the rioters. I still stand by the slogan and believe/hope the millions who marched under that banner after George Floyd represent the real Black Lives Matter movement. But ultimately it’s just a slogan. Under whatever name, the real fight is for full justice and equality for all Blacks and minorities in the United States and throughout the world.

Title image: Clay Banks on Unsplash

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One thought on “Black Lives Matter, Violence & Marxism

  1. I think this article is very good. I think the Militant choses to stress BLM and Antifa by name because in many cases the thugs utilize those names. Interestingly, and relevantly, I recently was at a local anti-police brutality protest around a Latino killed and the protest was nonviolent and positive–while a little narrower than I would like, and no mention was made of BLM one way or the other. But people called for “defund the police” and such. My point is, I think things are slowing down because of the reformism and ultra-leftism (not to mention thuggery and acts of destruction that have nothing to do with Marxism or mass movements) and it may be that the next wave of advances will take some other form. I may be wrong and BLM may open up space for mass action but, if not, BLM, may be a label that has passed its prime (although the concept of the importance of Black lives remains.)

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