Header image of Washington police flooding downtown Seattle with teargas, credit to The Stranger digital editor Chase Burns.
The recent wave of police crackdowns across the United States was not an anomaly, but a culmination. A police apparatus that has engaged in open abuses and an unrelenting rhythm of highly publicized vigilante murder acted with predictable brutality in the face of nationwide protests against the same. This state violence in response to widespread demonstrations and civil discontent was a wholly logical outcome of America’s increasingly militarized, insular, and unaccountable law enforcement and security apparatus. Amidst a pandemic and growing unrest - both against hostile policing as well as the ineptitude of our federal government to mobilize even the most rudimentary support for its citizenry - the American state has made demonstrably clear the only capacities it is intent on funding and deploying with any efficacy is violent suppression.
What we’ve witnessed this past month amounted to an historical nexus, one at which various dysfunctions coalesced into a paroxysm of state-sponsored crackdown that appears poised to become the singular response to both popular mobilization and the fallout from mounting crises that are liable to emerge as the new century unfolds. A government that has defunded the public commons and proven unable to care for a desperate populace has fallen back on executing the only capacities it has supported and developed over the intervening decades - and appears poised to do so in an expanding purview beyond the marginalized communities it has primarily targeted.
The Uprising and the Truncheon
The singular defining feature of police response to the recent wave of U.S. protests has been indiscriminate force against overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrations, a brutality that has been both preemptive and universal.
The ignition point began on May 25, 2020 when four Minneapolis police officers lynched George Floyd, a 46 year-old black resident of the Twin Cities and father to a six-year old child. The police killing, a slow suffocation in which one of the officers deliberately crushed George Floyd’s windpipe as he begged for mercy, was caught on camera and widely circulated. The alleged reason for George Floyd’s apprehension and murder were suspicions he attempted to use a counterfeit $20, with the MPD sending the message that the life of a black man in America is worth less than the price of two matinee tickets.
The murder of George Floyd was such a deliberate evil that not even the flimsy excuses used to shield U.S. police from accountability could assuage the near-universal public outrage. Right-wing commentators who are usually deferential if not outright reverent towards America’s police appeared genuinely appalled. Protestors demanding the officers be apprehended and brought to trial assembled near Minneapolis’ Third Precinct, only to be met with an immediate barrage of rubber bullets and teargas at the hands of local police. Except rather than surrender demands for the most rudimentary justice process in the face of suppressive force, the demonstrators responded by overrunning and burning down the precinct in defiance.
By the evening of Wednesday May 27, protests began springing up across the U.S. in response to other racist killings, including demonstrations in Louisville, KY and Brunswick, GA over the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery respectively. By Friday May 29, sizable protests had assembled across all of America’s major cities concordant to simultaneous demonstrations throughout a range of smaller towns across the continental United States.
The retaliation from local police against these demonstrations has been shockingly violent, with English-language social media flooded with records of U.S. police assaulting protestors engaged in nonviolent assembly and preemptively firing on demonstrators with teargas and rubber bullets. These have been coupled with a cavalcade of police officers beating protestors or restraining them before attacking them with riot shields, fists, and batons. Recordings have emerged of police officers arresting U.S. citizens even before the imposed curfews, as well as attacking city residents who weren’t engaged in protest but had the sheer misfortune of being caught outside after the abruptly ordered curfew hours.
The waves of violence unleashed by U.S. police have been overwhelmingly unprovoked and executed without warning. Minneapolis police were recorded marching en masse down a residential neighborhood and screaming at those on their front porches to scurry inside before volleying paint canisters at anyone who didn’t hide in their homes quickly enough. The rampant targeting of protestors with rubber bullets and teargas rounds has left behind skull fractures, cranial trauma, and eye damage, with bleeding and gouged sockets standing as one of the most emblematic images of police violence from this past week.
Journalists and elected U.S. representatives who have joined the demonstrations have also been assaulted by police forces, even after news crews have identified themselves as such. Reporters from outside the U.S. were attacked as well, with Australia’s foreign minister now in the process of opening an investigation against Washington, DC police who assaulted an Aussie news crew even after having declared themselves to be journalists.
There have also been reports of U.S. police destroying medical stations set up amidst the protests, ensuring those they attack aren’t able to receive basic aid in the aftermath. Protestors taken into holding have been thrown into deliberately cramped quarters after their masks have been removed, and police have made use of zipties and stress positions that can leave permanent nerve damage. Efforts to intimidate without physical violence have been rampant as well, with police caught on camera rolling through the placid suburb of Walnut Creek, CA in armored vehicles and directly threatening to kill protestors who offered the slightest intransigence.
Let alone the most infamous and shocking acts of police violence that have received widespread coverage, such as officers assaulting an elderly man who was walking with a cane and striking another elderly man to the ground who - after being knocked unconscious as blood pooled under his cracked skull - police refused to assist despite the obvious severity of his wounds.
Police violence against protestors has included the constant use of tear gas - a polite euphemism for a chemical agent that causes suffocation and burns the lungs. Not only is the use of teargas banned in war, but Congress voted overwhelmingly to prohibit the sale of U.S.-made teargas to Hong Kong police during the territory’s 2019 protests. Public outrage against the deployment of a chemical agent against civilian populations have been met by pledges to stop their usage in major cities like Seattle, WA, promises that were broken within mere hours as images emerged of police flooding the streets with tear gas.
The sudden and jarring deployment of mass police violence appeared intended partly to shock, an overt demonstration that the force of America’s police apparatus can be deployed suddenly, comprehensively, and without restraint. Viewed as a cycle, its periodic cessation amounted to an implicit attempt to invoke gratitude and acquiescence after the trauma of its initial deployment. In execution, it hewed close to the pathology of an abusive spouse who inculcates fear of their unexpected rages and cowed gratitude at their disappearance. If you find this metaphor hackneyed, consider the disproportionate number of U.S. police who are reported for domestic violence. This is not an unfamiliar cycle among American law enforcement.
In light of the malicious violence displayed by U.S. police, the clear attempts to blind and maim protestors appear in no way random or accidental, but were inflicted in part for their intimidation value - as these assaults have left memoriam of gouged eye sockets and bleeding demonstrators even after the initial waves of police aggression deescalated. These were reminders to the U.S. populace - particularly black protestors and those who defy a regime of white supremacist policing - that the violence of America’s police apparatus is absolute even amidst calls for its cessation.
While this deployment of state violence was instantaneous, the structure and institutions under which this was executed have long been in gestation. These police crackdowns were merely a nationwide execution of what had previously been restricted to the localized suppression against demonstrations held in Ferguson and Baltimore. The more this response is tolerated as acceptable and implemented as routine, the more deeply ingrained and widespread it will become as a matter of state policy in response to public dissent.
Origins of the Police State
This rapid mobilization of state-sponsored violence against U.S. citizens sprung from a history of unanimous support from both wings of the American two-party system, a persistent enabling that has allowed militarized policing to become an ingrained default of our law enforcement apparatus. A bipartisan regime of legislation designed to support both the declared war on drugs and expansion of the U.S. domestic security apparatus in the wake of September 11, 2001 has culminated in military equipment and counterinsurgency tactics being turned on U.S. citizens within the homeland itself.
Foundational among these was a 1994 law authorizing the Department of Defense to donate surplus military equipment to local police departments, which was followed by a subsequent 1997 law that increased this rate of transfer. The consequences were profound even before passing of secondary legislation - a 2000 National Journal report estimated that by 1997, the Pentagon had funneled 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armored personnel carriers to civilian police agencies across the United States.
The arming of domestic police departments with weapons designed for foreign battlefields was accompanied by a highly aggressive expansion in the training and deployment of SWAT teams. As charted by criminologist Peter Kraska, the amount of U.S. cities with populations of less than 50,000 residents who had at least one SWAT team doubled between 1984-85 and 1997. Incentives to deploy SWAT teams as a result of federal anti-drug grants and asset forfeiture policies caused SWAT deployments to rise from 3,000 annually in the early 1980s to 40,000 by 2001 - an exponential increase within the span of two decades.
This militarization would continue into the post-9/11 era with the passage of the PATRIOT Act by a 98-1 Senate margin, which included legislation that further weakened the Fourth Amendment and granted American police license to break into domiciles and apprehend suspects without a stated warrant. Breonna Taylor herself was murdered by police on March 12, 2020 after police attempted to execute a “no-knock” warrant that allowed them to enter her residence sans warning. Police culture across the United States, already militarized following the bipartisan “tough on crime” spree of the 1980s and 1990s, would further transform to view the American public as enemy combatants rather than citizens to whom they are foremost accountable. Unsurprisingly, this militarized aggression was inflicted disproportionately against black Americans who have long endured terror at the hands of U.S. law enforcement.
This militarization of American law enforcement has occurred alongside a parallel shift in police training toward an indoctrination that emphasizes a paranoid, hostile attitude towards the American public. Few ideologues have been as simultaneously influential and emblematic as David Grossman, a retired U.S. Army Ranger who - despite never having taken another life during his time in the service - has been a tireless advocate of training U.S. police to see themselves as pitiless avengers facing down a menacing world that can only be kept in check by their willingness to kill.
Grossman touts himself as an expert on a field he has imaginatively dubbed “killology”, or the psychology of violence and murder. The central message of Grossman’s training and advocacy is that U.S. police must desensitize themselves to the possibility of death and overcome any compunctions towards the act of killing. In Grossman’s rendering, American society is divided between the mass of citizenry he dubs helpless “sheep”, criminal threats categorized as predatory “wolves”, and police “sheepdogs” whose mission is to execute any perceived menace without hesitation.
Grossman’s seminar tours combine a paranoiac vision of American society with inculcation that law enforcement is essential to the post-9/11 security state. Central to Grossman’s mission are sermons about a future America rife with great and unknowable menace, including terrorists funneling suicide bombers across the Mexico border and the inevitability that ISIS will attempt to detonate a nuclear bomb within the United States. This everpresence of looming, unknowable threats can only be neutralized by what Grossman euphemizes as “superior violence”. Grossman’s lectures are also shot through with dark warnings about “gangbangers” who he claims are focused on a singular mission to execute as many police as possible.
This obvious racial coding, mixed with commands that police must be ready to gun down any perceived threat before they can kill first, is an ideal primer for pitilessly murdering black men. In a foreshadow to George Floyd’s murder in the Twin Cities four years later, one of Grossman’s seminar attendees would go on to murder Philando Castille in St. Paul’s Falcon Heights neighborhood in 2016.
The transformation of America’s police forces into authoritarian structures continues to deepen, and has received ongoing reinforcement from America’s ruling party in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Since landing in the White House, Trump has embarked on a persistent campaign to incur the loyalty of U.S. police while further encouraging them to treat civilians with unrestrained violence. Notable among these inculcations was an infamous 2017 speech Trump delivered before the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) that included an endorsement of inflicting cranial trauma on apprehended suspects.
Similarly noteworthy was the backing Trump received from the nearly 350,000-member strong FOP amidst the 2016 election, with the organization’s accompanying statement lauding Trump for his alleged commitment to “[making] America safe again” - a fundamentally bizarre claim in light of the ongoing decline in violent crime across America. Rather than abiding by an essential focus on serving the public good, the FOP seemed to be commending Trump’s support for unaccountable police violence.
Predictably, Donald Trump has responded to ongoing demonstrations against police brutality by attempting to claim their participants represent a mounting criminal menace while making overt demands for both law enforcement and the U.S. armed forces to forcefully suppress them. These calls for crackdowns on public assembly have been echoed by his most prominent backers, some of whom have openly advocated for an expansion in the use of violence against U.S. citizens. This even included assent from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who parroted Trump's threats to deploy the national guard while asserting they need to "dominate the battlespace" - directly casting anti-racism demonstrators as enemy combatants.
Despite claiming an intent to dispatch the military only against those he deems a menace to private property, Donald Trump has made concerted efforts to broadly demonize protestors. Following a well-publicized instance in Buffalo, NY where law enforcement struck a 75 year-old man to the ground, Trump made the bizarre claim that the brutalized elder was actually an anti-fascist “provocateur” who essentially deserved to be the target of police violence. This lie has dovetailed with Trump’s ongoing attempts to claim the nationwide protests are infiltrated by “antifa” - shorthand for anti-fascist activists whose primary focus rests on confronting right-wing groups in the streets and outing members of neo-nazi cells, but who have nevertheless taken on an outsized role in the right-wing imagination as an everpresent menace.
Donald Trump’s hysterical claims about “antifa” infiltration of U.S. protests and assertions they represent its bulwark were a blatant attempt to legitimize crackdown on dissent, an effort made particularly overt by his clamoring for “antifa” to be declared a terrorist group. This was not an entirely unsavvy gambit for an aspiring despot, particularly since every move towards fascism and authoritarianism across the human timeline has been instigated under pretenses of public safety and national security. As has been noted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies - a center-leaning fixture within Washington, DC’s research sphere - antifa is often used as a catchall term for more radical and confrontational left-wing activists. Claims they represent some tightly coordinated nationwide insurgency are nonsense.
Though whether or not Trump’s claims hold up under the barest scrutiny, the message was clear - violence against demonstrators is legitimate, justified, and necessary.
Less scattered but more disconcerting was Alabama Senator Tom Cotton’s agitation to kill anyone he deemed inadequately docile in their protest. On June 1st, Cotton posted a statement on his Twitter account calling for the federal government to dispatch the U.S. military to major cities and show “no quarter” against “rioters”. For those unaware, no quarter is a military policy of wholesale killing enemy combatants while summarily executing those who are captured or attempt to surrender. A posture of no quarter against enemy combatants is considered a war crime under the 1907 Hague Convention, and inflicting no quarter against civilians is what’s more commonly known as a “massacre”.
This followed on the heels of an earlier statement posted on Cotton’s Twitter account that “anarchy, rioting” was a result of “Antifa terrorists”, yet another attempt to wholesale demonize protestors and accuse them of belonging to an organized terror network. Even at the most generous interpretation, Cotton’s statements amount to a demand that the damage of inanimate property be met with slaughter.
Both Donald Trump and Tom Cotton’s calls to treat demonstrators as enemy combatants and effective non-citizens represents an expansion of those deemed worthy of violence and rendition under America’s purview. The terror of America’s law enforcement apparatus, once largely confined to black citizens and undocumented migrants, was unleashed with indiscriminate force as members of our ruling party crowed for even greater brutality.
The GOP’s fascist screaming has been matched by predictable fecklessness from the Democratic Party, who have combined empty gestures with indications they intend to do everything within their power to blunt substantial changes to the structure of American law enforcement.
Having minimized public appearances since the outbreak of COVID-19, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden emerged to make recommendations in the wake of protest crackdowns that police fire at an unarmed assailant’s limbs rather than shoot them through the heart, which might be the neatest possible encapsulation of the institutional Democrats’ relationship to the GOP and state violence. This was a particularly bizarre statement considering it had just been made demonstrably clear on a national stage that American police have a rather expansive definition of who constitutes a personal threat. In the wake of a growing protest movement against police brutality that was being met with widespread suppression and violence, Joe Biden’s instinct was to recommend police simply attempt to maim rather than kill.
While less overtly graceless than Joe Biden’s remarks, Washington, DC mayor Muriel Bowser gave her permission to have “Black Lives Matter” spray painted across DC’s 16th Street mere weeks after she endorsed former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg as Democratic presidential nominee, the man responsible for implementing a regime of police intimidation throughout America’s most populous city under his notorious stop-and-frisk policy. And while the mayor of a rapidly gentrifying metropolis handing an apparent blessing to pro-BLM demonstrations may have been soothing in the wake of violently suppressed protest, Muriel Bowser’s gesture amounted to a classic display of optics lacking accompanying policy substance.
Policy recommendations that have come forth from Democratic leadership appear designed to placate widespread anger without offering genuine deconstruction of America’s violent and dysfunctional law enforcement state. In early June, a spokesman for the Biden campaign immediately lunged to shoot down calls to defund law enforcement in the wake of this nationwide spasm of police violence. The justifications followed a twofold approach - claims that Democrat power brokers “understood” popular anger and discontent were coupled with patronizing lectures that removing the police’s ability to engage in nationwide repression was politically unfeasible. While Democrat leadership has long given consent to the massive, ongoing funding and structural overhauls necessary to twist America’s police forces into a militarized apparatus, they’ve broadcasted disingenuous assertions that dismantling what they’ve helped create is somehow impossible.
Calls to defund law enforcement - which is to say redirect public finances away from militarized policing and towards more sensible, less homicidal forms of community development - have also been met with implicit threats from police unions who claim that anything other than total acceptance of state violence will lead to rampant criminality. This abides by the essentially fascist trope of the dark and unknowable outsider who would inflict terror and societal degeneration were it not for the everpresent threat of authoritarian brutality. Unsurprisingly, police unions are fanatical advocates of siphoning public finance towards entrenching their power at the expense of building and upholding a more constructive state.
Institutional Republicans and Democrats do not have an oppositional posture towards state violence, but instead act as co-enablers to perpetuate impressions of its legitimacy. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, their relationship hews much closer to that of the good cop/bad cop partnership where one wing of America’s two-party system leans on the most overt expressions of authoritarianism and violence while its corresponding half strikes a more conciliatory posture in service of preserving those same institutions.
The aversion of prominent Democrats to dismantling America’s brutal police and carceral apparatus is merely a logical extension of their role in its creation, with Joe Biden himself adamantly opposed to recognizing his own substantial culpability. When Biden appeared on the popular Breakfast Club radio program three days before the murder of George Floyd and host Charlamagne tha God asked him direct questions about his role in the escalation of aggressive policing and mass incarceration against black Americans, Biden’s response was to effectively talk over him and tell him to know his place - in addition to flagrantly lying about his forefront role in the most brutal excesses of the 1994 crime bill. The optics were terrible, but there was an essential self-revelation in Biden’s response.
One of the likely compounding factors in the intensity of nationwide protests and demands for action is how utterly bleak America’s electoral horizons have become within the arbitrary confines of our two-party system. The alternative to Trump’s reelection is a Strom Thurmond apologist who becomes contemptuous at honest questions about his known stake in the development of America’s brutal carceral state while slapping aside inquiries about the concrete steps his administration would take to meet the political needs of black Americans.
Yet the ineptitude of America’s presumed opposition party is a mere symptom of a declining empire that is buckling under the weight of its own political decay, leaving behind a deepening authoritarianism as the only response to self-induced precarity and systemic dysfunction.
State Failure and Imperial Collapse
When taken in isolation, the various upheavals unleashed by COVID-19 can appear jarring or fundamentally senseless - simply products of the epidemic as a world-historical event unto itself. Yet the precarity witnessed across the United States has been especially pronounced in large part due to years of policy choices that have resulted in America’s transformation into a failing state, the consequences of which are slated to produce deepening inequality and authoritarianism. We are now watching the culmination of decades of austerity, structural neglect, police militarization, and imperial overextension play out in a self-reinforcing cycle that could lead directly into an era of incipient fascism.
While the efficacy of response to COVID-19 has varied between nations, the United States has proven uniquely incapable of both deploying an adequate public health response as well as providing support for its citizens who have lost their jobs or experienced unexpected precarity amidst the crisis. The most substantial mobilization of state resources since the epidemic broke have abided by twofold priorities - servility towards the owners of capital and the aforementioned nationwide suppression of civil protest.
The CARES Act - the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed into law on March 27 - which was touted as providing financial relief across all strata of American society, was criticized by economist Matt Stoller as poised to further concentrate the power of large corporations and de facto monopolies. As Stoller outlined, provisions within the bill that provide cash injections to especially wealthy firms would allow them to buy up market share from smaller businesses that close amidst the epidemic - leading to an even greater aggregation of capital within an increasingly small cadre of ownership. In effect, the CARES Act has redirected an unprecedented allocation of public finances directly into the hands of private capital without any corresponding legislation - such as a wealth tax - to ensure a more equitable redistribution of government largesse.
Even at this incipient stage, Stoller’s predictions appear to have proven correct. As smaller retailers have shuttered since the start of the outbreak, Amazon.com has moved into the vacuum. The digital retailer’s stock value has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, making CEO Jeff Bezos history’s first trillionaire as America teeters on the brink of economic depression. Amazon is currently hiring a glut of manual labor to meet this expansion in retail share while U.S. workers are laid off by the millions - a particularly disconcerting trend in light of the company’s known hostility to both labor organizing and whistleblowers who have drawn attention to the company’s epidemiologically hazardous warehouses. A wave of newly jobless Americans desperate for any source of income are now endangering their health for meager pay and benefits in pursuit of further stuffing Jeff Bezos’ coffers.
While America’s political economy has been further reoriented so the owners of capital profit from crisis and misery, the only provision outlined within the CARES Act for individual U.S. citizens was a single payment of $1,200 dollars without any allocation of future relief.
The mass layoffs seen across the United States have also produced dire consequence in terms of access to and affordability of healthcare. An inordinate amount of the U.S. populace relies on for-profit private insurance to secure health coverage, with over 156 million Americans having received insurance through their employers prior to the epidemic. This ongoing job loss risks further immiserating already destitute citizenry under a wave of crushing medical debt. As reporters in Philadelphia have noted, certain instances of looting amidst largely nonviolent protests focused not on taking luxury goods, but on acquiring prescriptions like insulin - a medication that is necessary for the survival of Type 2 Diabetes patients and whose cost has been artificially inflated to grotesque heights by U.S. pharmaceutical conglomerates.
Similar to police militarization, opposition to free universal healthcare has been a bipartisan endeavor maintained by the institutional cores of the Democratic and Republican parties. While the American right has long demonized public healthcare, establishment Democrats have abided by the demands of pharmaceutical and insurance lobbyists to do everything within their power to suppress the movement for Medicare for All coming from within their own party. Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were adamant in their opposition to a program of free universal coverage, and broadcasted intentions to dedicate their respective administrations to perpetuating a for-profit care system predicated on extracting wealth from Americans forced to pay increasingly inflated sums for even the most basic medical services.
Despite the toll COVID-19 has taken on American families, U.S. policymakers have continued to extend a regime of punishing austerity amidst the epidemic. Mere days after the passage of the CARES Act, Andrew Cuomo - Democratic governor of the fourth most populous state in the union - pushed through an annual budget that cut $400 million from New York’s medicaid program even as it became apparent the Empire State was facing down a crippling shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment. What little remains of America’s social safety now lies in tatters, with nutrition assistance programs having taken a disproportionate hit during the latter half of Trump’s first term - a particularly ghoulish project considering how many Americans are facing newfound food insecurity.
The intensity and universality of protest following George Floyd’s murder was almost certainly compounded by the generalized desperation and fear of a populace facing widespread precarity. Even the toll of the COVID-19 epidemic itself has not been race-blind, as a disproportionate number of fatalities in the United States have been borne by working-class black communities who lack access to quality care and are often forced to keep working manual labor jobs despite manifest risks to their health. In a particularly telling anecdote, the Amazon labor organizer who was fired after trying to push for more humane warehouse conditions - and against whom company leadership planned a campaign to slime as lazy and unintelligent - was black.
While some of America’s predominantly nonwhite manual laborers and service sector employees have been able to keep their jobs amidst the crisis, a substantial amount continue to lose work as the pandemic unfolds - a collapse in the labor market that is poised to unleash a nationwide homeslessness crisis. Black Americans are nearly twice as likely to rent than white citizens, which is largely a consequence of the gutting of black wealth following the 2008 recession. In contrast to white Americans who bear far greater volumes of surplus wealth - much of which is allocated towards stocks and other abstract holdings - black Americans tended to invest the bulk of their earnings in home purchases. The 2008 collapse in the housing market and ensuing toxic equity was particularly disastrous for black Americans, many of whom lost their homes in the aftermath. As of 2020, 74% of white households live on property they purchased, while only 44% of black households and 49% of latino households own their place of residence.
Barely twelve years later, the COVID-19 epidemic is poised to even further immiserate working class black America. A boost to federal unemployment benefits that recently laid-off workers have used to pay their rent is set to expire by July 31, while a federal moratorium on evicting tenants from government-backed housing will be revoked on July 24. A full 44% of black tenants polled in a U.S. Census Bureau survey taken from May 21-26 were uncertain they’d be able to make their next rent payment. According to projections compiled by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, 26 million Americans will have trouble affording their rent by September of this year.
Mutually compounding factors that have produced desperation and outrage widespread enough to foment a rising protest movement - one demanding change from a two-party system that has proven demonstrably opposed to delivering the same - are only slated to become more severe as the epidemic persists. A state unable to protect and care for its own citizenry amidst a crisis, whose public finances and policy apparatus has been reoriented towards the enrichment of capital, and who turns on its populace with violence amidst protests against that very same state-sponsored aggression, has by definition failed.
It should be noted that the young, multiracial coalition who mobilized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder corresponds with the voting bloc who aligned behind Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. One of the common refrains among American pundits regarding the Sanders’s campaign is that its figurehead was an unhinged ideologue acting as a pied piper to a base of idiot youth lacking a functional grasp of political reality. Rather, the inverse was true - Sanders was an imperfect conduit for widespread discontent among a base of disproportionately younger and nonwhite Americans who continue to bear the harshest brunt of this country’s material decay. His focus on a peaceful revolution was buoyed by collective desperation in the face of both current precarity and the specter of future collapse. When his campaign concluded amidst active hostility by the Democratic establishment, a nationwide protest movement outside the confines of the Democratic Party was the inevitable next step.
If the Democrats take the White House in 2020, the Biden campaign has made clear they will neither dismantle the power of America’s unaccountable law enforcement apparatus nor seriously address the structural causes of America’s deepening misery. Joe Biden has courted billionaire donors more aggressively than any of his primary opponents, and made a concerted effort to broadcast his subservience in return. It appears America’s oligarchs have aligned with Biden precisely because they expect his administration to both protect and further their stranglehold on the levers of policy. Where Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked upon the predatory industrialists who had sunk America into the Great Depression and proclaimed he “[welcomed] their hatred”, Biden genuflected before their 21st century inheritors and promised “nothing would fundamentally change”.
Joe Biden’s selection of advisors shows he intends to make good on this promise. His campaign is receiving ongoing policy guidance from former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, whose tenure in the Windy City was marked by the defunding of public schools and calculated efforts to conceal police murder. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who pushed for banking deregulation throughout the 1990s and designed the post-2008 bailout that only further accelerated upwards wealth transfer, is serving as a prominent economic advisor as well. In light of their accumulated power and ongoing influence within the Biden campaign, it’s likely one or both of them will be granted a high-level appointment in his administration.
As an electoral alternative, a second Trump term would grant the current administration further license to execute its authoritarian instincts amidst enthusiastic backing from enablers like Tom Cotton. The U.S. security state that was built out in the wake of 9/11 is now being used in an expanded purview to monitor and intimidate political activists at the behest of the Trump administration, all under exceedingly dubious claims that local demonstrations are orchestrated by a nebulous and ill-defined terror threat. As reported by The Intercept, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr has pushed for the FBI to monitor and intimidate young activists who have attended pro-BLM protests while accusing them of being “antifa”, and therefore ostensibly representing the kind of alleged terror threat domestic U.S. intelligence has prioritized over the preceding two decades. This has included both unannounced visits to their place of residence and monitoring their social media presence and personal communications.
Even more disconcerting than Bill Barr’s commandeering of the FBI is the expanded authority of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), a post-9/11 creation infamous for rampant brutality against undocumented immigrants. In March 2020 ICE/CBP began reassigned their BORTAC swat teams, typically deployed to risky intelligence operations, to monitoring and terrorizing undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities - a marked expansion in their jurisdiction and scope of rendition. Similar to local law enforcement divisions, ICE/CBP frequently break into domiciles and conduct arrests without warrants. Yet this escalation in CBP’s purview reached a new inflection point during the recent pro-BLM demonstrations when the agency dispatched officers to protests in Washington, DC and San Diego while engaging in aerial surveillance over Minneapolis.
As a historical process, fascism is what occurs when tools of repression and violence that have been deployed against external populations are directed inward against the homeland. In one of history’s darker precedents, imperial Germany’s 1904-1908 genocide of Namibia’s Heroro people involved the pioneering of concentration camps whose model was repurposed and deployed during the Holocaust 30 years later. In post-9/11 America, overseas torture and interrogation blacksites were followed by the creation of similar facilities by the Chicago Police Department where protestors have been confined and interrogated despite their arrests never being put on record. The brutal detention system ICE/CBP enforce could feasibly be transformed into something wielded against U.S. citizens as well.
The expenditure of untold trillions in the name of destructive foreign wars has left behind little more than a bloated post-9/11 security state poised to be turned against an austerity-starved homeland bedeviled by economic dysfunction and crumbling infrastructure. If America continues to degenerate into an unstable oligarchy whose public finances and state policy orient towards entrenching the power of private capital in the face of an increasingly immiserated citizenry, these capacities will likely be deployed in response to a populace organizing in opposition. The ultimate outcome will be an erosion in even the most basic pretenses of democracy under a combustible cycle of popular organization and state repression that will inevitably become more severe in the face of increasingly dire crises.
What Is to Be Done?
An unaccountable security state is not the kind governmental structure prone to halting its own expansion, let alone the range of newfound populations and circumstances onto which to exert itself. As a preliminary course of action, I see no way forward aside from demilitarizing and defunding U.S. police. “Defunding” in this context refers to the redirection of public finances that have been funneled into police militarization towards developing other capacities for serving public safety and community development. This can include various forms of social work or direct response so police are not dispatched to handle events such as mental health crises - often to fatal results.
Beyond this, I will reassert earlier recommendations that certain wings of the Department of Homeland Security be wholesale dissolved and their vital responsibilities dispersed. Both ICE and CBP are recent creations, and the United States managed to function perfectly fine prior to their founding during the George W. Bush administration. The revelation that ICE/CBP abuses can be disclosed to the American public without even the mildest consequences has further normalized both agencies’ wanton brutality and emboldened them to act with even greater impunity as their scope of authority continues to expand.
One of the great fantasies of American liberalism is that history occurs in 4-8 year electoral silos, and the outing of a Republican administration will somehow erase the material conditions and institutional continuities that enable its worst abuses. The militarized policing and security state that took root during the Bush administration merely continued in somewhat more discrete form through the Obama years. A weak and acquiescent Biden administration that enables the further entrenchment of America’s violent law enforcement and security apparatus while refusing to address the structural roots of compounding precarity risks being succeeded four years later by a Tom Cotton presidency that is handed a further empowered police state.
Even ICE/CBP are simply institutions the Trump administration inherited before escalating their systemic cruelty beyond the already unconscionable abuses that riddled both agencies during Obama’s tenure. There can and will be greater monsters than Trump in our future, smiling ghouls who are far more calculating, focused, and intelligent than the incoherent septuagenarian stalking the White House. Handing them the reins to a violent, self-expanding police apparatus would be viciously irresponsible and destructive.
The COVID-19 epidemic will leave America gutted in ways both overt and subtle, with the least immediately noticeable impacts - such as increased monopolization - being the most systemically pernicious. A bipartisan policy of austerity and climate change inaction will render the United States uniquely vulnerable to destabilization amidst a looming era of ecological collapse, and entrenching a violent security apparatus while refusing to invest in infrastructure and the public commons is an almost certain recipe for civil strife without precedent in American history.
It has become demonstrably clear the Democratic Party will not work to avert this as a matter of institutional default, particularly considering their electoral strategy of relying on a coalition of elderly and more conservative voters. In what may go down as the least prescient remark of this election cycle, Joe Biden sneered that “Americans aren’t looking for a revolution” mere weeks before the spontaneous outbreak of the greatest period of civil unrest this country has seen in decades. Irrespective of whether this was a cogent assessment of the national mood, it is clear this refrain will be the defining philosophy of an ascendant Biden administration.
The Democratic Party has come to rely on an increasingly toxic electoral strategy of emphasizing the mounting graft and cruelty of the GOP rather than pursue a policy agenda responsive to the needs of their constituents, implicitly threatening their voters to step in line against the neo-fascist shrieking of the opposing party. Beyond this, Joe Biden won the 2020 primary largely as a consequence of the disproportionate participation of elderly voters, and Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and declining popularity among older Americans may hand Biden an election he otherwise could have lost. Considering Biden’s policy history, his instrumental role in dragging the Democratic Party to the right, his voter coalition, and the donor class to whom he’s sworn fealty, any pretenses that his administration will be “progressive” will almost certainly take the form of palliative theater.
This is precisely why it is vital that the U.S. protest movement continue to mobilize and sustain demands for the kind of systemic change that is actively disavowed by the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. There has not been a single instance across the human timeline where the machinery of empire has reoriented itself towards more functional, benevolent ends simply of its own volition. A citizenry that has found its most basic material needs disavowed by a state directing power and resources towards objectives that are actively hostile the same has a fundamental imperative to oppose this. In light of radical stakes, correspondingly radical solutions are the only means of averting a calamitous and darkened future.