In the United States, 2020 has proved to be the year everything changed except what most needs to change.
Despite massive protests for months, police continue to shoot and kill Black citizens and brutalize peaceful ant-racist protesters. They do so as armed, far-right vigilantes emerge from whatever aggrieved netherworld they occupy to menace Black Lives Matter demonstrators around the country. One of them, Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, has shot and murdered demonstrators, earning sympathy from some Republicans as a sort of marauding “law and order” folk hero.
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) couldn’t even bring himself to condemn Rittenhouse’s murderous actions in his home state, preferring instead to express his own version of “all lives matter” in a CNN interview, stating only his objection to not shooting people generally. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has actually praised Rittenhouse for his “incredible restraint,” adding that he would not convict him of any homicide charges. Indeed, Trump supporters have proclaimed Rittenhouse the latest cause célèbre for illegal violence against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, raising money through crowdfunding campaigns for his legal defense. Then there’s Trump himself, who defends the teen vigilante’s “self-defense” claim.
Significantly, new data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that more than 10,600 demonstrations took place between May 24 and August 22 in the United States, with 73% related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Over 95% of these actions involved entirely peaceful protesters. Despite the prevalence of peaceful protests, the overwhelming police presence at demonstrations often sets the stage for quick, lawless escalations of violence by law enforcement against crowds of demonstrators. In a new report, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has identified at least 115 people who were shot in the head or neck by police with so-called “less lethal” weapons, including rubber bullets and other weapons classified as kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs). Many have sustained serious injuries including blindness.
As PHR states in its report, “Shooting civilians in the head with KIPs violates widely accepted use of force principles, which forbid targeting of the head and neck and emphasize proportional response to actual threats faced by law enforcement. Furthermore, our past research has shown that severe injury, disability, and death are often consequences of being shot in the head with these weapons. Such excessive and indiscriminate police responses to protests have chilling effect on the exercise of the fundamental First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”
Living in a Racist Fantasyland. Yet for many of Trump’s white base, living in their racist fantasyland, Black Lives Matter is just rioters and looters, “uppity” Blacks and their malcontent supporters who want to blame “systemic racism” for every hardship in life. These are largely know-it-all, white know nothings whose first instinct is to shout, lecture, and object when Black people describe their personal experiences with racism. It apparently doesn’t occur to them to listen and learn from their Black sisters and brothers, to educate themselves from those who know first-hand about the cruel realities of racism in the United States.
This racist fantasyland is at least creative it its delusions. The latest buzz on right-wing social media are discredited Twitter and Facebook reports that “Antifa” is responsible for setting wildfires in Oregon. With election polls not in his favor, Trump has for a while now also been setting the stage to dispute the legitimacy of a November election loss, repeatedly kicking up clouds of dust regarding the legitimacy of mail-in voting. This is an old hustle: repeat the Big Lie enough until it starts to look like reality.
Unfortunately, Trump’s Republican base largely goes along with this nonsense. Indeed, the Republican Party is now so far off the cliff with Trump that the recent party convention didn’t even bother adopting a formal platform, other than whatever Trump says goes. And if you don’t like what Trump says? At a pro-Trump Labor Day rally in Salem, Oregon that included supporters of the far-right Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys groups, one speaker earned cheers when he called for Democratic leaders to be “shot dead in the streets.” The convicted Republican strategist Roger Stone, whose sentence for lying to Congress and witness tampering in the Russia investigation was commuted by Trump, said in a recent interview that the president should declare martial law if he loses the election. Is this crowd the harbinger of things to come should Trump lose the election? Or for that matter, win the election?
Stone might be dismissed as a far-right crank, a criminal political hustler of the worst kind. But the fact that he feels comfortable openly expressing such views should not be dismissed. Indeed, U.S Attorney General William Barr has reportedly advised U.S. prosecutors in a recent conference call to consider charging “rioters” arrested for violent crimes at anti-racist protests with “sedition.” Federal charges of conspiring to violently overthrow the U.S. government carry possible 20-year prison terms. Barr has even asked the civil rights attorneys in the U.S. Justice Department to explore whether Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a Democrat, could be criminally charged for allowing a “police-free protest zone” to be established for several weeks this past summer.
To describe the Republican Party now as the Death Cult party is hardly hyperbole. Tellingly, a late August CBS/YouGov Poll reports 57 percent of Republicans considered the number of Covid-19 fatalities, about 170,000 at the time of the poll, “acceptable.” (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now reports 198,099 deaths due to Covid-19 as of September 19.) This from the party that calls itself “pro-life!” Meanwhile, comparable death rates in other nations are strikingly lower, from 80 percent lower in Germany to 50 percent lower in Canada and elsewhere. In Vietnam, a country of 95 million people, the death toll as of a few weeks ago was only 35 persons since the pandemic’s onset.
Decisive Battles to Come. Today, political hopes are near a breaking point. The protest movement against racist police violence demonstrates the widespread power and depth of the people’s feeling for a fair, just, and equal society. But the abuses of institutional policing are also deeply entrenched in U.S. society and the battle to end these abuses is just beginning.
Our society now faces the most significant crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. Millions of temporary job losses at the start of the pandemic are turning into permanent job losses, as businesses shutter and companies scale down to the reality of the pandemic economy. Food insecurity is mounting, and the specter of massive home evictions looms. With up to 30 to 40 million people currently at risk of eviction from their residence, the CDC took the unprecedented step on September 4 to temporarily halt residential evictions until the end of the year. But those who cannot pay will still owe their back rents, come due now on January 1, 2021.
Indeed, decades of bipartisan neoliberal austerity have created massive wealth inequality, while a frayed social safety net is revealing itself as seriously unprepared to protect the people’s needs in a social crisis. Yet even in the middle of a pandemic, the centrist Democratic establishment clings to their corporatist agenda. They remain opposed to a Medicare for All health system, for instance, despite polls earlier this year that show nearly 90 percent of Democratic voters favor establishment of such a single-payer health system.
“I would say it is time to start learning from Australia, Japan, South Korea, China, and — in a great historic irony — maybe especially Vietnam about how to create a public health system that minimizes the spread of the illness,” says Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts for Truthout. “Step one would be to establish Medicare for All, so that every U.S. resident has access to good-quality health care, without having to fear financial ruin should they get sick with COVID or anything else.”
He’s right. I would add also Cuba, with the pandemic claiming 113 deaths as of September 20 to the list of educators. As for those who blindly support the Dear Leader in the White House, what can we say? Among this crowd are many who get upset about their “freedoms” being violated because they are asked to wear masks, but shrug with indifference when peaceful demonstrators are violently assaulted by police. These are the people who like to shout about “law and order,” but have little to say about justice and fairness, and could care less when Black people are brutalized and murdered by police.
As Harvard scholar Cornel West has said in multiple interviews the choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is a choice between a “disaster” and a “catastrophe.” It’s a choice between a Republican “neo-fascist gangster” and a Democratic neoliberal habituated to Wall Street politics that for decades have done next to nothing to benefit ordinary Americans.Tellingly, an August poll shows the major reason for supporting Biden among voters is simply that he is not Trump. This was the view of 56 percent of Biden supporters, while only 9 percent cited the Democratic nominee’s policy positions as decisive. That translates into a rather thin foundation for a Biden presidency to build upon going into 2021.
Nor will a Biden victory scatter the far right into the winds of history. In fact, a continuation of the Democratic neoliberalism of the Clinton-Obama years is likely to further embolden the far-right menace. Get ready then for an even worse version of Trump in 2024, more dangerous and more authoritarian than even the current occupant of the White House. Whoever wins the national election, the violence glorifying, far right and neo-fascist sympathizers who support Trump are not going away. It should be clear that simply electing Biden to the White House will not decisively defeat the right-wing threats before us. A Biden presidency will not end racist policing, mass incarceration, and wealth inequality. Nor will it lead to Improved Medicare for All, free college tuition, cancellation of student debt, higher wages, or affordable housing.
Extreme wealth inequality and poverty is an affront to social justice. The relentless pursuit of profits by entrenched corporate power is a democracy killer. A military “defense” budget of $738 billion is an offense against genuine peace. All of it is symptomatic of the violent, soulless reality of advanced late-stage capitalism. In light of the need for a people’s social agenda to save ordinary, working-class Americans from the devastation of the pandemic/climate crisis economy, the failure of establishment politics to offer a way forward is being clarified now with unprecedented urgency.
The United States is a failed political state, a dying vital organ of an archaic and destructive global capitalist system. For humanity to survive and progress, the system has to change. The need now is for a mass socialist alternative in politics, for revolutionary change from the ground up. It is more than some future ideal to strive for, it is a demand defined by what the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to call the “fierce urgency of now.”