In 2019, the Yellow Vests, a social movement without precedent in France since May 68, arose and was shamelessly repressed by a self-serving liberalist government. Here we are in 2020, witnesses and sometimes actors in a wave of social protest that has swept across the United States and is gradually being exported to our borders. The despicable murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has spurred a "catalytic social reaction," an uprising of the oppressed, discriminated and socioeconomically disparate masses in the United States. We interviewed John Catalinotto, a supporter of the movement, a communist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist journalist, to learn more about the characteristics of the movement and its real scope.
The murder of George Floyd triggered a massive wave of protests. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that an African-American has been killed in this way by a police officer. How do you explain this flare-up?
What's really happening? This is simply the biggest national rebellion in the United States, the biggest mass struggle since the Civil War ended. The closest thing to it in my life was the rebellion in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968. But there's an important difference: the Black community was then almost completely isolated. There was very little support from other sectors. Protesters could be - and were - suppressed by military force without awakening other sectors of the working class. This time, there are a large number of people from the Latin American, Asian, indigenous and white population, especially young people, who are participating in all forms of struggle.
The police are more isolated and the military leaders want to avoid using the army; they fear the general reaction of the population. They use force, of course. Moreover, thousands of people have been arrested and hundreds have been injured. But so far, this has angered the population more than frightened it, it has galvanized it.
When organizations set up a bail fund to get people out of jail, money flowed in from all over society. Athletes and celebrities have given donations, have spoken out openly. And even the big corporations - hypocrites, of course - say "Black lives matter".
Why is such a protest movement breaking out now? Is the murder of George Floyd the straw that broke the camel's back?
You might as well ask yourself why, on International Women's Day in Russia in 1917, a strike by 200,000 women textile workers turned into a revolution that ended centuries of domination by the Russian aristocracy, surprising everyone, even organizers and politicians as as astute as V.I. Lenin. Not to mention the tsar, who was clueless about it.
Here we had the threat of Covid-19, unrest among the "essential workers," three months of confinement, a reopening threatening to kill more people in the name of profits of the rich. Not to mention the looting of billions of dollars from the public treasury by corporations and billionaires. We also had 40 million workers put out of work in two months. And finally, an incompetent and openly racist national administration. It was an explosive situation.
The problem of racism is far from new in the United States. How does Donald Trump's presidency mark a change from previous Democratic presidencies?
Rebellions have also erupted under Democratic presidents. Obama would certainly have handled the situation differently, at least his language would have been different. And the Democrats would have adopted more benefits for the unemployed. But that wouldn't have made much difference to the underlying problem. So it's not just Trump. However, it's hard to imagine a more incompetent national leader of the US ruling class than Trump to manage this crisis. Only his hard core - unfortunately, there are still many of them - can take him seriously. The ruling class loves Trump because he is handing over to it an ever-increasing share of the wealth produced by the working class. He is one of them. But now the ruling class is afraid of losing everything.
There is a widespread belief among Trump's supporters that the riots are being used to destabilize the president just before the election. Trump has been described as anti-system, and the system wants to regain control by creating chaos and dividing the population. What do you think about that?
The right-wing is trying to present Trump as "anti-establishment", but he is completely part of it. The majority of the establishment, so far, loves Trump. Because he gave them all the wealth of society. He opened up the national land for them to exploit. A multi-billion dollar stimulus package was passed, 90% of which went to big business. Very little money has been allocated to the population suffering from the crisis, to the millions of recently unemployed people laid off by these companies, or to the small businesses that have gone bankrupt (40 million unemployed between March and April). And the little that the population has received is only because the Democrats fought to get them the benefits. However, a large part of the establishment is afraid of the way Trump appears and behaves. With the emergence of the masses and the oppressed peoples who are struggling, the president's statements and his attitude will not help him with public opinion.
The deep state is not a conspiracy, it is the way imperialism works. The imperialists don't need to go to a "secret place", they work in it. They have the Pentagon and the State Department. Trump's problem is that he is unable to maintain his own administration. There are people in his administration who accept his antics. But after a while, they can't let him do it anymore, because they think what he's doing is too stupid to properly defend the interests of the United States ruling class.
Trump threatened to deploy the army. Why did part of his administration object?
Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, had to break with Trump over the issue of sending troops to the neighborhoods. Indeed, the US military leaders worry how their army might react if that decision was made. Retired Admiral Mullen said that the military should not be used. General James Dempsey, also retired, also advised against it. We also know that senior generals do not want the army to be used. In fact, they are afraid. About 40 percent of the troops in the army are black or Latino, they come from the oppressed nationalities. And the generals are afraid that if they try to use the troops in the cities, it will lead to the demoralization of the army, to its destruction. Something like this happened during the Vietnam War. So these generals told Trump not to use the army, and Trump backed off. At least for now.
In the context of a health and economic crisis, social inequalities, which were already very present, have grown so unsustainable that the slightest spark could cause a conflagration. The spark here has instead taken on the appearance of a stick of dynamite. Could the violence of the demonstrators tarnish the image of the movement?
First of all, violence is always used against workers and the oppressed. In the U.S., the capitalist state is an imperialist state. It has an almost complete monopoly on violence. As revolutionaries, we must fight against this. The masses have the right to use violence to defend themselves against this state. This is what Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Lenin or Malcolm X taught us. When the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis burned down, it terrified the ruling class, but it brought joy to the oppressed masses and most of their allies-even those who might fear violence. The masses also have the right to confiscate the property of the rich. The real looting was carried out by big business in March and April, with the loss of millions of jobs and the stimulus package.
Denouncing the looting is a weapon of bourgeois politicians and the institutional media in an attempt to weaken the enormous support for the rebellions. They hope to create a division in public opinion. Especially in the middle class, in the more affluent sectors of the population, who may be sympathetic towards the movement, but who are also sympathetic towards the small shopkeepers (whose shops are destroyed). They want to divide the movement when they use this argument condemning looting and violence.
How can we fight effectively racism and police violence in the United States so that these tragedies do not happen again? What actions do you think should be taken?
I mentioned Russia in 1917. A huge difference is that at that time there were mass workers' and peasants' parties, including Lenin's Bolsheviks, who could make demands. There were also reformists or revolutionaries, and someone could lead, or events could lead, the direction that the masses would follow, at least the general direction. There are no significant mass reformist parties in the United States today, let alone revolutionary parties. The struggle is as close to spontaneity as you can imagine. That is, there are many very capable people in partial leadership, especially women who had seven years of experience in the Black Lives Matter movement. But there is no single central organization.
Certain demands, certain steps come to mind that could help to maintain the unity of this vast movement as a more organized leadership develops among them, especially among the oppressed communities and the working class who are engaged in the struggle:
Defend those arrested and get them out of jail.
Arrest and charge all police officers guilty of this type of violence.
Enlarge and support the most progressive unions, such as the Transport Workers Union in New York, which is asking for solidarity from the AFL-CI (American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations. Union) with the "Black Lives Matter" movement so that the trade union movement is fully on the side of the oppressed, against racism.
Mobilize all possible opposition to any imposition of martial law or the use of the National Guard or the Army against the people (insurrection act).
Concerning the army, we should agitate among the soldiers so that they do not allow themselves to be used against the people.
The slogan, "Defund the police", has become important. There will be a struggle to define whether it means reforming the police or changing the character of the police.
As for the actions to be taken, they will come from the people concerned and their leaders as they develop. Naturally, elements of the bourgeois parties, especially the Democrats, will try to take control of the movement and limit it. In the meantime, revolutionaries should try to develop themselves, recruit from among the militants and look for a strategy that will help them win.
Can the movement evolve, increase its influence and why not launch a dynamic of deep structural change?
To make a revolution, yes, that is a big question. This movement has just started, and there is no country-wide organization, no structure, and to continue it is necessary that the movement be structured. There are many people in the African-American population who speak for the movement, some of them are intellectuals who have struggled all their lives to improve the situation of African-Americans. But this is a special moment here. As far as the antifas are concerned, there is no such organization. The FBI itself has stated that there is no such organization in Washington. Trump is using Antifa as a scapegoat. In reality, anyone who is progressive and anti-racist is antifa in a way.
So what is missing right now is a real structure, a person, a figure who could serve as a leader, and organize the movement?
Yes, there are people like Al Sharpton, who is not really a representative or a leader of the African-American community. But he has some authority, because he has always been attacked by the police and because he has led demonstrations against the police for decades. That's why he spoke at George Floyd's funeral. He called for a demonstration in Washington in August, a national demonstration. It could take place and become a huge demonstration. But who knows what will happen?
There is no one leader at the moment, which also means that there is no one that the ruling class can hold on to and try to control. There is also no one to target at the moment, like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X during the 1960s. The movement is very diverse. It has the support of, probably, the entire African-American community, even people who are part of the state apparatus, such as some in the military, for example. There is probably almost as much support from the Latino community and from all people of color in the United States. All people of color are discriminated against in the United States. They are trying to gain something from this movement. They might be afraid of the direction this movement might take, afraid that it will arouse state violence. But the movement is deeply supported.
There is a lot of racism in the country, but there are a lot of white people who support this movement. Not just young people, but everyone. Why is this? Because they saw George Floyd being killed on video. The police officer was not in danger, not in fear, not in need of defending himself. Floyd was already on the ground, under control. The policeman killed him, murdered him, and people saw it. They saw his ordeal, which gives the movement more support than ever before.