UPRISING: Is This the Broadest Popular Movement in US History?

This transformational moment is becoming a transformational movement, writes Marjorie Cohn. 

George Floyd Miami Protest, June 7, 2020. (Mike Shaheen, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Marjorie Cohn

That’s not a chip on my shoulder.
That’s your foot on my neck.
– Malcolm X

On May 25, a Minneapolis police officer tortured George Floyd to death in what his brother, Philonise Floyd, called “a modern-day lynching in broad daylight.” Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.; the anti-racist uprisings continue. 

Why do a majority of people in this country now support the Movement for Black Lives? Why have calls to defund and abolish the police entered the mainstream discourse? Why are people risking the deadly coronavirus to join the protests? And why are we seeing what may be the broadest popular movement in the history of the United States?  

More than 400 years after the first Africans were kidnapped, forcibly brought to this country and enslaved, White supremacy continues to infect our society. Police murder black people with impunity. Black people are incarcerated at an unprecedented rate. White fragility keeps whites in denial about white skin privilege.

Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in 1966. (Wikimedia Commons) 

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. said that racism must be exposed. He wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

When the shocking image of Officer Derek Chauvin choking the life out of Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds confronted us, we were forced to take sides. People of all races and ages were collectively enraged.

“People are marching as a way of screaming, a way of exhaling pain, as an enormous group catharsis,” Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times. “This isn’t only about the pain of police brutality, it’s about all the pain. This is about all the injustice and disrespect and oppression. This is about ancestry and progeny.”

The powerful video of Floyd’s lynching is reminiscent of the 1950s civil rights movement. Televised images from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 “were so forceful that they told their own truths and needed virtually no narration,” David Halberstam wrote in “The Fifties.” “It was hard for people watching at home not to take sides: There they were, sitting in their living rooms in front of their own television sets watching orderly black children behaving with great dignity, trying to obtain nothing more than a decent education, the most elemental of American birthrights, yet being assaulted by a vicious mob of poor whites.”

Arkansas Little Rock Nine Civil Rights Memorial on the capitol grounds in Little Rock. (DaFoos, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Although white supremacy continues to permeate our society, President Donald Trump has unleashed the dogs of racism in a frightening way. An early promoter of the Birther movement, Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. When he said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, one side was the white supremacists.

In the face of massive protests throughout the country, Trump announced on June 1 that he had ordered federal troops to Washington, D.C., “to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.” This is evidence of what Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Operation Jackson, calls Trump’s “Brown Shirt Force.” In a reference that evokes Bull Connor’s 1963 threats against peaceful civil rights protesters with snarling dogs, Trump tweeted he would use “vicious dogs” against protesters who tried to breach the fence in front of the White House. “Negro Dogs” were used to catch runaway slaves and escaped prisoners during Jim Crow.

White supremacy is rooted in the belief that black people are inferior to white people. In 1900, Charles Carroll, a polygenist minister in Missouri, wrote a rant opposing miscegenation called “The Negro, a Beast,” or, “In the Image of God.” In it, he portrays “The Negro, a beast, but created with articulate speech and hands, that he may be of service to his owner – the White Man.”

A George Floyd protest in Baltimore on May 30, 2020. (Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

As revealed in my cousin Erika Cohn’s new documentary, Belly of the Beast,” many people, particularly women of color, in California women’s prisons have been forcibly sterilized. Nineteen-year-old Kelli Dillon began her 15-year sentence for killing her husband who was trying to kill her. While undergoing a routine procedure, Dillon was sterilized against her will. During the 20th century, over 30 U.S. states passed laws allowing forced sterilization. After World War II, compulsory sterilizations primarily targeted non-white women. From 1909-1979, California forcibly sterilized more than 20,000 people, many labeled “defectives,” including people of color. 

The Thirteenth Amendment, enacted in 1865, is widely regarded as abolishing slavery. It reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [emphasis added].

But Professor Dylan Rodriguez, writing in The Harvard Law Review, describes “the Thirteenth Amendment’s juridical translation of slavery from a racial chattel institution to a criminal justice function.” The amendment “in fact refurbished a fundamental (racial) power relation mediated by the racist state by recodifying the terms of bodily capture and subjection (that is, enslavement by a state).” We have what Rodriguez calls the “carceral-racial state.”

Inmates in an Orleans Parish Prison yard, New Orleans. (Bart Everson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

We Charge Genocide (WCG), the grassroots organization based in Chicago, disagrees with the notion that “police brutality” is exceptional rather than part and parcel of systemic racism suffered by black and brown people. WCG decries “systemic, institutionalized, juridically condoned police torture, cruelty, inhumane and degrading treatment, murder, harassment, and unjustified detention,” Rodriguez writes.

Floyd’s murder galvanized calls for reforms such as banning chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and the use of military weapons against protesters; ending qualified immunity for officers charged with using excessive force; mandating body-worn cameras, and the creation of a federal database of abusive officers.

In 2015, six cities including Minneapolis were part of President Barack Obama’s Justice Department’s new form of policing program. But police brutality today is as brutal as ever.

Maria Nieto Senour resigned after serving for four years on the San Diego Community Review Board on Police Practices. “Unfortunately, there are members of the CRB who had such a pro-police bias that they did not represent the broader community,” she told Jurist. The board was provided with “a great deal of information from the police perspective and relatively little from the perspective of marginalized communities.” Senour said that much of what the police do “would be better done by mental health and/or social workers so funding should be shifted away from police budgets and assigned to other functions.”

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) supports 8 to Abolition’s demands to defund the police, demilitarize communities, remove police from schools, free people from prisons and jails, repeal laws that criminalize survival, invest in community self-governance, provide safe housing for everyone, and invest in care, not cops. The NLG also supports reparations for slavery and discrimination against Africans and African descendants.

Rodriguez calls abolition “a fundamentally creative force” in one of “those rare historical moments when definitive destruction of oppressive structures and power relations appears possible, practical, and capable of catalyzing a (potentially) radically different social form.” He advocates “a radical reconfiguration of justice.”

This transformational moment is becoming a transformational movement. The time to effect revolutionary change is now.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.”

This article is from Jurist.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “UPRISING: Is This the Broadest Popular Movement in US History?

  1. Dusty Manning
    June 24, 2020 at 19:56

    If Biden wants to secure the presidency, he can and should drop all efforts to deprive Assange, Manning, and Snowden of their freedom, close all bases in foreign countries, divert funds squandered on foreign conquests to building dams, bridges, upgrading infrastructure, providing medical care for all, and educating people in the military to help people, not kill them.

  2. E pluribus unum post Netflix
    June 24, 2020 at 16:27

    “Why do a majority of people in this country now support the Movement for Black Lives? Why have calls to defund and abolish the police entered the mainstream discourse? Why are people risking the deadly coronavirus to join the protests? And why are we seeing what may be the broadest popular movement in the history of the United States?”

    Good questions. Why indeed?

    As is true of many other writers I follow, there seems to be a currently in vogue, narrowed view in Cohn’s analysis of events. I think there’s something very morally satisfying in seeing ‘The People’ in the streets legitimately fighting back against wrongs long suffered. Unfortunately, these events seem to be being understood nearly exclusively through that particular social justice lens to the neglect of other very relevant aspects.

    Now I’m not denying or dismissing the significance of the organic/grass-roots aspects of these protests. They exist and should be covered. However, there’s also (IMHO) another significant aspect that should be equally covered in all such discussions. That is the highly conspicuous and broad ‘establishment’ support for this civil unrest. Nearly all the establishment players that we’ve come to rightly be skeptical of (e.g., politicians, large corporations, mainstream media, Hollywood, “ex”/current military and intelligence, et al) got on-board and on-point very quickly. It went big, it went loud, and it went international unusually fast with all manner of establishment encouragement and incessant mainstream media exposure. Heavens, even the regime change professionals at the National Endowment for Democracy came out in support. Yikes! In brief, as with every other time they all sing in unison, I smell fish.

    Again, I’m making a hard distinction here between the well-intentioned, organic, social justice aspects of these protests and the opportunist, divisiveness invoking instigations, movement coopting, politically motivated machinations of the usual establishment suspects.

    • E Wright
      June 26, 2020 at 23:58

      I tend to agree with you. Seeing Nanci Pelosi on her knee wearing a Ghanian shawl was a clear enough indication that this was to be another ‘stick it to the President’ affair. What we have here is more of the same identity politics. Remember The Wall?
      What the likes of Pelosi will never get onboard with is real social change. And until (white) middle America rises up, you can’t say there is a broad movement. Trump has cornered the market with this demographic so their indifference is a safe bet. The corporatists know this too. So ‘sticking it to the President’ – an anti-Globalist, is unlikely to damage their own interests.

  3. Anon
    June 24, 2020 at 15:04

    Pro-black activism is a major force for US reform, but the problems are only occasionally based upon racism.
    The problems of the US result from corruption of its institutions and culture by the power and worship of money.
    That is true throughout government at all levels: federal, state, and local. Policing is already under local government.
    We could have smaller-community control, but smaller governments are more foolish and as corrupt, if less organized.

    The anger against police brutality and militarization must become anger against the rich, or it will have no effect at all.
    Progress is by fear: the mass media facilities, mansions, courthouses and pseudo-democracy buildings taken out.
    When our corrupt “representatives” judiciary and CEOs are in choke-holds and imprisoned for life, things may change.
    Until the angry people form highly organized and well supplied militant cells, we will never see democracy again.

    • Skip Edwards
      June 24, 2020 at 16:08

      I thank you for having the courage of your convictions and speaking truth to power, owned and controlled by the rich. Revolution is in the air there is no doubt. Written history is made of failed “empires”; and, we, USA, are to be no exception!

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    June 24, 2020 at 11:54

    Civil war in the making??? The white race needs to be held accountable…and not just in the US.

    • Skip Edwards
      June 24, 2020 at 15:47

      I read recently that crimes involving armed criminals comprised less than 30% of actual police work nationwide. If I am interpreting this correctly, we therefore do not need all ‘cops’ to be armed. I suggest that ‘neighborhood’ police on normal patrols be unarmed. There would be a small unit of armed and specially trained police on standby at local precints to be used only when called and authorized by police commanders. There is absolutely no excuse for the type of police bullying as we most recently experienced in the Floyd Gardner murder, much less the long list of police shootings of ‘suspects’. We need to apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule on all police along with a national database to record police brutality offenses and terminations therefore.

  5. Michael McNulty
    June 24, 2020 at 08:19

    The American experiment probably won’t make it to 100,000 days. There are 36,525 days in 100 years, so there has only been about 90,000 days since Independence was declared on July 4th 1776; and about 57,000 days since April 9th 1865 when the Civil War ended.

    I always thought I’d live long enough to see the beginning of America’s decline, but now 30 years later at 60 years old I might actually live long enough to see its end.

    • Buffalo_Ken
      June 24, 2020 at 13:40

      @Michael McNulty

      You understand biology don’t you? Usually after a life form grows out of just being born and survives it has some staying power. If the founding ideas were embedded with sustainable energy, then it has more than just staying power…..it could last a long time – depends on lots of things including random events of chance and tragedy. Of course, everything is flawed in a way and some flaws are bigger than others….and sometimes there is no avoiding the flaws if you are willing to compromise for the better good. Over time it will work itself out towards sustainability – that is what I think – one way or the other. I hope “we” are around to sense that day. That is the positive outlook – why not have it?

      So, don’t hold your breath when it comes to your chance of ever living long enough to “see its end”. Because I don’t think it is ever going to end, but it may evolve into something better and that is what I am betting on!


    • Skip Edwards
      June 24, 2020 at 15:50

      And a very deserved ending for the most violent nation in the history of the world!

  6. Jared
    June 23, 2020 at 22:03

    Modern prison slavery is not quite the same thing as chattel slavery. Under chattel slavery, all of the slaves were black. Under modern prison slavery, there are almost equal absolute numbers of black and white prison slaves. If prison slavery is just white supremacy enslaving black bodies all over again, then how do we explain the enslavement of so many white bodies as well?

    The same criticism goes for Cohn’s comparison of modern police murder to historic lynchings. Historic lynchings were targeted almost exclusively at black people with a few exceptions. But today, a plurality of people killed by the police are white, some 400-500 per year. If police murder is just white supremacy destroying black bodies all over again, then how do we explain white supremacy destroying an even greater number of white bodies every year?

    When an explanation for a social ill fails to explain large cohorts of victims, then it may be an indication that there is a problem with the explanation. The big picture is that in capitalist nation states like the US, it is above all the size of your bank account and not the color of your skin that endows you with privilege. What the victims of police brutality and the million-strong mass of prison slaves have in common, is that they are poor and working class.

    • Skip Edwards
      June 24, 2020 at 15:59

      Slavery is about power of one person or entity over another. The economic condition of most people of color is unfortunately and formerly by design below that of most whites. Many people who desire to be cops, black or white, are people who like to have power over others. These types of people are overwhelmingly the types who apply; and, they are the types who get hired.

  7. GF
    June 23, 2020 at 19:38

    Widespread support for Black Lives Matter is being undermined by the media, which has stopped reporting on daily demonstrations, by agent provocateurs who shoot off fireworks all night long throughout NYC to cast blame on the protesters and as part of a psyop campaign coordinated with the NYPD, which drives slowly through the streets late at night with sirens blaring to deprive people of sleep.

    The Seattle Autonomous zone has been attacked by outsiders who literally drive in, shoot some people and leave, “justifying” police action to close it down.

    The establishment wants people to believe that the protests are over and that corrective actions have been taken. Nothing is further from the truth. Meanwhile .002% of NYC’s $6 billion police budget is spent on community affairs (total $12 million).

  8. rosemerry
    June 23, 2020 at 17:09

    What really worries me is the continued belief by many “Americans” in the USA and also, against all evidence, other people in the world, that the USA is a free country, a democracy, with good justice, health, education and housing systems to make the majority of the population able to live a reasonable life. It is obvious to any observer, and surely to so many of the non-rich in the USA that this is far from the truth. Threats, bribes, sanctions, lies from the US “leaders” and attacks on so many other nations who dare to elect their own leaders and have their own form of government seem to be accepted by the public as if they are normal. Now that Joe Biden is outdoing Trump as he pushes Obama’s anti-Venezuela sanctions even when Trump demurs, and Russia, China, Iran,Syria continue to be targeted while the USA falls apart, how can the idea of the USA as a leader be supported by any sane human?

  9. Anonymot
    June 23, 2020 at 15:35

    Transformational really sounds good. The reality is that all of those armed far rightists, many of the police and perhaps the military should be included as being on Trump’s side.

    They have all the guns and accouterments. They have masses of money support. And they don’t give a damn about murdering as many as it takes.

    And when the joke, Joe Biden, is elected you will see the first armed coup d’etat in American history. The Nazis were relatively few, also.

    • DH Fabian
      June 24, 2020 at 00:38

      No, it’s almost certain the Trump will be re-elected — because of today’s Democrats. We spent the last 25 years trying to educate middle class party loyalists about the consequences of the Democrats’ war on the poor, which split apart the former Dem voting base. The Obama years only confirmed that this split is permanent. Turned out to be a lost cause.

  10. Buffalo_Ken
    June 23, 2020 at 14:43

    I think the ironical strength of the US of A is that the citizens have always been on the cutting edge for good or bad. It makes for some sharp divides. Even so, most of the citizens, as most citizens everywhere, not just this country, have always just tried to survive day to day.

    Lately, good fortune has caused some to become spoiled in the US of A, but most here are just like everybody else everywhere else.

    I think this is starting to become recognized and it could be there is a broad movement that we are now in the midst of. I’m hopeful because there is no denying that there are some old ideas that need to die. Their time is over. It is evident.

Comments are closed.