The Promise and Limits of Black Lives Matter – Cedric Johnson

Video Thumbnailhttps://vimeo.com/427477787 Does the "Black Lives Matter" framing of the protests undermine the potential for much broader alliances?  It’s not just black people who are being over-policed, it’s all working-class people and in particular, the most dispossessed. Cedric Johnson joins Paul Ja

Does the “Black Lives Matter” framing of the protests undermine the potential for much broader alliances?  It’s not just black people who are being over-policed, it’s all working-class people and in particular, the most dispossessed. Cedric Johnson joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.

Transcript

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Cedric Johnson is an associate professor of African American Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and editor of the neo-liberal Deluge, Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans. We’re going to discuss the mass protests in Chicago and across the country with him. But before I welcome him to the show. I want to share the quote from Karl Marx that he has at the bottom of the page of his emails. For those who don’t know the context of the quote, the workers of Paris took over the city and established a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris from the 18th of March to the 28th of May, 1871. The Commune, as it was known, the Paris Commune, was eventually crushed by the French army during a bloody week in which many of the leaders were executed in Pere LaChaise Cemetery. The song, The Internationale, perhaps the most optimistic lyrics ever written, was created in the days after the fall of the workers’ government when the leaders were being executed.

     Here’s the quote from Marx at the bottom of Cedric’s email. The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready made utopias to introduce, ‘Decreed de le peuple,” which I think means by decree of the people.

     They know that in order to work out their own emancipation and, along with it, that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies. They will have to pass through long struggles through a series of historic processes, transforming circumstances and men.

They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old, collapsing, bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”  That’s Karl Marx in the book, The Civil War in France, 1871. Now joining us is Cedric Johnson. Thanks for joining us, Cedric.

Cedric Johnson

Thanks so much for having me.

Paul Jay

So how does this analysis of Marx from 1871 apply to today?

Cedric Johnson

     Well, you know what I like about that quote? It just offers sort of a dose of sobriety, right. When we’re thinking about trying to transform a society in a much more radical and democratic direction, that it, whatever we do has to alternately be anchored in what peoples’ needs are. And I think that there’re definitely moments where working as an intellectual and being in conversation with other academics, as well as intellectuals working in different settings, there’s a tendency for us to sometime lose sight of that. Right. So I like the fact that Marx reminds us about the ferment of the Commune and how it’s very much anchored in peoples’ needs and the kinds of struggles they were engaged in. I really enjoy the part where he talks about  the—we’ll have to pass through long struggles and through a series of difficult historical processes, because especially in our own moment. Right. And even with the mass protests we’ve seen over the last two weeks, I still think many people, at least a lot of the younger people I’ve talked to, and had conversations with recently, they still imagine that these things happen immediately. Right. That simply turning out into the streets and, you know, speaking truth to power in and of itself is enough, as opposed to what we glimpse in that passage from Marx, which is about actually engaging in protracted struggles, struggles that transform circumstances and ultimately transform us as participants. So I think, again, anchoring what we do in material conditions, trying to get a real clear sense of what our times are like, that is another problem with intellectual life, during which we sometimes want to reach for what happened, historically, what our thinking through, what might be distinct about this particular moment. As a quick instance, I had someone recently mention to me that they thought we were living through a moment that was essentially the nineteen eighteen pandemic, the Great Depression and the 1968 Holy Week riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. And I don’t really think that’s helpful. Right? I think we have to we have to look at what we’re experiencing right now as very peculiar and unique. And it doesn’t lend itself to whatever strategies were used in 1918 or in the 1930’s or even in the 1960’s. 

Paul Jay

So what is specific about this moment? I lived through something somewhat like what’s happening now. I was in Baltimore for eight years, and I was there during the Freddie Gray uprisings. And at that time, that movement, that motion which became very large and had similar character in the sense that it began as a spontaneous resistance from black youth, especially youth from the poorest areas of Baltimore, and then joined by large numbers of white students and then large sections of working class black youth, not from the poorest areas, but from across the city.

     It took on some scale, but then it dissipated rather quickly. There wasn’t a leadership that emerged that could take it to act to another stage when the cops got charged by the district attorney. That seemed to be enough to kind of diffuse things. And it’s not come back since, and there was nothing really built out of it.Why do you think this is a different moment now? Does this have the various convergence of events and forces different than that?

Cedric Johnson

     I think in some ways, I mean, it’s definitely unprecedented, right? I mean, the scale of protest. Every state in the Union, I think upwards of 500 different towns and cities have had demonstrations and marches. And so, I mean, there’s no denying the fact that this is a triumphant moment for Black Lives Matter, because this is important to remember Black Lives Matter. You know, you mentioned Baltimore, which was one of the last of the major protests related to Black Lives Matter before the election of Donald Trump.

     I mean, there was some in the  summer in which he was elected in Dallas, in Baton Rouge and  as as well as. Minneapolis, St. Paul, right, because of Fellando Castillo’s killing, but the right was quick to put the lid on that, right? I mean, there was a clear move by then, candidate Donald Trump, to put the lid back on Black Lives Matter and mobilize blue lives matter sentiments, you know, in the run up to his election.

    And so pretty much from 2016 until now, Black Lives Matter hasn’t figured so prominently. Right. It was like there was a cycle of of protests in 2014, 2015, 2016. And then we see a bit of a dormancy. But I think there’s no denying that it’s a triumph. I would actually argue it did multiple things going on at the moment that maybe mistakenly gathered on the ballot back last, Matt.

    So I think on the one hand, there’s clearly the George Floyd protest, which share a lot with the Freddie Gray movement that you mentioned. In some ways it goes beyond that, right? I mean, the kinds of demands that seem to be close or closer than they were before, like dismantling the Minneapolis police department, which seems like some version of that maybe enacted by the city council. We didn’t see that before in Baltimore, even here in Chicago, when people protested after the killing of Laquan McDonald, right, after the video of his killing was released.

     So I think this moment is different as far as the protests, I mean. I think this can, on the one hand, say this is an unprecedented level of support for Black Lives Matter. I think I saw a poll that said 57 percent of Americans now believe that Blacks are much more likely to be subjected to excessive police force. Right. So I think in that ways, Black Lives Matter has become the majority opinion, right. Underneath I think there’s something else that’s happening as well. And so we could talk about the George Floyd protests, but we also saw what I would call a Donald Trump riots. Right. So we saw in many cities, looting break out, again in unprecedented ways. Right. I mean, if we think back to those Holy Week riots after the killing of of Martin Luther King Junior. Most of those were concentrated in black neighborhoods. And they tend to be ghettoized in a certain certain way. What we saw over the last couple weeks was looting and property destruction in central commercial districts throughout the country. Right. So Rodeo Drive there was looting. The Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Times Square. You know, Union Square in New York. Here and the mag mile and different parts of the Chicago Loop. And so that that’s different, right? That’s different from what we saw in these earlier historical periods. 

     And I think also, you know, the actual participants are different. Right. And so it wasn’t just simply the most dispossessed blacks who were protesting and engaging in looting, but you had a broad cross-section of the population that were participating and engaging in some of these recuperations of private property and consumer goods that had been denied to them. And I think a lot of the reason why I say Donald Trump riots, a lot of that has to do with the backdrop of the pandemic, the fact that we have 40 million unemployed. You know, these are based on unemployment claims and many more people who are living, you know, close to hunger in this country. Right. So I think that also, you know, as well as the Coved cabin fever. I think people had been pent up for a couple of months. And so this moment allows people to be social, to break the shelter in place. And there’s also that dimension as well. The last thing I’d say so there’s the George Floyd protest, there’s the Donald Trump riot, and then there’s also this moment of neoliberal redemption that we’re in right now.

     And I think that may be the most the most telling and important part of it, that the moment of George Floyd is really graphic. And, you know, just undeniable abuse of police power in that moment has allowed many corporations that want to fire over the last couple months, especially the ones that were able to, the ones connected to the gig economy that continue to work these delivery companies, as well as companies engaged in various services, Instacart, Amazon, you know, Lyft and all these other companies, which were under pressure from labor activists for their terrible conditions, even before the pandemic. But the ways in which they weren’t really protecting employees, this really sort of provides them with an outright. All of those companies posted some sort of blackout message on blackout Tuesday where they show their solidarity with protesters. They talked about the history of American racism. And I think it’s interesting that it provides an escape route for these corporations as well as democratic elites. Right. And so the very democratic elites who were, you know, threatened by a Sanders campaign, now have a chance to again occupy the role of progressives, even if, you know, it was interesting to watch them this morning. You know, James Clyburn, Nancy Pelosi, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who’ve both been criticized for their role in tough on crime policies in the past, all sort of uniting around police reform. And so it’s an interesting moment, I think that, you know, again, it’s sort of allows for this reconsolidating of, you know, neoliberals both within the corporate world, but also on Capitol Hill.

Paul Jay

I do a show where I interview people. It starts sort of biographical and then gets into the politics. It’s called Reality Asserts Itself.. And the pandemic is reality asserts itself in a big way. There’s these moments where the sort of fabric of mythology, it’s almost like a mist that covers up the reality of working class and poor peoples‘ lives. I mean, of course, they face the reality all the time, but the rest of the society, which to a large extent the majority, or was, that kind of does OK and is immersed in entertainment, culture and, you know, mainstream news, which creates a kind of feeling that no matter what happens, there’s always a kind of equilibrium, and that the elites will always solve the problem, somehow. And yet Katrina was a shredding of that fabric of that mythology.You get these moments. 

     Well, the pandemic’s a big one. And  we haven’t had anything like that in my lifetime, I guess, where the idea that everything’s gonna be okay is really falling apart. And this especially whole sections of the white working class that always felt, and to some extent, I mean, it’s not entirely white working class.  It’s some Black workers and Latinx workers that also, you know, have done OK. They work in big industries that are unionized, and they never imagined, ever they’d be in poverty. Now that all these big sections of people are going to be facing losing their houses and, you know, years of unemployment. So there is a real change shaping right at the roots of the society. And that converges with a time when people actually can go out and protest because there’s no school and people don’t have work. 

     But, my question is, and you go back to the quote from Marx, where one of the things he’s saying is that in order to work out their own emancipation and along with it to a higher form, which present society’s irresistibly tending, we know what he means by that is that socialism is born within capitalism. And you can see now if there was ever an obvious example of the need for socialized medicine and planning of, socialized planning for pharmaceuticals and vaccination and testing and the chaos of the privately owned American health care system. I mean, there’s never been a more stark example of why we need to move towards that kind of higher form, which capitalism is taking us to. Although it‘s  taking us a long damn time if he wrote this in 1871. But is that consciousness growing amongst the people in the streets?

Cedric Johnson

You know, I think it is. I would say that, you know, I think we’ve been building right up. I think we’re not;  I said this to somebody recently on the email thread that I thought we were winning. And people, you know, it was a pretty skeptical group of folks. And I belong to that group. But I feel like over the last, you know, I haven’t lived long enough to remember the end of the Cold War.Right. I think we’re in a different moment than we were in when I was in my 20’s and then in college. Right. I feel like the, you know, the one example. Right. I mean, you couldn’t really talk about socialism in the circles I was in in the nineteen nineties, early 90’s. Right. That just wasn’t a possibility. You know, in a mostly insular and mostly Black, mostly Southern circles. Right. Nobody was really talking about socialism. That was seen as sort of bad word.  And even when I might see—- 

Paul Jay

That’s the effects of the Cold War propaganda. 

Cedric Johnson

Absolute right. And then even  when I was in graduate school, I mean. Among the students, right. We were, there was a good bunch of us who were engaged in early kind of anti-globalization organizing, and a lot of us participated in the April 26th demonstrations in 2000 against the World Bank in D.C. But for the most part, I mean, most of the faculty weren’t trying to talk about that stuff. Right. That was the easy way to sort of, you know, marginalize yourself, if that’s what you wanted, to be alienated if you embraced it openly. So I think when I meet people now, especially people who’re engaged activists or graduate students who are actively writing about some of these subjects, and people who are organizing and publicly identifying themselves as a socialist, I see, you know, a bit of a change.

     But I mean, the Sanders campaign’s for me, may be the best indicator of it, the fact that he was able to run as a Democratic Socialist. And it didn’t work against him, I don’t think for the most part.  I mean, I think there are places where there’s still a lot of work to be done. In the South in order to gain some traction, it’s not that people aren’t receptive to those ideas. On thing that came out of South Carolina’s contest, the primary, the Democratic primary. Well, that there were growing numbers of people who supported Medicare for All. They just didn’t support Sanders as a candidate. And many of them decided to support Biden, I think, out of, sort of a defensive strategy. Right, in their minds, they imagine that Biden would be the more viable candidate to defeat Trump. So it wasn’t they didn’t decide to do some sort of aspirational voting, but voted defensively. I think the Sanders campaigns, but even before that, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and even elements of Black Lives Matter,  I think we’re seeing many more people warm up to the idea of public goods, warming up to the idea of de-commodifying certain basic needs like housing, education and otter things. And so I see. Right.I see movement. I see a consciousness that’s changed dramatically, like I said, since the 1990s. I don’t think we’re totally there yet. And I think in some cities it feels better and it looks better than other places. So you know, I live in Chicago. We have strong unions. We’ve had some some pretty big, you know, internationally recognized victories in the last decade or so with the Chicago Teachers’ Union. People turn out and contest any kind of neoliberal reforms that are coming from different mayoral administrations or even from the governor that we had in the last, you know, the last governor that we had here.

     So I think it feels palpable here. Right. It feels that you could have a viable socialist left politics that’s popular, that’s anchored in neighborhoods, it’s anchored in organizations and in unions, but in other parts of the country where it just doesn’t exist. Right. I mean, I grew up in a Right to Work type state with low union density. And I think that’s really, maybe where the next frontier of organizing for people on the left really is.

     This is beyond the cities, beyond the two coasts. But in the hinterlands of the country where, it’s not that people don’t want, you know, more in the way of the kinds of advantages and the kind of life that could be produced through public goods.There‘s just not a clear sense of the pathway from where they are now, where it’s mostly Republican governors and in some cases Republican legislatures, to a situation where you would actually be able to achieve those kinds of things. So I think we are moving there, but I think there’s a lot of work that still has to be done. 

     And I worry in a way, even about the framing with Black Lives Matter. You know, I’ve been a consistent critic of it. I think it doesn’t really capture the problem. Right. You know, when you look at the problem of policing, surely there’s no denying black people are much more likely to be arrested, to be harassed, to be incarcerated and potentially to an arrest incident, to be killed by by police.

And so those things are realities. But when you look at the national trends, because I think Black Lives Matter is very much an urban driven phenomenon. Right. So, if you’re in Chicago, of course, it makes total sense, but if I’m in the Dakotas, or if I’m in some other part of the country, the demography changes dramatically. And so when you look at the national figures on arrest related deaths, black people are not the majority. Right. They they make up, maybe, around 30 percent of the total number of people in any given year for the last few decades who were killed by police. The problem with that, you know, when you pose those sort of problems of people, pull that reality to people, you know, show them those statistics, you know, there’s no shift in discussion towards, how do we explain that? Like, what is it that a black person like Freddie Gray or the Kwame McDonnel have in common with the Latinos, the whites, the Native Americans who were also killed by police in other places? And so I think, you know, I wonder how the Black Lives Matter framing, as seductive and as appealing as it may be to so many people, really undermines the potential for much broader alliances.  Right. And a return to a class analysis, because really what we’ve seen in the country, is not just simply black people who are being overpoliced, but it’s all working class people and in particular, the most dispossessed segments of the population who are, you know, sometimes dependent upon criminalized forms of work in order to survive. So I just wonder about the, you know, the importance of Black Lives Matter as a way of framing the problem? Whether it really helps us to move in a much more progressive way to build a kind of, you know, alliances and foster a consciousness you’re talking about, or whether it sets us back in some ways. And these are committed to a liberal understanding of the problems with American society, right? 

Paul Jay

Yeah. I think you put your finger on sort of the core, or at least one of the most critical issues facing building a national popular movement, which is clearly what’s needed now.

     In Baltimore, this idea that during the Freddie Gray struggle, in an otherwise, but particularly then, that black led organizations would lead and whites could be allies. But it wasn’t like there was no room there that white working class youth and workers had their own reasons to fight, not just to be allies. And then there was this distinction between black led organizations and others. Like I saw even recently, one of these groups in Baltimore has put out this this little guideline for youth. And one of them is: don’t trust any organization led by whites.

Cedric Johnson

I know.

Paul Jay

     I understand there’s an element of legitimacy in that because there have been problems in the past. You know, at these moments, the white left, which is often more educated, and they come in and they can kind of take over these broader organizations. And there’s, it’s not like that isn’t a legitimate concern. But on the other hand, how do you ever build a broad popular movement if it’s so segregated? You know, I said, you know, I used to argue with these guys in Baltimore and I’d say, listen, you do need to understand, you know, you’re a real minority in this country. If the white workers and white youth aren’t in struggle together with you, you’re not going to win. Even just from that most pragmatic point of view.And then more so. You know, this ideology of, you know, nothing to do with the whites and all that, it’s actually very pro-black capitalism. They even characterized socialism as, you know, this is white European left ideology, socialism. So they wind up promoting black capitalism. In Baltimore that’s fairly strong. Is that true in Chicago?

Cedric Johnson

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve even seen people wearing Black Wealth Matters, you know, shirts. Right. Or, you know, both that, in and of itself. You know, the making of the shirts is evidence of black capitalism. But more generally, you know that sentiment is still pretty widespread. You know, if you look at the celebrations, observances earlier this week of the Tulsa race riots. Right. You know, the way that event is remembered. Right. And that was fairly common, unfortunately, right. For black business persons to be targeted by racist vigilantes. You know, I think in the case of Ida B. Wells. She migrated to Chicago from Memphis. She was in Memphis. She migrated to Chicago because some of her close friends in Memphis had been assaulted and lynched, you know, two prominent black businessmen there. So this is part of the historical record.

     But the way it gets taken up, right, is that this was a moment in which black wealth was destroyed and therefore subsequent generations denied the opportunity to pursue, you know, wealth creation on par with whites. And I think for me, that’s the fundamental flaw with Black Lives Matter more generally. I mean, I think it’s always important to point out that there are different local manifestations. And I’ll probably say here in Chicago, Black Lives Matter tends to be a little bit more left of center right. Some people even characterize as like the left wing of Black Lives Matter, where you’ll find many more people who are talking about redistributive public policy. Right. One of the things I think they may have been among the first to call for scaling back police funding or rerouting it towards various youth programs.

     I think they don’t go far enough, but they do tend to be a little bit better than some other manifestations that are more focused on really just a militant racial liberalism. By that I simply mean there’s a deep commitment to American liberal, democratic capitalist institutions. The problem is just they don’t work for, haven‘t worked for African-Americans. Right. And so they need to work. And you hear a lot of that rhetoric repeated you know, this past week. Right. There’s been a lot of people, a number of people have gotten up and made that case, right, that, you know, the American project is great, but it could be greater if it was available to all. Right. And that’s not exactly a radical set of ideas. Right. But it takes on a certain air of militantcy in the kind of heated rhetoric that we’ve heard over the last couple of weeks. So, yeah, I just think it is inadequate, right, as a way of talking about these these problems, especially the problem of policing.

Paul Jay

I was being interviewed on a radio show out of New York yesterday, and I was saying that, you know, who is this slogan Black Lives Matter addressed to? Because if you’re wanting to convince the elites that Black Lives Matter, well, you won’t convince them because they don’t think black lives matter. And the reason they don’t think black lives matter is because it’s black lives, if you’re talking poor, black or working class black, It’s a source of cheap labor. They don’t, they only matter from that point of view. There are some black lives that do matter to the elites. NBA players matter. They get paid millions of dollars. They get treated with respect, even idolized. Same for a lot of black entertainers. It’s working class and poor blacks that don’t matter. And they’re not going to matter just because people say they matter. They‘re going to matter because people get organized and assert power. That’s the way they’re going to matter. So I agree there is a liberal formulation that doesn’t get at the underlying issue, which is the reason that we have systemic racism. And it’s the same reason that white supremacy, systemic racism existed in slave society is because it’s this pool of cheap labor. And, you know, we dehumanize, the society dehumanizes those it exploits and uses racism to dehumanize those it super exploits.

     And that doesn’t get talked about very much because then you have to really start to talk about. OK. Then why is there chronic poverty, which is because of this need for cheap labor. And what are the solutions?

     Well, the solutions become, you know, socialistic solutions because, you know, for years people have been trying to have reforms that deal with poverty. And every reform winds up putting money into real estate developers and various companies that get subsidized, but does nothing to actually alleviate the poverty.

     And that kind of conversation needs to be, I think, at the core of the movement and what young people are talking about, because this, this is one of these rare moments in history where there really is a possibility to break out of the sleep, the dormancy of the working class and including the unions. And maybe a real broad front could emerge here. But the conversation has to get to the way Marx talks about in this quote.

Cedric Johnson

 Yeah. I think we need we need analysis of all of the political forces that are in motion. We need analysis of the economy that goes beyond, you know, the most simple formulations we can hear you know, that can be turned into a slogan. And I mean, just some quick examples. I think one historical example of how this plays out.Go back to the Katrina, to the Katrina disaster as one example, and then maybe one more contemporary example from the last week that might be helpful for thinking about the dangers here. If we don’t criticize that kind of black capitalist dimension where would you end up?

     So when the Katrina disaster was unfolding, there were a few of us folks I was connected to who were writing and thinking about New Orleans, and for a time there was one email I had going back and forth between myself, Adolph Reed and John Arena, who wrote a really important book on public housing in New Orleans and how the remaining public housing stock was destroyed and made way for privatized developments in the same place. But we had this conversation going back and forth. We were all baffled by the ways in which there was no major national demonstration, no march on New Orleans to save and protect the right of return for New Orleanians. But yet, at the same time, a year after that disaster, there was a mass migration of activists and students and other folks to Jena, Louisiana, to support the Jena Six. Right. So the year before, you’ve got a situation where, you know, a million people are displaced. Nearly two thousand people die. And you have, you know, a lot of uncertainty. It’s not clear what’s going to happen doing that first year after Katrina.

     But yet we saw thousands of people hopping cars, you know, charter buses and whatever else to make their way to Jena, Louisiana, and what they were protesting, there was something fairly simple, but it actually anticipates or prefigures Black Lives Matter. You’ve got a situation where you’ve had an ongoing feud between black and white students at the school,  and they end up getting into this, there’s a lot of intimidation. I think one of the white kids hung a noose on a tree outside. Eventually, some of the black kids assaults one of these white students, and they’re put on trial. Right. They’re suspended, and they‘re brought up on on criminal charges. And so the mass mobilization was about helping them to get to beat this, you know, this case. Right. And to get their lives back. And you know, like I said , Adolph and John and I, we were really like we couldn’t understand why.

     And I think the conclusion we all sort of came to was that it was much easier for people to look at a little small town in Louisiana like Jena and see what was a clear, you know, racial play unfolding. Right. It was all, it was like a clear morality play. Black students who had been unjustly treated in a southern town. There’s a sheriff who looks like he is racist. The authority figures don’t seem like they’re being fair. And so it really fit peoples’ sense of what America has historically been about. And it was easy to sort of take on a strong protest stance in that regard. In the case of New Orleans, right. During the Katrina disaster, you had multiple complex forces that were at play. Right. You had at the federal level, you know, a failure to adequately respond. But then you also had the local level mismanagement and equally, you know, equally problematic commitment to capitalist planning, which placed property over the lives of, you know, about 100,000 New Orleanians who were left behind and didn’t have automobiles and means of exit in the city. Right.

     So, it was much more difficult to deal with that, or even the fact that they were poised to demolish public housing because you couldn’t get all, everyone to be on board with protecting public housing. Many,if you talk to, you know, you know, various different populations of constituencies of blacks, not everybody’s on board with public housing. You actually see it as something which should have been raised. And that was part of how it was able to be accomplished, was because they actually had support from different players and black actors in the city. So I think that’s one of the problems. You know, if you compare those to Jena Six and Katrina, one is easy, you know, unequivocal, any racist stance that needs to be taken. Right. The other one is something different that requires attention to public policy, a willingness to think about the failures of the past while thinking imaginatively and creatively about what’s possible in terms of how do you address water? You know, control issues and flood hazards in a large city like the size of New Orleans.

     And so I think that just didn’t really know; it was a much more difficult thing for people to mobilize around. Right. And the anti-racist framing of it didn’t really help. It didn’t explain why some black New Orleanians were able to hop in their cars and escape the disaster and others were left behind. You needed to have a class analysis in order to understand that. And so, you know, we didn’t get it. And that’s why you also didn’t have the mobilizations.

The more recent example I give you has to do with the ways in which Lori Lightfoot responded to the protest at the George Floyd and the ways in which those escalated into full on riots and looting in downtown. One thing she did, she immediately did what most mayors would do. She used the National Guard to create this big perimeter around downtown to protect it from potential looters going forward. Right, she Immediately did that. The effect that that had, however, was that it pushed some of that looting activity out into the neighborhoods. Right. And so on Friday and Saturday of the week before last, you had looting in the Loop. Right after that, it spreads to the neighborhoods and even to some of the adjacent suburbs. And the effect is disastrous for a lot of communities. I mean, some people are already struggling in the midst of the pandemic because they were living in food deserts. Now you have one or two pharmacies or grocery stores that were within the vicinity of various working class and poor neighborhoods are now gone. Right. Some of them totally gutted. And it’s unclear whether or not there will be reinvestment in some of those stores in the short run or even the long term.

     The next move that Lori Lightfoot makes is also pretty characteristic, right? What she does after facing a barrage of criticism from, you know, activists as well as some of the city, some of the alderman in the city, is that she hires three private security firms to protect the stores, not the people. Right. In many cases, these folks were terrorized by vigilantes, by armed gangs, some who were protecting their neighborhood, some who were simply taking advantage of the chaos in there and, really to the retreat of police. She hires these these private security companies to protect the stores now. I think they spent somewhere around one point two million dollars among these three different companies. All three of these companies are minority owned firms. So you could easily see how going forward, right, there’s a way for some mayors like Litefoot to address the questions of inequality, through pure symbolism, right?

     Again, joining this idea of black capitalism. I mean, one of these firms that she she hired is actually one of the largest black owned firms in the country. But you can see how this may become one of the models that’s used in order to address questions of policing, even as they may scale back to the size of all of our uniformed officers, but also provide like some patronage to black constituencies in the form of minority contracting, which was what was done in the 1970s in some cities. Right. I mean, places like Atlanta. Right. You think they engage in a lot of minority contracting, which produced a tremendous amount of black wealth for some, but didn’t necessarily address the deeper inequalities that many working class blacks will face.

Paul Jay

Right. And just finally, if there’s going to be development of a popular movement, and by that I mean more than just popular. I mean actually organized, the real organized thing that people kind of belong to and have, you know, organizations of in different cities and something, you know, where this force can take on, not just a strong presence in the streets, but also real electoral influence. I think the unions are going to be critical in building such a thing. Do you see that happening? For example, you would think looking at the unions across the country, you know, the teachers in Chicago are one of the ones you would think had better move because a lot of them won‘t. 

Cedric Johnson

I mean, I think, you know, Chicago’s a good model. Right? We’ve been able to elect a number of Democratic Socialists  to the city council. And I suspect that that that will continue. Right. I think that grows directly out of those early victories with the the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

     But I think that’s happened in other cities as well. Right, places like Seattle. But I think that—-I’m not sure what the vehicle might be. Right. I mean, I think unions have a role to play. And I’m certainly a union, you know, union guy. But I just wonder what the form will be. Right. Does it mean, as we saw with Sanders, you know, in the places where the Democratic Party is kind of the only game in town in which you work just to make that party as as progressive as it can be, right? Because in some places like those, you know, those states within the heartland of the country. Right. That’s pretty much what you have. Or are we looking at something where activist networks and maybe more ad hoc type formations are going to be more helpful? Right. More alliances around different issues. I’m not altogether sure.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I’m not either, but I’m guessing it’s some form of all of the above. The Sanders campaign started taking on some of that character where, you know, all kinds of different organizations endorsed Sanders, although I must say a lot of unions didn’t. But I mean, some of the more progressive ones did.

     But around that campaign, it was possible to have many different kinds of organizations while they continue doing their own work that they were doing, but endorsed Sanders. Maybe it’s something like that where you have a broad front and all the various organizations keep doing what they do, but they agree to some very agreed basic common demands and elect some kind of leadership. I mean, other countries have done this where they create these broad fronts, popular movements. I’ve never really seen it in North America. But if we don’t do it, I don’t know. I said the other day, if we don’t do it, we’re doomed. 

Cedric Johnson

There’s no doubt. No doubt.I mean, I think that’s one of the virtues of a Sanders campaigns. I think he, I think that those two campaigns were able to shift some people’s attitudes about electoral politics where you had, you know, open disdain for it in some circles.  You know, both people who are political folks who on the left, but also, you know, people who are apolitical and not really engaged in politics finally  seeing that there may be something that can be wrought from the process. Right. And I think the next thing, of course, is to not see it, as, you know, as the most important part. But it’s really just the first step in in trying to build and create the kind of force that you’re talking about. I think it’s additive, it’s the one way to walk away from it. It’s not the whole thing. Right.

Paul Jay

Well let’s say this is just the beginning of a conversation, and we’ll add to it later. Thanks for joining us, Cedric. 

Cedric Johnson

All right. Thanks a lot

Paul Jay

Thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.

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  • The only solution to the massive economic and environmental problems we face is to stop producing. What is with the capitalist shibboleth of growth? How far can you grow on a finite planet? And fairly distribute what’s left. Let Jeff Bezos pay the mortgages of 37 million of the imminently to be homeless. Or tear his effing head off. How are Google, Amazon, Uber, Spotify, Instacart not monopolies? Not subject to anti-trust break ups?