By Patrick Higgins
Notes From Houston
To assess the Houston rally for George Floyd held on June, 2nd, by the official proceedings alone would be to ignore the political diversity found in the streets that day. I’ll therefore remark on the formal event as well as its undercurrents and aftermath.
The formidable size of the crowd, rounding out at an estimated 60,000, prevented me from either seeing or hearing the official ceremony, so I’m forced to depend on the testimony of friends in my recounting of that side of things. The rally was organized by Houston-based rappers Trae tha Truth and Bun B in coordination with the City of Houston. The city-sanctioned plan entailed a back-and-forth march between the Discovery Green plaza and City Hall, a roughly ten-block area. According to friends, the ceremony opened with a prayer for law enforcement, followed by chants emphasizing victimhood (e.g., “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”) rather than resistance. The onstage organizers and city officials offered prescriptions limited to voting (presumably for Joe “Crime Bill” Biden) and pushing for the prosecutions of individual killer cops. The messaging, dead set on themes of peace and calm, offered a stark and surreal contrast to the military-police state that had moved into plain view. In my humble capacity as one person among tens of thousands, perhaps it makes sense that I couldn’t hear the homages to Floyd, microphone-amplified though they were. But I could very acutely hear the chops of helicopters and the buzzing of drones, just as I could clearly see swarms of Houston cops clad in riot gear and the many snipers poised in shooting position on rooftops. While I do believe jailing killer cops makes for a righteous use of people’s power in the short term, it should be a minimal and not maximal demand, as another reality was to me inescapable: what’s the occasional prosecution of a killer cop to a system that greets protests with weapons and personnel fit for a military counterinsurgency?
But amongst the people was a counter force to the pacification liturgy. There were many objections to the organizers’ HPD-friendly approach from Black nationalist and Pan Africanist youth, who came out in large numbers. While for obvious reasons they lack powerful stage managers and glamorous platforms, these were the men and women present who seemed most capable of propelling forward radical ideas and putting up real resistance to confront Houston’s many injustices. They adorned their signs with images of and quotations from Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown (who now goes by the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and is serving time as a political prisoner in the federal United States Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona). When word got around that riot cops were antagonizing people at an intersection, these youths were organized enough to pull large numbers of people to stand up to the police. After that particular confrontation, a young man, raising an effigy of a police officer, drew a large crowd for his impromptu speech condemning the event organizers’ “ass kissing,” insisting that such misleaders were responsible for killing George Floyd all over again, even in death.
This same general mood prevailed after the rally officially ended at Discovery Green, the main site of police aggression from HPD riot cops and State Troopers. Officers from both units surrounded and trapped the crowd from three separate locations in and around Discovery Green (which included releasing cascades of troopers who’d been hiding in the adjoining George R. Brown Convention Center), and also at City Hall and just about every street in between. At the same time, hours after the “official” event ended, cars and trucks driven by protesters circled the blocks. Out of the vehicle windows Black youth joyfully blasted music and waved the Pan African Liberation flag of Red, Black, and Green. HPD dealt with the wide spread of the protest by forming car squads and relentlessly driving circles of their own while smothering passersby aurally with close-range siren blares. The concurrent stand-off at Discovery Green ended with police tear-gassing and arresting hundreds of protestors, a repeat of an earlier mass arrest that had taken place on Friday, May 29th, when the sweep-up was so exhaustive the cops yanked and handcuffed non-protesters before shipping arrestees to jail en masse on metro buses. On both occasions, the HPD skillfully held populations captive at jagged intersections, away from all local media view, waiting until dark to unleash their brutality.
The problem the people of Houston face when it comes to police violence starts with the Chief of Police, Art Acevedo. By way of contrast, it helps to look at the aggressive, openly hateful leadership of the NYPD. On June 9th, a video appeared online of Mike O’Meara, the President of New York Police Benevolent Association, snorting about police being portrayed in media as “animals” and “thugs.” Few could’ve missed the layered irony of these words, on account of the tables turned as well as the pig’s plea to be disassociated from the rest of the animal kingdom. Snarling with his face flushed red and dousing his microphone in a torrential downpour of rage-spittle, O’Meara might as well have been sent from central casting to fit the archetype of the Angry Irish NY Cop. His weird fascist rant is unlikely to have won him many new champions outside of white America’s (admittedly not insignificant) Blue Lives Matter cult.
Acevedo, however, possesses the quality of cleverness, rare among cops. He contributed to the Internet viral clips of his own in which he announced his supposedly deep sympathy with protestors, laying it on thick with references to his family’s immigrant background, implying he has a first hand understanding of the plight of “people of color,” and, without any evidence, blaming tensions between the HPD and protestors on troublemakers from Austin. (That last bit was his localized Texas variation of the “outside agitators” theme.) It’s up to organizers and principled journalists in Houston to expose the dark truth of the HPD that lurks behind Acevedo’s PR stunts. A worthy start would be to add pressure to existing demands for accountability over at least six recent HPD killings that have occurred in as many weeks. On June 8th, family of Nicolas Chavez, a 27-year-old man shot to death by HPD officers, held a press conference. Chavez’s father Joaquín said that the HPD hasn’t allowed him to view body camera footage of the shooting. Meanwhile, publicly available cellphone footage contradicts Acevedo’s interference-running claim that Chavez represented an aggressive threat: in fact he was shot while surrounded and on his knees. The great poet Gil Scott-Heron was referring to the HPD when he spoke about the “racist dogs” who killed his “common ancient bloodline brother [Jose Campos] Torres” in 1977, the murder that sparked the Moody Park Chicano uprising, and we’re dealing fundamentally with the same HPD in 2020. For his part, Acevedo reveals himself as several things at once: a skilled operator, a talented performer, and a major city police chief with a department to protect. For educational purposes, two sets of records should be kept: one of HPD’s crimes against the working class and poor, and another of Acevedo’s filibustering tactics designed to hide those crimes.
Black Power and George Jackson’s Message to White Workers
As Houston is home to massive working class Black, Chicano, Central American, Asian, and Arab communities, populations who are right now the most immediate targets of the US ruling class’s offensive, it’s worthwhile to add some considerations about what’s unfolding nationally. Recent events show clearly that the US state managers view much of their “own” population as reserve forces of a potential military threat, lying in wait. But that view is not new for “our” rulers, even if their military and surveillance weapons have over the years undergone dramatic technological upgrades. In the late 1960s, the National Guard greeted what were often termed “urban rebellions,” which were then erupting at a rate of hundreds per year, with war. Some troops had been re-appointed to crush revolt in US cities after they’d returned from waging war on the socialist revolution happening in Vietnam. In one case, in Detroit in July of 1967, Michigan Governor George Romney (father of the ever so charismatic billionaire and failed presidential candidate Mitt) even drew up the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to be used against the uprising.
During the titanic period of struggle in the 60s the ruling class would’ve had an impossible time credibly blaming Black resistance to the white racist power structure on the specter of “white anarchists.” On the concrete of 12th Street in Detroit, where the uprising got started, the rebels drew up the words “Black Power” in big letters and radiant white chalk. The character of their resistance was made clear as a reflection of growing revolutionary Black consciousness, embraced by masses of Black proletarians ready to fight back against a US regime that had long been waging war on them. The term held special meaning for some white radicals as well. In the words of political prisoner David Gilbert, from his memoir Love and Struggle: “’Black Power’… taught an important political lesson: the need was not, as we had thought, to ‘shake the moral conscience of America.’ Those in power knew very well what they were doing. The point, rather, was to shift or overturn who had power—from the small elite in top to the vast majority underneath them.” There is now unfolding a deluge of psychological campaigns wrapped in corporate branding, meme-powered and audience-tested, whose primary aim is to bury talk of revolution with baseline appeals to the white middle classes’ sudden revelation that Black lives do, in fact, after all this time, as it turns out, matter. At its worst, this PR flood is designed to isolate anti-racism from the issue of class power, to keep conditions and consciousness cleanly separate. But as was apparent in Houston on June 2nd, beneath the sponsored ads, the slogan of Black Power is rumbling and growing louder, and the class contradictions are only heightening around us.
We are almost certainly entering a sustained period of global class struggle, including here in the United States. The ruling class used the “lockdown” to implement a gargantuan structural adjustment program, complete with brutal austerity cuts to public programs, increased corporate monopolization, an unemployment number hovering somewhere well above 40 million, and yes, the expansion of police powers. These are the conditions in which the police murder of George Floyd sparked the biggest and most widespread street rebellions since the 60s. These rebellions began with accumulated knowledge from other “homefront” anti-imperialist uprisings of living memory—in Ferguson and Baltimore, as well as the Standing Rock resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline. This uprising did, for a time, pierce the police’s shield of perceived invulnerability, even if the full extent of the state’s counter-attack, sure to be ghastly, is not yet apparent. Among the more spectacular moments occurred on June 1st when demonstrators sent Trump into his bunker and breached the White House lawn. An expanded security fence has since been erected around the White House; let it stand for the time being as a monument to bourgeois fear and a people’s symbol for what’s possible.
The images of smoke and fire rising from Washington, DC that night added life to the words of the incomparable revolutionary theorist George Jackson in Blood in My Eye: “We must accept the eventuality of bringing the U.S.A. to its knees; accept the closing off of critical sections of the city with barbed wire, armored pig carriers criss-crossing streets, soldiers everywhere, tommy guns pointed at stomach level, smoke curling black against the daylight sky…” I’ve been thinking much about Jackson in light of recent events. He has much to impart to the Black Power cause; he was also a Communist with much to teach all of the working class, including white workers. Part of the reason that Jackson wrote in the language of war is that he felt certain that fascism had long since arrived to the United States of America in its purest form. For him, fascism was less a subjective nationalist ideological expression than it was an objective economic arrangement. The imperialist triumph of the US after the Second World War was “the prototype of the international fascist counterrevolution”: the consolidation of monopoly capitalism through a pact between the State, the Corporation, and, at various key points in history, the support of the reformist elements of labor. Jackson insisted that monopoly capitalism precluded the possibility of bourgeois democracy as it had been practiced in the 19th century, when competition still more or less drove commerce.
The power of Jackson’s observations can be partially attributed to his position as a prisoner of empire. Viewing the world from a cell within the walls of the US’s latest mass industry, its prisons, Jackson implored, what democracy? Jackson’s observations must also be credited to his role as a leader of the Black liberation movement. He believed that Black people, disproportionately represented among America’s exploited, would inevitably lead any revolution that occurs in the US. He did after all declare himself a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist-Fanonist.” We see in this self-description how he did not write from the position of an “American citizen”; he wrote as an American subject. This is not a distinction intuitively grasped by white people raised in the United States; Jackson’s exact words were that, for the lonely Black revolutionary, “No one can understand the feeling but himself.” Jackson nonetheless championed the science of class struggle. Over his 11 years in prison, he saw that prisoners were disproportionately Black men, but he also observed that never in his time had he met a prisoner of any race who was not from the working class. In referring to the leadership of the “Vanguard Black Panther Communist Party,” Jackson saw the party’s role as the creation of the “revolutionary commune in the city center” that could shake the rest of the working class, especially white workers molded and trained by ruling class design to think as racists, out of their anti-social slumber.
Blood in My Eye presents racism as the key to the insidious success of US fascism, the secret ingredient needed to elicit the defection of the reformist elements of labor to the ruling system. Racism is also a matter of deep “psycho-social” conditioning, a “psychopathic destructiveness evinced by a people historically processed to fear… to hate freedom.” Jackson argued that the “morbid, traditional” white fear of Black people doubles as “a fear of revolution”—effectively it is the white worker’s fear of their own freedom. Contrary to US ruling class abuses of the word “freedom,” these past weeks should by now have made clear to more people that helicopters acting as low flying sound weapons are not freedom; phones operating as surveillance tracking software are not freedom; curfews are not freedom. For the people, a depression is already here. The reserve army of the unemployed is still rapidly growing, a surplus population the ruling class loathes, attempts to control, and desires to reduce in number, while those workers still employed walk into ever more dangerous work plants under the contemptuous watchful eyes of bosses so paranoid about the communal prospect of unionization that they’d deny even bathroom breaks. In stark contrast, Jackson proposed that real freedom means “warmth and protection from the harsh exposure of the elements,” “food, not garbage,” and “truth, harmony, and the social relations that spring from these.”
George Jackson was right about the relationship of white supremacist terror to broader class exploitation in the US. “Black, brown, and white are all victims together” because eventually conditions “will move us all to a violent encounter with the system.” The monopoly-corporativist state Jackson described will sooner or later come for the whole of the proletariat, and everyday the proletariat swells larger. Just look at this ugly world being co-created by the military bureaucracy, the high-rise CEOs, the financial aristocracy, and the devoted social engineers of Big Tech. In response, George Jackson speaks from the past to beckon white proletarians to follow the path carved by the Black liberation movement and, in so doing, to stop fearing freedom.
About the Reviewer: Patrick Higgins is a writer based in Houston, Texas.