Today, June 4, is the anniversary of what has become known internationally as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when thousands of brave students stood up against tanks to fight for democracy. They were crushed before they could mobilize the workers and students who supported them. Tonight, a virtual vigil will celebrate their dream and mourn their loss. Yesterday, another movement of youth stood up to the police, National Guard, tear gas and a threatening president to win their demand that the cops who brutally murdered George Floyd in cold blood in front of the world be charged and prosecuted.
Yesterday was one of the most extraordinary days I’ve ever experienced, and I only experienced it watching CNN. First, charges were brought against all four cops, meeting the first demand of the protesters. Then the current U.S. secretary of defence, and Jim Mattis, the former secretary of defence, openly opposed the president’s announcement that he might use the Insurrection Act if governors and mayors couldn’t “dominate” the protesters.
Then Barack Obama praised the protesters as more powerful because they’re more representative now than similar movements were in the ’60s, and that gives him hope. Then the protests continued even after the original demand was met, with many demonstrators telling the media that they will keep mobilizing until they get the changes to the system they are demanding, making police accountable and ensuring these cops get convicted. Then Bernie Sanders called for Congress to act to support police reform and racial justice. This all happened in one day. After nine days of protest in all 50 states even under curfew. As a young Black protester said today: “Don’t be looking for a Martin Luther King; we’re all Martin Luther King this time.”
I think a revolution has started. It’s being led by Black youth in a multi-racial, multi-gender alliance, and it is being televised.
This is much deeper than voting. It’s a cultural shift. The cruelty and violence of the racist state has at last become visible to almost everyone who isn’t committed to it, and many white people are starting to look at their role in maintaining it. On top of that, a positive movement has emerged to take on the challenge of transformation who look like they already have succeeded in their own ranks. Not only in the U.S., demonstrations have spread around the world, and minorities in other countries — be they Black, Indigenous, Muslim or other communities — are finding power in the upsurge in the U.S.
Every revolution needs a grand idea to spark it. In Tiananmen Square, it was democracy. In the U.S. today, it’s racial justice. What could be a more revolutionary idea in a country built on colonialism and slavery, both founded on the ideology and practice of racism? Every revolution has a great moral cause and a great idea. Here, the moral cause is seeking justice for the brutal cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, and the great idea is racial justice.
Perhaps it was the extreme cruelty of the murder. Watching a man murder another with no passion or anger — just a blank look on his face, almost a smirk staring into the camera, letting us know that he couldn’t care less. Perhaps it’s the pandemic with thousands suffering job losses, fear of illness and death, and the visibility of racialized inequality in the death figures. Somehow, when we are suffering, we are more able to see others’ suffering.
Or maybe it’s the orange one trying to be a dictator in a country that prides itself on being a constitutional democracy. Or perhaps it’s that Black people have had enough, dying in greater numbers from the pandemic, and still being killed in the streets and in their homes by cops at the same time as many of them provide the necessary services we need to survive this pandemic. And the rest of us are finally hearing their voices.
It’s not the revolution we of my generation thought we would see, but a revolution it is. It is times like this that fundamental change can happen, when even in a country as polarized as the U.S., people can change their minds and hearts. It is times like this when people who never showed any interest in politics want to do something to help, maybe even get involved. There is no question that Trump will try to crush it and others to co-opt it.
But one thing is for sure, I’ve been an activist since the 1960s and have never seen anything like this. The demonstrations in the U.S. are youthful and very broad. In Toronto too. I have never been to a protest for Black lives that was so diverse, led by Black youth, but representing every community in the city, mostly young people.
Chants during the Toronto march were very radical (and I mean that in a good way), including “two, four, six, eight, abolish the racist state.” Thanks to Sandy Hudson, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto and journalist, the media is now discussing defunding the police. It’s a great demand because it points out both the inflated budget of militarized police departments and at the same time the financial needs of the community.
Today, the mayor and city council in Los Angeles announced that they are cutting up to $150 million from the police budget to be reinvested in communities of colour. Minneapolis is also looking at community alternatives to police.
On this day of honouring the youthful protesters in China who decades ago stood up to the awesome power of the Chinese state — and remembering their bravery and brutal repression — let us pledge: never again. Up until these last few days, I thought we were watching the collapse of the American empire into brutal civil strife, if not war. This youth uprising for Black lives has given me hope that change for the better may just be possible.
Judy Rebick is the founding publisher of rabble.ca. Her latest book is a memoir Heroes in My Head.
Image: Geoff Livingston/Flickr