“If you want change in America, go and register to vote”, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a press conference in late May as protests swept the city. But vote for whom?
Liberal-minded Democratic city politicians and prosecutors? African American mayors like Keisha Lance Bottoms herself? They are the ones who wrote and voted for the laws that armed the police to kill. They appoint the police chiefs whose cops kill on the street, and whose forces have been brutalising and arresting protesters. They’re the mayors who for decades have overseen the murderous policing of the big cities.
At every level of government, Democrats – many of them Black – have administered the regime of police brutality that this movement is against. And once again, Democrats are now moving to coopt the struggle. The worst enemies of the oppressed are now presenting themselves as their saviour. Trump’s chest-beating threats to bring out “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” were frightening, but the Democrats are the ones doing the dirty work. For decades, they’ve been more effective at coopting and betraying struggles, and that’s why they’re now in charge of so many of the cities where the killings have taken place.
The uprising began in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That city’s last Republican mayor finished his term in 1973. Its city council consists of 12 Democrats and one Green. Eric Garner was killed by the New York City police in 2014, under a Democratic mayor, a Democratic governor and a Democratic super-majority in the New York state assembly. Louisville, Kentucky – where police switched off their body cameras before firing into a demonstration, killing Black protester David McAtee – has had a Democratic mayor for a decade. The list goes on and on. Chicago and Los Angeles, cities home to some of the strongest Democratic political machines in the US, are also places known for terrible racist police violence, and are the places experiencing some of the biggest protests now.
Killer cops carry out some of their worst crimes while repressing the Black populations of big cities, and those cities are often run by Democratic machines. Those machines are often headed by so-called progressive Democrats, many of them Black, generally willing to shed a strategic tear at the right moment.
The public faces can be white liberals like Bill de Blasio, a Sanders supporter who once travelled to Nicaragua to witness the Sandinista experiment that was then unfolding. They can be Black politicians like Keisha Lance Bottoms. They can be standard-issue modern Democrats like Jane Castor, the mayor of Tampa, Florida. She was the first woman and first openly gay person to serve as the city’s police chief. A former Republican recruited to the Democrats as a “rock star” candidate to become mayor, she is the epitome of neoliberal “diversity”: senior cop, Republican, woman, gay, Democrat.
Black people in the US used to be much more systematically excluded from public life. In the south public spaces were segregated. Black people were disenfranchised, and they were forbidden from exercising political power. Its supporters called this system “white supremacy”. That system was dismantled in the upheavals of the 1960s, after decades of heroic and self-sacrificing struggles.
Now there’s a different approach. Black cops can beat Black victims. Black police chiefs oversee the terrorising of Black communities, appointed in many cases by Black mayors. Black members of Congress pass laws to keep the system running – 80 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the last renewal of the “1033 program”, which donates the Pentagon’s surplus machine guns, armoured cars and other weapons of war to the USA’s militarised police. A Black attorney general serving under the first Black president administered the justice system that led to the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests. This is why Keisha Lance Bottoms could lecture the protesters in Atlanta: "If you love this city, this city that has had a legacy of Black mayors and Black police chiefs ...if you care about this city, then go home."
There’s an extensive overlapping network of public figures, preachers, capitalists, politicians and bureaucrats who present a liberal face to defuse anger at the system. It includes what the Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford calls the “black misleadership class”, as well as the kinds of religious figures who were mobilised to speak at a public event in St Louis, Missouri, to cool down the protests raging after the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson – only to be told by the angry young protesters, “If you don’t turn up at the protest, get the fuck out of here”. The network is one of the most important elements of the political coalition making up the Democratic Party.
When it comes to elected Democrats, it takes in both Democratic “centrists” like Jane Castor and “progressives” like Bill de Blasio. It now includes Bernie Sanders, who has used the uprising as an excuse to send out fundraising emails for various “progressive” prosecutors – including George Gascón, a former San Francisco district attorney well known for failing to go after killer cops – and to call for a pay raise for the police. And it includes progressive prosecutors themselves, like Larry Krasner from Philadelphia, who was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. In the City of Brotherly Love, 700 protesters have been arrested, but no cops, despite the widespread police violence there during the protest wave.
Democrats who have built and administered this system are scrambling to look like they’ve learned their lesson. Many Democrats (alongside Republicans like Mitt Romney) are joining protests. The Minneapolis City Council is now talking about scrapping its entire police department, which makes sense given the depths of criminality that have been exposed in it. There’s a lot of talk about defunding city police.
To cut back the country’s bloated police departments would be an important achievement. It would be a recognition that hatred of the police is so powerful and so clear that rebranding them, “retraining” them and “reforming” them isn’t seen as enough. To create any sense that protesters have been listened to, cities need fewer killer cops with fewer deadly weapons.
But we shouldn’t be taken in by their change of heart. Democrats seem to “wake up” whenever a movement draws attention to their crimes. But they soon carry on doing whatever they can to run and expand the repressive US state.
Joe Biden, to the best of his ability, is now giving tear-jerking speeches about the scourge of police violence – having moved on from his first policy response, “shoot them in the leg”, which was itself arguably more progressive than authoring the 1994 Crime Bill that helped entrench the mass incarceration system.
The 2016 Democratic National Convention was a particularly disgusting display. A lengthy expanse of the theatrical proceedings was devoted to trying to incorporate the Black Lives Matter movement, which had by then largely dissipated and was becoming congealed into Democratic-aligned NGOs. The entire united apparatus of the Democrats was at the convention to watch the show. The mayors were there, and the progressive prosecutors, with the governors and members of Congress who had planned, funded and administered the militarisation of the US police for decades. Earlier in the proceedings, Bernie Sanders had officially endorsed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Now, the Democrats had to put on a show to argue that supposedly sensitive and intelligent people like Clinton and her party comrades should run the murderous US state.
A city police chief – Cameron McLay of Pittsburgh – spoke from the podium in full uniform, quoting Martin Luther King: “True peace is not the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice”. The mothers of several murdered Black men were brought to the stage to ceremonially endorse Clinton. “Hillary Clinton isn’t afraid to say that Black lives matter”, said Lucia McBath, the mother of murder victim Jordan Davis. (McBath is herself now a Democratic member of Congress, part of the right-wing New Democrat faction.)
In 2016, the Democrats tried to convince the world they’d learned the lessons of Black Lives Matter. They moved swiftly to incorporate many of its public faces into their bureaucracy, which is devoted to administering the racist violence of US capitalism. Four years later, it’s their cops, their police chiefs, their mayors and their governors facing an uprising. And they’re trying again to act like they’ve learned their lesson.
The Democrats – progressive wing included – are no solution to the horror facing the Black population of the US. They’re a party of oppressors: corporate CEOs, police chiefs and senior state officials. They are masters of presenting an “understanding” face during an election and during an uprising.
The last great Black uprising in the United States fought for formal equality: voting rights, civil rights, desegregation. The country’s rulers, particularly its Democrats, fought brutally to destroy physically that movement and its activists. When they were facing defeat, they quickly learned how to incorporate its demands into a new form of racist brutality. Black liberation will require the dismantling of the system the Democrats rule over.
From the times of slavery and segregation, of which they were the great defenders, to the present day of mass incarceration and rampant police murder, which they administer, Democrats have formed the faction of the US ruling class with the most talent and dedication to defending the US system. They’ve done it with reactionary and liberal, and white and Black faces; they’ve done it by killing protesters and by incorporating them.
Jacob Frey, the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, ran for election on a platform of police reform. He attended the protests in his city, took a knee and cried. But when he admitted that he wouldn’t defund the city’s police department, he was met with boos and driven from the protests by an angry crowd. No matter what slogans and performances Democrats offer – and no matter what concessions they are forced to grant – this movement should keep driving them out of its midst.