Rubber Bullets and Liberal Lies: Two Counterinsurgency Tactics in the George Floyd Uprisings

By the Editorial Board

In one week the police murder of George Floyd has exploded into a mass rebellion across the US. The protesters who have taken to the streets in Floyd’s name have been subjected to an all-out violent assault by the state for days on end; the police have arrested, injured, and even killed as they’ve scrambled to repress this latest mass uprising. For those who couldn’t be stopped with brute force, the state and their lackeys have employed low-intensity counterinsurgency tactics to deceive and divide the movement and its sympathizers.

In a video from Atlanta, Georgia, police officers are seen tazing a woman and man in their car over and over again as they try to enforce the strict 9pm curfew that was put in place following mass protests. The woman can be heard clearly in the video saying “I’m getting out, I’m trying” and “please stop” as multiple tazers connect with her body. As she has difficulty gaining control of her arms and legs to get out of the car due to the electric shock, officers stand only a foot or two away from the vehicle leaving her no room to comply with their orders. One officer is seen smashing in the driver side window in the face of the driver, who was then immediately tazed and dragged out of the car, thrown to the ground and continuously electrocuted as almost a dozen other officers join in a scene that resembled a gang jumping.

Other videos from New York City and Los Angeles show police vehicles accelerating into crowds of protesters, an act some compared to the act of terrorism perpetrated by the fascist Alex Fields at the now-infamous ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville. In Austin, police wantonly fired rubber bullets at protesters, sending 16-year-old Brad Levy Ayala to the hospital with a projectile lodged in his head, placing 20-year-old Justin Howell in critical condition, and forcing a pregnant woman into miscarriage after she was hit in the stomach. In Louisville David McAtee and in Vallejo Sean Monterrosa were shot and killed by police, all in the name of restoring ‘law and order.’

Many police officers across the country have also been filmed brutally repressing journalists documenting the protests. MSNBC host Ali Velshi was shot after state police and the National Guard fired rubber bullets unprovoked into a peaceful rally in Minneapolis. As Velshi and his media crew attempted to back away from police and clearly stated “We are media,” the officers responded, “We don’t care” as they continued to shoot. This incident came on the heels of CNN reporters being arrested live on the air as they tried to cooperate with police asking “Where would you like us to stand?” The police have shown that they have little regard for the safety of protesters, media, and bystanders alike as reports of serious injuries from rubber bullets, baton beatings, kicks and punches from police, and unlawful arrests continue to accumulate around the country.

The National Guard and police departments across the US have failed to contain the mass rebellion with brute force alone; they have come up against the universal truth that bloodshed only further nourishes rebellion and have been forced to take up other low-intensity counterinsurgency tactics to paint themselves as supporters of the protests.

A sheriff in Flint, Michigan made headlines on Saturday when he “put down his baton” and joined a protest. Only two days after their violent rampage against protesters, Austin police “led” a  peaceful march in which they hugged liberal “activists” in front of news cameras, the whole event felt staged according to one witness; the following night they handed out cookies to protesters. This Sunday officers in New York were praised by Mayor Bill De Blasio for ‘taking a knee’ in an effort to win sympathy from protesters.

There have been many other highly-publicized instances of police taking knees, perhaps the most insulting being Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who knelt in front of the cameras as the hearse that carried George Floyd’s body passed by. The police performance of ‘solidarity’ only evokes images of ‘taking a knee’ on the neck of George Floyd. These superficially ‘diplomatic’ actions only intend to conceal the truth that the violent protests have exposed – that the role of the police is not to serve communities but to defend private property and the capitalist class.

These symbolic acts have been criticized by many protesters black and white alike to be unwelcome acts of pandering to people who want an end to systemic inequality which cannot be accomplished by these banal publicity stunts. One protester in Austin, Texas stated “If the cops really wanna show their support they should quit their jobs and find a job that serves the people. They should be on the frontlines standing off with the cops who have been pepper spraying and shooting rubber bullets at people who are marching the streets.”

The protests all over the country have seen a markedly more militant resistance to police brutality from the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests that were prompted over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The people have retaliated with integrity, throwing water bottles, rocks, and other projectiles at police, but law enforcement has more than riot gear to shield them. The narratives promoted by ruling class media which shame, blame, and incriminate the most rebellious among the protesters serve as another form of protection for police and the capitalist system they serve. These narratives, along with the practice that comes with them, are rooted in the ideology of liberalism, which is all too willing to capitulate in every important political fight.

Liberalism is the dishonest belief that everything is fine, that the police are here to protect and serve, that simple reforms can solve the issues that precipitated this uprising, and that there’s no point in fighting back. As an ideology it is counterrevolutionary, meaning it serves the propertied class. It upholds the system as it is, a capitalist/imperialist system that has left tens of millions unemployed in a matter of months, murders black people with abandon, and targets any who dare challenge it.

Liberalism dominates many ruling class news outlets and its venom has crept into the mass movement itself, dividing those who have every reason to unite against their common oppressor, US imperialism and its armed bodies. Shortly after the uprising began in Minneapolis, local liberals tried to smother the people’s anger by hiding the rage or ridiculing it. In an interview with ABC News, former mayoral candidate Nekima Levy Armstrong, one of the co-organizers of the first march in response to Floyd’s death, said that “the vast majority of demonstrators are non-violent, peaceful protesters.”

That claim was quickly dispelled as images surfaced of large crowds in the Twin Cities destroying property, writing graffiti, and starting fires. The Minneapolis police department’s third precinct, where Armstrong’s march had ended “peacefully,” was later burned to the ground. Across the US, other police strongholds, city halls, and even the guardhouse of the White House have been targeted by protesters. The ruling class media’s portrayal of everything violent as “chaotic” ignores the shared political direction of the people’s fury against these symbols of racism and the capitalist state.

This mass uprising has exposed the liberal agenda of ‘police reform’ as a sham. The police accountability measures that have been enacted since the Black Lives Matter movement began have not stopped the terrorizing of Black people or working class people in general. One of the main outcries of people on the ground this week has been that for years nothing has changed. “I’ve been going to these protests since I was 14,” said one young black woman at a solidarity protest in New York City, “I’m 20 years old. Six years and I still see no change!”

Only revolutionary violence like what has been on display over the past week can bring about the change that so many are yearning for. It is this justified violence and this real change which liberalism opposes. It is the propertied class and its state which amp up liberal ideas among the people in times of crisis and upheaval to defang them; it is in their exclusive interests.

As a proponent of low-intensity counterinsurgency, liberalism takes many shapes. It can be passive, like the cancellation of the rallies this past weekend out of concerns for “safety,” the calls for the United Nations to intervene (peacefully, of course) on the basis of international law, or the cheering of police officers for ‘taking a knee’ in supposed ‘solidarity’ with the protesters.

On the other end of the spectrum, liberalism can be more direct, like when a group of ‘peaceful’ protesters ganged up on a ‘rioter’ causing property damage in New York and handed him over to the police. On social media, rumors have run wild accusing individuals suspected of ‘violent’ activity as being outside agitators or even police agents. While agent provocateurs are a method the state uses to undermine mass movements, the liberal rumor mill that implicates anyone perceived as a militant is not a serious or effective way of uncovering police agents. In fact, it serves as an unofficial surveillance arm of the state and aids in the further criminalizing of Black people, Chicanos, immigrants, and the working class.

Pacifism itself is a form of violent oppression as it only targets one side, the people, for disarmament, leaving the violence of the state fully intact. It is not uncommon to see ‘non-violent’ demonstrators physically attack the ‘non-peaceful’ protesters; this is the work of the state, regardless of who carries it out. 

The state’s strategy is targeted at disarming the masses of people. They do this through the mobilization of liberal peace police, through their paid activists, through the ruling class media, and of course through direct police public relations stunts in front of the cameras. One day they are attempting to kill those in the streets, and the next they are shaking hands with a few choice sellouts, expressing their “support” for the protests. The people must see through this as well.

The danger liberalism poses to this mass movement cannot be wished away. It must be confronted both in words and in deeds with revolutionary politics and practice. Many of those currently under the sway of this twisted ideology can be won over to the side of the people, but that can only happen when the reactionary nature of liberalism is unmasked.

The spontaneous mass uprisings need militant and revolutionary leadership in order to overcome the effects of liberalism. While a popular discourse is to blame everything on “white anarchists” despite what can be plainly seen in videos and in person, Donald Trump escalates threats to deem “ANTIFA” (sic) meaning antifascists generally, a terrorist organization. This two pronged attack is a ruling class united front against the uprisings, where Democrats have come to aid the ultra-right Trump. Anarchists themselves have not overcome their own liberalism, and they hold onto it at great risk to the movement and themselves. The incoherent lack of political leadership ascribed by the anarchists makes them vulnerable to such attacks, while their bravery should not be questioned as it serves the people, their disorganization prevents a coherent strategy against the liberal/state maneuvers. They cannot provide the organized leadership this movement needs, in spite of their many combative actions.

This transparent attempt at division relies on a tired old rightwing narrative of ‘outside agitators,’ as if mass uprisings in all major cities are the work of imported militants. The liberal and state narrative in essence, is that white working people and black people do not share a common enemy, and that black liberation is not in their mutual interests. Identity politics are still being used, but with far less success in counterinsurgency. 

Some have taken to turning on other protesters who they deem too combative. There were serval instances where Tribune of the People reporters observed what many refer to as “peace policing” by small groups of liberals in the minority who insist on not confronting the police directly. One of these peaceful protesters in Austin, Texas was observed yelling at a group of Black protesters for allegedly throwing rocks at the police officers. Whether they are aware of it or not, their attempts to single individuals out whom they deem responsible for throwing rocks serves as a snitch network for the police. The police have treated protests around the country like a war, attacking and arresting anyone they feel they can, and in a war-like situation it does not serve the revolutionary cause to side with the enemy’s call for civilian non-violence. When the police are abusing people the anger should be solely placed with them and not on protesters who choose to fight back. The idea that protesters who throw rocks/water bottles, destroy property, loot etc. bring harsher repression from the police, amounts to little more than victim blaming. This is an attempt at criminalizing the outrage of the people in order to assist the police in defending private property.

Following the teachings of revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, the role of the revolutionary is to go to the deepest and most profound masses and educate them in revolutionary violence. There are those who have taken this mandate seriously and have fought bravely shoulder to shoulder with the people. Non-revolutionary progressives tend to waver between the people and their ‘common sense’ tendency to capitulate; they must be won over or neutralized on the ground.

An objective rule of war is to only negotiate what has already been confirmed in battle. This also means the blinding of the police snitch networks, the plain clothed cops in the crowd, whether they are employed by the police department or not. Every activist must take this seriously. Those who side with the police in any capacity must be stopped, first by convincing, warning, and then by the same tactics that are appropriate against the police. To paraphrase one Oakland demonstrator during the height of the 2014-15 movement, “act like a pig, get treated like a pig.” Those who prefer to remain peaceful can do so, even if the police will not, but they must not be permitted for a moment to disarm the people, or force the people to remain peaceful in the face of the war waged on them by the police.

Everyone must take a side, and the class character of the protests must be asserted.

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