In the following analysis, we review the series of movements that led to the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd, explore the factors that made the uprising so powerful, discuss the threats facing it, and conclude with a series of accounts from participants in Minneapolis, New York City, Richmond, Grand Rapids, Austin, Seattle, and elsewhere around the country.
Editors Note: Throughout this article, we have only used photographs that are already widely available online, in order to avoid inadvertently providing sensitive information to the police.
Let us not resent those who get out of hand for reminding us of the conflicts that remain unresolved in our society. On the contrary, we should be grateful. They are not disturbing the peace; they are simply bringing to light that there never was any peace, there never was any justice in the first place. At tremendous risk to themselves, they are giving us a gift: a chance to recognize the suffering around us and to rediscover our capacity to identify and sympathize with those who experience it.
For we can only experience tragedies such as the death of Michael Brown for what they are when we see other people responding to them as tragedies. Otherwise, unless the events touch us directly, we remain numb. If you want people to register an injustice, you have to react to it immediately, the way people did in Ferguson. You must not wait for some better moment, not plead with the authorities, not formulate a sound bite for some imagined audience representing public opinion. You must immediately proceed to action, showing that the situation is serious enough to warrant it.
-“What They Mean When They Say Peace,” published during the uprising in Ferguson, a precursor of the movement that has unfolded countrywide since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
We must begin with a moment of silence—for no revolt, no matter how powerful, not even if it could burn down every police precinct and open up every prison, could ever give life back to Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, or any of the countless other Black people who have been murdered by police since the founding of the United States of America. Uprisings like the one that began in Minneapolis are a way of attempting to discourage the police from committing future murders, but they are also expressions of grief for the irreparable losses that have already taken place.
In seeking historical reference points to understand this uprising, most people begin with the riots of the 1960s—though as longtime news anchor Dan Rather put it,
In 1968 there was a sense, proven by subsequent elections, that those taking to the streets in pain and protest were a minority of the country and the levers of power in business, government, and culture were arrayed against them. I do not get that sense in 2020.
Tracing the lineage of this revolt, we would start more recently, passing over the rebellions in Los Angeles in 1992 and Cincinnati in 2001 to begin with the riots in Oakland in 2009 in response to the murder of Oscar Grant. The unrest in Oakland was small in comparison to what has happened since, but it brought together the same combination of demographics that has been involved in subsequent uprisings—angry Black youth who knew they could be next, protesters fed up with fruitless reform campaigns, anarchists opposed to state violence on principle, and other rebels of a variety of ethnic backgrounds—setting a precedent that was echoed over the next five years in Seattle, Atlanta, Anaheim, Brooklyn, Durham, and elsewhere.
Each of these revolts lasted a couple days at most, a gesture rejecting the order imposed by police violence without being able to counterpose a sustainable alternative. This changed with the revolt in Ferguson in August 2014, which extended over a full week and a half, then recurred in November, spreading across the entire United States for a period of weeks. After the uprising in Ferguson, it was possible for those on the receiving end of police violence to imagine becoming ungovernable on a massive scale.
Further uprisings followed around the U.S., arguably peaking in Baltimore at the end of April 2015 in response to the murder of Freddie Gray. By the time revolt broke out in Minneapolis in response to the murder of Jamar Clark in November 2015, this model seemed to be reaching its limits—limits imposed by the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of institutional organizers as well as by the force of police repression. As we noted in 2015,
It’s not clear how much further the state can go to maintain the current order by means of pure force. If uprisings occurred in multiple cities in the same region at the same time, or if a much broader range of people got involved, all bets would be off.
A Perfect Storm
When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, these revolts suddenly ceased. We identified this at the opening of 2018; it is a historical enigma yet to be properly accounted for. Certainly police did not cease murdering or oppressing Black and brown people. Perhaps all that changed was that anarchists and other activists were so busy reacting to fascist violence that they failed to provide the necessary solidarity to the communities most targeted by police violence.
The onset of the Trump era provoked a wave of participatory direct action involving tens of thousands of people—from the successful efforts to disrupt Trump’s inauguration and blockade airports to the ICE occupations of 2018. By mid-2018, however, anarchists and targeted communities were increasingly on their own in these struggles, as other protesters returned to seeking state solutions.
Centrists hoping to repeat the downfall of Nixon pursued a doomed strategy of seeking to impeach Trump and remove him from office, demonstrating a fundamental naïveté about how power works. Leftists reprised their campaign to elect Bernie Sanders president, likely absorbing some disappointed centrists but ultimately discovering that their ambition to fix America from the top down was equally naïve. Centrist fossil Joe Biden rode Black votes to victory in the Democratic primaries, temporarily creating the mistaken impression among some pundits that the majority of Black people in the U.S. were more interested in a second-rate rerun of the Obama years than in radical change. In retrospect, it’s clear that the real issue was that no meaningful forms of change were on the table.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in full force, all the statist means of seeking social change had been exhausted. Trump exacerbated the situation, seizing the opportunity to arrange a massive wealth transfer of billions of dollars to the richest stratum of society in the midst of the worst economic recession in living memory. In this context, millions of people in the US, alongside billions around the world, spent mid-March to late May in isolation, contemplating their own mortality. It had never been clearer that the institutions of power are fundamentally hostile and destructive to the lives of ordinary people.
This is why, when the news of Black rebels’ response to George Floyd’s murder spread, even white middle-class liberals felt the tragedy viscerally. The pandemic suspended some of the mechanisms that ordinarily insulate the privileged from identifying with the most marginalized.
Those who are always targeted by police, who suffer most from racism and poverty, recognized that it was now or never. Heroically, all around the US, they staked their lives in an all-out attack on their oppressors—and millions of stir-crazy people of all classes and backgrounds joined them in the streets.
Trump and other politicians have expressed shock at the riots that followed George Floyd’s murder, alleging that anarchists must have coordinated them; in fact, they did more to provoke the riots than anarchists ever could. It was the policies of the state itself that spread the collective intelligence that guided the revolt—marking police, banks, and corporations as legitimate targets and making it easy for just about anyone to understand why people would attack them. Trump’s explicit support for white supremacists, his xenophobic border policies, his efforts to abolish healthcare access, his contribution to accelerating global warming, and his refusal to provide any sort of support for those threatened by unemployment or COVID-19 showed everyone that we are all facing a life-or-death struggle, not just those who are regularly murdered by police.
Perhaps the darkest hour does herald the dawn, after all.
The Effectiveness of Insurrection
Where one reformist campaign after another has failed, the courage of those who burned down the Third Precinct in Minneapolis has catalyzed an unprecedented movement for social change. The victories of the first week of the movement alone surpass what other approaches had accomplished in years. We should not underestimate the contributions of abolitionists who have labored for decades to make it possible for people to imagine doing without police and prisons, but many of those who set this movement in motion do not think of themselves as activists at all.
The past three weeks have offered the most persuasive demonstration of the effectiveness of direct action in decades. Liberals will try to represent the strength of the movement as a mere question of numbers, but these numbers only came together because daring rebels showed that they could defeat the Minneapolis police in open combat. The idea of abolishing the police was deemed inadmissible until it became conceivable that rioters could overthrow the police by main force. Then, and only then, police abolition became a widespread discussion item.
So direct action gets the goods—and everyone knows it now. It will be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle. From the centrists who are suddenly struggling to reduce police abolition to a matter of “defunding” to Donald Trump himself, who was forced to make a show of calling for police reforms yesterday, there is no denying that the riots have changed everyone’s priorities. Rather than alienating people, as critics always alleged it would, confrontational direct action has won millions over to ideas and values they might never have considered otherwise.
This will have long-term effects on a global scale as movements all around the world internalize these lessons. International solidarity actions have already taken place in over 50 other countries, some of them including massive riots.
As we wrote in 2014, one of the most important things about a movement like this is that it finally enables us to grieve together and to grasp what is being taken from us—not just in the daily murders of Black, brown, and poor people, not just in the incarceration and deportation of millions, but also in the ways that the order that the police enforce forecloses everyone’s potential. For some of us, this order prevents us from accessing the resources and education we need to make the most of ourselves on our own terms; for others, it prevents us from being able to access the compassion buried deep in our hearts for those who are more targeted than we are; for still others, it threatens to end our lives wholesale. In interrupting this order, we rediscover what it could mean to live fully, in meaningful and expansive community, enabling ourselves to feel deeply and to act according to our consciences.
The Challenges Ahead
None of this is to say that things will be easy from here forward. Let’s review some of the risks we face.
Until now, Trump has sought to benefit from social polarization. During the first week of the uprising, it seemed possible that Trump could take advantage of the revolt as a sort of Reichstag fire to seize still more power, perhaps establishing martial law. There is evidence that his supporters openly pursued this strategy. On May 29, an Air Force sergeant and another participant in the white supremacist “Boogaloo” movement killed a federal security officer in Oakland, apparently as a false flag operation intended to accelerate the arrival of civil war.
Trump’s grip on power was strong enough to survive the impeachment, but it was not strong enough for him to mobilize the military against the general population. The appearance of the National Guard on the streets of many cities set a limit to how far the revolt could go in those locations, but the demonstrations only spread to other towns, drawing more and more participants and support and expanding to include new tactics including statue toppling and occupations. Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to turn the army against the protesters, but other members of the government balked. On June 11, the highest-ranking military figure in the U.S. apologized for appearing alongside Trump in a media stunt outside the White House on June 1. As the political climate becomes more and more volatile, the heads of the military doubtless understand that they need to preserve their veneer of legitimacy lest the entire house of cards collapse.
When it proves impossible to isolate and destroy our movements, the next danger is that they will be gentrified and coopted. Police repression has proved useless; the police are caught in a cycle in which all of their tools for controlling disorder only spread it wider. The influx of aspiring politicians, managers, and other would-be leaders into the streets has done more to dampen the revolt than any amount of state violence. This would still pose little threat to the movement’s momentum if all the participants had internalized the importance of horizontality and autonomy, as demonstrated by the victory in Minneapolis; but those lessons will take some time to learn, and there are many powerful institutional actors who have every reason to interfere. As we continue to discuss how to root out elements of structural white supremacy within our movements, we will also need to relentlessly challenge the legitimacy of those who aspire to concentrate power, to represent others, or to determine for others what strategies and tactics are appropriate.
Centrists are spreading the most superficial version of our arguments, talking about defunding the police without addressing any of the deep disparities in wealth and power that the police exist to maintain. We will have to continue spelling out why we oppose policing itself alongside other aspects of capitalism and the state—and this may become more difficult, rather than less, as liberals appropriate our talking points and rhetoric.
In the future, while we will likely see some changes to police protocols or even to the institution of policing itself, the authorities will aim to carry this out at the expense of our communities, seeking to drive anti-social activity into the spaces that they abandon. Police elsewhere have already utilized this strategy to punish unruly neighborhoods such as Exarchia in Athens, Greece. This makes it especially pressing to apply ourselves to the positive aspects of police abolition, addressing the root causes of destructive and anti-social behavior. As most of our communities possess limited access to resources, this will not be easy—but it will be necessary regardless, as the state is not coming to save us.
Law enforcement agencies, especially on the federal level, will continue trying to weaponize every toxic element that they can find in our movements, from oppressive dynamics around race and gender to egotism and social conflict. Formal solidarity agreements are an important step towards shoring up our collective weaknesses, but interpersonal dynamics represent another front on which we have to step up our efforts to handle conflict constructively.
Already, we are seeing house raids and FBI visits around the country. While local courts remain overwhelmed by the cases that have backed up during the pandemic and some prosecutors are refusing to press low-level charges against demonstrators, federal investigators are seeking to inflict the worst possible consequences on those they blame for the revolt. This twitter thread illustrates some of the strategies federal agents employ to identify protesters. How much support these defendants receive will determine how much further federal prosecutors go in targeting those who participated in the movement—and how much momentum remains for the future.
Finally, there is the looming threat of intensifying fascist activity, which would take attention off the white supremacist violence of the state and put activists and targeted communities on the defensive. In 2017, anarchists and anti-fascists defeated a growing fascist movement—staving off a menace that could have made the victories of the past three years impossible. It remains to be seen whether the continuing polarization of our society will give rise to a new mass wave of fascist organizing, but militias have mobilized in many towns and fascists and other far-right individuals, emboldened by Trump’s calls to treat anti-fascists as terrorists, have already shot demonstrators in Seattle and Albuquerque.
Whatever happens next, we should remember for the rest of our lives how bleak things looked just one month ago and how rapidly the situation changed. Although revolts across the world in 2019 hinted at the possibility that the United States, too, would erupt, few anticipated it after the outbreak of COVID-19 and the malaise that followed. Even when we cannot see them, there are always opportunities to resist the ruling order and find common cause with others. May this experience sustain us through the difficult years ahead.
In the following anonymously submitted narratives, anarchists across the country recount their experiences during the first week of the uprising. For other accounts of the uprising in Minneapolis, consult It’s Going Down and our earlier article, “The Siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis.”
New York City
Coda: Minneapolis, again
Minneapolis, May 26
We marched down Lake Street, dragging barricades into the road and painting “Fuck 12” with teenagers. Some kid who joined off the street yelled excitedly that we were like Martin Luther King, Jr. and another kid responded “No, bro, we’re Malcolm X!” Our tumbleweed of an offshoot march felt angry and joyous and like an escalation… and then we got to the Third Precinct. As we walked up, Black youth were smashing a cop car, ripping out gear and stacks of blank tickets until everyone stormed the gate to the precinct parking lot. A kid smashed each squad car with a skateboard until an elder yelled “WAIT STOP!!!” I thought the anticipated peace policing had finally arrived—until she concluded, “Get their personal vehicles too!”
Something thick was in the air the next few nights. We saw people watching each other’s backs, sharing food and looted beer with strangers, having dance parties, passing out spray-paint and hand sanitizer, hugging even though they shouldn’t. Someone grabbed a set of golf clubs from a pawnshop and gave them out in front of the U.S. Bank. It was like it was a team sport and those windows were the opponents and we were all on the same team. Rebels took turns beating an ATM with a sledgehammer and driving cars into it while the crowd cheered. The sky was so heavy with smoke it looked like dark clouds. And then the police station was on fire.
Minneapolis, May 28
Surrounded by ashen rubble and streets flooding with water, the scene outside the Third Precinct that night can hardly be described. It was as if we had all been transported to the distant future, after the apocalypse. Picture it with me.
Across the street is the precinct. People are using the boards ripped off of adjacent businesses to build barricades to shield themselves from the tear gas canisters. The people around me are being hit with rubber bullets. The confidence of the crowd ebbs and flows as the sun begins to set. The final goal here is obvious, but victory is hardly guaranteed.
People are collecting stones from rubble piles and breaking them into smaller chunks. They’ve requisitioned a trash can from the Target and are filling it up and dumping piles by the front lines. In this scenario, it’s hard for anyone to think for more than five or ten seconds before acting, including the police. That gives anyone capable of planning even a few minutes into the future an advantage.
It’s not long before someone runs up urgently with a familiar look of absolute seriousness in his eyes. He has some friends with shields on the side of the building and they need help. In a few minutes, we are facing a constant barrage of concussion grenades and rubber bullets. The shields repel most of them. People all around us are using the stones to overwhelm the dozen or so cops on our side of the building, focusing on one weak point of their fortification rather than attacking all of them at once.
When the police began to pull back, the cheers were deafening. It hurt my ears to hear the thousands of people around me screaming, “Burn it down!” as everyone climbed over the fences together. It was as if we were the first people to land on the moon. Determined clusters of people fortified the area with barricades; others simply stood and laughed, taking it all in.
By the end of the night, teenagers encircled the flaming building, skating, holding hands, sitting in the street with bottles of champagne. Older folks passed through with surgical masks on, waving to the kids. They can never take this away from us.
The police have lost control of the third police precinct in Minneapolis. Demonstrators have entered it, come out with police riot gear, and set fires inside.
The social contract is obsolete. Solidarity with everyone in resistance. 🏴🔥https://t.co/yXLEtQ9xrd
follow @UR_Ninja pic.twitter.com/BQF2NwZaO6
— CrimethInc. (@crimethinc) May 29, 2020
Richmond, May 30
On the night of May 30, I joined hundreds at the intersection of West Broad Street and North Belvidere Street, where a bus had been incinerated by our crowd the night before. Neither our rage nor our sense of our own power had diminished at all. We were eager to take the city by storm again. As the crowd mobilized, warming up with a march through the nearby university campus, we returned to the Broad & Belvidere intersection to find multiple stopped police cruisers with their officers standing outside them. Unhesitatingly, the front of the crowd rushed the police, running them out almost instantly, and the tone for the second night was set: cops out!
We raged through the city, eager to outdo ourselves, leaving in our path desecrated monuments, a torched Confederate museum, smashed banks, and looted chain stores including the freshly-built Whole Foods. For hours, we played cat and mouse with the police, overwhelming their attempts to direct us and moving more quickly than they could in their efforts to shut us down. Again, we returned to Broad and Belvidere, meeting lines of riot cops and armored vehicles in front of us. They attempted to gain ground, spreading from their besieged headquarters blocks away, only to be confronted with a crowd unintimidated by force. Tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, and marker rounds were countered by rocks, bricks, blinding lasers, blazing barricades, and whatever we could hurl toward the enemy to keep them at bay. A long caravan of cars blocked a lane of traffic parallel to the battle, honking in support of us and cheering, while the intersection behind us became a sideshow of cars and motorcycles doing donuts, stereos incessantly blasting Boosie’s “Fuck the Police” and Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck.”
Cities, fuck ‘em!
Narcotics, fuck ‘em!
Feds, fuck ‘em!
DAs, fuck ‘em!
We don’t need you bitches on our streets, say with me,
Fuck the police!
Doing a full 360° rotation, I could hardly take in everything I was experiencing. It was a whirlwind of tear gas, car exhaust, weed smoke, and the fumes of burned material filling the air as militants clashed and friends embraced and danced carelessly. What had begun in rage and mourning had become a lesson in our own power; even as a fierce battle wore on, I found myself smiling. In the spaces we had opened up, there were opportunities for joy to explode into the world, joy unhindered by fear. The police stood there silently in their burdensome gear in the heat for hours. One wonders whether they envied us.
New York City, May 30
Union Square. Police in riot gear line 14th street, preventing the march from moving further north. The climate is both joyous and tense; music lingers in the air. In New York, it is commonplace to see a speaker on wheels—on the tail end of a bike or shoved inside a granny cart. Tonight, at the center of 14th and Broadway, we’re blessed by at least one serenading. Rather than continue marching, the crowd spreads out across several blocks. No one is certain as to how to move forward. We pace, anxiously anticipating a move from the police. Suddenly, as if to break the stalemate, someone swings a hammer through the plate glass window of Chase Bank. Then, all at once, the entire area from 14th and University to 12th and 4th comes alive with clamor.
There was once a garbage can on every corner of this street. Now there are four in the road catching fire. A single police car squeals into the intersection. The crowd scatters. I loose my friends in the commotion.
In retrospect, I had come with too many people. Our group was put together hastily. Our risk factors and ways of interacting with a riot varied widely. Though we were scarcely more than a handful, our numbers made it impossible to keep track of everyone simultaneously. On later nights, I went only with one or two dedicated friends, committed to sticking together.
I turned the corner to the next block. A small line of protestors was dutifully hammering at a couple abandoned police vans. A few people were guarding the corner store—not so much to quell the anger of the crowd as to direct its focus. Nobody was protecting the banks. One trashed police van was on fire. I later learned that another was burned to the ground only a couple blocks over. Tension was mounting. Cops started careening in from a side street. Most people fled. Being on my own, I decided to run as well.
I put some distance between my body and the chaos on 14th Street. I stripped off my sweater, happy to be free of its excessive warmth. I tossed my bag under a parked car where it was less likely to be picked up and walked through Washington Square. It was populated mostly by families, musicians, people gleaning the last cool nights of late spring, seemingly unfazed by the demolition of the neighboring streets. It was going to be a long walk home.
Approaching Broadway-Lafayette, I noticed a series of clothes hangers strewn across the sidewalk. A march of about a hundred young people was roving around Soho. As it turned out, their actions set the stage for the next few nights.
To some, it might be surprising to hear that the most dramatic situations still had an air of serenity. It was no coincidence that much of the looting took place where there was little police presence. The brazenness and unpredictability of the riotous crowds complicated the police response. Occasionally officers would rush a crowd to make one or two arrests. It was a scare tactic. They would rush so we would run; we would run so they wouldn’t be obliged to arrest us. Pure theater.
Sometimes people stood their ground. Sometimes the cops were the ones to retreat.
In New York, especially, the racist implications of the good protester/bad protester narrative are starkly apparent. The first couple nights, I saw very few instances of what has been called riot shaming—the policing of young Black and brown people in the aftermath of police murder. If anything, the disputes were about targets, not tactics. As more white people joined the movement from one night to the next, I watched this narrative shift in real time from “not here” to “don’t.” I began to see white people physically confronting Black protesters on the premise that what they were doing was bad for the movement. Normally, I try to avoid totalizing statements. However, in view of the implications of this dynamic, I will say this: It is not white people’s place to weigh in on what is an appropriate response to the constant murder of Black people by police.
Away from the streets, politicians left and right began speaking out against protesters. Racially charged epithets appeared in the newspapers: “These were not protesters, they were thugs, criminals.” Both Trump and De Blasio clung desperately to the lie that outside agitators were responsible for the uprising. They hid behind the racial ambiguity of this claim in order to violently repress Black resistance. In actuality, Black people were at the forefront of everything from peaceful demonstrations to arsons. In New York, the political distinction between looters and protesters was a conscious effort to condemn a part of the movement that was not only Black-led, but had disproportionately more Black participants. On several occasions, Trump himself has echoed the myth that violent protests overshadow peaceful protests. If this doesn’t confirm whose agenda this narrative serves, I don’t know what could. There is no other way to say this: To condemn looting and praise the peaceful marches is to demonize Black self-determination and favor majority white crowds.
Still, some people allege that looters are just criminal opportunists—that they are not actually there to protest. For me, protesting is not an act unto itself. It is the reason for action. One can march in protest, one can resign from office in protest, one can hunger strike in protest, and yes, one can loot in protest. There is no denying that the looting that took place was in direct response to the murder of George Floyd. Sunday night, I watched so-called “criminal thugs” storm Lululemon for yoga mats and leggings. I passed a teashop where I had previously purchased Christmas gifts for my mother. The looting was not a way to capitalize on a movement. It was a shattering of status symbols that are predicated on racial exclusion. Sure, some of it will be resold, but at a fraction of the price the stores were charging. The press says organized crime; the looters say DIY Reparations.
Several nights, one could hear over the scanner that officers were not to pursue looters at all, presumably for risk of injury. Instead, when police wanted to assert their force over the protests, they did so by rounding up and beating peaceful protesters. Some wish to blame this brutality on the looters. That is not my intention. I believe there is a mutual benefit to having protesters who practice nonviolence alongside those who do not. Every march that involves destruction of property contains within it a kernel of nonviolent protesters. What’s more, clear division between orderly and rowdy marches mark the former as easy targets for police violence. I’ve attended a myriad of marches in the past couple weeks. By far my most terrifying experiences were spent kneeling.
I’ve never seen such a massive and widespread upheaval before. It was common to leave one protest only to wind up unexpectedly in the midst of another. Some people claim that the lawlessness was a coordinated effort by anarchists. As an anarchist, it was nearly impossible even to coordinate with my immediate friends as to where we were going to meet. We participated in the demonstrations, but the scale of what was happening was so beyond me. I will never forget the army of skateboarders I saw chanting “Apple Store! Apple store” as they stole their way through SoHo. I watched some guy conduct a riot of one on a deserted side street—flipping barricades and smashing up cop cars with an oversized rock. So many police vehicles were rendered inoperable those first nights, the ones that were still capable of driving went around with PIG and FTP painted on the side.
Potlatch: a crowd joyously looting an Apple Store in SoHo the night following May 31.
It was truly a humbling experience. At a certain point I had to re-evaluate what kind of impact I was making and how I could be most helpful. I’ve had over a decade of relevant experience, but I’ve never seen anything on this scale. To put this in perspective: until now, the most confrontational tactic anarchists have employed has involved showing up with a hammer and breaking windows. By the second night in New York, countless people who couldn’t be bothered about Bakunin were looting with shovels. It was everywhere. Never in my life have I thought that anarchists should be the vanguard of revolution, but now much of what I had to offer was just a drop of rain in a tempest.
I started showing up with extra gloves and jackets. Militancy can occur spontaneously, I reasoned, but safety precautions less so. Given the climate of conspiracy theories about bricks and accusations about outside agitators, I was a little nervous to offer supplies. Thankfully, they were well received.
There’s a lot that people with experience in the street can teach first-timers. If someone is attracting a lot of attention from police or cameras, cover for them. Make sure they get rid of identifying markers and get away safely. At the same time, we should learn from the newcomers who are pushing things forward. One can develop a comfortable reserve after years of conflict. It’s good to challenge that. There are kids going from zero to sixty in a single night. Don’t let yourself be stuck at forty.
The long game of upheaval involves knowing when to push and when to minimize risks. Supporting arrestees is invaluable in times like these. Those who donate time, supplies, and money—who wait outside the jail with food and phone chargers—make waves of resistance possible. I imagine we will continue to see an array of charges pressed across the country. Our ability to support defendants will dramatically shape the future of revolt to come.
By the middle of the following week, police repression was taking its toll. Reports were circulating about mass arrests, beatings, interrogations, the suspension of habeas corpus. The boot was dropping. People had won the streets by sheer numbers. The curfew declared Monday night stunted the number of people in the streets. By 8 pm, the main bridges connecting New York were heavily guarded by police. Comrades would open their homes to protesters who were trapped in other boroughs. Being out past 8 generally entailed a long odyssey home.
But let’s get one thing clear. By no means was the power and beauty of the first few nights suppressed by the police. Neither was it co-opted by self-appointed, beret-clad leaders. The truth is that no one had ever imagined that revolt could be possible on such a massive scale in modern-day New York. Each night exceeded the last. Friday night, multiple precincts in Brooklyn were ransacked and a police van was set aflame. Saturday, Union Square was wrecked and looting began. Sunday, Soho was completely gutted. Monday, the looting moved uptown. Decentralized looting continued for several nights, despite curfew. By midweek, nearly all Manhattan was boarded up. Businesses were empty. Certainly no police cars were left unattended.
The exponential growth and strength of the protests took the authorities by surprise. As I said, De Blasio, Cuomo, and Trump all alleged that the uprising was a coordinated effort by outside agitators. In reality, the riots involved a very wide range of participants. The targets were luxury stores and police—this was so obvious there was no need for prior planning. It was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Luckily, it was happening all the time, everywhere. The unrest persisted until all the obvious targets had been exhausted. Left without a clear next step, the rioting stalled.
But the wave of resistance that took place the first few nights is only a small part of a much longer history of abolitionist and Black power movements. It represents a high water mark that is sure to be surpassed by yet another wave. As I write, New York is still experiencing massive daily protests. The energy continues to this day, astonishing and inspiring.
One of the most surreal aspects of this whole ordeal is trying to adjust back to “normal life” again. For me, this means trying to reset my sleep schedule and clean my room as I get acclimated to the boarded up, war-torn streets of Manhattan. I ride my bike around and take pictures of the leftover graffiti on the shuttered buildings. I know that at some point in the future, these images will be so prevalent that they will no longer be spectacular. The thing that really sticks with you after the looting stops is not the random clothes that you don’t even want, nor an accurate account of which windows shattered when—it is the lived experience that life could be different. It’s a collective knowledge and we’re still learning.
As far as I can tell, the general consensus among anarchists in the U.S. is that “No one thought this would happen here.” In fact, no one ever knows if anything is going to happen anywhere. All you can do is come prepared, dream big, and hope for the best. History is determined by those who decide to act. When the window of opportunity comes crashing open, you can have anything you want, but you gotta act fast. It’s remarkable how easy it is to step across the threshold.
Grand Rapids, May 30
We live in a midsized Midwestern city: Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s named for the river that runs through the center, although the river has long since been tamed by colonialism. White settlers used the river as a highway, mass-cutting timber and floating logs down it. These logs fueled the furniture industry and its exploitation sparked the furniture riots of 1911. In 1967, poverty, poor housing, and redlining driven by racism sparked riots that erupted in the shadow of Detroit’s better known rage. That year, 33 fires were set on the southeast side in predominately Black neighborhoods. This is char from decades ago and its echoes are still felt today.
On Saturday, May 30, 2020, we summoned ghosts. As with so many towns across this stolen land, our city took to the streets in calmness and attention toward formal leadership seeking to tell us what to do and how we ought to behave and channel our rage. We milled about for hours in the sweltering heat, trying to locate and identify our friends in the sea of masked faces. We found them holding a banner with eager strangers that read “Attack White Supremacy,” we found them wearing helmets, wielding shields, and passing spray paint from hand to nervous hand.
After hours passed, you could feel the crowd growing antsy; our packed bodies were pushed in a direction by who knows what, circling the police station. Something happened. Bodies pushed, fists pumped, shouts cried out in an incoherent choir of rage. It just took one arm to lift a can of spray paint to change things. “Fuck 12” emblazoned on the side of the historic police station. To the point. The crowd cheered louder.
A couple of dumb white people tried to use their bikes to protect the building out of fear that we would only get injured. I get into a screaming match with one of the young men. The crush of bodies instilled fear and seriousness. Then more arms reached up, brandishing spray paint. “Burn The Plantation” and “Shoot Back!” These arms were diverse. No one particular race. All kinds of folks of various identities. This was one of the more diverse events to ever happen in downtown. We were there not just out of the goodness of hearts, but because we are fucking families and best friends and partners and of course we’ll fight shoulder to shoulder for and with our loved ones. In the past, one could be certain that peace police or cop apologists would make some kind of physical intervention, but that Saturday was different. The page had been turned and we were in a different time, seeing a new tradition born.
Cheers greeted each sloppily painted statement on that building that houses the Grand Rapids Police Department, Secretary of State, and parole court, which takes up a whole block of downtown. At the same time, people were building barricades in the city’s cardinal intersection. Ornamental pots overflowing with flowers, garbage cans set ablaze, street signs, dumpsters, garbage, you name it… all of those were dragged in for reinforcement. The parts of the road that we couldn’t close off were blocked by sympathetic motorists blasting music from their vehicles. A dance party broke out. People were jumping up and down. The “Attack White Supremacy” banner was moved and hung on the barricade.
We held this space until nightfall. Until the first crash of glass was heard and cheers rang out. Yeah, we could have held that intersection and danced all night, but the people’s energy demanded something more. Why not take things further?
Every window of the police station, gone. When all of the windows were broken on the first floor, people went after the second floor. A banner was taken down and set on fire; people carefully walked it into the Secretary of State office and set it on a desk. Someone wielding a stop sign chopped at he security camera on the outside of the building, hacking at it until it fell. After every brave moment, a roar of cheering echoed through the corridor of buildings. Finding my friends and crying, not because of the clichéd poetry of tear gas, but from tears of joy, laughing so hard. Our town? Seriously? Yes. The crowd snaked around through every downtown business and establishment, smashing. Over a hundred storefronts, they say. Fires lit, business looted. The fancy men’s clothing store. “Anyone need a belt?” asked someone carrying a rack of them. Magic cards from the comic book shop were shared, sushi from the fancy sushi place distributed, the jewelry store completely busted, the bridal shop, the art museum, the news station… everything under the moon that night, destroyed.
I guess 2020 will be added to our small list of uprisings. I’m still taking it in. Now downtown is a sea of blonde particleboard patching up and reinforcing the windows. Bandages trying to heal the contusions. What a joke. That’s not how it works. Now we will haunt the future.
Cleveland, May 30
It finally happened.
It finally happened. After years of liberal recuperation, after years of the siren song of reformism, after years of community “self-control” as a result of fear of police rage and retaliation, it finally happened… and of course I was not there to see the uprising blossom in all its glory. Instead of being in the streets, inhaling tear gas and dealing with the rubber bullets, I was sequestered in a secure location, helping to run the backend logistics for medics and other support people, watching all of this play out on livestreams and police scanners… in a moment, though, our support crew became blind and deaf as the livestreamers were pushed out of a downtown transformed into a warzone and the police scanners went dead.
As day turned into night and the action moved outside of the downtown area, the city became wholly unrecognizable, illegible, not just to the police, but to the support people and participants as well. The lines of activism, the lines of identified spaces of discursive action, collapsed in direct confrontation between the community and the people who were there to occupy our communities with military force. Finally, people had abandoned the political “leadership” of established activist groups and entered into the realm of direct action, direct intervention in their own lives.
I left the safety of that secure location to meet up with the rest of my family unit, which was safe across town. The roads were deserted. Columns of cops blocking bridges and exit ramps dotted the landscape. In the distance, the smoke of burning cop cars was still visible on the horizon.
At nightfall, scouts started to hit the streets, seeking confrontations, looking for spaces in which support and intervention were possible. That night, I helped get the kids to sleep, said my goodbyes, and steeled myself to enter the unknown. Those were some of the hardest goodbyes I have ever uttered, telling the young ones that everything was going to be fine, that that was what a fight for liberation looks like, that I would be safe—while not necessarily being totally confident of that safety.
The National Guard was on the way, the city was officially on lockdown, the curfew was in place, and off we went, into the abyss, with only the speed of our vehicle as our only protection.
Darkness. Street lights out. Around the corner, you could see trash in the streets from overturned trash cans. The police scanners were back up, broadcasting calls about looting. Caravans of cars with red, black, and green flags flying could be seen in the distance. Every turn, every side street, every commercial district held the possibility of occupation or liberation—and at the same time, everything seemed empty, tense, full of possibility and hazard.
That night, it became clear that, at least for a while, the rules of engagement had fundamentally changed. Power dynamics were realigned. The nice smooth world of liberal reformism and naïveté collapsed under the weight of the rage of the people. Nothing has been the same since. Everything occurs in fragments now—everything is momentary, material, grounded in the dynamics of conflict, constant, exhausting, energizing, and dangerous at the same time. The drudgery of life in the city evaporated. The very streets of the city seem to be standing up, fighting back in the face of the police—flipping the middle finger at police choppers, spraying “Fuck 12” across a police station. Standing tall with all of the dangerous possibilities that this moment contains.
Philadelphia, May 30-31
On Saturday, a march that started at the Philadelphia Museum of Art found itself blocked by police at the entrance to the highway. Kids started jumping on the cop cars, dancing on them and kicking the windshields. I couldn’t see what was happening through the crowd, but when a of cloud milky gas shot up at the front, people backed up quickly, fearing tear gas. In fact, some kids had taken the fire extinguishers from the cop cars and turned them on the police to block their pepper spray. Maybe fifteen minutes later, from a block away, we could see smoke billowing up from the cop car that had served as a dancing platform.
The march moved on. Several bank windows were smashed. The Starbucks next to City Hall caught fire along with unmarked police vehicles. A statue of one of Philadelphia’s most racist mayors, Frank Rizzo, was vandalized in front of City Hall; it has since been removed. After a few tense moments with the police around City Hall, a large section of the march instead headed to the main downtown shopping strip. Dozens of shops were looted, their goods distributed to anyone who might make use of them.
On Sunday morning, I went out for a walk with my partner. Approaching Spruce, we heard helicopters nearby and checked social media. There were reports of riots near 52nd and Market, so we walked that direction. As we got closer, several residents on their porches greeted us, some telling us to “be careful” heading that way.
At Chestnut and 52nd, the first thing I saw was an armored police vehicle blaring at the crowd of mostly young men in the streets. The men keep walking toward the police, yelling and occasionally throwing water bottles at what was essentially a tank. Off to one side, two guys were hammering at some concrete to make more effective projectiles. The cops headed north to cheers—there was smoke up there. Maybe a cop car was on fire? But rather than disperse or head toward the heat, more people gathered while clusters of folks went door to door tearing open the metal gates guarding each business. A young Black woman could be overheard shouting,
That’s a Black-owned business!
A group of five middle-aged Black women chastised her:
Man, we been giving them everything for years, where that got us, fuck that shit.
First, a dollar store was wrenched open. All of the women, young and old, walked over and then ran out carrying pillows, bedding, shirts, and various cosmetics and household items. Another group of kids started knocking over the street stalls filled with water, candy, and fragrance bottles. Next they hit the pharmacy. Candy was distributed freely to anyone passing by. At some point, a police helicopter started flying low above us, blaring its sirens. Traffic was trying to make it way through the intersection. I realized that some of the drivers were locals who had gotten their cars and were coming through to fill up on goods. Soon a dumpster was in the street, further disrupting traffic.
As we walked home, we were half a block behind a guy carrying a huge trash bag full of looted goods. Three blocks away from the action, he turned off the sidewalk and let himself into his house. “Outside agitators,” I thought.
Austin, May 31
After finally prying the boards off of the Shell station across the highway from the local police headquarters, kids were running in and coming back out carrying the most ordinary things like trophies. One teenager brought his girlfriend a giant bag of Takis. She had such big heart eyes and said “Baby! You brought me Takis!” as if it were the greatest gift she had ever received.
Fort Lauderdale, May 31
Fort Lauderdale, Florida: probably not high on your list of riot capitals. But beyond its reputation as a glitzy beach tourist destination, there’s a notably brutal police and sheriff’s force and a substantial population of poor and angry people. We’re here to show solidarity and we aim to be prepared for whatever may come. Phones left at home or in the car, one fully charged burner phone in case of emergency. Plenty of water, sunscreen; bandannas with apple cider vinegar; spare masks; hand sanitizer; a change of clothes. Legal numbers written on skin, meetup place and time arranged in case we get separated. We’re ready to roll.
As we round the corner of the parking garage, two cops are loading a stack of bricks into a police pickup truck, apparently connected to an incomplete repair job on the brick sidewalk. Later, the media picks up the notion that somehow all over the country, anarchists have been driving around leaving piles of bricks everywhere for convenient use while rioting. Even if we had, that would be an awkward place to leave them; there’s nothing here worth throwing a brick at. Ironically, though, it turns out that this is exactly the spot where the police will start the riot a few hours later.
As we arrive at the departure point, the march is already swelling out of the park and into the street. We’re taken aback at the size of the crowd—it’s massive! At first glance, it appears to be well in excess of the one thousand participants that the organizers optimistically predicted. The street is too small for us. We’re swarming all four lanes in both directions, both sidewalks, and spilling into parks and side streets in a mass several blocks long. What a dream, seeing nearly everyone in a march masked up! The energy is high: chants, raised fists, laughter and chatting among the demonstrators, near-constant honks and yells of support from passersby.
The crowd is extremely diverse, though solidly majority Black; there are people of all ages, but an especially strong showing from young folks, including high-school and even middle-school-aged people with hand-drawn signs. Some of them try to start chants of “Fuck 12!” though some of the adults are less comfortable with this; “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say his name—George Floyd!” elicit the loudest responses. A snazzily-dressed young man on a shiny red scooter weaves in and out of the crowd honking, pumping people up, and yelling, “C’mon, y’all! FUCK the POLICE!” Hawk-eyed volunteers in neon vests roam the outskirts. As we pass businesses along the main artery, there are lines of protestors standing with raised fists facing the crowd: supportive bystanders taking a break in the shade, or peace police to make sure we don’t get out of hand?
After many long blocks marching under the hot sun, finally we arrive: the police headquarters. Someone is standing on the sign at the entrance to the parking lot, waving a large black and red flag. Another person leans against the building’s wall and fires up a blunt in the shade. There are over a thousand of us; the parking lot (strategically emptied of cars by the forward-thinking police) is full and surging with people. Apart from two pigs with binoculars on the rooftop, there are no police in sight—none. We press up to the front wall. Someone is yelling on a bullhorn, but I can’t make it out. Someone lowers the American flag from the pole by the front door of the station, to cheers. A minute or two later it’s raised again, spray-painted with “FREEDOM FOR SOME,” to a few weak cheers; is that the best we could think of? Most of us are just milling around. What are we going to do?
Nothing, apparently. Before we know it, a cluster of people from the front are streaming back to the street. We only just got here! Most people stay put, clearly wanting more of a confrontation, a stronger statement, something. Earnest marshals wander through the discontented crowd, urging them back to the road to return downtown. “Marched all the way down here, for all of seven minutes,” complains one woman. “We ain’t even been here long enough.” The crowd is annoyed and disappointed, but not rebellious. Our little cluster stays put and tries to chat with others around us, but before long it’s clear that whatever possibilities might have been presented by the large numbers are slipping through our fingers. We picked up the vibe ahead of time from the organizers that this will be a heavily self-policed situation, despite the “woke-washing” rhetoric of not riot-shaming people… at least people who riot elsewhere, that is.
After deliberation, we head back into the street, but try to hold it by the station as the march stretches out. The highway lies just a couple of blocks in the opposite direction, and there are a couple hundred people still milling about, hungry for something else. But informal proposals to head to the highway don’t gain traction, and with the bulk of the march now blocks ahead and police behind us forming a line of cruisers and motorcycles, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do. Sighing with frustration, we amble our way back towards the rest of the march.
There are knots of people clustering around conflicts as protestors scream at one another. A middle-aged man with what seems to be heat stroke chats with a couple of paramedics seated on the sidewalk. Police are still carefully keeping their distance. We’re only blocking one direction, and cars going the other way nearly all honk in support. But our energy is low. More conflicts between protestors heat up, then dissipate. Up ahead, we see a small crowd clustering around the entrance to a CVS. By the time we get there, it’s clear that a debate has broken out between people who want what’s inside without paying for it and others who want to stop them from getting it. The peace police carry the day. Two middle-aged women are yelling at each other, debating whether someone’s grandmother gets her prescriptions filled there. Across the street, a small knot of locals, unmasked and unconcerned, speculate on targets. “Hold on, yo, there’s a fucking BANK,” says one, swaggering over to a building. WHOOMP, goes a window. The handful of stragglers stroll back to the street and continue on their way.
Where are we going? Hopefully to the courthouse, the town hall, the jail, or somewhere where people can at least vent some more rage. But no, the final destination is just the same pleasant grassy park we started from. By the time we arrive, the original march has circled the block across and back over a bridge, and is spilling into the park. We sit in the grass, out of earshot of the self-congratulatory speeches of the organizers. A lone man climbs to the top of the bandshell, prompting cheers, and leads chants of “Black Lives Matter!” and, briefly, “Fuck 12!” though the latter proves less popular. People roam around chatting, flirting, filming videos and snapping pictures. I see a drone hovering over the crowd and try to think over how to disrupt it—then realize, as it lands, that it was brought by one of the protestors, a nerdy looking man sitting on the lawn. There are well over a thousand people still around in the pleasant late afternoon sun and hardly any police in sight, though we know they can’t be far. The appointed dispersal time passes, the organizers conclude their speeches, and crowds begin filing back to their cars. Most people aren’t in a hurry to leave; many are likely enjoying their first mass public outing since COVID hit. A guy is walking through the crowd pulling a red wagon full of ice and plastic bottles: “Margaritas, rum punch, edibles! Cash, Venmo, Paypal!” We rest and snack, and consider how much longer we should stick around.
Then—something shifts. I feel it before I see it: a new energy, a tension, then murmuring rippling through the seated crowds. A few people, then more, start walking towards an intersection and down a street towards the parking garage out of sight. Then suddenly dozens and then hundreds are walking, jogging, sprinting that way. We decide to join them and see what’s going on. And then—BOOM. A flash-bang grenade echoes in the distance. BOOM, BOOM. Screams and yells. We walk faster.
Rounding the corner into the street, we see a tense crowd surrounding two police vehicles. In the distance there are flashing lights, yells, commotion. Around us, many curious onlookers are hovering, some moving towards the conflict, others jogging away from it. Everyone looks pissed. People are yelling at the vehicle containing two cops trying to turn out of a parking lot into the street. CRASH—someone busts out the window of the police SUV and tinted glass sprinkles the ground. The busted vehicle zips down to the parking garage and retreats into its depths, where angry shouts and more flash-bang explosions are echoing.
We duck into a corner and change our outfits. Back on the street, people are milling about, fuming and cursing the cops. What happened? We hear rumors, but the crowd seems clear on one thing: the cops started it.
Why’d they even come out here all dressed like they ready for war, when we ain’t even do nothing? Okay, then! Y’all want a war, you got it!
We will find out later that the “riot” began when an aggro white dude with a badge shoved a young Black woman who was kneeling on the ground with her hands in the air, prompting screams of outrage and a flurry of thrown bottles. A video that made it to CNN noted a Black female cop as she followed her white colleague back into the police line, screaming at him in fury for his senseless escalation. The white officer, Stephen Pohorence, would be “relieved from duty” (i.e., paid the same salary to sit at an air-conditioned desk until the affair blows over) for his action, prompting the head of the police union to lash out. Pohorence, not surprisingly, has a history of violent arrests, drawing his gun on people, and accusations of racial profiling—which no one other than his targets seemed to notice until now.
In the distance, there appears to be a white woman in yoga pants sitting in lotus position in the middle of an intersection in front of a line of riot police. Sure, why not—diversity of tactics, right? In the street we’re holding, there are cars trying to escape from the area but held up by the throng; on one of them, a woman in fashionable sunglasses is sitting in an open window holding a Black Lives Matter sign. The guy on the red scooter is zipping through the crowd, urging people to take a stand and yelling, “FUCK THE POLIIIIIICE!!!” A few people are chucking rocks or water bottles at the police line, but most are waiting to see what happens.
More explosions. People are screaming, sprinting past me from the police line. My blood is boiling. “Fuck you!” people are bellowing at the police from all sides. BOOM, and again, BOOM go the flash-bangs. A hiss, a swirl of colored smoke, and the acrid whiff intensifies—OK, that’s tear gas. A young woman runs by sobbing. I am too angry to think. The canister is right there on the ground. I run up to it, lean down—some remote part of my brain knows this is not a good idea, but it’s right there and it needs to GO!—and then my hand is grasping the canister, gripping as loosely as I can while still lifting it aloft, arm rears back, and it’s flying through the air. I feel nothing but exhilaration! Fuck you, pigs! Take that! I’m on fire!
Oh, wait—my hand is definitely on fire. I look at my thin glove, which still looks intact, but the burning sensation has arrived and is throbbing harder every instant. That was stupid, stupid. Still, that canister had to go. Wait, the burning is in my eyes, too. Another cloud is wafting towards me. Police aren’t charging, though, so I’m walking calmly back towards the intersection where an anxious crowd is milling. The same guy with his red wagon selling margaritas is still walking through the crowd, tears streaming down his face. All around me, people are pouring liquids into the eyes of others, coughing, sputtering. Plenty of graffiti going up all over the wall of—whatever this building is. I can’t even tell. I can’t see.
Blinking, tears streaming, burning. OK, this is unpleasant, but I can handle it. Is my hand OK? I’m not sure. Are my people OK? People are rushing up to me, beckoning me to bend, look up, open my eyes. No, I’m fine, I shake my head to say. Wait, no I’m not. OK, yes, please, I nod. Someone holds a bottle of milk aloft; I try to keep my eyes open. Wait, milk? Isn’t it supposed to be Maalox or something? Whatever, I’m in the moment.
I blink furiously. Anxious faces look at me expectantly. “Guess I’m not vegan anymore,” I gurgle in a raspy voice to the medic and observers. They politely chuckle, mostly glad that I’m speaking and smiling. I ask the medic if they have anything for burns; they don’t, but picking up what I’m putting down, they pull out a heavy heat-proof glove and offer it to me. We share a meaningful look.
My eyes are still burning. I stumble a few steps further and another medic rinses my eyes. The burning has diminished, but now my T-shirt mask is sopping with milk and water, and as I try to keep the mask concealing my face I feel like I’m being waterboarded.1 This isn’t going to work. Fortunately, an affinity group member is holding out a clean N95 mask—good planning. I keep the wet t-shirt on to cover my head and neck, but slide it down from my nose and mouth and strap on the mask. I can breathe again. Still burning a bit, and my hand is killing me, but I’m back in the game.
OK. Where are we? Where are they? We retreat briefly to a side street and assess the situation. Another rush of people—“They’re coming, y’all, watch the fuck out,” someone yells while jogging by. Yes, there is a line of riot cops advancing down the other street. But they’re single file, not in formation, and only a couple dozen deep. Why are people panicking? We’re still a few hundred strong, but spread out. I have to keep remembering that most of the people here, even if they have plenty of experience with individual police, have mostly never been in a group conflict situation like this.
As they assemble a line on a nearby patch of grass, an angry man bellows at them, “Y’all faggots! Y’all are a bunch of cocksucker motherfuckers!” He’s clearly on our side and feels the rage that we feel, but this is a bit… off message. A friend walks towards him and pipes up in a friendly voice, “Hey, I hate the cops too, but I like sucking cock!” He’s not sure what to say. We keep moving.
No one is sure what to do. The cops are just standing there, on a downward slope on a patch of grass off the intersection—a comically bad position from a tactical point of view. If we wanted to, we could easily chase them off. But every time someone chucks a bottle at them, a dozen protestors angrily yell at them to stop. Instead, a cycle begins; the protestors form a line in a semi-circle facing the police line, but don’t get close enough to confront them. People take a knee, or start a chant, or yell things; photographers click away; people indignantly tell others what to do and not do.
One young woman, a White Ally extraordinaire, strides back and forth yelling at everyone the usual platitudes about not putting people of color in danger, etc. She doesn’t seem to realize that well over 80% of the people here appear to be Black, not to mention that nobody appointed her savior of the masses and peace police head deputy. Beware of Woke Karen: throw a bottle and she’ll ask to see your manager.
Another cycle of kneeling, yelling, chanting, waiting. “We are not afraid of you!” I yell at the police line. It doesn’t catch on. I don’t know how to try to convey the sense that we are actually more powerful than them in this moment. The fear on our side is palpable. Yet it also swells and recedes; in brief moments, the scales tip towards collective bravery.
Later, I learn that shortly before this, a riot cop shot a Black woman in the head with a rubber bullet, fracturing her skull.
I feel something swelling behind me, and turn to look with a flash of alarm. But what greets my eyes immediately flips me to excitement. The white sedan that has been lurking amidst the protestors is blasting a popular hip-hop track on the stereo and the crowd has ignited with delight. Suddenly dozens, now well over a hundred people clustered around the car in the intersection are chanting along and moving in unison with huge grins on their faces. This is my favorite moment in the demo—a brief flicker of genuine revelry, of absolute joy at sharing collective exhilaration together in the street despite the violence, against the fear. When “Whose streets? OUR streets!” feels like more than just a slogan, but a bodily reality. It’s probably only ninety seconds before the song changes or people get distracted by something else. But I will remember it for a long time.
The crowd is slowly thinning. A person in neon tights on one of those annoying Segways is slowly zigzagging through the crowd, telling everyone that the police will be charging in ten minutes. She’s not a cop; what is she basing that on? C’mon, rumor control! A Black woman in her 20s with amazing nails screams, “Who the fuck side you on, anyway? Someone needs to knock that bitch right off her damn scooter.” We all cackle. A beefy white guy, who mentions that he was recently released from the local jail, laments, “What we need is some meth up in this, so people can really get rolling!” I knew we’d forgotten something.
Firecrackers snap; a firework zips toward the police line. Anguished shouts from the protestors. Then—WHOOSH—more tear gas. I’m ready this time. I’ve been waiting for this. I rush for the first can. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve—” Another guy has beaten me to it; gym shorts and a tank top, no mask—I don’t think he even has gloves! But he’s leaning, grabbing, throwing. “OK, you’ve got it!” A second one skids across the ground to my right, and the remaining demonstrators scurry away. I rush over, lean down, grasp it with my heavy-duty mitt, and chuck it back towards the police line. I hear rubber bullets whizzing, though it’s hard to see and the gas is starting to burn again. I turn and sprint diagonally backwards towards the park, out of range. There’s no crowd cover and I stand way out. But they’re not charging; the riot cops haven’t taken advantage of the ground they’ve cleared, only advancing a few yards out of the grassy slope they were on and still on the far side of the intersection.
Oh shit, where is my affinity group? I got so zeroed in on getting those canisters back where they belong, I lost track. Strafing laterally to stay out of police view I scan the trickle of demonstrators on the sidewalk by the museum. Oh great, I see one of us. Skirting the edges of the park, I jog across the street and intercept them. Here we are. There’s one of us still missing—scanning, scanning—there they are, hustling this way. We’re reunited.
“You OK?” “Yes, you?” “Aargh, I took a fucking tear gas canister to the face!” Oh shit.
We round the corner away from the police line and crouch against a wall. They lift up their mask; there’s a lot of blood. “How does it look?” “Uh, kinda bad.” Is there a medic around? Medic? No medic. Someone’s got more bottles of milk, but nothing past that. We find a clean bandanna and rinse the wound with water. It looks gnarly, but isn’t actually bleeding that heavily, and the pain is manageable. Whew. Mask back on. What’s next?
More police vehicles are pouring in. No charge yet, but they’re swelling their forces, while our crowd is trickling away. The street and intersection are still clogged but some cars are getting through, and there appear to be more police in the street than us, with remaining demonstrators lurking on the sidewalks taunting the cops or waiting on the edges to see what happens next. As we lean against a wall, the protestor who was calling the cops “faggots” earlier asks my cocksucking friend to borrow a lighter, and they share a smoke and a friendly moment. A small victory.
We heard rumors of people massing by the courthouse and decide to check it out, as things seem to be wrapping up here. It’s fake news, though, and now we’re isolated from any crowd. I think we’re done here. Pop into an alleyway for a fashion moment. With our outerwear changed, we’re back in civilian drag and walking back to the parking garage where the conflict kicked off, where our car is hopefully still waiting. We climb a stairwell to the second floor, then pause to look out over the street. The angle offers a perfect view of a low wall spanning the sidewalk across the street, along which a massive message in gold spray paint reads:
THE REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN <3
If so, it certainly has a long way to go. But it’s a start.
CNN just showed video from Los Angeles of an make officer getting beat by a crowd after attempting to detain someone. What is happening around the country tonight is HISTORIC. pic.twitter.com/SSDOf97hSt
— Dakarai Turner (@Dakarai_Turner) May 30, 2020
This is one of the most absolutely insane moments I've ever seen on live television. pic.twitter.com/Uvzig8YGSa
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) June 2, 2020
These two tweets give a sense of the kind of footage that conservative television stations were compelled to broadcast during the uprising—and, incidentally, of the uselessness of police.
Atlanta, June 1
After the clashes on Friday [May 29], the crowd continued to gather at Centennial Olympic Park for a few days, even though many of the adjacent stores and bars had already been smashed and looted. At first, it seemed stupid to keep going there, but there was also a special charm. When the city government declared the curfew, they established a guaranteed moment of conflict; many people would arrive in the hour ahead of curfew, just in time to clash with the police.
The first volley of tear gas had been enough to disperse the crowd the previous night, but on this evening, many people had arrived prepared to respond. Within a few minutes, hundreds of people were dragging construction equipment into Centennial Olympic Park Drive, constructing a tremendous barricade against the National Guard and police. All around, people were throwing rocks and bricks into the road for others to use, while some pummeled the National Guard with them. Some people I took to be college students were telling people to stop throwing things; meanwhile, the front lines were building a second layer of barricades many feet high. I heard someone tell the white college students to break bricks if they wanted to help—simply being there wasn’t enough.
Medics were treating people for tear gas exposure, but many people were quickly throwing every canister back. I saw a fairly large group of Black people approach a smaller group of non-Black people at the front barricade.
We want to go loot some stores up on Peachtree Street, but we need the cops to stay down here. Can you guys hold this up?
Yeah, 20 minutes at least.
Anti-oppression activists went on yelling that white people were endangering Black people. The police were pinned at the site of conflict for 40 minutes before they could disperse the crowd. No one was arrested that night on Peachtree Street.
Seattle, June 4
From the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Occupied Coast Salish territory.
The most joyous occasion I experienced took place in the hours following the shooting at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Everybody’s response was a perfect illustration of the fact that we don’t need police to protect us. One of the front-line demonstrators who have been at the demonstrations every day helped to stop the attacker from driving his car into us. The driver shot him, and the street medics began applying a tourniquet before the assailant had even gotten out of the car.
Within hours, every street that led to the demonstration outside the precinct was blocked by repurposed police barricades, boulders, people’s cars, and lines of people standing with their bikes. The numbers of the demonstration swelled to even greater attendance. In the face of increasingly violent police repression, as well as reactionary attacks from behind, those of us in the streets showed our dedication to each other to prove that a world without police isn’t just a political statement, it’s a possible solution to the violence of our lives.
Coda: Minneapolis, May 28
Some years ago, the police tried to ruin my life. They led me to a room in their police precinct, angry and joyous about catching me, smiling with their gaping teeth. They locked my feet to the floor and then they beat me. The experience of being at the violent whim of something or someone so powerful is something I will always struggle with. At any random moment, I can still feel like I am covered in blood. Alone. Crying.
I will never forgive the police. I’m not one to make bravado-filled proclamations about violence against cops. I would prefer they simply leave their posts. But if I saw one of the cops who beat me on the ground begging for his life while having a stress-induced heart attack, I’d step over him without hesitation.
For hours, outside the room, the police concocted a story to use to charge me with a crime. They came in from time to time, screaming and threatening to beat me again. Breathing in and out, I sat there telling myself that I had to prepare for it. Imagining the punches, preemptively tensing my whole body in anticipation. Fortunately, more beating never came. But the criminal indictment from a grand jury came just a day later.
Two years later, after dozens of court appearances, I was acquitted. I was lucky. I didn’t end up dead or locked up.
I know that as an anarchist, this is just the way it goes. We fight political, social, and economic authority in all the forms they assume. We come up against the forces of domination and we shouldn’t be surprised when they respond with brute force. Still, it stings. And even though my mind and body can often be in this state of war, it is ultimately something I want to be released from.
In a lot of ways, the repression we experience can only be healed through the process of revolt. Mass refusal is the complicated release of our repressed longings—influenced by the various personal and systematic traumas we experience. These longings cannot be placated or understood by political campaigns or reform. Sadly, mass refusal often only occurs after a resonating event that is extremely painful and traumatic—a police murder, in this case. It can be an opportunity for the release of a freedom that is always struggling to break through the seemingly hopeless daily façade we call “normal”—liberation from racialization, patriarchy, capital, politics, school, or religion. The police are usually the ones who repress our efforts to shake free of all of these. But when things pass beyond their control, the release of energy feels infinite.
The uprising in Minneapolis after the murder of the George Floyd was such a release. An exit from this reality, from the hopelessness that history imposes on us. It represents the possible return of the repressed as actors against the various levels of invisibility that are imposed upon us. Against the reality that can push you down for being poor and black and then kill you for trying to pass a bad dollar bill as real. The same one that can also kill you without using the police—be it through the virus or the stress of private property, race, class, or social stigma.
On May 28, a window opened. It was like a jubilee. A great leveling. Many stores in Minneapolis became free—especially around the Third Precinct. The free movement of formerly locked up goods at Target and Cub Foods—what is called “looting”—was a sight to behold. I think of the times I’ve nervously shoplifted and I think of all the times I and others like me have been caught by security. I also think of all those who have been murdered over the theft or perceived theft of commodities.
Walking around the diverse crowd, there was poetry everywhere—both on the brick and mortar and in the actions of everyone present. I wanted to see it all. A car was on fire and people were going to the Target to grab what little was left of flammable materials to add to the fire—mannequins, display tables, and the like. Some churchy couple was playing guitar, singing Leonard Cohen songs, and people were singing along. A medic tent, presumably full of supplies looted from Target and Cub, was handing out water and providing first aid. Cars were streaming into the parking lot, so much so that there was a constant traffic jam. Thousands of people were going in and out of Target and Cub Food and filling up their cars with liberated goods, many of them with shopping lists. They were smiling.
I heard one man in the store asking a friend on the phone where exactly the kitty litter was. At some point, someone tried to drive a car into Cub food, but failed. A liquor store was also being looted nearby and folks were sharing the spoils. The floors of these former stores were flooded with water and soggy paper from the sprinkler systems—but that did not stop some of them from eventually catching fire. A nearby bank drive-through ATM was meticulously broken into by a large group of people cheering each other on. It was all very cordial, no conflict in sight—besides with the police.
I had numerous conversations with people. I can’t count the number of times random people would walk by me and we would catch each other’s glance and both say something like “IS THIS REAL? ARE WE DREAMING RIGHT NOW? WHAT IS THIS?” One mom and her young son came down from a suburb to just see it. She was a sociologist and we started discussing the reasons for it all. Her son wandered off into the Target and she rushed off to find him. Another guy was talking about how what was happening was straight up anarchy. The range of people was extremely diverse—yet I saw none of the conflict around race that I’m used to seeing in similar situations.
Later on, as the sun went down, there was another attack on the already smashed up Third Precinct. From the roof, the cops responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, but then they stopped and abandoned the roof. In the adjacent parking lot, they were firing gas and rubber bullets as the rest of the cops that could fit into cars were getting in them. The others who couldn’t fit crowded together into a riot line, periodically shooting at onlookers in order to protect the ones getting into the cars. Eventually, all the cops made their way to the gate of the parking lot. The cops on foot struggled to open the gate by hand, then eventually gave up. One officer used a car to ram the gate, bursting it open. A line of cops and cars spilled out, from cruisers to bearcats—all abandoning the precinct. It was incredible. Rocks were being thrown at them, laser pointers shined at them. Just like that, they were gone.
The crowd went wild. It’s the happiest you could be, running the police out. A fire appeared in the lobby of the precinct. There was no effort to stop it and no need to stop it.
Seeing a police precinct burn is a much-needed release for all those who have been forced inside one, for everyone who has been beaten inside it, for everyone who loves someone who has been murdered by the police. Seeing cops run scared from a righteous crowd is a release. It’s healing.
At some point, a USPS van showed up, all of its windows busted out, covered in graffiti. The driver was doing burnouts and donuts. People flipped it and set it on fire. Another banged up van peeled around the corner five minutes later and the driver nearly hit a few people doing donuts again. People eventually convinced the driver to chill and to reverse it into the burning police station; but in the confusion, people kept getting in the way, so the driver rammed it into the other burning USPS van and it, too, went up. Another one showed up five minutes later, too, set on fire down the street.
When we are given free rein, what comes out is beautiful—creative and destructive. When we destroy the halls of power, where we are so often forced to speak in tongues or body rhythms that aren’t for us (law, social justice, reform), other paths of experimentation open up before us. Ways of living that already existed in the shadows of capital and authority can bloom freely and new ones that have yet to be created can emerge.
- Editor’s note: Along with many experienced street medics and animal liberation advocates, we strongly recommend using water rather than milk to treat exposure to tear gas. ↩