As this interview goes to print, the political situation has continued to develop. We are on the cusp of a national presidential election that is marked by uncertainty in the result and shaking faith in the stability of supposedly democratic institutions. Another crucial element of this context, it has been under a week since the trajectory of the urban rebellions against racism and police violence relaunched an uprising in Philadelphia in response to the videotaped police murder of Walter Wallace Jr.–a 27-year old Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis. The related struggles and the dynamics of crisis continue to unfold rapidly, but times of immense social dynamism are also those in most urgent need of historical reflection.
Donna Murch is an associate professor of history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and a member of the Executive Council of the American Association of University Professors–American Federation of Teachers. She is the author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, which won the Phillis Wheatley Prize. Her next book Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Mass Incarceration, and the Movement for Black Lives is forthcoming from Haymarket Books.
Brais Fernández serves on the editorial board of Viento Sur and is a member of the revolutionary socialist Anticapitalistas in Madrid. Todd Chretien is a high school Spanish teacher, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the editor of NoBordersNews.org. They spoke to Dr. Murch on July 13 for Viento Sur. This interview with Donna Murch originally appeared in Viento Sur 1, no. 171 (September 2020). It has been lightly edited for publication by Rampant and No Borders News.
Brais Fernández and Todd Chretien: Can you characterize the general political situation in the United States in the midst of COVID-19, the spreading recession, and antiracist rebellion?
Donna Murch: I think in some ways the United States is facing an unprecedented situation because of the convergence of these multiple crises at once. First, this is the single biggest health crisis the United States has ever faced, and that includes tuberculosis, syphilis, and, more recently, the AIDS crisis. Second, the sheer scale and size of the epidemic has created very, very accelerated mass unemployment, which peaked with 7 million jobless claims in a single week in March, but remains well over 1 million claims per week in July. The official unemployment rate stands today at roughly 12 percent, but I think it’s much higher judging from reports from the states. Third, as a friend of mine described it, people were forced to take to the streets during a pandemic in order to oppose another pandemic—that is state violence.
I understand these multiple crises to be fueled by the fact that the United States is in precipitous decline. This has been going on for a very long time and I think the election of Donald Trump is a reflection of the decline. He is accelerating it, but he is symptomatic of the gutting of our institutions and the violent, right-wing thinking that is partially born out of the rapidity of our own decline. He’s not the only cause, I think there is a continuity of white supremacy that makes this possible.
So this is what we are facing, this enormous economic crisis, this enormous public health crisis, and on top of that, a real crisis of state legitimacy in which the right wing has become explicitly racist—no more dog whistles, no more post–Civil Rights discourses that couch racism in other language—it has become very explicit, both in its racism and its anti-Semitism.
BF&TC: To follow up on that, Donald Trump is obviously a sociopath, but would you consider him and the political movement he’s trying to build fascist? What are the policies and ideas through which he is attempting to organize his political bloc? Is there any sense in which he is confronting the American ruling class or is he doing their bidding?
DM: I’m careful about defining fascism. I tend to think about it in the terms that Daniel Guerin talked about it: fascism as the merger of state and capital as well as strong traditions of extreme authoritarianism, militarism, and a core basis of racism as a kind of unifying force. Those are loose definitions and they feature continuities even with things we see in liberal democracies but in an extremely intensified form. So I do think that Trump represents the force of fascism depending on how you define it. He has explicitly tweeted Nazi memes and supported people who celebrate national socialism and genocidal politics.
Trump is the ultimate capitalist; he’s a real estate agent. I don’t really like the word populist because in American history there are a lot of issues with the term. In Europe the term is always associated with conservative authoritarian movements. But in the United States, it’s a more complex history. And Trump himself is a failed real estate agent who has built a career out of branding himself and selling his name, that’s who is president of the United States.
Trump represented himself as a man of the people—not in any way taking on concrete concerns, but rather by expressing popular resentment, and that piece is important. He also flip-flopped. When he was running for president, he essentially promised to end the American wars. Not out of a sense of pacifism, but because he is an economic nationalist. It’s a kind of America First similar to the 1930s isolationism of Charles Lindbergh. And that’s how we got to Make America Great Again: bring everybody home, spend the money on our country, fight China and other countries, and then work for American ascendency.
BF&TC: And how does this decline manifest internationally?
DM: Part of this is my own recollection. I was born in 1968 and when I was a child at the height of the Cold War, it was normal within American political discourse for every politician, Democrat or Republican, to start any kind of speech or introduction in Congress by saying, “We’re the greatest country in the world.” I began to notice in the last ten years or more, it’s much less common and that more and more this idea is being taken up by a particular kind of right-wing politician. But this is retreating in the popular American consciousness because so much of our sense of our greatness had to do with our economy and our military, our hegemony, our dominance.
We have been in decline, and everyone knows this. I come from a working-class family on my mother’s side and they all know this. They’re not reading the New York Timesor theWall StreetJournal, but they know. They see the bridges falling apart, they see the holes in their roads, they see the problems they’re having in their infrastructure, their plumbing, and their water. Most of the country is not wealthy and their children have lower standards of living than they used to—and that part is extremely important. It’s a lived experience of decline for ordinary people.
I remember talking to a friend of mine from the Sudan when I was in graduate school while were thinking about this and I said, “White Americans are not going to deal well with decline because their sense of themselves is so based on superiority.” That’s when I first saw the real political dangers of decline, and that’s what I believe Trump is.
I think understanding George W. Bush’s presidency is very important, both because of the expansion of all the wars in the Middle East and the victory of the neo-conservatives. The extent of the overreach is central to US decline. Also, Bush paved the way for Trump with his explicit use of racism. If you recall, he used all the language from the Indian Wars in the United States: “smoking them out the holes” and the language of the American frontier, and this was all incredibly popular. Of course, he’s a plutocrat, from a ruling family that goes back to the origins of the country, but he branded himself as a Texas populist. One of the ways he did this was using his own illiteracy. It was an example of a true patrician elite rebranding himself, largely because of his own stupidity, as a man of the people. Sadly, I think it did work.
Meanwhile, the level of racism that Trump is mobilizing against China is very dangerous. Trump is always signaling about how he’s simultaneously back-channeling with Xi Jinping. So there’s the public discourse of racism against Mexicans and Central Americans and Arabs and Muslims and his racism against China, but he’s always also secretly trying to cut his own deals. It’s a little contradictory.
BF&TC: Since the police murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen a resurgent antiracist movement. What are the characteristics of this cycle of protest and how are they rooted in the past?
DM: To understand the present period, I would go back to 2009. In a way, that’s an arbitrary date because, because since at least 1965, African Americans have mobilized against the police. We had massive urban rebellions in the 1960s and in 1992. But the reason I mention 2009 is that’s the date when Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland at Fruitvale Station. That’s the first time I saw this particular kind of mobilization around a police killing where there had been a video tape of the killing and you saw sustained, I mean years and years, of organizing. And really the elevation of Oscar Grant to the status of a political martyr. And then there was an explosion after the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. And it’s out of this killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of George Zimmerman, his killer, who wasn’t a cop, but self-deputized himself to patrol the neighborhood, that the three founders of Black Lives Matter first used the phrase, which became a hashtag, and then a social network. Later, it cohered into an umbrella organization called the Movement for Black Lives, which includes chapters all over the country, as well as some academics and not-for-profits.
Today we have to extend the timeline. This organizing has been going on for a long time. One of the ways it has succeeded is that by using the phrase Black Lives Matter it has been able to overturn the discourse of Law and Order and the view of Black people always through the lens of criminalization. It has inverted the identification, similar to what the Black Panther Party did. Black Lives Matter has highlighted the violence committed against Black people and by doing so it’s overturning the deep power of a particular kind of racism. All of this means there are important elements of continuity.
However, the protests that have happened over the past two months are different than they were between 2009 and 2012, which were largely African American protests. There were white people present and people of all colors in those earlier protests, but at its core, I think this was a Black protest movement. Now we’ve had protests in over 400 cities and they’re continuing. I was in Philadelphia shopping last week and there was a protest and the police blocked off half the city. What we’ve seen now is an expansion, a much broader demographic. One of the ways it intersects with COVID is that the demonstrators are younger because many of us were sheltering in place. I always go to protests, but I didn’t this time because I was sheltering in place because I am older. So I think the protesters are younger and they are more racially diverse. The challenge I think they face is how to translate this mass mobilization into substantive change because the federal government is run by a racist madman. And there’s a general problem of American politics with respect to how to make the state receptive to popular mass mobilizations.
BF&TC: You referenced the elements of continuity in the Black struggle. Could you identify some of the core ideas and demands that have guided the Black movement for liberation (for centuries), but more specifically, starting from the period around 1965, as you mentioned, to today?
DM: 1965 matters because this is the year the Voting Rights Act was passed. Even though the United States is the oldest democracy, African Americans have been unable to vote for almost all of that history. There was a brief period of twelve years after the Civil War during which Black men could vote when they were protected by federal troops during Reconstruction, but there were also tens of thousands of people killed in the process for just trying to vote in the southern states.
Meanwhile, in the North, the Black vote was restricted. Poll taxes, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement were all used to suppress Black people exercising their formal right to vote in the North, while a regime of terror prevailed in the South. So, 1965 matters because of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, which mandated the dismantling of legalized, “separate, but equal” segregation in the South.
But 1965 also marks the biggest urban rebellion in US history in Los Angeles, just one week after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. At the time this was a great surprise because after the great legal victory, you actually see more upheaval. Even though people often think about the South when they think about race in the United States, it’s actually important to focus on the North and West, which didn’t have the system of Jim Crow. In 1965 you see protests, like today, inspired by instances of police brutality. So that, I think, is the first core question in terms of the continuity in the Black movement between then and now: police brutality and police murder.
The second core issue is the way this violence enforces a regime of racial capitalism and racial violence within African American communities. In the North, Bayard Rustin called it a fight for housing, education, and jobs. At their core, these were fights for redistribution that had a deep economic base, which is important to emphasize. But these demands are related to incredible violence that shores up and reinforces this process of divestment and de facto segregation. It’s not just that the police are violent, they are maintaining a system of order and control in which the average Black family today, since the 2008 crisis, has only one thirteenth the wealth of the average white American family. That’s an enormous wealth gap. The statistics are incredible. For instance, the average Black college graduate has less wealth than the average white high school graduate. So police violence and economic inequality are absolutely linked.
I think the third element, and this matters historically, is that today the Black liberation struggle is largely led by women and conceived through a queer feminist lens. Women always participated in the struggle, but compared to the 1960s, the founders of Black Lives Matter are women, two out of the three identify as lesbians, and so there’s a shift in which the mobilization against state violence not only has women as a part of it but they are actually leading and conceptualizing the movement.
BF&TC: Given that long trajectory, one change today is that the Black struggle is not isolated, it is taking place in the context of MeToo, the Women’s March, a new round of feminist struggles, the Bernie Sanders campaign and the popularization of socialism, the Red State Rebellion and the teachers’ strikes and public sector strikes, and, as you discussed, the twin disasters of COVID and the economic crisis. So there’s a sense that the Black-led rebellion is embedded in a wider circle of struggles and movements. How is the Black Lives Matter movement both related to and distinct from these other forms of protest?
DM: I would begin by saying I don’t know about the characterization of the Black movement as being separate from these other movements historically because Black people have always been absolutely central to the left in the United States. That’s really important to understand, especially in the twentieth century. Think about the Communist Party in the 1930s and figures like Paul Robeson. In that sense, the Black movement has never been apart from other forms of struggle. There are many famous Black organizers and intellectuals that emerged from the Black left.
The well-spring of this movement today, at least a portion of it, looks back to the 1960s and 1970s. The icon of the movement is Assata Shakur who was a rank-and-file Black Panther Party member from New York. She was also a member of the Black Liberation Army who was arrested for killing a police officer, was later broken out of prison in the late 1970s, and has lived in Cuba since the late 1980s. So the icon of today’s movement is a Black Marxist. This matters. In many ways the white left looks to Black revolutionary figures like Angela Davis, who was central to Black abolitionism, and Assata Shakur.
That said, I’m still trying to understand the composition of these protests. Partially because I wasn’t personally there. It’s hard to do social analysis from your apartment! That’s why I’m careful.
I think that Trump’s pathological racism and sexual violence has absolutely energized the United States. We’re seeing a kind of mobilization against sexual violence partially because we can’t prosecute the president. MeToo was in this dialectical relationship with Trump. It’s almost like Harvey Weinstein was a stand-in for Trump. Not that he didn’t deserve it, because he did. The depth of anger at Trump, the Women’s March, the pink hats, ricochets in many directions.
Another reason for the massive white participation in these protests is because Black Lives Matter won the ideological air war, being able to expose state violence and to develop a kind of empathy that allowed all different kinds of people to identify with this and to see it as an attack on themselves. The intellectual brilliance of that was crucial because it overturned the idea of Law and Order. Instead of just fighting a battle about criminalization, it said, “Forget that, look at our deaths. Look at how we are killed in the street.” It set out whole new terms for the protests. Those women helped define this for a generation. None of this would have happened without their activism.
But, I also think we’re seeing massive white participation because it has to do with Trump. If Joe Biden were president, a Democrat, I’m not sure we’d see the same thing. There’s also a dynamic with COVID in that these are young people who’ve been trapped at home, and I think there are all kinds of pressures people are feeling. I was surprised that the protests I saw in Philadelphia were overwhelmingly majority white. I live in a very white part of the city, so that might be part of it. I wasn’t in West Philadelphia where there’s a poor, Black population. But I think this is a way to push back against the racist, authoritarian Trump, the enormous violence that Trump represents.
I sometimes have trouble finding the right language to describe what Trump does. He is a racist and he is violently sexist, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of sadism and cruelty and he’s completely and utterly devoid of empathy. This is the closest I’ve ever come to seeing fascism in the United States. I’m utterly dumbfounded and frightened by what I’m seeing.
I was in Brazil right after Jair Bolsonaro’s election, and I saw a kind of hyper-attentiveness to interpersonal violence mobilized by the right, and I can identify the same thing happening under Trump in the US. Rejecting these celebrations of racist and sexual violence is part of the response we’re seeing here in this country because people are feeling a level of crisis. Even those who are not necessarily directly in the crosshairs.
BF&TC: What kind of political ideas do you think will be necessary to transform the system of racialized capitalism? There is a revival of socialism, with a long tradition that, as you said, has always been closely involved with the Black left, but conditions are radically different than a century ago. So what socialist ideas are useful for the movements today and what does the socialist movement need to learn from the movements in order to be useful?
DM: The first thing is that I think Americans underestimate anticommunism. I am very much a Cold War leftist who was formed as a leftist before 1989. It’s been interesting to watch the movement take off today because I don’t always see continuities with the pre–Cold War left. There’s almost a break in our history because the depth of anticommunism in the United States is so enormous. I’m conscious of it now looking at a younger generation of leftists and how we’re almost constitutionally different. Our secrecy, you know. When I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, I still had to sign the loyalty oath that said I had never been a member of the Communist Party, and this was in the early 2000s.
It was striking to me that when Bernie Sanders was running, there were lots of baby boomers with Bernie and lots of millennials with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But there’s a missing generation, my generation. And I think it had to do with the scale of repression in the 1980s. In terms of thinking about socialism and the depth of anticommunism, McCarthyism didn’t stop with Joe McCarthy, it continues well throughout the 1980s.
How does that affect socialism today? It’s a really hard question. A couple things. First, we need more intergenerational dialogue between an older generation of leftists who lived through the Cold War and younger leftists. Black people bore the greatest brunt of that anticommunist hysteria. Paul Robeson’s career being destroyed, Angela Davis being placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and Assata Shakur with a $2 million bounty on her head today in Cuba symbolize that. We have to be careful and watchful. I’m concerned that the younger generation doesn’t understand the scale of repression in their own country.
Letting socialism breath and letting it be integrated into American discourse is critical. We have to wait and watch that happen. I think the most important thing is to actively look to traditions of socialism and Marxism that come from the Global South and from people who are not white. For example, we need to learn from African American Marxists, the Black Marxist tradition of Cedric Robinson and C.L.R. James, the Black Panther Party, the Dependency Theorists in Latin America, etc. To me, that’s the most important thing. Grounding our sense of socialism outside of Europe because in some ways we have more in common with Brazil than we do with Western Europe. The United States does not have a social democratic tradition and I think one of the mistakes in the United States (because of Eurocentrism) is to always look to the east, to Europe. But in many ways the US is a white settler colony, so to understand the effects of settler colonialism I think it makes more sense, it’s easier to understand our experience, if we look to Latin America and the Caribbean. That’s largely what the Black left did in the twentieth century.
Building a socialist movement requires thinking about who we look to. I do think reading Marx is extremely important and I think Lenin and Luxemburg are important and I think the European canon is important. I love the Frankfurt School; that’s how I was introduced to Marxism. But in terms of understanding the United States today and the nature of racial politics and what the left is, I think we have to ground ourselves in nonwhite traditions of socialism and Marxism.
The third thing is that we have to break down the supposed antagonism between identity politics and class politics. In the United States, because of the history of racial capitalism and the enormous disparities in the economy being so deeply racialized (including gender hierarchies), we really have to understand how people’s social location affects the core material conditions of their lives and the types of violence that they face.
I would end by saying that I work very closely with our faculty union, which is a true radical social justice union that has a very strong leftist component with leftists of different generations. And we struggle with this, how to deal with the core economic issues of fighting the university and fighting an employer, but also understanding how divisions of gender and race and subject positions make it difficult to for us to fight together against their unified force. So really learning from those movements, how they talked about different forms of disempowerment and social location and how that affects the struggle really matters. We must make race and gender central to how we understand the actual operations of these material structures.
[For international news and analysis from working class, oppressed peoples, and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]