The rebellion roiling the United States in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd is an important historical moment that will have significant consequence in the US and elsewhere.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou makes a useful distinction between what he calls “immediate riots” and “historical riots”. Immediate riots are located in the territory usually occupied by the rioters, aimed at local symbols of power and frequently inspired by seeing similar manifestations of popular anger elsewhere on television. Their demands are localised and not framed in a way that could enable a generalised rebellion. After a few days, these riots usually burn themselves out leaving little in the way of sustained organisation or the generation of emancipatory ideas that can attain wider resonance.
Historical riots occupy centrally located urban spaces, forge direct connections between people from different areas, carry a clear and compelling demand that can speak to people at significant scale and occupy an insurgent position on the national stage. A historical riot is not a minor distraction, a brief and soon-forgotten blip on the news cycle. It forcibly changes the structure of the national drama by introducing new protagonists and new ideas.
The rebellions that have erupted in scattered parts of South Africa since 2004 are a useful example of immediate riots. They tend to be confined to the urban peripheries and directed at local antagonists, such as ward councillors. They sometimes burn hot, but, with important exceptions, usually burn themselves out fairly quickly. The riots and occupations that swept through North Africa following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in late 2010, and brought down the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in January the following year, and the government of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February 2011, are a useful example of historical forms of rebellion.
A wide-reaching rebellion
We don’t yet know how the rebellion that has returned night after night to cities across the US will end, and how politics and policing will be reconfigured in its wake. But we can already see that the rebellion is a historic event that will leave the US changed. It has also had a powerful impact on countries across the planet. The rebellion has enabled a rapid expansion of the discussion about police violence and its entanglement with broader forms of discrimination in many countries including Australia, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India and, of course, South Africa.
In the US, the rebellion has had a dual effect on public discussion. Old and new ideas have expanded their reach and won new audiences. Old, deeply racist and anti-democratic tropes such as the “outside agitator” thesis, with its roots in police and Ku Klux Klan opposition to the civil rights movement, have returned to the centre of public discussion. But, at the same time, radical ideas about how to deal with the crisis of racialised police violence have also rapidly expanded their audience. These include ideas around community control; progressive withdrawal of the police from dealing with situations where other kinds of professionals, such as social workers or psychologists, could intervene; defunding the police; and the outright abolition of the police. Ideas that once had little currency beyond small circles of radicals are now being discussed on the pages of the most venerable newspapers of the establishment.
The right is already mobilising old racist ideas, and the armed force of the state, against the rebellion and will certainly work, over the long term, to contain its impact. But the scale, courage and resolve of the collective refusal to accept racist police murder as an acceptable part of American life has been such that it seems unlikely that white supremacy, policing, and their intersection, will continue to be so normalised and naturalised.
Generalised abuses in South Africa
In South Africa, the police, various kinds of armed organisations established to evict people from occupied urban land, private security companies, prisons and migrant detention centres are all sites of organised illegality, sadism and abuse. Impoverished black people are subject to routine and generalised abuses.
According to a review of Independent Police Investigative Directorate statistics by Daneel Knoetze from Viewfinder, between April 2012 and March 2019 police were investigated for more than 2 800 deaths, over 800 rapes and upwards of 27 000 cases of torture or assault. Of course, many people who are subject to abuses at the hands of the police do not report them to official structures, so the extent of the crisis is much worse than these figures indicate – horrifying as they are.
But the police do not only mete out random abuse. There is also a systemic targeting of people organised outside the ruling party. It is common for the police to take instructions from ward councillors, including when they are plainly unlawful, and to refuse to allow independently organised people to open cases against the police or party officials.
Grassroots activists across the country have been subject to routine forms of harassment, unlawful evictions and prohibitions on protests, wrongful arrest, assault and torture. There is a sickeningly long list of unarmed people who have been murdered by police during protests. A quick internet search of numbers derived from media reports – hardly an exhaustive research strategy – and not counting the 34 striking mine workers murdered in the Marikana massacre, indicates that the number of people murdered by the police on street protests since 1999 is likely higher than 60.
Outside of protests, grassroots activists are more likely to be murdered by shadowy assassins than by the police. The dominant discourse on political murders in the elite public sphere focuses on assassinations within the ANC. This is, of course, a serious issue that requires urgent attention. But it is important to note that people organised outside of the ANC have also been subject to assassination.
Assassinations have been a particular problem in and around Durban where members of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Communist Party have been assassinated. The problem is now also acute in Port Elizabeth where a number of trade unionists have been murdered.
In several cases there are credible claims that police have not made any genuine attempt to investigate the assassination of activists. This has led some grassroots activists to see repressive violence as a continuum that ranges from the police to municipal “anti-land invasion” units, private security firms and professional assassins, often connected to the taxi industry.
Enabling democratic engagement
The collective power of the popular refusal to accept racialised police violence in the US has punched a hole through an established consensus that was profoundly harmful to society and resulted in regular, racialised murders, usually carried out with legal impunity. In South Africa, as in Brazil or Australia, the breakdown in that consensus in the US, a society that sustains tremendous global influence, creates an opportunity to take up issues of racialised police violence and abuse at home.
This opportunity extends beyond the prospect to be more effective in demanding justice for specific abuses and murders and demanding the removal of the more bellicose authoritarians in and around the police, such as Bheki Cele. It includes the prospect of being able to have wider and deeper discussions about the police as an institution, and measures that could be taken to begin to oppose the ways in which some groups of people are governed, as a matter of routine, by state violence rather than democratic forms of engagement. In this sense, the American rebellion is a gift to the world.