To mobilize outrage over George Floyd’s killing, look to lessons of social movements past

The Chicago Black Panther Party, Rainbow Coalition, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and other historical organizing projects point to the possibilities for harnessing the vast mobilization of outrage we’re seeing today.

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Photo by Max Herman

Demonstrators watch as police block State Street and a fire burns in the distance during a large scale protest in downtown Chicago against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, as part of a national day of action on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Max Herman)

This weekend I kept seeing T-shirts with images of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader who was assassinated by police in 1969, and I kept thinking of one of his famous statements: “We do not support people who are anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, and Custeristic.”

He wasn’t talking about spontaneous uprisings by urban masses, he was criticizing the 1969 Days of Rage demonstrations staged by the Weathermen, in which a few hundred white radicals smashed store windows and car windows in the Gold Coast and downtown and directly assaulted police. The “National Action” was supposed to attract youth from around the country and kick off a general uprising. It didn’t work out that way.

“We don’t really have to win here,” one of its leaders is recorded as saying. “Just the fact that we are willing to fight the police is a political victory.”

That’s Custerism, I guess.

There have been a vast number of strands and impulses at play in this week’s events, but at bottom is a deep outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, and all it represents — unaccountable police abuse and seemingly intractable systemic racism. The utter brutality of Floyd’s death — and the outpouring of outrage that it has inspired — has exposed “America as a failed social experiment,” Cornell West said recently. “Its capitalist economy could not generate and deliver in such a way that people could live lives of decency … Its criminal justice system, its legal system, could not generate protection of rights and liberties. And now our culture of course is so market-driven … it can’t deliver the kind of real nourishment for soul, for meaning, for purpose.”

Fred Hampton was talking on a parallel track — he was talking about serious, thorough organization deeply rooted in the experiences of everyday people that’s necessary to get at the most basic issues. The Panthers built a disciplined, militant organization of thousands with broad support in cities across the country. It stood for black self-determination and for multiracial coalitions and working class unity, and — particularly under Hampton’s leadership here — it created a series of grassroots social programs. 

Historians will tell you the Panthers were destroyed by a coordinated program of assassinations and prosecutions by federal and local authorities, though sometimes-deadly internal tensions also contributed. (One question still remaining for those historians is whether that could have been prevented — for one thing, did the lack of open democratic processes within the party make the group more susceptible to infiltration and other problems?)

What we’re seeing now is “a righteous outpouring of anger” along with the “practice of militant performance in the streets” that’s now “part of our political culture,” said Abdul Alkalimat, a professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and veteran of the civil rights and black liberation movements in Chicago. “How do we imagine a higher level of engagement that gets at the fundamentals?”

In Ferguson, Missouri, where sustained protests followed the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, “people stayed in the streets,” Alkalimat said. “They never fanned out, never went door to door, never went to the churches, so that next year they could come back with four times the numbers” and much broader grassroots involvement.

He points to the legendary Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement organized by black autoworkers following the Detroit riots of 1967, and its leader, General Baker. “The biggest lesson we learned out of the rebellion was that when they established curfew, if you got sick you couldn’t go to the hospital, if you were hungry you couldn’t get food, but if you had a badge from Chrysler, Ford, or General Motors, you could get through the police line, the National Guard line, and the army line, to take your butt to work,” Baker recalled a few years before his death.

“We learned a fundamental lesson out of that, that the only place black people had any value in this society was at the point of production. And that’s why we turned our efforts to organizing in the factory.”

What if there’d been a similar group in Minneapolis that could organize a broad labor action to support the protest over George Floyd’s killing, asks Alkalimat — who’s now working with the Southern Workers Assembly to establish workers assemblies in several states. “Now you’re not talking about getting some cops arrested, now you’re sitting down with 3M [Corporation], which runs the state,” he said. Alkalimat cites an insight from Malcolm X: “Don’t strike at the puppet, strike at the puppeteer.”

That may sound ambitious, and it is. But the vast mobilization of outrage we’re seeing presents a moment of heightened possibilities.

On the very day when the Weathermen were enacting revolutionary fantasies on the Gold Coast, Fred Hampton led a march to support striking workers at International Harvester’s Southwest Side plant, gathering young people he as led protestors through housing projects, recalls Mike Klonsky, who as national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society worked closely with Hampton and his Rainbow Coalition.

“We tried to create an alternative to the Weatherman line,” which disparaged the working class as “bought off,” he said. “We had thousands of people — a lot more than they had — black, white and Puerto Rican.”

Alkalimat describes his perspective as “just an old guy from the past talking.” But he points out that these protests have forced the president of the United States to take refuge in the White House bunker. “This isn’t going to be the end of it,” he said.