Larry Holmes gave this speech, which has been slightly edited, on a Workers World Party webinar June 4 on “No to Martial Law! Defend the Uprising!”
What we’ve seen over the last week is the largest national uprising against the police and systemic police racism in U.S. history. That’s all the more extraordinary because it takes place during a pandemic, when we were supposed to stay home and be safe. But when there’s a struggle, it pushes the pandemic aside.
Uprising, pandemic and capitalist crisis
We’ve reached a critical bridge with this uprising against the police. It intersects with a number of other things. The pandemic — which has been so brutal on Black and Brown communities, but also the entire working class — intersects with the capitalist crisis and Depression-level unemployment.
It intersects with the growing political instability of the capitalist system and within the capitalist ruling class.
Along with that, there are enormous changes in the demographics and political makeup of the working class. The character of this rebellion is very different from other uprisings against the police. It is more multinational. It is not only Black and Brown, there are many people of all generations and all nationalities.
The capitalist crisis has forced a lot of people into the working class, including a lot of young people who have college degrees and graduate degrees. They were hoping to find a place in the petty bourgeoisie with some confidence and stability, but the crisis of global capitalism is pushing them into not only the working class but into the gig economy, into the lower rungs of the working class, with absolutely no security, no unionization, no health care. That is part of the radicalization, the anticapitalism and some of the antiracism.
Many of these young people do not yet see themselves as part of the working class. That’s where our job comes in. We must struggle to raise the class consciousness of this new, very dynamic sector of the working class.
Young workers are statistically the largest section of the working class, not only in this country, but worldwide. One of our obstacles is that the working-class movement is not strong, in terms of numbers and organization, or progressive and revolutionary politics. If these new young members of the working class were more class conscious, the crisis would be altogether different.
Going forward, our job is to bring these new forces into the working-class movement, either through unions, and where that’s not possible into workers’ assemblies, workers’ councils, unemployment councils. And joining organizations like Workers World Party will promote the anti-imperialist, pro-working-class, anti-Democratic Party forces in the left. Those forces exist by the hundreds of thousands, by the millions.
Now is the time to open up a big struggle in the organized labor movement, while remembering they represent less than 10 percent of the workers. It makes it difficult to do this job if the labor movement, especially its leadership, is stuck in class collaboration tied to the Democratic Party. The next time there is a rebellion against the police, against systematic racist terror, there has to be a general strike.
Now anything is possible
For those who say it’s impossible because the workers’ movement is just not up to that, I say this rebellion that we’ve been witnessing over the past week, who the hell thought that was possible? A police station in Minneapolis was overtaken by thousands, the police ran, and they burnt the police station down. I don’t remember that happening in recent U.S. history.
What we thought was impossible before, the events of the past week are showing that it’s possible. If labor does not mobilize and solidarize itself, in a big way with this uprising against the police, it will help those neofascist forces who want to stop the class struggle and the struggle for socialism.
Right now, the revolutionary left is still marginalized, as is even the Sanders movement. We’re marginalized regarding our size and influence. This is unacceptable, comrades and friends. Especially now, this crisis is too great for us to remain marginalized.
If we remain marginalized, it means that Marxism, socialism and class struggle, class conscious will also be marginalized. It means that the liberal bourgeoisie will ultimately take over the leadership — and they’re very good at that. They know what to say, the reverends know the speeches to give and how to take control. That’s what they’re paid for.
All of us who understand what I’m talking about — the importance of class consciousness, class orientation and swelling the numbers of our organized class and having revolutionary potential on our minds — need to step back, reassess this. Understand that this is not just episodic. We must grasp the fact that this is not just one event; it’s part of a whole new phase of the global uprising of our class.
Those of us who used to call ourselves the vanguard must act together in a principled way to make sure that our class gets ready to meet the tasks ahead of us. So that the road to revolution is not something far off in the distance that we don’t see. Our work brings it on the horizon.
Moderator Judy Greenspan: Why does WWP call it a rebellion instead of a riot?
Larry: You know, none of us who live in neighborhoods are happy to see our favorite grocery store trashed. In many instances, you know, it may be Pakistanis or Palestinians or other people of color who own and run that store. I’m saying that we need to look at all of this in a larger political and historical context.
There’s so much pain and suffering and oppression that goes on day in, day out, year after year, generation after generation, century after century, it’s all pushed down. The news doesn’t cover it. You don’t see it on CNN or even MSNBC. And so when there’s the spark that lights the rebellion, like this 10-minute torturing and lynching of George Floyd, with people standing around watching and begging that the cop stop, when something like that sets off a rebellion, all of that pain, all of that suffering that has been quiet, that the bourgeoisie doesn’t address itself to, that the news doesn’t cover, it blows up.
And when it blows up, things get destroyed. Small stores, big stores, police stations, and people want to stay in the street; they want to shut it down. If the pandemic wasn’t on, they’d be stopping traffic. As Malcolm X once said, and we appreciate the contributions of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, realizing that in the 60s, before they were cut down, neither of them made it to the age of 40. In many ways, they were youth, you know, and they were involved in a struggle of Black Liberation versus civil rights. They both made contributions, but it’s important to underscore Malcolm’s role.
Malcolm was strong on the question that we have the right to defend ourselves. Malcolm talked about how our people did not want to engage in struggle and violence to get attention. People just want to live their lives in peace, with love, and know that they have health care and a roof over their head and the things that they need to try to be happy.
Terrible things have to happen to people before they are pushed to the wall and say, “The hell with it.” Malcolm said, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” If you reap oppression and suffering and terror, you should not be surprised when Burn, Baby, Burn comes. The great writer James Baldwin almost 60 years ago wrote a famous book called “The Fire Next Time.” Some of us older people remember that, but the younger people study and they remember too, and it was a wonderful book. No one wrote prose as well as Baldwin. I’m sure most of us are familiar with it.
He was warning the capitalists, the white supremacist hierarchy, that the next time your cities are going to burn. I may not want it, it might not be what I want to do. But it’s a chemical, scientific, inevitable reaction. So you should not be surprised, and you should not blame it.
I believe that we should struggle very strongly against the liberals who say, “Well, it’s all about the violence and we have to separate them.” First of all, that gives the police and the military a justification. You can have cops out there saying, “Yeah, we don’t like what happened to George Floyd. But you know, we got to arrest those bad people and put them in prison by the thousands. So we can torture them and don’t even give them masks. So they might even get the pandemic.”
Which is an incredible and outrageous fear. I keep thinking about it. Some of those arrested have been in jail.
We have to have a revolutionary, contextual view of the inevitability of violence, of militancy, of whatever people feel they need to do. And where did they learn looting from? Wall Street loots! Day in, day out! All you have to do is live under this system and it’s hard not to want to loot. What am I going to get, a container of milk, maybe a couple of packages of meat or something like that, if you can a radio or a computer or something you want to sell.
Look at all this unemployment. Look at all the young workers who are losing their jobs. I’ve heard interviews with those who have been arrested for so-called looting and stuff like that. What do you learn from a society that pretends to be democratic, wonderful, the best thing on Earth, but in fact is full of looting. It’s a looting criminal system. So look in the mirror, bourgeoisie, and blame your looting self.