Before getting into this, let me state for the record that I would take Biden over Trump any day. But the need for that clarification is illustrative in itself of my greater frustrations within our current political landscape. Here we are, once again tasked with deciding between the lesser-of-two-evils in a presidential election cycle. Fuck that. Fuck ’em both.
The lesser-of-two-evils hasn’t worked. Incremental change hasn’t worked. The two-party system works only to divide and distract the working class. It’s now apparent more than ever, establishment politicians and promises of incremental reform have not and will not suffice. Let’s start with some background…
Post-Revolution Revolution (Revolution²)
In 1786, less than three years after the American Revolutionary War ended, Daniel Shays led four thousand armed rebels in a fight against the Massachusetts state government. Shays’ Rebellion was a direct result of economic and civil rights injustices imposed by the merchant class which caused a debt crisis among the citizenry in rural Massachusetts. One of the farmers involved, his name recorded as “Plough Jogger”, summarized the situation that led to armed rebellion, stating the following (emphasis mine):
“I’ve labored hard all my days and fared hard. I have been greatly abused, have been obliged to do more than my part in the war; been loaded with class rates, town rates, province rates, Continental rates, and all rates… been pulled and hauled by sheriffs, constables and collectors, and had my cattle sold for less than they were worth. I have been obliged to pay and nobody will pay me. I have lost a great deal by this man and that man and t’other man, and the great men are going to get all we have, and I think it is time for us to rise and put a stop to it, and have no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors, nor lawyers, and I know that we are the biggest party, let them say what they will…. We’ve come to relieve the distresses of the people. There will be no court until they have redress of their grievances”Ref: Voices of A People’s History
We couldn’t even make it three years as a nation before class struggle led to an armed rebellion. While Daniel Shay’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it was the first of many attempts to challenge the status quo of the ruling class in America.
The remainder of the 1780s and 1790s alone would see the 1788 Doctors’ Riot, the Whiskey Rebellion, and Fries’ Rebellion. The 1788 Doctors’ Riot took place in New York City, which was built largely with slave labor. When slaves died, due to their lower social standing, they were buried outside of the city limits. Medical students and physicians from nearby Columbia College took advantage of these marginalized people and stole their bodies from cemeteries to practice medicine on. A group of freedmen petitioned the city to take action against this practice. The petition was ignored and soon after it led to riot. Just five years after the end of the Revolutionary War, we have a clear example of civil unrest where classism and racism intersect in the United States.
Moving into the 1800s, America would see the Hard Scrabble and Snow Town riots in Rhode Island. These riots, in 1824 and 1831, were an attack on marginalized working-class free blacks and poor whites by working-class whites. 1831 would also see Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia. During the Civil War, Detroit’s Race Riot of 1863 would result in the creation of the first full-time (and mostly-white) police force in the city. In 1886 the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, which helped pave the way for the 8-hour workday, and six years later the May Day riots of 1894 again brought to the surface the continued unrest of the working class.
Now onto the 20th century, and keeping with the trend, the 1900s would bring more civil unrest. Due to the first World War, industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest faced labor shortages. To fill vacant industrial jobs, these cities recruited labor from the South, leading to the first wave of the Great Migration. Many of these industrial jobs were filled by African-Americans.
After the first World War, returning veterans tried to re-enter the labor market. Now with an abundance of supply and a limited demand for labor, social tensions were heightened among the working class. These tensions again led to outright violence during events such as the Red Summer of 1919 and Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. These are just two of many examples of white supremacist violence in the first half of the century that stem, at least in part, from class struggles.
These conflicts were not just limited to the Northeast and Midwest, nor were they limited to white-on-black violence. In 1943, tensions between young Latinos and white military servicemen – tensions fueled by the press – led to the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Following these riots, and only after the Mexican Embassy lodged a formal protest with the US State Department, the McGucken Committee was formed to investigate the cause of the conflict. It was determined that racism was a key factor. Go figure. Human relations committees were appointed. The police promised new training and reform. And the only people to face any real consequence were the Latinx victims arrested during the conflict.
Less than a decade later, 1951 brought the Bloody Christmas to Los Angeles. 1965 brought the Watts Riots. After the Watts Riots, the governor commissioned an investigation into their cause. The McCone Commission provided recommendations to address the socioeconomic conditions that sparked the riots. Most of those recommendations were never implemented.
Almost 30 years later, in 1992, the acquittal of four LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King ignited the LA Riots. Once again, following the ’92 riots, a committee commissioned by the state studied the cause. The study concluded that the “inner city conditions of poverty, racial segregation, lack of educational and employment opportunities, police abuse and unequal consumer services created the underlying causes of the riot.” The LAPD promised reform. Politicians made promises.
2009 saw the murder of Oscar Grant. 2011 saw the Occupy Movement. 2014 saw the murder of Michael Brown and subsequent riots in Ferguson. And here in 2020, we have militarized LAPD officers lighting up unarmed protesters with “less-lethal” rubber-coated bullets in the streets.
So… What’s your point?
My intention in sharing the above is to show how large a role both class and race struggle have played in the history of the United States. In fact, it’s almost as is if the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. But I digress… When it comes to race and class in American history, we can’t talk about one without talking about the other.
The list above is far from exhaustive. Nor does it touch on the imperialist colonization that laid the groundwork for the formation of the United States itself. I can’t promise it to be 100% correct (shoutout to our severely underfunded educational system and remedial English class ✌️). But my hope is that it at least provides background for my argument and shows that incremental reform has not been sufficient.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”President Lyndon B. Johnson
Okay… What’s that got to do with Biden?
A common thread that I’ve heard in support of Biden, is that a Biden presidency would be a step towards a “return to normalcy”. He’s someone who can “reach across the aisle” and “get things done”. The thing is… I don’t want to return to what we’ve too-long accepted as the status quo. And I don’t care if he can reach across the aisle. Both sides of the aisle are responsible for the situation we find ourselves in today. And I promise you, both sides care much more about their corporate donors than they care about you.
I don’t want a return to normalcy in which:
- We spend twice as much on healthcare as other nations, with far-less to show for it.
- We can outfit our police in full military gear to attack the unarmed people they are supposed to protect. Yet we can’t outfit our healthcare workers with proper personal protective equipment during a global pandemic.
- We have, by far, the highest rate of incarceration per capita than any other country in the world.
- Democrats and Republicans squabble over ineffective half-measures and hand-wavy bullshit to address the ever-growing threat presented by climate change.
Joe Biden isn’t the answer. He’s a return to the failed status quo.
But he worked with Obama!
I have my own qualms with Obama’s presidency. But for the sake of argument, I will give Obama credit for being the most progressive president in my lifetime. Granted, the pool of potential candidates is… lackluster. Again, I digress.
I believe that the main reason Biden was chosen as Obama’s running-mate in 2008 was to pull the white centrist vote – the voters that might be wary of the “progressive” Obama campaign. When the progressive party is actually centrist-at-best, that makes Biden… basically a Republican.
Looking to more concrete examples, Biden’s track record as a politician is atrocious. He may try to brand himself as a unity candidate now, but this is the man that pushed to make the Democratic Party the “tough-on-crime” party. This is the same man who said that George H. W. Bush’s 1989 National Drug Control Strategy was not tough or bold enough:
“[T]he President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”Joe Biden
This is the man who pushed strongly in favor of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill. This is the man who has for decades fought in favor of mass incarceration and furthered America’s descent into a carceral state.
Joe Biden is not the answer to the militarization of police and the prison industrial complex. He’s directly responsible for it. We don’t need to reform our criminal justice system. We need to burn it to the fucking ground.
But we need to get Trump out!
I agree. Our first order of business should be getting this wannabe-dictator out of the White House. But let that be step one. We have work to do and we need change now. This is our chance. Our chance to unite, not along arbitrary party lines, but in solidarity across the working class.
We not only need to get Trump out, we need to ensure that a more competent Trump 2.0 isn’t in the White House come next election cycle. In order to prevent that, we need to understand the underlying social and class issues that caused Trump’s populist message to resonate with those that voted for him.
We need to fix the fundamentally flawed system that created this mess. So long as both dominant political parties can blame the other, we will remain divided and distracted, thus preventing us from challenging the system itself. We need to reject that division and recognize the class struggle behind it.
We can’t allow establishment politicians to call for another commission to review the latest civil unrest. We can’t accept another promise of police reform. We can’t accept incremental and watered down half-measures to save our planet.
Without substantial fundamental change in our system, it’s only a matter of time until the next generation of American youth are teargassed in the streets – if climate change hasn’t wiped us all out by then.
We don’t need empty promises of incremental change from a neoliberal, centrist-at-best Democrat. We need real, substantial change. Joe Biden is not the answer. He’s the embodiment of fundamentally flawed establishment politics.
So… what then?
We need to defund the police. We need to fund social programs and education. We need the Green New Deal. We need housing and healthcare for all. We need a strong, modern labor movement. We need to recognize that these things will not come from establishment politicians. We need to get Trump out of the White House. Once we do, we must not get complacent or accept that as an answer to our problems.
2020 has brought to the public eye struggles that have existed since the foundation of our country. From Shays’ rebellion to the murder of George Floyd, race and class struggle have forever been at the core of our country. This year has just further exposed those systemic issues. Those same issues that have not and cannot be addressed with incremental change.
Politicians have commissioned studies. They’ve feigned care for our marginalized and most vulnerable people. Police departments have murdered and then promised reform, time-and-time again. And we’re still here fighting in the streets. We now have the opportunity to enact real change. But we also run the risk of returning to normalcy. We must reject that return to the status quo. And we must reject the system and the players within that system that led us here.
“The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago, and very little has changed.”Lisa Simpson (S3E2)
We need to imagine a future in which this all can change. If we want to right the ship, our only chance is if we organize. We need solidarity, not along establishment party lines, but across them and across the entire working class.
So… What do I do?
I don’t believe the answer to be singular, easy, or absolute. It took hundreds of years of systemic oppression to get here. But I do know that if we want to enact meaningful change, we need solidarity and we need to organize.
As Plough Jogger said in 1786, “I know that we are the biggest party“. We’re at a potential turning point. We can’t waste this opportunity. We must reject establishment politics and embrace the class struggle. We need to organize.
Organizing might look different for everyone. And that’s okay. The solution to these systemic issues will not be singular nor will it be overnight. We can all get involved in different ways. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, you can:
- Get involved with a local and/or national organization fighting for positive, progressive change. For me, that’s the Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States, with local chapters across the country.
- Know and contact your current representatives. These elected officials should be advocating for us. We can put pressure on them to ensure they are. And if they aren’t, we need to vote them out.
- Read and research the history of and alternatives to our current societal and political structures.
- Imagine a better future. We’ve been fed scare tactics and lies that perpetuate a feeling of defeatism. We need to be realistic about our current situation, while also being inspired by the potential for a brighter future. Through organization, we can take steps towards that future.
Fred Hampton said, “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. […] We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”
We don’t fight a failed political system with more of the same. It’s time we unite and fight back against the system that has oppressed us for too long. We fight back with solidarity across the working class and rejection of the political status quo. Power to the people, with no delay.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.