Police prepare to repress a crowd of protesters | Photo by Geoff Livingston
“Due to your disorderly conduct, this demonstration has now become illegal. If you do not disperse, we will deploy chemical weapons.”
The large crowd of protesters did not budge from their position on the sidewalk. A line of thirty police officers barricaded off the street. Behind them, more police cars arrived, lights flashing. Some of them were dressed in riot gear.
A few protesters took hold of the megaphone and urged others in the crowd to comply with the orders. But the crowd did not disperse, and soon the chant resumed: “No justice, no peace, no racist police…”
It wasn’t the kind of scene I would’ve ever expected to see in my hometown of Kettering, a small, nearly all-white suburb of Dayton, Ohio. All of this took place a few blocks from where I live, in a residential area filled with the characteristic wide lawns, brick houses, and tree-lined streets of Midwestern suburbia. To my knowledge, no protests had ever occurred in this town before in my lifetime — Occupy, the Iraq War, all of these had passed through without so much as a ripple. But now, nearly a thousand people were marching down the street, chanting “Black Lives Matter.”
This powerful show of solidarity — an echo of similar demonstrations taking place in countless cities and towns around the country — is an indication of the shockwaves that this movement is making at all levels of society. As one of the speakers noted before the march began, in the past week protests have broken out almost simultaneously across all fifty states. “When has that ever happened in our nation’s history?” he asked as the crowd broke into cheers. “Not even during the Vietnam War did that happen.”
The protest in Kettering was multiracial and cross-generational — but, reflecting the town’s demographics, about eighty to ninety percent of the protesters were white, and it was clearly a youth-led demonstration. The organizers, speakers, and chant leaders were all Black high school students, and about half the crowd was probably younger than me (I’m twenty-two years old). The massive turnout was a sign of widespread community support — nearly every driver that passed us on the road, after we’d moved from the street to the sidewalk, honked and raised their fists in solidarity.
It was clear that almost all of these people were newly radicalizing in this moment. This process, of course, is never without its share of contradictions, and people’s ideas, especially in times like these, tend to be in a state of flux. None of the protesters at the march, for instance, really made any open critiques of the police’s role in capitalist society — the aim was conviction and reform, not defunding and certainly not abolition. Before the start of the march, the crowd applauded the police chief’s remarks presenting the police as being on the side of protesters.
Yet at the same time there was a palpable rage against the police on display — as when nearly five hundred of the protesters stood defiant in front of a police barricade after the planned march had ended, demanding that they be let through to continue the protest, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” Some high school students and mothers turned their megaphones to the police officers and called them cowards for standing by in silence while their coworkers got away with murder.
A similar dynamic was at work in a slightly smaller protest I went to in downtown Dayton the following day. This demonstration was organized around a radical set of demands: defunding the police to invest in social services, disarming and demilitarizing the police, decriminalizing drug use, and ending cash bail. Yet some of the protesters thanked the police as they passed, and a speaker at the end of the march called for the need to “restore the image of police as our heroes — so long as they put in the work.”
This uneven process of radicalization, however, shouldn’t lead us to downgrade the significance of these protests occurring now outside of major cities. Most people in a place like Kettering don’t have the same kind of direct experience of the violence and repression that police forces are capable of and which are openly on display now in larger cities across the country. The demand to defund police departments is much more obvious in a place like New York City, for instance — where the NYPD’s annual budget of $6 billion is larger than the military budget of most countries — than in an Ohio suburb, where the myth of police as a force aimed to “protect and serve” is easier to hold onto.
At the same time, people around the country are paying attention to what’s happening in New York, in Louisville, in Minneapolis, in Austin, in Washington, D.C., and they’re drawing conclusions from it that would have been unthinkable years or even just a few weeks ago.
Most people, I think, are still in the habit of thinking of the police as a necessary institution which is simply in need of major reform. But there is also a growing sense that past attempts at reform have failed, and that something more far-reaching may, in fact, be necessary — even if what that alternative might look like isn’t yet fully articulated.
At the very least, these protests have given rise to a renewed sense of what might be possible through collective action — preparing the groundwork for a stronger multiracial working-class movement in the years to come. One of the most powerful moments during the protest in Kettering was when one of the chant leaders announced that while we were out protesting, the four officers involved in George Floyd’s murder had been charged. “When we get out here on the streets and fight together, we win,” she said. “Now what we need to do is keep fighting until they’re all convicted — until we have justice for all.”
I think this is the key conclusion that many people around the country are taking from their experience in the protests — the need to keep fighting together. As socialists, we need to continue laying the groundwork now for that shared struggle even after this initial wave of protests dies down. To do that, we will need to advance demands that resonate with this layer of newly-radicalizing people, and build the long-term organizations necessary to win them.