Catching Fire

Participant Reflections on the Summer of Protest and Rebellion

by Conrad Drexel

The interviews in this article were conducted in the summer of 2020. Click here for a printable PDF of this article.

Author’s note: As a reader of kites, I’ve been inspired by the guidance and leadership your journal provides to conduct social investigation into the wave of protest and rebellion that has swept across the country since the murder of George Floyd. While the findings are not necessarily representative of national (or even proletarian) sentiment, they offer some insight regarding the rebellion that I hope can be of use to the OCR, RI, and all other readers of kites who are committed to developing and implementing revolutionary theory through practice.

Over the course of the last few months, a comrade and I took it upon ourselves to reach out to numerous protesters and proletarians in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in order to better understand how people themselves understood the outbreak of protest and rebellion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. Not only was this social investigation conducted to grasp the contradictions in motion around the uprising, but it offered us the opportunities to potentially develop new ties with radical and revolutionary forces, to integrate with the proletariat, and to contend with mainstream, bourgeois narratives surrounding the moment. While the handful of interviews we conducted necessarily allowed for conversation to flow organically and for the probing of particular issues, there were central questions that we returned to in most instances, which largely make up the headings of this article.

Compelled to Action

Berta, a 49-year-old Latina nurse living in Covina, was the first person we met with for an interview. We were inspired by her almost inexhaustible energy and fiery personality, which carried her from protest to protest on an almost daily basis in the early days of the rebellion. When asked what compelled her to action in the wake of Floyd’s murder, she responded:

George Floyd was the last straw that people had of this generation. This was just a blatant, exemplary [case of police brutality and murder]. If people didn’t do anything about this, they were gonna start lynching in public again. That’s the way I felt. [When I saw Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct go up in flames and police driven from neighborhoods], I was like, “This is ’92 again. This is Rodney King. So what are people gonna do now? This is shit going down. What am I doing here waiting for a call watching it on TV? The masses are out! There’s nobody waiting for the vote.” So I felt I had to be out there with the masses.

She continued, speaking to the way in which police repression—including arrests, further brutality, curfews, and the use of concussion grenades and tear gas—further motivated her and others to resist:

If [police] said there was a curfew, they challenged every type of threat that came up. And especially when Trump said, “I’m the president of law and order,” and when he tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” these kids were like, “We have nothing else to lose; the world’s for shit anyway.” Fuck yeah [it emboldened the masses]! And then you have DACA people, who were like, “I have nothing else to lose; this country doesn’t want me here.” What really was heartening to me was a 17- or 18-year-old Black Lives Matter youth; she goes, “I’m graduating this year, and this world doesn’t want me.” If she’s not afraid, and she knows this world doesn’t want her, why aren’t we out?

Jay, a Black 24-year-old musician and skater living in Long Beach, related his initial thoughts on Floyd’s murder before speaking to how unabated oppression and poverty spur people to resist:

Man…fuck, man… I kinda feel bad for saying, but [when I heard of Floyd’s murder], it was just like, “Another one?!” Then, my thought was, “Something’s gotta stop this.” I think after that, collectively, people were fed up. It’s just like a lot of people seen this Tupac [Shakur] clip that’s been coming back: he’s talking about how if there’s a party going on, and they got so much food, and they know you’re hungry, and you’re outside, and you’re knocking at the door, and you’re asking politely, “Can I have some food?” You’re knocking two, three, four, five, six times, and next thing, you’re dancing for them, you’re doing this, you’re doing that… By the tenth time, you’re not gonna be knocking anymore.

Regina, a 25-year-old Black barista living in Anaheim, said there were two related motivations that compelled her to action. The first was working in an office in which she was “surrounded by Trump supporters” who “were being super ignorant [and] criticizing protesters when everything happened.” She was later fired from this job, “because it became obvious that I was offended by things being said.” The second, related motivation was to no longer remain silent and stifled:

I couldn’t say anything in this office, so I was like, “I’m going to go out to a place where my voice is heard, [where] I can speak freely.” So that’s what I did, and I haven’t left the protests since. [Being fired] lit a fire under my ass because of pure anger. I just got sick of staying silent and wanted a place where I didn’t have to be silent. [Protests were] a place where I could speak freely, which has been hit or miss, because some groups are more open to letting you say certain things than others. That’s been a struggle in and of itself, and I’m trying my hardest to make sure that I’m always in a place [where I don’t] feel like I’m being censored or filtered.

A friend of Berta’s, Derrick, is a Black retired nurse in his 60s living in Baldwin Hills. He saw the uprising not only as a resistant response to police brutality and white supremacy, but to a confluence of despair around other social issues:

I think the combination of the George Floyd [murder], the COVID virus, Donald Trump—all of this, it’s like, “When are you going to either surrender or stand up?” Like in the medical field, when you have enough evidence, then you have to form a diagnosis. The diagnosis to me was fascism and the destruction of the American climate as we know it. So I saw a trajectory of it getting worse, worse, worse, worse, and I had enough evidence to say that I can’t stay at home anymore.

I retired from working, so going out became more accessible to me. It’s rarely that COVID can provide something [beneficial], but the fact that most things that I would be engaged in, whether it would be sports, concerts, [or] other activities had shut down, I had more time to focus in and to look at how things were going. And I could go out.

The COVID Context

Tens of thousands of people protest police brutality and racism in Hollywood on June 7, 2020.

Like Derrick, almost everyone we spoke with saw the COVID-19 pandemic playing a significant role in how the rebellion was sustained. Some simply saw it as providing an opportunity to get involved due to the greater availability in people’s schedules that accompanied widespread unemployment and the cancellation and closure of events and places that would otherwise provide distractions. Others saw the frustration and restlessness that accompanied lockdowns and quarantines as providing a tinderbox into which the spark of Floyd’s murder fell, or at least serving to accentuate people’s responses to the police murder of yet another unarmed Black man. Others still saw COVID as one of an onslaught of social issues facing a generation with bleak prospects and little hope for the future; to them, the uprising symbolized this generation actively resisting the status quo and fighting for a future that they have no faith in the powerful to provide.

A 30-year-old Latino named Jose weighed in when we approached him during a pick-up game of basketball in his native city of Compton:

I feel like because everyone has been locked in the house due to this COVID situation, that had a lot to do with [the rebellion]; a lot of people were like, “You know what? This is a moment for us to step up and really get our voices heard,” ’cause there’s really nothing to distract people, so a lot of people dialed into politics. Even now, you can tell that since the sports have been back, the movement has kinda died down a little in certain places.

Tiana, a Black 40-year-old professional organizer and Long Beach resident, echoed Jose’s opinion on how COVID provided people with more availability and fewer distractions:

The momentum that we’re facing now started with Michael Brown. It goes and it fizzles, and it goes and it fizzles, because there was no COVID to [give people the means to sustain protest]. People have always had the fire in them, it’s just that life has won—the democracy we live under has won—at pushing us down, keeping us complacent, making us stay in our place, and setting up all these systems so that we don’t have time to stand against them.

Regina also spoke to the greater degree of availability to become politically involved due to COVID, but also believed that people’s anger was the culmination of frustrations beyond police brutality:

I asked myself, “Why now?” and “Why is this so huge now?” I think it’s because people have been stuck at home, and also people are just frustrated with the system as it stands. You know, people are about to lose their houses, their food stability, all sorts of things like that. And most people don’t have that stability, and they’re starting to realize there is something fundamentally wrong with this country. Why now? Because a lot of people are out of work and have the energy and time to [protest]. When you’re not struggling every day to pay rent or to put food on the table, then you have time to think about human rights, social justice, and ways to achieve those things.

The murder of George Floyd was just part of the uprising; it was part of everything combined that made people come out. It was the timing of everything that put it all together. There is a frustration from different parts of society. People are out of work, and there’s a sense that the government is not taking care of us. It’s killing people by ignoring COVID, but also there’s the blatant act of killing by the police. People just said, “Enough is enough.”

Jay discussed how the uprising met the need for people to collectively believe in something in a time of great uncertainty. He also spoke to the suffocating feeling of being forced to stay home due to COVID lockdown measures, suggesting that people consciously or unconsciously empathized with the fear and pain of Floyd in his final moments as he was physically restrained and suffocated by police:

We’re hive-mind people in a sense. There’s something that we all need to latch onto sometimes, and thankfully, [the rebellion] is for a good cause. We’ve all been stuck inside and stuck to ourselves, and now other, non-Black people are starting to feel a negative reaction to not feeling super safe. We’ve all been cooped-up, we’ve all been hurt, and to see someone [like Floyd] who’s crying for help and who’s hurt, [we can see ourselves in him].

After probing further and asking him whether he thought the uprising reflected a deeper and more comprehensive despair and rage, Jay said that he did. He reflected on a recent conversation:

I was talking to a friend the other day, and he was saying to me, “This is like the 2008 hit—the mortgage crisis with our parents,” but it’s worse. A lot of scary things are coming to light these days: injustices are continuing to be shown, people that are supposed to protect us are being revealed, people are sick, and this country’s in real danger of electing this dipshit, Trump, twice. It’s just like, “Dude…”

Dangers Beyond the Norm and More Deadly than the Virus

Protest always carries a degree of personal risk. Individuals risk arrest, charges, and a criminal record; they risk assault, brutality, and death at the hands of not only police, but also far-right vigilantes; and in today’s world, they also risk contracting and spreading COVID. With that in mind, we asked people why they were willing to take these risks, to which Berta offered a sharp and succinct response, saying, “There are more dangerous things in our world that are going to make people suffer than COVID-19. Fascism and white supremacy have a larger body count.”

In keeping with his belief that fascism is gradually consolidating power in the US, Derrick offered a longer response that warned against inaction, but also spoke to how broader concerns can help mobilize broader strata:

In this day and age, it’s as if if you do not do something, then something is done to you. It doesn’t seem to me that people can take a passive approach to the way society and the way the world is going. It would be foolish, in my opinion, to wait for destruction instead of trying to do something to prevent that destruction. [The failing economy in the midst of COVID is serving as an equalizer,] and that’s brought about a groundswell from so many people. So that’s one of the things that’s both a downturn, but also positive, ’cause, in my opinion, people would carry on with their lives if they thought that they were exempt from what’s going on. There’s a lot of fear, because they now understand that there’s not necessarily a future in this country for them with regards to economics, with regards to social issues. It’s very important to have something to say about [these social issues], and more important to have something to do about [these social issues], given that if you don’t do anything, something will be done to you.

California Highway Patrol officers sent to pacify protesters on the 101 Freeway are forced to flee after their vehicle is assaulted on May 27, 2020.

Returning to his point about the implications of an economy in crisis, Derrick suggested that, while class divisions are routinely used to simultaneously stoke fear of the proletariat while leaving the bourgeoisie undisturbed, unquestioned, and certainly unscathed, ideological divisions between lower and middle strata are being ruptured precisely because of growing economic insecurity within the petty bourgeoisie. He said, “That middle class is what keeps America safe, because it teaches them to think you need to be afraid of those people on the streets, and then the people up at the top still get to keep the money. So things are changing.” Outside of the economic dimension, over the course of subsequent conversations, we spoke about and united around the assessment of the role of white supremacy in maintaining social divisions irrespective of class, as it cuts across and reinforces class divisions while operating with relative autonomy as its own source of domination and inequality.

Jay was actively struggling through his lack of participation in the rebellion, attempting to rationalize his inaction while also recognizing the need for people to put themselves in uncomfortable and dangerous positions in the fight for a better world. When asked why he thought others have taken these risks, he explained that, at least among oppressed nationalities, it is an intergenerational responsibility:

Because our grandparents did it. Because their grandparents did it. 100%. It’s just too important to sit by, and I really appreciate my generation stepping up. Personally, I’m one of the people that’s stayed clear. I can’t afford a rap sheet. I can’t afford a rubber bullet in the wrong place. I can’t afford an actual bullet in the wrong place. I have [many things to lose]. It’s a mixed bag for my personal feelings of why I should or should not be out there, ’cause yeah, I have those things [to lose], but those things won’t matter if injustice is alive.

Regina also discussed generational concerns and responsibilities when asked why she had continued to protest even after LAPD shot out a window of her car with a rubber bullet:

I remember my mom having a conversation with me about racism when I was three. This is my biggest motivator, because I don’t want to have this conversation with my kids or my grandkids. Too many generations have been having this conversation. Being a Millenial, and since we’re criticized for wanting instant gratification, I want to start seeing [that demand for] instant gratification when it comes to [dealing with] injustice. It’s my belief that it is time to stop accepting these slow changes and start making real changes so that we don’t have to keep having these conversations with future generations.

Consensus on Militancy

A common tactic employed by the bourgeoisie and its media mouthpieces in the midst and in the wake of rebellion is attempting to control the narrative and establish “acceptable” forms of protest. Typically, this is done by saturating media with “safe” voices from the left who simultaneously condemn the source of outrage while also condemning what acts of proletarian authority and militancy have been carried out in the streets (think “community members” versus “outside agitators,” “good” versus “bad” protesters, and other tropes parroted by pundits once property is threatened). With the murder of Floyd, however, everyone that we spoke with recognized that the initial militancy of the uprising—when figurative and literal fires still grew—was precisely what forced concessions from the bourgeoisie in the form of suspending, then firing, then charging some, then charging all of the pigs involved. In short, while people wisely watched their language during a recorded interview, none denied the efficacy (at least in this scenario) of militant ungovernability.

Why the militant response to begin with? “[People were] fed up,” Derrick said. He continued:

I remember a quote from Dr. King: he says, “Violence is the language of the unheard.” After so many episodes of violence by the structure—the institutions, the police, and stuff like that—I think that people felt that the only way they would be heard is to address things from that direction. This country responds to property rights; property is more important than people to them based upon what I’ve observed. If there’s some violence toward property, you get a response, and so I believe that people did that because they were trying to communicate to a system that was not hearing them. Other people tried to protest with language, but violence is a language, quite frankly, and this is how it happened.

I think that some of the firings [of police involved in Floyd’s murder] was in response to what was going on in the streets. To respond like that is typical of the system in this country—it’s a [concession]. “What will it take for us to get you to go home?” These individuals that do the bidding of the state, which is the police, most of the time are deemed not guilty, which in my mind means that the state is sponsoring, upholding, supporting, and training this type of behavior. So to say that they’re fired, the state is basically trying to shift the blame toward the individual [officers], not to themselves. I don’t think that people are ready to hear that any longer, because when things occur too often like this, then it’s not just an individual ; it becomes a system : is everybody crazy, or did you train people like this? People now come to the conclusion that this is the way things work in this country. Now, Black people had come to this conclusion quite some time ago, but other people are now coming to that, so people are no longer willing to accept a scapegoat. [It’s bigger than] “bad apples.” We have to go to the tree; you have to get rid of the tree.

Jose also saw the militancy as a “language of the unheard,” especially in the context of a 24-hour news cycle in the midst of a global pandemic:

The media has gotten a little bit silent on [protests] by converting back to the COVID-19 situation and things like that, so you don’t really hear about what’s going on ’til it gets major. And then, they wanna consider those people “rioters” and things like that, but I don’t feel like it’s them so much rioting as it’s like they need to do something to be heard, and it’s unfortunate that it takes those extremes. And then, there’s still situations where not even that is helping, like in the Breonna Taylor situation: to this day, those officers are still free. That’s complete injustice, and it’s outrageous. If that was my family member, I would want those people in jail, even if they are policemen; they’re supposed to be held to a higher accountability than a regular person, because they’re trained officers.

As mentioned above, Berta described how the militancy and proletarian character of the uprising’s early days inspired her to join people in the streets in a more consistent fashion. In fact, she spoke to her frustration with how an organization that she had been running with prior to the rebellion neither moved quickly enough to join the masses nor showed its capacity to lead them, which contributed to her decision to leave the group, demonstrating that moments of mass initiative can draw dividing lines and reorient/sharpen perspectives.

In continuity with his contradictory and unresolved feelings, Jay lamented the fact that people were getting hurt—even killed—in the midst of the uprising, and questioned whether people were “pushing back” too hard while also recognizing that change isn’t made through polite requests:

I just want people to be safe, so I would really disapprove of people trying to push back too far. But at the same time, if you look through history, that’s how anything has ever been changed: some people see that something is wrong, and [they’re] like, “That needs to be opposed. It needs to be opposed.”

The police are supposed to be a force that serves and protects, like they say, you know? I mean, I don’t know who they’re serving or who they’re protecting, but a lot of people who look like me are dying. Cops don’t help; they don’t do anything but just stick their claws in, you know? I can’t say that for every single officer. However, that’s the majority, and that needs to change. The police force was created to monitor African-Americans. That’s literally what it was made for, and it just grew from that. So it’s like, when I see [the rebellion], I want people to be safe, and then I say, “You know what? History is playing. I can’t feel bad about [people pushing back too far]. History is happening.” Blame the people who create or make [these conditions in the first place].

What Will Come from This Moment

The answers to the question of what change will come from the uprising varied far less significantly than we anticipated. While it is true that those protesters we spoke with generally put more stock in symbolic changes and discussions than the proletarians on the street, nobody placed any real hope in the rebellion affecting real change when it comes to the oppression of Black people and police reform. Berta, who had been in protest circles for a while, explained:

This isn’t a war; it’s a battle. [In this battle, there have been some victories], for example NASCAR and Mississippi taking down their Dixie flags, people talking about race, people acknowledging their white privilege… Those are the positive things, just small things like that. It’s a battle of wills. What the protests show is that the people now have stronger wills than the government. I had diminished hope until I saw the kids out. [They were] waking all of us up again, and not being afraid, and being defiant, and being creative. It’s up to us how things are gonna play out.

Derrick implied that he saw shortcomings in the approaches and demands popularized in the uprising, but like Jay above, he reserved his criticism for others:

[The current call to defund the police] is a great step, in my opinion, [and even if some people lack a deeper understanding], I cannot condemn them for responding [in that way]. My condemnation is for the people who have created this mess. So I’m not condemning them for how they respond, but I’m hoping that through that process of learning [through struggle, they] might come to a better understanding of what is the problem.

The non-protester proletarian people we spoke with were not without their own contradictions, but they saw less hope coming out of the rebellion (or at least out of the more movementist trends that had come to dominate it after the initial proletarian upsurge). Speaking of those who call to abolish the police, Jay said, “I think not enough people know what that means.” Jose, on the other hand, expressed no faith in the system to dole out justice to killer cops, but, like many, saw bourgeois elections as the main vehicle for change despite his misgivings:

No, I really don’t see no change occurring. I mean, it still has yet to be seen. I’m hoping that maybe with these elections coming up, [but even then, the choice is still just between] the less of two evils. I really don’t like Trump; I really don’t like Biden neither.

The final two people we spoke with we met while performing social investigation in South-Central LA. The first was a family member of Dijon Kizzee’s, who was murdered by police on August 31, 2020. They expressed appreciation for people who had shown real concern for Kizzee’s family and the Westmont community, condemnation for those clout-chasing opportunists who tried to co-opt their grief and outrage, and no hope for the police murders of Black people to stop based on the demands of the current movement.

The second was a father of four and a member of a Crip set. When asked about his concerns, he said that for Black people in his community, police brutality and harassment ride so high on the list that all other concerns weren’t even worth mentioning. Even his youngest, a 7-year-old, said police were his biggest fear before he shared stories of harassment. The father expressed his opinion that things will not get better, but in fact will get far worse. Rather than being defunded, he believed the state would use the uprising to rationalize increased militarization of the police and eventually declare martial law.

The Fire Next Time

More so than anything, the rebellion and our social investigation made clear that there is a dream for more as well as a fighting spirit among the popular classes in the US. They are currently far from adequate to take on the challenges before us, but they are there. As is spoken to in articles published in kites, the principal role of communist revolutionaries today is not to await the time when the stars align and the objective situation is favorable for revolution, but rather to actively build the subjective forces for revolution by broadening the scope of these classes’ dreams (while simultaneously narrowing the scope on the most comprehensive and far-reaching dream: communism), developing their fighting spirit and capacity, and recruiting the most advanced as communist cadre. Despite the beauty, breadth, and height of the uprising’s flames in the wake of the murder of Floyd, we must strive for more, and commit ourselves to developing the organizational capacity and political line capable of feeding the flames to reach new heights. Only then will the oppressors follow the advice of Bob Marley and “catch a fire.”