From a European perspective the USA can sometimes feel like a magic mirror that has the answer to all our fears and expectations. The protests that have spread to over 300 American cities after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer are no exception.

Some right-wing politicians do not even try to hide their racism when they are warning against similar uprising of black and Muslim migrants in Europe. Left-leaning politicians, on the other hand, like to interpret the US protests as a struggle against capitalism and an opposition to president Donald Trump. But they fail to recognize structural racism in US society which cannot be solved by voting against Trump in the next presidential elections.

What we need are ambitious structural and social reforms that would actually change the lives of the protesters for the better believes Asad Haider, an American researcher of identity politics, author, and a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine. Universal health care would be such a reform as the pandemic of the new corona virus has shown. But the American political establishment – from both Republican and Democratic party – effectively killed this idea, argues the author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018).

Mr Haider believes that this kind of mobilization could lead in emancipatory directions. However, history has shown that fascist tendencies may also grow stronger as a response to the protests demanding social change. And such tendencies are very dangerous.

Asad Haider

How do you explain such an unprecedented mobilization of American citizens after the police killing of George Floyd? This has become far bigger and more militant than Black Lives Matter movement after 2014.

What is going on is that, in the conditions of the pandemic crisis and economic depression, one of the longstanding aspects of American racism – the police violence which is targeted specifically at black people – has provoked an uprising. This has happened before, of course. But in the current conditions the uprising is also responding to the underlying social, economic and political crisis and has reached unprecedented levels of spontaneous militancy.

That is why the antagonistic confrontations with the police are also complemented with antagonism towards capital which is resulting in property destruction, looting and so on. All this has led to the level of unrest in American society that has the potential to become the biggest agent of social change I have witnessed in my adult life.

Quite a few European progressive and left leaning politicians condemned the violence and called American protesters that they should rather mobilize for the elections – and vote against Donald Trump.

I can see why some people may think that protesting against racism is acceptable but looting is a step too far. But it is hard for people to understand American politics from Europe. Most Europeans cannot imagine the level to which we lack an essential social safety net – the fact that people have so much difficulty accessing healthcare, unemployment insurance is extremely hard to access, public programs are totally underfunded, college education is extremely expensive…

These problems cannot be solved by voting against Trump. Or, as we have seen, by electing a black president. The policy of appointing “black faces in high places,” as many black revolutionaries have been pointing out for a long time, does not change the entire social system or make structural racism go away.

We can’t forget that the Black Lives Matter movement began under Barack Obama. This movement shows that a much broader set of structural changes are required to challenge racism in American society, and they also include measures against economic inequality. In the context of the pandemic, a policy like universal health care would make a huge difference in the lives of people who are racially oppressed, and are disproportionately suffering from the virus, but that reform has been taken off the table by the political establishment.

And Bernie Sanders was the only democratic candidate to fully support this idea?

Yes, one of the central ideas of his campaign was universal health care. The pandemic of the novel coronavirus has demonstrated how necessary – and how rational – such a reform would be. But it was blocked by the political system.

There are many reasons – and it does not need to be a conspiracy theory – why the electoral system is so resistant to challenges like that.

The Democratic party establishment and party elites did whatever they could to prevent Sanders from winning the nomination. They succeeded. And the lesson we should learn from this is that elections are certainly not a sufficient means for any serious and necessary social change.

We also have to recognize that the Sanders campaign did not succeed in connecting with social movements. The fact that this autonomous movement against racism has exploded, and is far more antagonistic to the state and disruptive of the social order, shows the limits of electoral campaigns, even if they propose important reforms.

Can social movements bring about the changes that are needed?

What will be the consequences of the destruction and the riots? We do not know. But we can be fairly certain that if there were one or two peaceful marches we would not see the level of fear in the ruling class we are seeing now. I think that going further than elections and legally permitted marches was a necessity to break out of the constraints of the American politics.

I am completely exhausted already, but have to prepare to go out again tonight.

Is this the reason why the president is promising to use the army against protesters and calls them terrorists? Because it is war and terrorists deserve no rights?

I do not know to what extent the label of “terrorist” will have legal effects. But it does function rhetorically.

Probably the army does not want to intervene. Many people who are a part of the administration, including Trump’s advisors, and many state governors, think this would escalate the situation in a way that would not only be a public relations disaster, but might also generate an ungovernable situation. That does not mean that army intervention is not possible. George W. Bush did it, his father did it, and Trump really wants to do it but he is getting pushback from other branches of the government.

It also depends upon how long this level of militancy and social disorder can be sustained. Will there be an influx of new protesters and will the current protesters be capable of continuing? I am completely exhausted already, but have to prepare to go out again tonight.

The curfew, obviously, is just a way for police to arrest people indiscriminately if they are out at night. If they want to arrest black people they just need to say they are violating the curfew.

Is government also using the corona crisis to criminalize the protests? That was the government’s strategy in Slovenia, for example.

We are very concerned about the virus. It is not possible to maintain social distancing in these kinds of mobilizations. We will definitely see more people getting sick. People who go to jail will get sick and people on the streets will get sick as well. We are going to see more waves of the virus and there will be new challenges.

But I have not yet seen the pandemic used as a pretext for police repression, because very recently Trump was supporting demonstrations by the extreme right to “re-open the economy,” and he is trying to downplay the severity of the pandemic. So repression is relying on straightforward racism and the criminalization of the protests, and the criminalization of black people.

The authorities seem to prefer the imposition of curfews. In New York, we have not had a curfew for almost a century. And in LA the time of curfew was 1PM, which is crazy. The curfew, obviously, is just a way for police to arrest people indiscriminately if they are out at night. If they want to arrest black people they just need to say they are violating the curfew. The authorities do not have to come up with a reason as long as you have a curfew.

Is there any unifying element in the protests? Shared goals and policies?

There are many different manifestations of the protests. On the one hand we have march-oriented actions during the daytime. It is sometimes unclear who organizes and calls them. They usually start on social media and may just be orchestrated by whoever is the first to make the call.

Then you have various community organizations showing up, and they want to present themselves as leaders. They have cars and megaphones and strong opinions on how things should proceed. For example, if they see someone participating in property destruction they will try to mobilize the crowd against this person. Often they practically call for handing them over to the police. The community leaders also sometimes propose friendly relations to the police, and will say that police officers are also a part of the community and we should try to win them over.

Sometimes these groups will use a false anti-racist rhetoric to justify their positions. Community organizations will insist that their movement is specifically about suffering of their community and they want to distinguish that from a movement against police power. Some community organizers also claim that the people who are engaging in the property destruction are “outside agitators,” white anarchists. This is a powerful theme in the media representation of the movement.

The protesters are young people with a lot of justified rage and they were involved in the riots.

Outside agitators?

There is the idea of the white outside agitator, that it is white anarchists who are actually breaking the windows. But in all instances I have observed, that is a false claim.

At night, you can see a very different crowd from the daytime legal marches. That is not the crowd represented in community organizations. The protesters are young people with a lot of justified rage and they were involved in the riots. I have observed these riots night after night in Manhattan and I believe that to a significant extent they are genuinely spontaneous.

And multi-racial as we could see from the media.

There is a different kind of political consciousness in the riots. The protesters were mostly black people but some other people of color and white people were also there. But in contrast to the daytime marches, the nighttime riots constitute a united front against the state. In my experience, if non-black protesters helped build the barricades, they were not chastised in the way the daytime bureaucrats chastised the so-called “outside agitators.”.

There was a collective antagonism towards the police and a collective enthusiasm for property destruction that targeted especially banks and large chain stores. And then, looting. Which in certain cases targeted the high fashion shops in SoHo. A lot of high fashion has been redistributed.

A similar thing happened in London some years ago. The targets were also similar: banks, chains, fashion and tech stores …

Those are the stores these young people would never be allowed to enter.

I have also seen a lot of white people during the daytime protests who carried signs saying things about “white silence” and “white privilege.” The problem is that such statements are all about them and about white guilt.

In your book about identity politics you also describe your personal experience of how you accidentally found the autobiography of Huey P. Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party. This book changed your views on race, identity, and politics because you could relate to the charismatic black leader. Could a young Latino, Muslim, or white protester still identify with the ideas from, for example, Black Panthers?

People who are being mobilized right now are very diverse and very cross-racial. I think that among the people who are attempting to control the protests and speak for them in the media, there is a lack of connection to this history you alluded to.

For example, I have also seen a lot of white people during the daytime protests who carried signs saying things about “white silence” and “white privilege.” The problem is that such statements are all about them and about white guilt. They are not saying anything about social change or recognizing that the movement is being driven by black power and not white guilt. I really hope that white people do not get sucked into the solipsism of white guilt, and instead prepare themselves to join the united front against state racism.

Can social movements bring some alternative to the two-party system that has been around for most of the 20th century?

I do not know if an[space]alternative to the two-party system will emerge in the sense of a new political parties. But I do believe that new ideas will come out from the movements and new organizations will be formed. A similar thing happened after the riots in the 60’s. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers came out in Detroit after the riots of 1967, for example. Existing organizations will not provide leadership for this movement, this movement will produce a new leadership and new organizations.

We should not forget that the political system has already changed with the election of Donald Trump. He was obviously elected from one of the two political parties but he was not a politician in a traditional sense. He was not internal to political establishment and even the Republican Party elites had quite some problems accepting him when he overturned their preferred candidates.

But that is also the main difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. The Republican Party was opportunistic enough to see that Trump had the potential to beat the Democrats. And they said to themselves – so be it. Let us win and we will deal with him later.

The Democratic Party, however …

… never wanted to do it with Bernie Sanders. He was doing well. He had the potential to become more popular than Trump but they were not willing to go along with him.

Democrats have a much stronger tendency to shift to the right than to the left. They have been shifting further and further to the right for decades.

Should the movements try to reform the democratic party?

If the movements that are emerging now link with the Democratic Party they will be demobilized. Only if the movements maintain autonomy from the Democratic Party will they be able to exert the pressure on the party to shift to the left. Of course, the problem is that the American Democrats have a much stronger tendency to shift to the right than to the left. They have been shifting further and further to the right for decades, and now they are using Trump’s extremism and incompetence to try to convince the public to accept their right-wing politics.

You have studied the social movements of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. What can the protest leaders learn from their successes and failures?

Mass movements of that time were struggling against racism, and they pursued this struggle through a radical program of social change. However, these mass movements eventually entered into crisis. After achieving certain policy goals, they had to formulate new strategies. That is what happened with the civil rights movement, and the Black Power movement and black nationalism tried to respond to that situation. But these movements also were either defeated by state repression or disintegrated due to organizational problems.

What has come after these movements dissolved?

After grass-roots movements that demanded social change dissolved, the problem of racism became represented as an individual problem, and the mass struggle against racism was neutralized by political elites and by capitalism. The mass struggle against racism was one of the most important sequences of emancipatory politics in the 20th century, and its neutralization by the ruling order has been a complicated process of repression and co-optation.

What are the consequences of this change?

The hegemonic position which arose after the mass movements was that racism should only be addressed with modifications within the existing social order. That is when “black faces in high places” became the ultimate goal, and when discussions of micro-aggressions displaced discussions about the structural oppression and exploitation that defines American racism. We had the first black American president and had numerous discussions about language and political correctness, but the political elite who became incorporated into the American state did not ask why so many people still live in slums.

There will be no return to normal. The pandemic is introducing a transformation we cannot go back from.

Going back to normal seems the only political program that most government leaders have – be it after the pandemic or after the protests. Is a return to normal even possible?

There will be no return to normal. The pandemic is introducing a transformation we cannot go back from. We will be seeing social change that will be persistent. It is possible that the kind of mobilization we are seeing now will lead in emancipatory directions. But it is even more likely that bad things will happen. The tendencies that we see are more and more dangerous.

Dangerous?

The 20th century has shown that the terrorist and particularist form of politics – which historically was fascism – intensifies in response to the threat of emancipatory politics. There is a real danger that fascist tendencies may grow stronger as a response to the protests demanding social change.

It is also possible that state repression will recede if the uprisings disintegrate in the following weeks. If that happens, we might see the reversion back to neoliberal technocracy. I really hope that will not happen, and that the uprisings find some way of sustaining themselves and defending themselves against state repression.

The apocalypse already happened in the 20th century. We have seen two world wars, near-nuclear war, mass starvation and genocide, and the environmental disasters. But the old century was also the period of major events in emancipatory politics. The socialist revolutions successfully overthrew the existing orders. They failed in building a better kind of society, as state socialism was a failure. But we should now be able to build on such failures with new knowledge, new experience, and new practices. We cannot afford to allow people to become exhausted, and must find ways to sustain a new mode of politics.