With the second anniversary of the gilets jaunes (GJ) uprising approaching, I virtually sat down with some participants to look back at a revolution that could have happened, the violent response of the police and the increasing restriction of civil liberties in France.
I virtually sat down to talk to a group of young activists from Montreuil (Paris suburb) who joined in the early hours of the movement, witnessing the moment when the regime almost fell in late 2018. They talked about the people in the gilets jaunes (GJ) movement, the uprising, the left’s hesitations, the struggle against the far right, and the political and police response. Here is an edited version of our conversation, divided by topics.
This conversation was part of research for an article by André Kapsas on police and judiciary repression during the GJ movement, which was published by Jacobin.
Youri* remembers that he was in the Drôme region in South-East France and that tags everywhere were calling for mobilisation on the 17th. “I didn’t know at all what it would look like, but there was a lot of agitation, so I decided to go to the local roundabout that was being occupied.” He remembers the GJ as a moment when „people started coming together, talking their daily problems and unwinding the thread, finding the source of their anger, of their living conditions. More and more, they were approaching the roots: the state, the system, capitalism. I’ll always remember my first twenty minutes on a roundabout with the GJ: they start talking about gas prices and twenty minutes later they’re already talking about the revolution, asking themselves whether that’s the solution. That really left a mark on me.”
Antoine was in Commercy, in the Meuse region, in the East, when it all started: “We organised some popular assemblies, and also organised the assembly of all GJ assemblies in January 2019. When it comes to forms of protest, they were much more radical, much more spontaneous. They were so strong as to launch a real insurrection, stronger than all the activist networks could ever dream of. When it comes to demands, there was no substitution, no either / or, no dropping of demands on the tax cancellation and purchasing power in favour of greater demands like the system’s abolition. There was rather an accumulation of demands. The core of the GJ movement were people concerned by purchasing power, having troubles making ends meet. Then people went further, with demands on democracy, on referendums. In Commercy, there were also municipal demands, demands to end tax evasion.
Where people revolutionary, anti-capitalist? There were definitely such discourses among the GJ, from people within the core. Ideas to end the capitalist system were welcome by many, but that wasn’t the main idea from Day One. You can’t really divide demands. Myself, I consider myself like a GJ, and I can say that in the movement, the idea that “end of the month, end of the world – same fight” was well understood.
GJ were often depicted like far-right rednecks listening to techno on parking lots while barbecuing, some kind of image of a stupid France, but this struggle against a tax went way further, it was about the organisation of power, the structure of society, about who should pay for the ecological transition. This tax was really about a punitive ecology, against poor people, a ‘class ecology’, and people saw through it. It’s not reactionary to fight against an injust tax.
So there was this consciousness, at least in Commercy, that purchasing power was the starting point, about the hard living conditions and the problem of making ends meet at the end of the month. That was never replaced by anything. There was also the RIP (Référendum d’initiative populaire – referendums that could be triggered by petition), that was more global, but otherwise it was mostly about those ‘bread and butter issues’.
At first, economic elites (the ‘patronat’, the bosses) were not really targeted. The GJ had another relationship to small bosses, entrepreneurs, craftsmen and craftswomen, who were often involved in the GJ, so they didn’t see the big bosses as a target at first; it was more the political elites, denounced as corrupted. Demands against the big bosses and corporations gradually came; not from outside, but rather from leftists who were inside the movement. It was a result of those meetings on roundabouts, not a manipulation, but rather a spontaneous development.
Louise: yes, it came after several months, when there was more targeting of the big bosses, and also a greater involvement with the strike movements, also with the ecological movement.
Antoine: there was a development going on, through intense exchanges, as people not only shared their experiences as activists, as trade unionists, when there was concrete solidarity, those were organic developments, not higher-level meetings. In Commercy, there was a huge defiance towards trade unions, towards any organisation, other flags, a great fear of manipulation and recuperation. Trade unionists were well received as participants, though.
This whole situation illustrated the growing distance between the left and popular classes during the last 30-40 years. There was a huge gap between people who didn’t speak the same language anymore. I remember the deep sadness of seeing a friend, a 50 year-old worker and trade unionist, who had taken part in all strikes in the last decades, feeling violated on the roundabout, because he was so starkly criticised. He felt that he had fought for this his whole life, yet he was being rejected because of his hat from the trade union. That changed after November-December, as there were many more meetings, during the whole year, and up to this date.
Louise: “I went to the second protest, on November 24th, because we had seen quite incredible images from the previous Saturday, and I wanted to see for myself and talk to people in order to form my own opinion. And not just listen to what the media were saying back then, talking about the Yellow Vests as middle-class, white, rather far-right. There were very few of us from the left-wing circles here in Montreuil to be mobilised.”
Next to Invalides we bumped into a group of about a hundred GJ who had just come in and didn’t know Paris. My friend and I had taken plans for this purpose and we passed them around. Some of them had megaphones and tried to lead, but they didn’t know where the Élysée (presidential palace) was, nor how to get there with all the cop blockages. We had yellow vests in our bags but we didn’t put them on at first, as we were still rather suspicious, but then we did put them on because it was easier to talk to protesters that way, otherwise they were suspicious.
What was the most surprising was the relationship to the police, in the first weeks, when people were calling on the police to join them. And also they were negotiating with the police. And the reaction of the police was also interesting. They were completely confused, they weren’t reacting the same way as during the Loi Travail protests (in 2016) or radical left protests. It was a whole other reaction, with police officers asking us ‘Please, mademoiselle, please, monsieur, stay on the curbwalk’, delicately picking us up, it was really surprising. The cops didn’t know what to do, they didn’t dare to repress. And the demonstrators were also astonishing, with some of them just standing in front of police trucks and stopping them with their hands.”
There were already barricades. People were just building barricades. I talked to many of them, they were at their first demonstration ever. They weren’t even hiding their faces. They just started to throw cobblestones, completely unmasked! Mostly those were 16 to 18 year-old teenagers and people over 60, together. I talked to many of them, some had voted for the Rassemblement National (far-right) and we met many people who supported the Union populaire républicaine (anti-EU, populist, conspirationist).
Youri: “I went back up to Paris soon before December 1st, as we knew that it would be very intense there. Some other activists and I, we were stunned by the lack of support in the capital and its suburbs, so we met up in Montreuil beforehand in order to start something in our neighbourhood. That’s where I met Julien and Louise, and we’ve been in the Montreuil gilets jaunes up to this date.”
“On December 1st, I don’t know if the police is so repressive yet, because they were completely overwhelmed. According to me, that was our window of opportunity, something even bigger could have happened. Because that’s the moment they also understood that it was an insurrection, and then they put everything in action to crush it. On December 8th, they were overwhelmed as well, but everything was in place, not just the police repression, but also their media machine. This is the week from the 1st to the 8th that needs to be studied to understand what happened.”
Julien: “The Triumphal Arch issue was the perfect pretext for politicians (on December 1st, protesters stormed this monument and took it, causing some material damages). The barricades looked problematic, but it wasn’t that bad, whereas there was a huge media campaign during the next week on the vandalism of the Triumphal Arch. They did a crazy agitation they whole week on the Arch, on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on the tags, the damages. There was a great media operation by the government to delegitimate the GJ, present them as breakers. And it all served to legitimate the repression for the next week, with the deployment of the BAC (brigade anti-criminalité) and, later, the BRAV (brigade de répression de la violence).”
Louise: “What was really interesting among demonstrators was that they felt completely legitimate to demonstrate. The barricades, and the violence, it was all a fully natural violence, people didn’t ‘learn’ how to do that, they were just outraged that the police wouldn’t let them go to the presidential palace. They said, ‘We have the right to go so we’ll do everything to pass’. I was stunned to see people just throwing cobblestones, without being …, like, trained,” she says laughing. “For them, it was just so logical!”
Julien: “It was crazy, we could just go through the whole Paris as a wild demonstration, I had never seen that before, and never saw it again. It looked like the State had vanished, the street was ours, we thought we were hallucinating, that the cops would just come in at some point. But they didn’t. We went from the Champs-Élysées to Place de la République (5 km), like an hour and a half, without seeing a cop, or just a car coming and then escaping. It was a feverish atmosphere, but things didn’t really materialise…”
Louise: “It was an insurrection, but the issue was that people didn’t know the city, the buildings, where to go. We were next to the Stock Market, or the public TV, that could’ve been interesting to seize, but people were really focused on the presidential palace. So it was an insurrection, but there was no strategy, even if we had the streets to ourselves.”
Youri: “I thought it was the revolution. It was the best opportunity in my life. I thought the fire would grow even more. But it turned out more to be a revolt, a failed insurrection, something in between. I think it didn’t turn out to be a revolution because some key social groups didn’t come out at that moment, like the middle classes and the youth, especially in the cities. And also the poorer classes with a migration background. Not especially during the demonstrations, they were there, but they didn’t get involved in between the Saturday demonstrations, that were more like demonstrations of force. But the in-between, that’s when something revolutionary was happening, according to me, but in the cities, there was almost nothing happening, that really damaged the movement, there was a desertion of the urban classes.”
Julien: Some things really changed, the spread of certain tactics, like the issue of violence. There has been an evolution in the relationship towards police forces. At first, people were rather in favour of the police, calling on the police to join them, but within two months they had all understood the violence used against them. There was an instinctive reaction to regroup and to rethink violence as a legitimate mean to respond. I think this is something that the GJ movement has changed.
Youri: This is a turning point. Maybe I’m looking at things from an international perspective. It’s the peak of an intense political moment. Even if the GJ were not always part of previous movements, it’s the result of developments starting in 2016 and before. Suddenly, the movement became wider, more popular, and also more dangerous. We also saw a bunch of weak points of what would be a contemporary revolutionary movement, our weaknesses were laid bare open.
Julien: There was an opening, an opportunity, that the radical left failed to seize.
Youri: It showed weaknesses in the organisation of radical organisations, and also traditional ones. The GJ movement is an important moment of political recomposition, as well as a period of incredibly intense politicisation. Just like in all insurrectionary moments, there was a crazy wave of politicisation that will be felt in the next years. There is an enormous amount of political work to do, that needs to include an abandonment of some dogmatic positions by some groups.
Antoine: As Julien said, perspectives on violence changed, and even on direct action in general. It’s something that’s more associated with the autonomous left, libertarian left, with civil disobedience movements in the last years. Not just about forms, but also about the content, as a practice, a real pratice without intermediaries.
This leads to a further delegitimisation of intermediate bodies, like trade unions, who have the role of buffers between institutions and society. This was not just about the inability of these bodies to seize the real identity of the movement, even if I must say that some trade unions helped a lot on the local level. It was also about the State going from neo-liberalism towards the police State, a shift that has continued with the pandemic.
The last point was the question of the local. There was a re-politicisation of the local, of neighbourhood issues, and this has continued during the pandemic through solidarity networks. We’re in a process of a constant reshaping of forms. For a while, assemblies were used, now we’ve moved on. There’s a constant effervescence, and that has been created by the GJ in many places where there was nothing happening. It’s hard to have a full assessment, because there are so many places about which we don’t have much information, we don’t know about the results of all those roundabout GJ groups. For the moment, there is no strong interlinking between groups. It’s all under the radar. We need to know more about this reality to go further.
Julien: “We shouldn’t negate that there were fascists among the GJ. There were organised fascist groups that came to the demonstrations in Paris, those were enemies that had to be kicked out, but then there were reactionary elements, stereotypes, that had to be dealt it through discussion, not through violence.”
“We could see that national symbols, the Marseillaise, could have a revolutionary effect, a really galvanising one, but it also has an exclusionary effect for many people. It scares some. I think that was a mistake of the movement.”
Louise: “I remember, on December 1st, the first big barricade that was set up, there were organised far-right groups that were there. There were images of that, they did a lot of propaganda with that, they put their flags everywhere. And that also played a role on the involvement of the radical left, which then came in later, rather together with the Antifa to kick out those fascist elements.”
Julien: “And those fascists, they were wearing the yellow vest, whereas a lot of leftists, like the antifa, had a lot of trouble to adopt the yellow vest, even when they were kicking out the fascists. That created a weird image.” Louise: “Yeah, especially the Black Bloc, some people were a bit worried, not knowing about who were those people in black.” Youri: “Yeah, that kinda looked like the Black Bloc attacked the GJ”, whereas it was more like the antifa attacking fascists, and they did it well.”
Louise: “Yes, I agree with Youri, the left, or at least the radical left, intervened really late. And mostly during the demonstrations, the clashes, but they participated really little during the weeks. Leftists were suspicious, and also there was something about those activists not wanting to do the ‘dirty work’, you know, during the winter, standing on the roundabout and talking with ordinary citizens. Who wants to do that? Not many…”
Julien: “We could really see that among people with a migration background, the people from the quartiers populaires (densely populated neighbourhoods, mostly suburbs where working-class people live, mostly coming from former French colonies), the youth being like ‘Hey, wait, aren’t they racist?’ That was a factor that really maintained a distance between the GJ on the one hand and the left, and radical left, and the working classes with a migration background on the other. That also has to do with the regime’s strategies, targeting some elements of a movement. Just like the discourse about ‘breakers’, there was a discourse about ‘fascists’.
Youri recalls the incident with French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who “received anti-Semitic insults from one person at a GJ protest, but then they talked about it on the media for four days, saying that all GJ are anti-Semitic. That really did some damage.”
“The GJ was well cleaned up of fascists. There was a period of 2-3 weeks of clashes in Lyon and Paris, after the Paris fascist group ‘Les zouaves’ had attacked a GJ anti-capitalist group (from the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste) . There was a strong reaction by the antifascists, together with people from the cites, who went on a mission to kick those people out at demonstrations.”
“But it was also a debate about the movement in general, we had a lot of discussions in Montreuil about Islam, conspirationism, but that’s not the same thing as straight-up organised fascists. Organised fascists were progressively kicked out from the movement.”
Youri: “There was still a non-negligible part of the movement that was rather inclining towards the Rassemblement National (RN, far-right), on some roundabout there were fights, some split in two groups on the same spot, with a more left-leaning and a more right-leaning one.”
Julien: “On December 1st, and then especially on December 8th, there’s a real toughening of repression, and that has an impact on both the attitude of the GJ who continue to protest and on the composition of the crowd. Crazy things happened, such as the Black Bloc getting an ovation on the Champs-Élysées, scenes impossible to imagine. More leftist people, more determinate, joined the protests.”
Louise: “We could see a change in the chants and in the relationship to the police. When it started to repress more harshly, people stopped chanting ‘La police, avec nous!’, it was more anti-cop chants.”
“What mostly changed in early December, especially on December 8th, when repression was more brutal. Those were things that we already knew, I wasn’t surprised, but there was a big contrast with the previous weeks. I was rather surprised they hadn’t used all their usual techniques in the previous demonstrations.
What changed things was when the Détachements d’action rapide (DAR) were put in action. They were much lighter and made rapid interventions. And then in March they created the BRAV (brigade de répression de la violence) who was on motorcycles.
What was specific about police repression at that point was that it was against everyone. It didn’t matter if you wore a mask or not, they were just breaking skulls, shooting flashballs everywhere. Then ‘Black Bloc’ tactics spread, people wore more masks, to protect themselves from shots, gas, and also camera monitoring. But nowhere in the demonstration would you feel safe.
At first, when it was more like riots, we were stronger, we could disperse, but when we came back towards more organised forms, like marches. And then they were just shooting on everyone.
I had a personal experience with the DAR and it’s really impressive. It was happening before, but those could real trap people on a street corner and beat them up badly, and even just release them afterwards. It was more about fear, about punishment.
But there were also many arrests, an incredible number of speed trials each Monday with those arrested on the previous Saturday. And unfortunately, there were many tricks on how to defend yourself against the police, against the judiciary, that were not known to many people in the GJ. I went to some trials and it was quite crazy.
On March 16th, there was a big meeting of GJ in Paris for a demonstration, there were barricades everywhere, with the police trapping us on the Champs-Élysées. With a group of about 30, we tried to break the blockage in a side street, thinking it was heavily equipped, and thus slow, CRS (the usual anti-riot forces), but then they started running towards us, catching the first line. And we were unlucky, because we were alone, with no camera to film. The presence of journalists can sometimes be helpful, but there were none.
They hit me for 5 minutes, insulting me as a ‘bitch’, a ‘little whore’, they cracked open my friend’s skull. Luckily, they messed up their arrest papers for me, so I was released after the arrest. They’re groups that are made for interventions, jumping in and beating up people, so they transferred us to another unit, but they didn’t do the arrest papers. By March 16, just having a mask, or protection goggles, would be enough to get sentenced, under this article about “gathering with the intention of committing violence”, which was used against pretty much anyone. But luckily they didn’t do the arrest papers with the list of the things I had on me, so I could get rid of them on my way to the cell. I only had to stay for 48h and then they had to release me.”
Julien: When you look at the profile of those people who were maimed (lost an eye, a hand), about ¾ of them were first-time demonstrators. Some of the people who lost an eye had never been to a demonstration before. This whole idea that radicals were targeted is not true at all. Many were from the countryside, just came to the demonstration and lost an eye or were beaten up.
Louise: I think the goal was to dissuade, that’s how I saw it. From what I could see, and also from all the people I was detained with. There were also different intimidation techniques. They also tried to gain access to mobile phones, to get information about the organised groups, they put a lot of pressure on this goal.
Julien: A big change also was when they started to do a lot of controls ahead of the demonstrations. Starting from December 8th, the police was controlling all the toll booths leading into Paris, and already at 8AM on Saturdays they would have arrested thousands of people. And also at train stations, or before the demonstration in the streets. That was completely new. And that’s why they were accusing everyone with this article about “gathering with the intention of committing violence.” It was enough to have a jack in your car to spend 48h in arrest. They were just arresting everyone. And then there were prosecutors who were insisting on keeping people for the full 48h to prevent them from going to the demonstration, even if they had no evidence against them, which is completely illegal.
Louise: There were also prohibitions to go into some areas of Paris, even for some people who were actually working in Paris, they would be banned from those areas.
Élise: I think that starting from December 8, it wasn’t only about dissuading, but also about containing. They were under pressure after all these images of Paris burning, all this mess. March 16th was the last demonstration in Paris when we thought that we could overwhelm the police, bypass their whole set-up around the Champs-Élysées. And that’s when they put in the BRAV, and it made it hard to escape the format of a march with a predetermined itinerary. It wasn’t possible to go out and target some institutions. It was about dictating the proceedings of the demonstration.
Louise: What also played a role in that is when they started to play out the good GJ versus the bad GJ, when some GJ accepted to register demonstrations. That was especially in Paris. Then they were the good demonstrators that would not be repressed so hard and keep to their pre-agreed march, while others could be smashed, they were the Black Bloc, the breakers.
Antoine: Another important point was the penal repression, there were 400-450 people sent straight to jail, and another 600 deferred jail sentences; 1000 in total. Without counting all the suspended sentences. It’s thousands. It’s astronomical! For months and years, we have hundreds of people in prisons all over France. The only possible comparison in the last 50 years in France are the 2005 riots, the uprising in the banlieues. Back then, there were also thousands of arrests and about 800 jail sentences.
It’s crazy, especially in a context where there is no strong structure to help those help, there are enormous psychological traumas. This huge incarceration is not medialised so much. Police violence has become a big topic, judiciary repression has also been covered, but there’s almost nothing about penal repression.
We’re seeing an authoritarian shift, or rather an extension of authoritarian methods that were previously used against working-class neighbourhoods. There is now a generalisation of methods developed in a post-colonial context.
Antoine: what is important to underline is that the first activist group to call for joining the GJ mobilisation was the Vérité et Justice pour Adama committee (a committee set up to seek justice for Adama Traoré, a young Black man killed by the French police in 2016), together with antifascists and a queer liberation group. This is highly symbolic: those were the first ones who dared to jump in and join the movement.
They were the first to produce powerful analyses of the link between the GJ movement and the quartiers populaires, far from radical leftist ideological purity. They saw the link between police repression in the colonies, against migrant populations in the quartiers populaires and the repression of the GJ, seeing that there was no coincidence, but rather an extension of authoritarian practices.
Julien: This logic of hitting, going in for the contact, to shoot, and to aim for physical punishment of individuals: those are all colonial practices. This is more similar to what happened during the war in Algeria, during repression in Guadeloupe, when the prefect would simply give the order to shoot into the crowd with live ammunition. This is a different logic from classic crowd control which aims at containing a crowd and limiting damage. Now, this is the new norm. We can see it with current protests by high school students (lycéens), as soon as the police is blocked, they just charge in and beat everyone up. This is rather new.
Antoine: The German weekly Der Spiegel, which can hardly be called radical, not long ago talked about France as an „authoritarian Absurdistan“. Myself, I’m afraid to go to demonstrations nowadays, in Paris, Marseille, Lyon or elsewhere. On Tuesday, there’s a demonstration in Paris against the new legislative proposal ‘Loi sécurité globale’ to increase police control. They even want to forbid the filming of police interventions, even though that played a huge role in raising consciousness about repression during the GJ movement. The GJ movement empowered a lot of citizens, with many people becoming ‘their own media’, and closely documenting police violence, with media closer to the action. That has discredited even more intermediary bodies like mainstream media, replacing them with citizen media closer to what is happening on the ground. That has been one of the big victories of the movement.
It’s important to go to the demonstration on Tuesday, but I’m freaking out. I’m afraid it will be a massacre.
Julien: „What is freaky is the noise. Now, we know the noise made by different weapons, and when we hear those specific smacks made by flashballs, we don’t know who they’re targeting and the crowd freaks out. I remember lying down on the ground at some demonstrations as bullets were flying. You don’t know where it’s coming from, you can’t do anything.“
„I wouldn’t say that the police repression now is fully generalised. I think there’s a distinction between good and bad demonstrations. During the recent demonstrations against a reform of the pension system, you could see police showing a lot more restrain than usually. So there’s a duality where there are demonstrations organised by the intermediary bodies like trade unions during which the police shows more restrain, even when being provoked, and then there are other demonstrations when the police can freely maim and beat up demonstrators. It’s as if they wanted to show a nicer face during the trade union demonstrations, pretending that the police is not violent and that the GJ only got what they deserved.“
Louise: It’s true, but then, I also noticed that there was a huge concentration of police at the trade union demonstrations, marching in front of the crowd, preventing it from starting anything. We couldn’t move at all, there were thousands of cops. It seemed like there was more cops than demonstrators.
Julien: It was beautiful!
Louise: Yes, so many encounters, and it continues! Sure, the groups have become smaller, but it’s still happening, in Montreuil and elsewhere. It is transforming, it is taking new forms on the local level. And you could see the changes: when the pension reform protests started, we could see the trade union coming to see the GJ straight up, the teachers came, they were coming to assemblies to ask to join. Now it’s more local, like municipalism.
Julien: Yeah, there is a giletsjaunisation of activism in France.
“When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles, in the goal that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them.”
3 weeks ago, the African-American George Floyd was brutally murdered by police officers. Since then, an anti-racist wave of protest against police violence and White Supremacy has been spreading, which is being taken up internationally. In France, England, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Canada, but also in Germany, masses of racialized people and those standing in solidarity are taking to the streets in the middle of the pandemic. In the various countries where protests are taking place, different social situations exist from which the uprisings arise. White Left activism must show solidarity with the struggling organisations and movements of black people and people of color and recognise their spearhead role in the anti-racist struggle. We are communists from Germany who participated in the protests in Cologne and would like to present some analyses and theses on the current #BlackLivesMatter movement.
In the USA, black people make up 13% of the total population, but at the same time 33% of corona patients who need hospital treatment. They suffer from poverty-related pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, much more frequently and receive much worse health care, as they are much more likely to be affected by poverty. Black people are more than twice as often victims of murder by police officers than white people. The murder of George Floyd was certainly not an isolated case, but the straw that broke the camel’s back. The massive rage that is currently erupting everywhere merely makes these brutal facts visible. The images of the riots and the looting in the USA are by no means frightening, as postulated by bourgeois media, but are an expression of the need to upset the murderous status quo. One could plunder for a lifetime; this would not replace what capitalism stole.
The movement has already had some success. 54% support in the US-population for the burning Minneapolis police department speaks for itself. Now the police department there is to be disbanded. Worldwide, the #BlackLivesMatter protests have caused colonial monuments glorifying slavery to be hit, as in Bristol and Brussels. These successes would not have been possible without the far-reaching mass militancy. No petition had achieved this before. In Germany no monument has been tackled so far. Some influential political figures externalize the problem: it is an American phenomenon. Former faction leader of the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz, claims that there is no latent racism in the police. The facts tell us something else: since 1990, at least 159 People of Colour and black people have died in police custody in Germany. The racist terror does not only come from the state, but also from racists and fascists who have killed at least 209 people since 1990. In Germany racism is present everywhere. The rulers do everything to make it ignoreable for the majority of society – to the murderous disadvantage of those targeted by racism.
The internationalization of the protests makes three things clear: racism and capitalism are inseparable. Racist plundering only works with social pacification and class contract. The bourgeois state plays a central role here: it secures the capitalist normalcy, and thus inevitably also the racism that supports it and shapes it. That is why it and its personnel are now faltering in the face of the internationalization of the uprisings that are continuing in many places. The uprisings, when they attack systemic racism, necessarily attack the whole system. Civil liberties will only be accepted by those in power if the social movements can be integrated into the status quo. And: Where understanding is expressed in another country about the protest, it is usually unpopular as soon as it is directed at one’s own ruling class and it does not remain peaceful. But the renewed protests in Atlanta also make it clear that the state can try to pacify its inmates with reforms and at the same time fight the uprising with the help of the military, but also gets massive headwind from the internationalization of the protests. Whether Trump, Bolsonaro, Macron or Johnson: They are currently getting a lot of fire under their asses.
The last social movements had a subjective factor and lived on spontaneity, which caused their rapid growth: whether it was the students of Fridays for Future, who will still feel the effects of the climate catastrophe during their lifetime, or the women’s movement, which attacks the systematic double exploitation of gendering under capitalism worldwide, or the BLM movement, which makes the daily murderous threat to black people visible. Social movements take up and attack the contradictions concretely: Whether racist police violence, patriarchal and sexual exploitation or the climate catastrophe. The fight for the whole can only be won by expanding the struggles. Where systematic oppression by domination is made a problem of individuals or certain groups, the so-called “progressive neoliberalism” beckons with quotas and ridiculous reforms like body cams to satisfy the state inmates. Revolutionary answers to the crisis do not speak of individual perpetrators and redistribution. With #DefundThePolice the police as an institution is questioned. Meanwhile, in Hamburg and Berlin it quickly became clear how the smallest spark of resistance against police officers is dealt with. We have to attack racist structures and institutions, as well as colonial continuities, where we live and struggle. In other words: disempowering capital and the perpetrators of violence and expropriating the rich.
#BlackLivesMatter feeds off the anti-colonial struggles of the Black Power movement. Black culture plays a central role here, which in turn comes from a resistant tradition and poses questions of social representation and participation radically from below, but at the same time has gained quite a high popularity. Without this popularity, the wave of protest would not have been able to internationalize so quickly. In the German public and the German left, black culture is marginalized, as is knowledge of the struggles of movements and organizations. Often black voices are overheard, or their critical sting is removed. Afro-German communists, like the resistance fighter Hilarius Gilges, who was brutally murdered by the Nazis in 1933 in Düsseldorf, or the partisan fighter Carlos Grevkey, who was also murdered by Nazis, are not well known in the anti-fascist German left. This statement is directed as a criticism of ourselves, as part of this movement.
Racism is treated as a problem and, across different political camps, as structural violence. Even Horst Seehofer (German minister of the interior) and others say: We have a racism problem. This could be seen as a discursive victory for interventions critical of racism. The problem is: the legitimate questions about representation of black people and PoC, as soon as they are taken up by the Congress, the EU Parliament and the Bundestag, lack the class standpoint. Intersectional research and theoretical approaches are very vulnerable to being turned against themselves, as they have already been appropriated by the bourgeois academic sphere. The realization that many social conflicts and injustices of our time can be interpreted on the basis of the categories race, class, gender, does not necessarily put them in conflict with the capital relation. In contrast to this is the notion of striving to overcome capitalist rule, which is expressed through class relations, racism and gender relations. The difference lies in the fact that in comparison to diversity-oriented and racism-critical approaches, capitalism as a whole is denounced. Racism and gender relations are by no means a side contradiction to class relations. They are historically closely connected and can only appear to be interwoven with each other. Thus this theory differs from bourgeois theories by two central features: It has a Marxist basis on which to argue. That is, it goes beyond the categorization of inequalities. Secondly, in contrast to academic intersectionality theory approaches, the theory of triple oppression in particular aims at the revolutionary overcoming of capitalism. Or, to use Bobby Seales (Black Panther Party) words:
“We are an organisation that represents black people and many white radicals relate to this and unterstand that the Black Panther Party is a righteous revolutionary front against this racist decadent, capitalistic system. Our organisation doesn’t have any white people as members. If a white man in a radical group wants to give me some guns, I’ll take them. I’m not going to refuse them because he’s white.”
If we as leftists want to make our contribution to the BLM movement, we must intervene practically and locally. For Cologne, a minimal catalogue of measures would be the abolition of the construct of “dangerous places” (a rationalization for stop and frisk), such as the Domplatte and Ebertplatz, an end to racist police controls, #JusticeforKrys (a young man shot and by a conservative politician), Herkesin Meydani – a memorial in Keupstraße (where nazi terrorists detonated a mailbomb), the private accommodation of fugitives and to dump the Kaiser Wilhelm statues in the Rhine. Nationwide: the disarmament of the police, the return of colonial looted goods, immediate debt relief and reparations payments for former German colonies, a reappraisal of the involvement of German shipbuilders and financial houses in the slave trade and the evacuation of all camps. Those who do not want to talk about colonialism should also keep quiet about capitalism.
by Mina Khani, translated by Kian Zeytani. First published at German newspaper Analyse&Kritik on April 21st, 2020.
The Corona outbreak reached “Iranian soil” much earlier than the government in Iran admits. As alte as February 18th, right after the 41st anniversary of the revolution (February 11th) and shortly before the parliamentary elections (February 21st), the Iranian state confirmed via the Revolutionary Guards newspaper that Covid-19 had arrived in Iran. But weeks before, there had been reports of infected people spreading through the social networks.
Iran rapidly proved to be a country badly affected by the corona virus – even before the crisis became a global pandemic. Despite the delicate situation in China, the Iranian state did not stop air traffic to China until March 4th. Although the government under President Hassan Rouhani had announced that it would cancel flights to China, Mahan Air alone, the largest private airline in Iran, flew 16 times to and from China between late February and early March, according to BBC Farsi.
This provoked outrage among many people in Iran, most of whom attribute the continued air traffic to corruption in the state. The anger was heightened when Rouhani declared on 25 February that from 29 February “everything in the country will return to normal”. A few days later he had to admit that the virus had now reached all Iranian provinces.
Also the statements of the religious leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have also caused outrage in the social networks: “The virus is a biological attack on Iran”; “The virus was produced by the USA”, which is why “we do not accept any help from the USA”; “Corona is a small problem”, and it is not up to science to solve the problems of mankind, that is the task of the imams, Khamenei said in different speeches.
The misinformation and partly contradictory statements of the Iranian leadership about the seriousness of the Corona crisis weigh even more heavily for many people, as the virus has hit the country in the middle of an escalating economic and political crisis. The Otageasnafiran, the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, estimates that the corona crisis could cost up to 1.6 million people their jobs. In early April, the Iranian central bank applied for an emergency loan of five billion US dollars from the International Monetary Fund.
At a time when Corona was not yet a global pandemic, the Iranian state could not even prevent the rapid spread of the virus in the country; it even denied the fact that the virus spread to Iran early on. It was only on 24 March that Dr. Masoud Mardani, a member of the National Corona Committee, declared “that the corona epidemic very likely arrived in Iran much earlier than reported”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of infected and dead is at least five times higher than the Iranian state admits. According to official figures, about 75,000 people were infected with the corona virus in mid-April, and more than 4,500 died of the disease. Even though the state is trying to control the flow of information by massively restricting the Internet and the freedom of the press, one thing is certain: a large part of the Iranian population does not believe the state’s statements. The distrust of the state is certainly reinforced by the lack of transparency about the extent of the Corona crisis, but this feeling is not new.
Old and new protests in Iran
In November 2019, the country had experienced massive protests against the government. The trigger was the tripling of gasoline prices. Shortly afterwards there were demonstrations in more than 100 cities. The state then switched off the Internet and brutally crushed the protests. When the Internet was switched on again a week later, the extent of the state’s power only became apparent. It is still unclear today how many people were murdered or imprisoned during this time. Amnesty International spoke of more than 300 deaths, according to the news agency Reuters even 1,500 people are said to have been killed.
In early January 2020, just a few weeks after the riots, the Revolutionary Guard shot down a passenger plane, killing 176 people. In this case too, the government denied having anything to do with it for three days. Many in Iran think that the only reason they finally admitted to shooting down the plane by mistake was because Canadian and European citizens were also killed.
Consequently Corona was a political and economic crisis in Iran from day one. The sanctions, which were again tightened by the USA, further intensified the effects of the crisis. It is remarkable that the Iranian state’s crisis of confidence is evident in this issue as well. In view of the massive corruption, many people who speak out in social networks think that even if the sanctions were lifted, the state would not let them benefit from this. Already in early 2018, when the nuclear agreement had not yet been cancelled, there had been mass protests against state corruption. During the harsh sanctions imposed by the US in the last two years, it has continued to rampage.
Now the government is demanding that people stay at home, but is taking no responsibility for the fact that the privatized health care system, inflation, the intensification of “international conflicts”, the privatization of factories and the lack of a welfare system are forcing people to leave their homes and work. In some hospitals there have already been protests by the staff because of the lack of protective clothing and the poor situation of the nursing staff, but so far these are isolated cases.
The situation is even worse in the overcrowded prisons. After reports of corona infections among prisoners and guards from several prisons, such as Evin Prison in Tehran, panic is spreading there and among the relatives of the 220,000 prisoners in Iran. The prisons are overcrowded and the sanitary facilities are often in poor condition. If the virus gets a foothold here, it can spread at lightning speed.
In at least eight prisons there have already been demonstrations, riots and – in some cases successful – escape attempts. The pressure is so great that up to 100,000 prisoners have been given temporary reprieve. However, Amnesty International also reported in early April that Iranian security forces had used live ammunition and tear gas in the prisons. At least 30 prisoners were murdered.
Around the world, the sudden lockdown to limit the pandemic’s spread is leading to an abrupt economic slowdown. With cash handouts as the only way to avoid starvation and social unrest, the topic of Universal Basic Income is back on the table. Here is why it is (not) the solution.
by Jan Fürth
UBI as a bandaid or a permanent fix?
“In times of crisis, we are all socialists”, as social media memes liked to comment economic measures taken by governments facing the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Italy, Canada, Germany and even the US are among those who have included cash handouts in their action plans, with many countries following suite. At the beginning of April, Spain made international headlines by announcing the introduction of a permanent Universal Basic Income (UBI), even if it’s not really universal. Finally, in his Easter message, Pope Francis came out in favour of the idea. What was a marginal idea only several weeks ago jumped to the forefront.
Without a question, various forms of (universal) basic income are necessary steps in this time of pandemic to allow people to stay in quarantine while preventing them from starving and losing their homes. Especially, as the quarantine is expected to be on and off, with waves of infection over the next months or years. However, UBI as a long-term instrument has several pitfalls that we must avoid if we don’t want it to become yet another aspect of neoliberalism. Indeed, there is a real risk that UBI could serve as an instrument to worsen the precarisation of labour and excessive consumerism if it is not accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations.
Panem et circenses
While we should welcome the prospects of freeing people from the necessity to sell their labour or to be policed by social services in order to have a bare minimum to survive on, there are many ways in which UBI could be far from emancipatory. Indeed, we should be wary of a dystopian capitalist future in which the masses on a low UBI would be providing cheap and flexible labour for Uber, Wolt, Airbnb and all the other gig economy villains. With UBI ensuring the basic needs of workers, these corporations could have a powerful argument to scrap work contracts, the minimal wage and social security contributions.
In this sense, a low UBI could just be a perverse way to trap people in the Western consumerist lifestyle by giving them enough to feed corporations but not enough to discourage them from selling their labour to consume even more. As the foremost supporter of UBI in the USA and Democratic Party primaries’ candidate Andrew Yang writes on his website: UBI “actually fits seamlessly into capitalism. […] Markets need consumers to sell things to. UBI is capitalism with a floor that people cannot fall beneath.” While Yang does speak about social issues, this rhetoric betrays the fact that UBI could just be a little fix for the system without really challenging it. A modern version of Ancient Rome’s system of panem et circenses, bread and games for the masses.
Tax, seize, transform
Far from discarding UBI as a tool of neoliberal capitalism, we should see it as a two-edged sword that could be part of a series of immediate measures towards a major overhaul of socio-economic relations. Indeed, in the short-term, it can help society better absorb the shocks of the radical socio-economic changes necessary to avoid new social and environmental destruction, and in the long-term it can be part of a new economical system in which productivism and profit are not central tenets anymore. Accompanied by a radical redistribution of wealth and a reorganisation of economic relations, UBI can be a source of great personal and social emancipation.
If UBI does not go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth, it risks being implemented to the detriment of other key sectors of social intervention such as infrastructures, housing, education, public transport and healthcare. Thus, it can only be introduced if it radically questions wealth redistribution. As a way to immediately fund it, addressing tax justice is crucial. According to the EU Parliament, up to a trillion euro is lost every year to tax avoidance and tax evasion! Yet, no action is taken as EU countries are pitted against each other, with some of them like Ireland having become financially dependent on its role as a tax haven.
While UBI can be financed by taxing the richest individuals and big corporations, we cannot stop short of greater changes and we must challenge the very structure of this system. Thus, UBI should be seen as a tool for radical reforms and a shift in the public and political discourse about labour, wealth, living conditions and the social structure, rather then the end goal, in efforts to stop the madness of the current system built on greed and destruction. With the current crisis, states have a historical chance to challenge the rule of capital and lay the bases for a social and environmental economy. Indeed, now and in the upcoming months, corporations on their knees can be cheaply bought off by the state, or simply nationalised, and transferred to the workers themselves. With UBI, the shocks of mass unemployment and of the transformation can be better absorbed.
In a context of necessary transformation, UBI is not about getting rid of work. It’s about valuing everyone’s existence while also redefining what is work, who does it and for how much. The post-pandemic cannot be a return to the so-called ‘business as usual’, but must be an acceleration of socio-economic changes. Escaping the grip of global finance through taking back control over public finances and moving away from a growth- and profit-driven economy, it is time to massively invest in socially owned green energy, infrastructures, healthcare, education, housing, agriculture and culture. This requires a lot of work and workers, but it must be done without setting a hierarchy between workers based on their market value.
Indeed, one of the injustices of capitalism is that it sets the standards for what is ‘work’ and how much one earns, with little interest for real value based on social usefulness. Thanks to its financial strength translated in political power, it has been increasingly socialising costs and privatising profit. This is especially obvious in the case of unpaid labour in the care sector (childcare, home care, domestic work), mostly performed by women. Despite its usefulness for capital itself, capitalists have largely escaped their responsibility to contribute to it. In efforts to unharness work from a profit-driven logic, UBI can put an end to this artificial separation between labour and chores, and finally remunerate those people who are often performing inestimable tasks outside of traditional working collectives.
Whether it’s being with children, taking care of the sick at home or just doing other forms of communal, reproductive work, everyone can be sure to at least a living wage through UBI, without bureaucratic hurdles and policing. As we see in these times of pandemic, and as we could see before, many people are eager to help each other without expecting a reward. Unfortunately, this is not seen as ‘work’ in our system, and only few people can afford to devote all their time and energy to serving the community. Instead, they are forced to enter into economic relations based on a logic of exploitation and financial return on investment. This has dire consequences for both society and environment, as human energy is more often than ever put in the service of personal greed and resource depletion.
UBI is not the solution, but if it comes along with a radical redistribution of wealth and deep changes in economic relations, then it can be a formidable tool on the path to rebuild a social economy from the bottom-up. With UBI covering basic needs, social investments restoring public services and systemic rules restraining or eliminating big capital, the way will be paved for new economic relations based on environmentally responsible and non-hierarchical principles. Limiting the possibility and the need to sacrifice human and non-human well-being in order for one to make a living can open up countless possibilities for creativity and emancipation.
I see the revival of rural communities freed from the need to compete on the global market. I see the sprouting of autonomous workplaces that can develop without the pressure of instant profit-making, with workers able to make decisions collectively without fearing to die of hunger, without the unfair competition of asocial corporations, without state repression and financial rapacity. I see individuals able to devote themselves to their artistic projects and to communal work without having to think about food, rent and the bills. I see slower societies in which no one is pushed aside and social uncertainty is sent to the dustbin of history. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
Some news from our spontaneous campaign “Fight the dirty conditions” in support of the people in Moria and the occupied factory VIO.ME in Thessaloniki:
*** Thanks to many of you we have collected around 2.500 Euro!
*** The first load of soap is already on the way to Lesbos. We will give you an update once it arrives!
*** VIO.ME has still dificulties to produce on large scale because of the electricity shutdown. The small generators from friends are not enough and they are still in need of a big generator.
*** At the same time the situation in the Greek refugee camps is worsening. After the first Corona cases in the Ritsona camp and other places became public, an evacuation plan for the camps was leaked by the media. But all is still unclear.
*** Corona lockdown continues in Greece. And difficult times are coming up: rising unemployment, no tourism and the ongoing social destruction will transform the country once more in a crisis laboratory of austerity and privatisation. People are already organising mutual aid initiatives and preparing themselves for the coming confrontation. More about the self-organization in the articles on our homepage.
Please continue to support the campaign by donating money and telling your friends about it: All the important information is on this fresh video clip! (big thanks to Nadja Kurz)
Some news from our spontaneous campaign "Fight the dirty conditions" in support of the people in Moria and the occupied factory VIO.ME in Thessaloniki: *** Thanks to many of you we have collected around 2.500 Euro!*** The first load of soap is already on the way to Lesbos. We will give you an update once it arrives!*** VIO.ME has still dificulties to produce on large scale because of the electricity shutdown. The small generators from friends are not enough and they are still in need of a big generator.*** At the same time the situation in the Greek refugee camps is worsening. After the first Corona cases in the Ritsona camp and other places became public, an evacuation plan for the camps was leaked by the media. But all is still unclear.*** Corona lockdown continues in Greece. And difficult times are coming up: rising unemployment, no tourism and the ongoing social destruction will transform the country once more in a crisis laboratory of austerity and privatisation. People are already organising mutual aid initiatives and preparing themselves for the coming confrontation. More about the self-organization in the articles on our homepage.Please continue to support the campaign by donating money and telling your friends about it: All the important information is on this fresh video clip!stay tuned
Gepostet von Beyond Europe am Samstag, 18. April 2020