The Summer of Vengeance: A Retrospective on the 2020 Uprising and Its Lessons for Today

By Rio Nero and Ophelia

It was a hot evening in Columbus, Ohio on June 2nd of 2020. That day was the sixth consecutive day of protest as incited by the murder of George Floyd, and the streets of downtown were full of people, though the crowd was still significantly sparser than it had been during the past week. The people were marching, as they had been since the 28th of May, though now without anger, or even indignation. Signs, marked with phrases such as “Defund The Police” and “ACAB”, were held in the arms of protesters that, as of today, were brushing elbows with officers, who not only marched with the crowd, but led it in a well-mannered circle around the statehouse. Just one day prior the police had broken up a peaceful protest of 200 people on OSU campus, pepper spraying student journalists and making eleven arrests. Today Police Chief Thomas Quinlan, alongside Mayor Andrew Ginther and his band of cameramen, mingled amicably amongst the protesters. What had changed?

Nine days prior, In Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was murdered by Dereck Chauvin, an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department. The brutality of this murder, though monstrous, was not especially more egregious than any other police murder (such as Eric Garner who was choked to death in by police in 2014), but its timing coincided with the intersecting pressures of a rising Black Lives Matter movement and an unprecedented, mundanity-shattering pandemic in such a way that it sparked immediate uprisings across the United States. The burning of a Minneapolis police precinct whipped the population, tense and exhausted from the stressors of survival within the covid-ridden imperial core of the capitalist establishment, into a riotous frenzy; the mirage of invulnerability that cloaked the police, the arbiters of state violence, had been shattered, if only momentarily.

It took three days for the embers to find their way to Columbus; upon arrival, downtown exploded with the fury of the brutalized. Trash cans were ripped from the street and thrown through the opaque windows of the state house; potted plants were torn up and hurled at the storefronts of businesses, which fed off the copious spending of gentrifiers. The police responded in full force, vengeful and sadistic; protesters were pepper sprayed indiscriminately, tear gas canisters were deployed, wooden bullets peppered the masses of people. This was intended to disperse the crowd, but it instead achieved the inverse; camaraderie amongst the protesters, all of which were experiencing the repression of the state simultaneously, bloomed in full force. If a person was pepper sprayed, a stranger was immediately there to wash it from their eyes; the streets were anyone’s domain. No one group commanded a megaphone; the people responded with spontaneous unity, and with ferocity. Rocks, water bottles, even fireworks, were launched into lines of police; these riots had begun in protest of their brutality, and all the police could do was deliver more of it.

The widespread, unanimous, and radical nature of this uprising was unprecedented since the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1970’s. It was impossible to ignore, unavoidable to all but the uniquely isolated; even avoidant demographics, such as the white suburbanite, were forced to reckon with it, be it in the form of small marches in their own communities or in the havoc holding up their daily commutes to and from the urban centers. Whispers were spreading amongst the populace that the way of things were on the verge of some great change; for the first time in decades, the inner-workings of the status-quo seemed within reach.

This uprising was as disorganized as it was radical, however, and it became increasingly apparent as the days went on; the effectiveness of the uprising was condemned by its spontaneity. There was a noticeable lack of a political line, down to multiple interpretations of what was meant by “defund the police”; local radical organizations were inexperienced and unprepared to take up the reins, leaving the platform open to anyone with the gumption to do so.

The neoliberal establishment took quick advantage of the disorganized state of things. Various publications and news channels began to peddle the narrative of the “white agitator”, claiming that agents of chaos were being imported from outside the city with the intent to incite violence and create cause for arrest; these claims, despite being a transparent effort to sow distrust amongst the crowd, worked their way into the popular consciousness. Radical acts, such as minor property destruction, were suddenly met with suspicion; existing racial tensions were compounded with the deployment of an ideology which insisted on the passivity of white radicals. White radicals, as a result, either retreated into passivity or from the scene entirely, leaving radicals of color to their own devices; black radicals, lacking in resources and allies, and now in the exclusive company of the politically unprincipled or unaware, became especially vulnerable to attacks from recuperating forces. These forces, in the form of state-funded fronts of activist organizations, descended on the masses and seized the megaphones where they lie.

Within the week, a never before seen group had emerged in Columbus to lead the protests. Under the name Black Freedom, they explicitly decried the ‘extremists’ calling for police abolition and defunding, pushing for milquetoast reforms (although they themselves refused to even go so far as to call them “police reforms”) by way of community oversight and requiring police to reside within the communities they patrol. Engaging in the time-honored tactics of “working directly with the police,” Black Freedom sought co-ownership of the streets with their state confederates, shouting down what little resistance they encountered from existing radicals. Their protests, lacking in the revolutionary fervor (and accompanying risk of injury or arrest) of the days prior, drew large crowds which they controlled easily with the megaphone. The police, no longer threatened, kept their distance. Live music, demandless speeches full of empty aphorisms, and the ad nauseum repetition of barely understood chants came to characterize the protests in the weeks following their emergence.

As the long week of summer marched on, the protests continued but fewer and fewer victories were achieved. While George Floyd received some small modicum of justice, he is largely alone. The killers of Breonna Taylor, Ma’Khia Bryant, and countless others have been acquitted and the institutions responsible have not only NOT been defunded, but are receiving millions of dollars in additional pandemic relief funding. The fight, however, is far from over. As the capitalist crises intensify, and bipoc and the working class are left to desperately cope with their worst effects, it is only a matter of time before the streets are alight again with the fires of revolution. The forces of reaction grow stronger day by day, unhindered by our efforts, preparing to seize all power. If we are to be successful, and we must be, we must take lessons from the failures of 2020 to ensure that our next advance is an advance all the way towards victory. The next battle will be one in which we make the choice once and for all: socialism, or barbarism.

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Rio Nero and Ophelia