By Adam Schendel
As the United States finally closes in on the end of the year-long coronavirus pandemic with a national rollout of vaccines, Americans still find themselves beset by a cascading series of crises, any number of which threaten to become breaking points for the country. While most of them predate the pandemic, these existential issues – including police violence, racial and economic inequalities, climate change, inaccessible healthcare, and poverty – have been exacerbated and worsened during the past year.
And rather than respond to these challenges with bold and transformative solutions to address them at the root, the ruling political class in the U.S. is instead actively allowing the country to deteriorate into unsustainable disarray in service of wealthy and corporate class interests, while attempting to enact a series of punitive legislative bills to criminalize the fundamental speech and protest rights of American citizens seeking to advocate for much-needed change.
The prime example of these new proposed laws is the supposed “anti-riot” bill signed into law in Florida by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. The new law classifies a riot as a gathering of three or more people where a crime is committed and makes it a felony offense to block a highway while also granting legal immunity to anyone who drives a vehicle through protesters already blocking a road. In addition, the law allows a penalty of up to five years in prison and lifelong disenfranchisement for even being present at a protest where a fellow demonstrator commits an act of violence.
Far from being the only such law, Democracy Now! reports that lawmakers in Iowa and Oklahoma have passed similar bills and that over 80 bills intended to abridge the right to protest have been introduced in at least 34 states during this legislative year, more than twice as many than in any other year.
To be clear, the law signed by DeSantis in Florida and the raft of other bills being proposed by Republican legislatures are not measured responses to ensure peace in American streets. They are retributive and extraordinary crackdowns on the core rights of Americans to express freedom of speech by gathering in protest to pressure the leaders in government to respond to the will of the people at large in calling for change.
It is no accident that politicians are choosing this moment to attempt to coerce and criminalize citizen dissent into silence. To examine the biggest problems in American society today and the apathy of the ruling class in alleviating the pain and deprivation afflicting growing segments of society is to understand that leaders would rather suppress the call for change at a moment when it is needed most, rather than implement even the bare minimum of sorely necessary policy solutions.
The events that directly precipitated Florida’s anti-protest law is the mass uprising against police brutality and violence that occurred in the summer of 2020 after the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd under the knee of now-convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In addition to other high-profile police murders and shootings of people of color in 2020 that included Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, millions of Americans took to the streets in cities large and small across the nation to demand accountability as well as an end to the unyielding violence of police officers who kill about 1,000 people in the U.S. every year.
This unprecedented rebellion turned into the largest protest movement in American history and led to mass unrest in numerous cities. But despite the historic significance of the occasion, it’s hard not to conclude that little has changed. Just this week, a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of murder and manslaughter, a momentous and rare conviction of an on-duty police officer that was hailed by many Americans as the bare minimum of accountability in a truly heinous murder caught on camera in broad daylight as bystanders begged for it to stop. But the police murders continue unabated, with the recent shootings of unarmed man Daunte Wright just miles from where George Floyd lost his life in Minneapolis and of thirteen year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago. Indeed, just moments before the nation watched Chauvin declared guilty on live television, police in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenage girl.
Both in 2020 and this year, the state is far more concerned with maintaining the status quo of police impunity, willing to deploy agents decked out in body armor and militarized vehicles to subdue crowds of protesters with egregious and horrifying acts of violence instead of holding the police to standards of justice and accountability as favored by the popular will of millions of demonstrators.
Police violence is just one broken facet of society that’s become unsustainable. Black and brown people still find themselves at the forefront of the most marginalized populations in America today, with racial disparities in wealth, health, home ownership, and incarceration persisting through the decades between Black and white Americans. People of color also contracted and died of coronavirus at higher rates than their white counterparts, due to higher rates of poverty among them as well as chronic health conditions and jobs that exposed them to the virus.
Even though the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color, so far all Americans, especially those of lower social classes, make up the most COVID deaths of all countries in the world, with the U.S. death toll currently sitting at over 570,000. This mass death is the result of the early criminal negligence of the Donald Trump administration that denied, lied about, and refused to take serious action against the virus from the start, as well as a hyper-capitalist system that prioritized the economy over the lives and health of the workers who sustain it.
The injustice of capitalism is also on full display as the wealthy flourish while the working class suffers. In the year since the onset of the pandemic, the combined wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by more than $1.3 trillion to a record high while hundreds of thousands of Americans died and millions more were thrown out of work and into economic precarity. Elon Musk alone saw his wealth increase 559% by $137 billion in just 12 months. Worldwide, workers lost more than $3.7 trillion in earnings at the same time, with Americans experiencing the largest losses.
The pandemic also exposed the utter failure of our private health care system that ties health insurance to jobs. At the height of 2020 pandemic job loss, up to 12 million more Americans may have lost their health insurance just since the month of February. Clearly, having millions of people unable to afford exorbitant health care costs during a deadly pandemic that necessitates medical treatment if someone gets sick left the U.S. woefully ill-prepared to get a hold on any virus from the very start. Even before 2020, around 45,000 Americans died annually due to the inability to afford medical costs.
Meanwhile, civilization continues emitting into catastrophe, as global carbon emissions are now once again increasing to higher levels after a brief downturn due to the pandemic in 2020. Last year tied 2016 as the hottest year on record as wildfires turned the skies of the American West into a bloody red hellscape, and ice caps continue to melt. The world faces ecological collapse and by the year 2100, annual deaths due to extreme heat fueled by climate change could kill more people than currently die from all infectious disease in the entire world.
It is abundantly clear that the social, political, and economic structures of capitalism in the U.S. and around the world require serious changes in order to address these multitudes of existential crises. Millions of Americans across all ages and races have realized this and have begun to stand up for their own interests, taking matters into their own hands. There are solutions to these issues.
2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has disappointingly toned down his radical demands for change under a Joe Biden administration that betrayed its campaign promise of $2000 checks for all Americans and has so far refused to fight for a $15 minimum wage even though Democrats control all three branches of government. But Sanders rallied millions behind his campaign while advocating for a platform of policies such as Medicare for All, livable wages, free college, erasing medical debt, and a Green New Deal. In Congress, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act has the transformative potential to make it easier for workers to join unions and collectively bargain and organize for higher wages and better working conditions.
It is these policies and the movement of people behind them that have the potential to transform the lives of working class and poor Americans, and to reverse the trend of wealth flowing ever upward toward the capitalist ruling class as the rest of society sees living standards worsen. Universal single-payer health care would make medical treatment publicly funded through taxes and free at the point of use. Livable wages and publicly funded college tuition would lift millions from poverty and instability and open up untold opportunities in life for those people. A mass program to phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy would put millions to work and combat the existential threat of climate change.
But power concedes nothing without demand, and just as Americans realized this in turning out in record numbers in 2020 to rally in support of Black lives and against police violence, they will need to organize in the workplace and in the streets to force the changes necessary to actually address and resolve the problems facing our society.
And that is why politicians and leaders are turning to anti-protest bills like the one passed in Florida and the model bills being proposed across the country that are meant to silence free speech and the right to protest. The ruling class shows that it is far more willing to beat and subdue the public into accepting its lot in life instead of the justice it is due.
In the end, courts may rule against the constitutionality of such blatant suppression of dissent on behalf of the state. But the willpower and activism that has frightened these wealthy leaders and spurred them to take such despicable actions shows that the American people truly have the potential to bring forth the radically different and humane future they are envisioning.