The May 25 murder by police of George Floyd sparked a wave of massive protests, beginning in Minneapolis and quickly spreading across the United States (and now the world). The police responded to the protests with more shocking violence, amounting to what is clearly a police riot. The brutality has been terrifying to watch. But incredibly, protesters have not been deterred. If anything, the brutal police response has seemed to provoke further revolt.
To stem the conflict, over the past weekend elected officials across the country began imposing curfews. For example, Chicago enacted a 9 PM curfew on May 30, San Francisco put an 8 PM curfew into effect on May 31, and New York City imposed an 8 PM curfew on June 2.
Elected officials have presented the curfews as attempts to maintain public safety. In reality, the ordinances are attacks on free speech, which criminalize peaceful demonstrations and justify further police violence against protesters and the public. Thankfully, the curfews have not had their intended effect.
In California’s Bay Area, where I live, protesters willingly defied city and county curfew orders, engaging in mass civil disobedience to get the curfews lifted. Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf imposed an 8 PM curfew on June 1. The mayor attempted to triangulate in her public statement, acknowledging that “a curfew is a serious tool that has been used by American governments as a tool of oppression and racial bias” while also claiming that the curfew was “necessary to protect our community, our residents, and our businesses from further violence and vandalism.”
Protesters blatantly defied Schaaf’s order. On June 3, thousands gathered in Oakland to “sit out” the curfew. The demonstration eventually turned into a late-night dance party; the police did not attempt to disperse or arrest the protesters. (This action followed two other mass protests, including a spontaneous protest that broke into rioting on May 29 and a peaceful, student-led demonstration on June 1.)
In a bizarre attempt to praise the protests against her own executive order, as if the protests were not in open defiance of her, Mayor Schaaf tweeted the next morning, “Another peaceful and proud night, #Oakland.” Later that afternoon, the mayor rescinded the curfew.
Across the Bay, protesters willingly faced arrest in defiance of San Francisco’s curfew. On June 2, about fifty people gathered outside of City Hall at 8 PM, and then marched to the Hall of Justice where they staged a sit-in. Many were detained by police. The next day, June 3, Mayor London Breed announced that the curfew would end effective the following morning. The announcement did not stop ten thousand protesters from marching through the city that afternoon, with many staying out after curfew. Around twenty people were eventually arrested.
Other cities and counties across the state had also imposed curfews over the weekend or earlier this week. Like Oakland and San Francisco, many cities and counties (including Los Angeles) are now lifting the curfews in response to continued mass protests.
Protesters’ willingness to break unjust laws — and local government’s being forced to back down in response — is encouraging. Leftists have long argued that mass direct action is one of the most important means of effecting change; that argument has been confirmed by the success of these protests. The great social transformations of American life in the twentieth century, including the New Deal and the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, were largely the result of this kind of action. Millions of ordinary people engaging in (usually illegal) strikes or street protests, often in the face of incredible police brutality, compelled capitalists and state officials to make changes.
Ending the curfews is far from the only thing the protests have accomplished. The uprising is clearly bringing radical demands like defunding and dismantling the police into mainstream discourse. Some members of the Minneapolis City Council have supported calls to defund or dismantle their police department; Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti is now signaling that he wants to make cuts to his city’s police department. As defunding the police becomes an increasingly popular protest demand, we will likely see more movement on this front.
Years of efforts to reform the police and address racial injustice through electing diverse “liberal” politicians has done little to stop the police’s reign of terror or to correct the broader racial and class injustices that it is a part of. If we want fundamental social change, we’ll need more of the kind of mass direct action we’re seeing now. So let’s keep it up.