The Roe Reversal & the Value of Protest
by Matei Alexandru
July 12, 2022
The Supreme Court's reversal of the Roe vs. Wade decision has already sparked widespread protests. This is likely to turn into a wave of protests that extends over a news cycle or two. Undoubtedly, many socialists will see this as another radicalizing experience for the working class. They will attempt to organise protests of their own in the (exceedingly naïve) hope that they are able to take the spontaneous energy of protestors and convert it into revolutionary, militant action. There is a pattern to refer to in a moment like this. Similar protest waves arose out of Trump's election in 2016, his anti-Muslim travel ban in the early days of his administration, and most recently and notably the protests in response to George Floyd's murder.
All of these mass protests appeared as new maxima in the heightening of societal contradictions. So many socialists observed clear signs of the people's readiness for revolution, yet no revolution took place. Who was to blame? Did workers not believe ardently enough in their goals and demands? Or was necessary leadership absent to tap into that moment's revolutionary potential? Or was it simply a matter of insufficiently matured conditions?
I want to focus on the George Floyd protests. These protests were some of the most intense moments of unrest the nation had recently seen. The Wikipedia article about the protests estimates 15-22 million people turned out to protest.* There were live, on-the-air arrests of journalists. National Guard units were deployed in cities where protests were most intense. In Washington D.C., police squads violently dispersed protestors, again, live on the air. Protesters burned down a Minneapolis Police Department building. Anarchists in Seattle temporarily established the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) demonstrating control over the section of the city without police interference or presence for a short period. All of this was taking place within the context of the first wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the leadup to the 2020 election.
Political energy among the masses was already at a high point. George Floyd's murder lit a fuse, but the racial justice and worker's rights movements were not brought close enough together to launch a combined assault against capital and the liberal republic. To answer our question from the first paragraph: proper political leadership did not exist to bring these social, economic, and political struggles into a single field of struggle— the working class against the capitalist class under the banner of socialist revolution. The protests eventually died off. Whichever ones were not violently cleared from the streets fizzled out on their own. The protester's demands were mostly unmet. While some local governments made some concessions in police policy and funding, the Democrat-majority Minneapolis City Council, where Floyd lived and was murdered, voted to INCREASE its police budget.
How politically supercharged was this environment? I would argue that the most intense, naked, and distinctly working class outburst before that was Occupy Wall Street. Conditions of the deep political unrest of the Trump administration and the economic fallout of COVID-19 as well as the pandemic itself provided plenty of agitational fodder and points to organise around. But despite favourable (even if not perfectly conducive) conditions, the decisive ingredient—revolutionary political leadership—was functionally absent. If socialists were among the protestors, they were not providing political guidance to anyone. They were not setting anyone in motion building a movement.
Now, it seems that the Roe Reversal will set off a similar string of protests. Now socialists, especially the comrades in our Party, should take the time to consider what value can be derived from these protest waves, the tactic of organising based on the shifts in media attention from one topic to another, and how they should approach protesting as a tactic of political organising broadly.
How often can we latch onto that issue that has grabbed hold of the public consciousness only for the news cycle to move on to something else dragging the public consciousness along with it? The Roe Reversal has certainly captured the public's concern. This threat to women's rights adds to an already heaping pile of growing societal contradictions: record inflation, skyrocketing costs of living, continued police controversy after Uvalde, a substantial uptick in workers seeking to unionise, continued difficulties from COVID-19 variants, a new European war, and midterm elections coming up where Democrats risk losing a governing majority to the Republican Party. An opportunity exists to orient all those fields of struggle into one revolutionary movement oriented in a single direction. The element of political leadership, however, STILL does not exist. And without political leadership, is there really any opportunity there?
This period of protests will in all likelihood play out like the George Floyd protests. The news cycle will move on, and so will the public's attention. Here is the thing: there will always be something to protest, and someone willing to mobilise one. Our Party must be sure not to tail the news cycle and play catch up with the public's shifting attention. Instead, we should be focused on developing our internal organisation, and extending our networks of external communication and cooperation. While there will always be protests and events that temporarily disabuse the masses of their passivity, socialists MUST reevaluate the value they might derive from attending and organising protests.
Certainly, there is value. What is the extent of that value? When liberal and progressive groups organise protests, we should not feel excused to ignore them. Here is an opportunity to closely examine the tenor of the political environment. This is a chance to take stock of the positions and demands these organisations are making. Having done that, socialists can distinguish their demands and positions from the liberal and progressive ones.
If we are to take the protest tactic into our own hands, if we are to organise protests of our own in moments like these, we must take the following concerns into account. First, protests cannot be "shows of force", "rehearsals" for larger struggles, or just "making peoples voices heard". This reduces the action to pageantry. A socialist protest must first and foremost have a clear demand/goal. Socialists do not take on an action for its own sake. We establish what we want to achieve, and we use that as a compass forming a strategy around that goal. Second, strategy. Whether at the local or national level, we must take stock of our level of organisation, what and who can be mobilised, what tactics are to be used to apply pressure against this or that agent/representative of the capitalist class and/or its state, and how to ensure that organisers and protestors are safe from retaliatory violence from either counter-protestors or the armed bodies of the state. Socialists cannot be the ones leading people to slaughter. It is not "educational" for working class people to get beaten, arrested, injured, or in the worst-case scenario, killed. To lead people into that with no countenance for their defense is grossly irresponsible. Thirdly, having established a goal and a plan of action, socialists (having actually readied themselves for a prolonged struggle in the face of violent repression) must actually commit to the long-term struggle they have embarked upon. Having first equipped itself for a struggle to the end, socialists must commit to carrying on the protest until the goal is attained or it becomes, for the time, demonstrably unattainable.
Without these things, a socialist protest is irresponsible at best. At worst, it is a blunder that could discredit socialist organisers for a long time into the future. Without these things, our goals are best served by attending liberal and progressive protests, mapping the political environment, and staking our position openly and publicly in comparison to the liberal and progressive positions. We would get more out of determining which non-party organisations exist which have a foot in the socialist mission (in this instance, women's health and reproductive rights) and can be engaged productively versus those who are patently opposed to associating with socialists, or endorsing their political goals than trying to grab ahold of forces we cannot yet wield.
But if and when we are able to clearly lay out a goal/demand, to assemble a strategy and mobilise the forces to put it in motion, withstand the forces of repression, and are prepared to carry the struggle out until victory or being forced off the field, then our comrades should certainly take on the task of organising protests. They should loudly declare themselves as capable leading elements in the struggle at hand, and provide real education to the working class about the power that lies untapped within it.
Matei Alexandru has been a SPUSA member since 2016 and the chairperson of the Southern New Hampshire local party branch. He also serves as the regional coordinator of the Northeast.