Skip to content

Anti-racist rebellion and the Left

Review of Vortex Group’s The George Floyd Uprising

The George Floyd Uprising

by Vortex Group

PM Press, 2023

It has been a little over three years since the beginning of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. Given the intense conservative backlash in the wake of the movement, 2020 in some ways feels like a distant, foggy memory. Since those protests, and especially more recently, I’ve found myself thinking about that summer—both struggling to remember what it felt like and asking myself a number of questions: How did it feel to be out on the streets? How open was the political moment for a more radical social transformation? What did we think was possible? What were the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the movement? What impact were the protests going to have moving forward, and how were things going to change?

With the benefit of hindsight, we perhaps have partial answers to some of these questions. There is still much that the Left has to discuss in order to make sense of what happened; in a way, it feels like this momentous, historic series of events took place, and then things just returned to “normal,” if we understand normal to be the dystopian times in which we are living. Although the opening created by the movement that summer has closed for now, things will undoubtedly never be the same. Whatever shortcomings they contained, the protests altered the discourse, logic, and trajectory of American society.

For these reasons, The George Floyd Uprising edited by Vortex Group represents a significant contribution to our collective memory, understanding, and experience of the summer of 2020. The collection brings together numerous accounts from and about the uprising, ranging from June 2020 to May 2021. As the editors acknowledge, the contributions are far from homogeneous: “in spite of a shared commitment … [the] authors diverge around a number of key political, social, and strategic questions,” including those of “race and identity, abolitionism and reform, the role of weapons and ethics,” and more (5-6).

For there to be an anthology of essays, many of which were written in real time during the uprising, is invaluable. The discussions we can have as a result of these contributions and how they help us tap back into our own individual and collective experiences of this time period cannot be overlooked. At the same time, knowing what we know now, it is clear that some of the contributions were overly optimistic about the potential for the protests to mark a revolutionary moment. “At the risk of sounding naive,” writes Idris Robinson, “I sincerely believe that the riots that we have all witnessed and hopefully participated in this summer have opened the window to insurrection and even a full blown revolution” (76). Additionally, a number of the political and strategic conclusions lend themselves to criticism.

The authors of the book provide analyses and first hand accounts from New York City, Portland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kenosha, and Louisville, and engage with topics including tactics and strategy, the role of identity, race, and class, the cooptation and repression faced by the uprising, the absence of the organized Left from the struggle, the question of organizational forms, and more. There is so much we have yet to discuss and learn from what happened in the summer of 2020, and this book represents an important resource for doing so.

Political Conclusions from the Struggle


As noted above, the authors of the various contributions approach the events of the summer from a number of different perspectives based on where they were, in what capacity they participated, and the distinct political views they brought with them into those experiences. That said, there are a number of shared observations and conclusions that authors draw throughout the anthology. These political conclusions imply, or rather highlight, an element of universality across the struggles (despite the differences between each place) and are worth examining in some detail.

An important starting point is the larger context in which this uprising occurred. While the uprising itself was specifically a response to racist police violence and inequality, it was also about “class, capitalism, COVID 19, Trump, and much more” (26). At the end of May 2020, when the protests first erupted after the murder of George Floyd, the country had been in lockdown for over two months. At least 36 million Americans were on some type of unemployment, “essential workers” were risking their lives daily to provide essential services and to increase the profits for the capitalist class, and millions were facing eviction due to their inability to pay rent. Many people faced or experienced precarity in a way they had never before, creating a situation in which the contradictions and shortcomings of the capitalist system—which prioritizes profits over human need—became more apparent to increasingly large portions of the population (41). It was this larger context that created an even more combustible terrain on which the uprising would unfold.

A large banner that reads “Racism is the deadliest virus. #Defundthepolice” is held aloft above a large crowd marching in the street toward a stoplight intersection.
Healthcare workers join a march for Black Lives in Seattle on June 9, 2020. Photo by Backbone Campaign.
A Black-led, multiracial uprising

A number of authors make two related and important observations about the nature of the uprisings: It was the Black proletariat that initiated and sparked them and served as their most militant element. In these ways, it provided leadership to the movement. At the same time, however, the uprising was multiethnic/multiracial, and it would be inaccurate to say it was simply a Black rebellion or Black uprising.

The fact that the uprising was Black-led and also deeply multiracial is important for several reasons. First, it highlights the fact that in the United States, “the Black struggle has served a singular role in American radical politics, often acting as the igniting element that sets wider layers of society into motion” (6). Crucially, though, while “the Black proletariat is the most revolutionary of the US proletariat … it can’t defeat capitalism on its own” (210). It is imperative for anyone interested in overthrowing and dismantling capitalism to “respect and support the autonomy of the Black revolutionary struggle” in order to ensure that the desire for multiracial solidarity does not “come at the expense of Black liberation” (29). In other words, it will be necessary to simultaneously respect and support the uniqueness of the struggle for Black liberation, born of the foundational role of anti-Blackness in this country, while also connecting that struggle to larger struggles that aim to move beyond capitalism.

A multiracial crowd raises its fists outside a brick building, the side of which features a massive black and white portrait of George Floyd.
A crowd gathers before a mural by Peyton Scott Russell the evening after George Floyd’s memorial service. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

Some of the authors note that while it is easy to draw parallels between the George Floyd uprising and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s, they are qualitatively different in several important ways. First, “white workers were largely absent from the urban rebellions that took place” in the 1960s. While this isn’t necessarily to say that white workers, or workers as organized workers, participated in the George Floyd uprisings en masse, it was “a multiracial proletariat that rebelled” this time, making “comparisons of this rebellion to 1968 wrong” (29).

Furthermore, today, unlike the 1960s, there are a number of Black mayors, police commissioners, and district attorneys throughout the country. We have also seen the proliferation of NGOs and nonprofits, a number of which are Black-led. In other words, the struggles of the 1960s gave rise to new obstacles and contradictions that played an important role in the summer of 2020 and that were not present in 1968 or the 1960s more generally.

Repression, cooptation, and other challenges

It was in the interest of various groups and actors to crush the uprising. While these groups had a range of politics and deployed a variety of methods to defang, demobilize, and/or extinguish the uprising, they all set out to ensure the movement was as contained and limited as possible.

Of course, the far right, the state, the police, and similar actors set out to crush the movement as swiftly as possible, often opting for more openly violent forms of repression, including murder. The authors highlight the fact, however, that the reformist/progressive Left—including NGOs, nonprofits, the Black Lives Matter Foundation, and the Black middle class, and many if not most local politicians and community/religious leaders tied to those organizations—also played a central role in demobilizing the uprising.

“Black NGOs, including the Black Lives Matter Foundation,” write Shemon and Arturo,

hardly had any relationship to the militant phase of the rebellion. In fact, such organizations tended to play a reactionary role, often preventing riots from escalating and spreading. Black NGOs were the spearhead of the forces dividing the movement into “good” and “bad” protestors. The social base of Black NGOs is not the Black proletariat but the Black middle class and, most importantly, a segment of the radicalizing white middle class. (26)

Other authors also note that the Black middle class played a particularly reactionary role in the uprising, writing that it “uses Black proletarian struggle to advance its own cause” and arguing that a “Black led rebellion could only be crushed by a Black led counterinsurgency program” (187).

The Black middle class, though, is far from the only group which sought to limit the possibilities of the uprising and steer its achievements towards its own—less radical—ends.

Building on the false distinction between good and bad protestors, in which ‘good’ protestors were ‘peaceful’ and ‘bad’ protestors were ‘rioters’ who engaged in looting and property destruction (80-81, 84), the state and media widely spread lies about the “outside agitator” in what one author describes as “a phase of advanced misinformation.” This narrative aimed to further divide the uprising by race and identity. The media “simultaneously claim[ed] the movement had been ‘hijacked’ by white people, ‘antifa,’ and ‘insurrectionary anarchists,’ as well as by undercover white supremacists” (93). Not only were the participants, therefore, necessarily extremists, they were also white and coming in from the outside to sow and exacerbate discontent. Accordingly, Nevada writes that “the state used the fictional or exaggerated figure of the ‘white supremacist agitator’ to perpetuate anti-blackness and capitalist property relations” (103).

The “outside agitator” narrative also implied that Black people themselves were either not engaged in the protests or were not supportive of more militant tactics and forms of protest. This narrative has deep racist roots in this country’s history and “first began to take shape during the era of Black chattel slavery. The old racist story goes that slaves were happy until white abolitionists from the North excited them to revolt” (207).

“A counterinsurgency campaign has fundamentally altered the course of the movement,” writes Shemon, highlighting the fact that we cannot understand the waning of the uprising without analyzing the repression and cooptation that occurred (186).

Tactics (means and ends)

Throughout the book, various authors put forth analyses of a number of tactics and questions ranging from looting, property destruction, and the use of arms/weapons to how to engage with race and identity. The authors ask what constitutes abolition and how to actually win it.

All of the contributors who discussed looting supported it as a tactic, identifying “social” looting (80) and the caravans of looting in particular as requiring a high degree of “coordination, organization, and boldness of initiative” (181). On the question of property destruction, Nevada cites Idris Robinson when they write that “whenever property is protected, it is protected for white supremacist ends” (109), going on to argue that we should understand “every act of property destruction or looting as an expression of a grievance” (107).

A photo depicts a police car ablaze with flames and heavy smoke billowing from its roof. To the left, a uniformed cop walks away from the scene wearing a gas mask; behind the car is a crowd of protesters facing a line of police, with one protester holding a sign that reads “F**K THEM KKKOPS;” to the right, the trunk of a police van has been spraypainted with the words “FUCK 12.”
A police car burns not far from Philadelphia’s City Hall on May 31, 2020.

On the question of arms/weapons, several authors argue that the use of arms represented a shortcoming, or mistake, from a strategic perspective. These questions were particularly relevant at the Wendy’s occupation in Atlanta, but were also pertinent in places like Kenosha and Louisville, as well. They argued that “the strength of the movement will depend on broad social support more than on purely military victories” (159) and that armed struggle alone is not terrain that we will be able to win on (153). Importantly, it wasn’t that arms in and of themselves were the issue, but rather the fact that the use of arms “tended to specialize itself, resulting in a form of social closure” and that

the more that armed violence detaches itself from other forms of struggle, the more it becomes something we treat as a specialized technical problem…[and] the more it will tend to become divorced from the intelligence and confidence of the crowd. (216)

Abolition is not a central topic the authors take up, but some raise questions around what constitutes abolition, as well as criticisms of “defund” as it relates to abolition. Shemon argues that revolutionary abolition was largely displaced by reformist abolition after the first week of the uprising. They write that reformist abolitionism is characterized by

the activity and politics of professional activists, NGOs, lawyers, and politicians and concerned primarily with “defunding,” policy, and legislative shifts … [and that] proposals to “defund” amount to little more than a monetary displacement from one section of the state to another. (190)

As it relates to the content of abolition itself, one author argues that, “Each structure fire contributed to the material abolition of the existing state of things” (22), whereas another argues that the “rebellion began not as an abolitionist politics centered on policy changes but as a viral contagion of demolitionist desire” (224), citing the burning of the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis as an example of demolitionist and not abolitionist practice (231). Nevada argues that the neighborhood watch and citizen patrol groups that emerged in Minneapolis “cloak[ed themselves] in the language of police abolition,” but rather than prefiguring what would replace the Minneapolis Police Department, instead “assum[ed] the enforcement of the very same legal order here and now,” only with nicer faces (108-109).

The absence of the organized Left: lessons from the 2020 uprising

The role of the Left in the 2020 uprisings is generally underexplored throughout the book, which is revealing. There is widespread agreement amongst the authors that the organized Left—including socialist and other revolutionary organizations—played little to no role in the emergence, development, or deepening of the uprising. Shemon and Arturo write that the uprisings “transformed an entire generation [and] it is not the NGOs or the left, not even the revolutionary left, that has done this. It is thousands of brave young people acting on their own initiative …” (211).

I agree with the assessment that the organized/revolutionary Left played a negligible role in the uprisings; members of the organized Left did participate, but as individuals or small groupings rather than as part of an organized left as such. The anti-organizational conclusions that various authors draw, however, are a major weakness of the book.

One author argues that we must “embrac[e] a model of decentralization” because “the implosion of mediating institutions [is a] basic feature of our chaotic times” (139-140), while another writes that:

Twentieth-century proletarian revolution, [which] was imagined as a process whereby the working class would grow exponentially up to a crucial threshold, at which point it would become politically hegemonic, take power, and produce a new world out of the shell of the old … is no longer conceivable. (160)

Another author argues that our ability to

fac[e] the organizational problem with an understanding of fragmentation as a condition rather than a shortcoming will be crucial to allowing our movements to flourish—rather than decay—under the mark of leaderlessness. (149)

Several authors also question and problematize the role of class as both a framework of analysis and potential revolutionary subject. One author writes that the “crowd,” rather than class, is a more effective framework for understanding the uprising (12, 19).

Adrian Wohlleben takes this further, arguing that

it is difficult to imagine an insurrection in the USA today taking the form of a disciplined consolidation of marginal social groups—e.g., a crystallization of crowds into “classes” through solidarity … (230).

They argue that focusing on the sphere of production represents a strain of “ultraleft thought” (244), pointing instead to the Yellow Vest movement as an example of a contemporary uprising that put forth a new and potentially revolutionary logic. Namely, it focused on a “leading gesture” (in this case, putting on the yellow vest) which “becomes a vessel into which a broad swath of singular antagonists feel invited to pour their outrage, aggression, and ferocious joy” (227-228). Additionally, such movements “allow individuals to move alongside one another, while preserving their own respective reasons for fighting, thereby inviting each of us to trust in our own singular evaluation of the situation” (229). Rejecting class and notions of mass revolutionary parties, they argue that “it is considerably easier to imagine a viral contagion of actions that respond intelligently to their moment escalating into mass experiments in communist sharing on a variety of scales” (230).

I agree with the authors that the current conjecture is characterized by fragmentation, decentralization, and a lack of leadership. The organized Left and revolutionary organizations are weak and, accordingly, played no significant role in the uprising. That said, the authors who argue that revolutionaries must adapt to these conditions by adopting their logic are confusing the symptoms of the problem for its cure. This is not to say that we should simply attempt to reproduce or copy examples from the twentieth century. Today’s terrain is different and experimentation will undoubtedly be necessary as we work to rebuild a revolutionary movement. However, as we take stock of past successes and failures and examine them in light of today’s conditions, it would be a massive mistake for the Left to reject the importance of class, production, labor, and revolutionary organizations.

Importantly, several authors note that the absence of an organized Left had a negative impact on the uprising. In New York City, the riots and the more radical elements of the uprising melted away only a week or so after beginning. The New York Post-Left writes that the movement found itself “unable to develop new tactics in order to stay dynamic,” and therefore at “something of an impasse [that] currently lacks direction.” They continue, “pro-revolutionaries need to be durably organized to sustain their capacity through the valley to prepare for the next peak” (82).

Echoing this, another author writes that “there was no legible pro-revolutionary pole in the streets,” and that “the role of a revolutionary minority, those who help build the capacity and collective confidence of revolt, may become more important. In this sense the absence of a pro-revolutionary pole was felt” (174-175). Last, Shemon writes that “on the whole [proletarians] lack the mechanisms or institutions in racial capitalism to develop [proletarian multiracial] unity,” concluding that “without fetishizing organizations, some organizational forms will be needed to crystallize and concentrate this alliance” (193-194).

We need to highlight the conclusions that stem from these important observations—namely, that decentralization, a lack of leadership, and the absence of organizations limited coordination, tactical creativity, strategic clarity, and ultimately the potential of the uprising, rather than furthering or bolstering it.

One author argues that operating effectively in the current political moment requires “giv[ing] up politics” (101), but I would argue that the uprising taught us the exact opposite—we need explicitly revolutionary politics now more than ever. Depoliticization will only lead to further fragmentation, which will limit rather than foster our ability to build power and develop the knowledge, practices, and forms necessary to destroy capitalism.

Since the uprising, the Left, oppressed groups, and working people generally have been on the backfoot. In many ways, we have struggled to translate the uprising into tangible changes or power, at least in the short term. The powers that be, on the other hand, have responded with a highly organized offensive, and while there has been resistance to these attacks, the Left has been unable to meaningfully propose a clear alternative, let alone implement it.

It would have felt unthinkable in the summer of 2020 that just a year later, New York City would end up with a law-and-order, tough-on-crime, Black former-cop as mayor. The absence of an organized Left, though, has allowed Adams to carry out his anti-migrant, anti-tenant/homeless, pro-cop, anti-worker agenda. A revolutionary organized Left is deeply necessary to articulate and develop a real alternative to what’s currently on offer. A decentralized, leaderless, fragmented Left will not be able to meet the needs of the moment.

The 2020 uprisings were historic insofar as Black proletarians led a multiracial uprising that shook the country to its core in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns, unemployment, evictions, and a social and economic crisis. Developing an organized revolutionary Left will be necessary in order to ensure that the next uprising is able to go further than that of 2020.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

Featured image credit: Lorie Shaull; modified by Tempest.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at

Ben Rosenfield View All

Ben Rosenfield is a member of the Tempest Collective living in Brooklyn, NY.