Cornel West on this moment of "escalating consciousness" and the need for radical democracy

Cornel West talks about the bigger paradigm shift we still need — away from military spending and neoliberalism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 26, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Cornel West | BLM Protest (Getty Images/Salon)
Cornel West | BLM Protest (Getty Images/Salon)

While the mainstream news media's attention has mostly moved on to other things, the George Floyd protests continue into a fourth week.

The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining momentum, in both small majority-white communities and larger more racially diverse cities. Confederate statues and other monuments to white supremacy are being torn down by protesters. Internationally, BLM continues to expand its influence.

There are broad shifts in public opinion, where white Americans – at least for now – are increasingly acknowledging that racism and other forms of social injustice exist and limit the life chances of their fellow Black and brown Americans. Such changes in the public mood are necessary precursors for enacting public policies that can help ameliorate the harm caused by structural and institutional racism and white supremacy in the United States.

Writing for Jacobin, sociologist Douglas McAdam, a leading scholar of social movements, describes this moment:

At least since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014, every publicized death of an African American at the hands of police has triggered a spasm of protest — before winding down. ... The protests that have erupted across the United States in the three weeks since the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day are very different. … Given this is an ongoing and young movement, it is hard to get a systematic handle on the demographics of the protesters, but there is simply no denying the diversity of those taking part.

McAdam continues by arguing that "we appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point that is as rare as it is potentially consequential":

The best we can hope for is to do everything we can to maintain the momentum, energy, and inclusive, pragmatic, and nonviolent character of the current protests. Our goal should be twofold: to capitalize on the possibilities for change inherent in this moment, and to begin to pivot toward forms of electoral mobilization crucial to success in the fall. The survival of American democracy will likely depend on how successfully we attend to this agenda.

The political terrain in America is shifting rapidly. The George Floyd protests, in combination with the pain caused by Trump's neofascist regime, a broken economy and a lethal pandemic that has now killed more than 120,000 Americans, are a series of system shocks that cannot be ignored by the country's elites.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand." The question now becomes, how will the powerful respond?

In an effort to answer this question I recently spoke with philosopher, public intellectual, activist, scholar and author Dr. Cornel West, who is professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is the author of several bestselling books, including "Democracy Matters," "Race Matters" and "Black Prophetic Fire."

In this conversation West counsels that the American people must prepare for a long and brutal reaction from the country's right-wing elites to the rising demands for social justice. He warns that Donald Trump and his regime constitute a neofascist disaster that could doom any hope for multiracial social democracy in America, which is why supporting Joe Biden — despite his party's harmful allegiance to neoliberal gangster capitalism — is a necessary compromise for our country's survival, and the world's.

We have seen something beautiful in America and around the world these last few weeks as so many hundreds of thousands of people have protested and risen up because of the police murder of George Floyd. The people marched and kept on going, even though the police beat them, tear-gassed them, shot them with rubber bullets and arrested them. People of conscience did not stop even in the face of raw state power. 

Lord, yes, it was beautiful. Anytime you see human beings straighten their backs up and are willing to walk together, struggle together, sing together, and fight together — whatever color they may be — there is a moral majesty and a spiritual beauty that cannot be denied. But now we have got to get ready for the neofascist clampdown and the white backlash. That is what is on the horizon.

How do we prepare the American people for that backlash and revenge? The empire always strikes back.

Very much so, and especially when the empire is weak and desperate.

There is Trump's personal desperation because he is a neofascist gangster but there is also an entire political system that knows it cannot reform itself. The American political system and the corporate-ocracy and the neoliberal gangster capitalists know that they cannot meet the people's escalating demands.

So there is Trump's backlash to prepare for, but there is also the reaction from the neoliberal milquetoast Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi and others in the Democratic Party leadership who are putting on kente cloth and acting like somehow they've been on the cutting edge of the struggle for human rights and human dignity and justice.

The neoliberal Democrats have been in power for years while Black brothers and sisters have been getting shot and killed and otherwise abused by the police, but those same Democrats have pushed through crime bills and militarized America's police. All of a sudden those neoliberal Democrats put on some kente cloth, get down on one knee, and we are supposed to think that they are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s second cousin? Please. Give me a break. It is absurd.

Is George Floyd a martyr?

I do believe that George Floyd is a martyr. The Greek origins of the word "martyr" is "witness." "Witness" and "martyr" are almost synonymous. 

You can bear witness to something without necessarily having a design for the particular act that your act of witnessing would generate such a response to.

I think Emmett Till was a martyr. But when Emmett was standing outside of that grocery store, he wasn't thinking about Frederick Douglass. But his witness became one in which his death was a catalyst for a wave of social action and contributed to the civil rights movement. George Floyd's death is now the catalyst for a social movement here in the United States and also abroad. But Floyd of course is a different type of martyr than Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. 

Malcolm and Martin had a deliberate design and many years of acts where they offered up a public critique of American empire and social injustice. Based on what I know — and I may be wrong — George Floyd did not have that type of ideological worldview.

Floyd's primary witness was that he was the brother who had a heart of gold that connected him to people around him. He supported them, he made them feel good. And even when he went astray and he got into some criminal activity and so forth, even in prison they say he was just as kind and helpful and supportive of people. That is a type of witness too. There are many different kinds of martyrs.

Are we seeing a paradigm shift in America, with the George Floyd protests and people's uprising? Being in the middle of what feels like great change often robs one of larger context and perspective. 

No. What we are seeing with the protests and people's uprising is not a paradigm shift. I wish it was. A paradigm shift would have to connect the critique of police murder and brutality with a critique of Wall Street and the Pentagon simultaneously. That's a paradigm shift. Right now, we are seeing an escalating type of consciousness, which is beautiful, about police brutality. But we are not seeing a paradigm shift in this country.

What are your thoughts about Barack Obama's comments about the killing of George Floyd and the public's reaction?

What Obama has offered so far in this time of protests and positive social energy consists of nice little clichés and platitudes. Barack Obama is a brilliant brother. He's got tremendous charisma and poise, and no one can ever take away his historic significance as the first Black president in the symbolic sense. But when it comes to issues of substance, history is not going to be kind to Barack Obama. Black Lives Matter started during his presidency. The Democrats had control of the House and Senate. Did Obama and the Democrats do anything substantive when all those Black brothers and sisters were being shot and killed and otherwise brutalized by America's police? Barack and the Democrats did not say a mumbling word about the new Jim Crow during his and their time in power.

Obama, with the Republicans, also moved the country towards austerity. He was dropping bombs with drones in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Obama decided to become part of a neoliberal regime that had blood on its hands and still does. Obama and the neoliberal Democrats now want to act like they are members of the Black Lives Matter movement. Please, that is absurd.

A juxtaposition of images. We saw an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, being smothered to death by a white police officer while begging, "I can't breathe." We also have the image of that 75-year-old white brother being pushed down by the police in Buffalo, suffering a serious brain injury, bleeding from the ears, and the police walking over him like he was human trash. How are your making sense of those two images?

It is the typical gangster attitude of saying and doing anything and then thinking that you can get away with it. A white cop thought he could kill a Black man, publicly lynch him, all the while keeping his hands in his pocket like he's a big game hunter. That white cop in Minneapolis killed George Floyd like it was as natural as breathing.

The same thing is true with the white brother in Buffalo who was knocked over by the police. Blood coming out of his ears. The police see him lying there and they just keep on walking. It's not just the callousness, it's not just the indifference. It's the get-away-with-anything quality of the gangster culture that we're dealing with in America among the powerful.

Trump epitomizes this at the highest level. He thinks he can say and do anything and get away with it. Wall Street believes that it can say and do anything — and they do get away with it. When Trump talks about "law and order," he does not mean policing Wall Street.

Some of the biggest crimes in the last 50 years in America have been committed by Wall Street with its insider trading, market manipulation, fraudulent activity and predatory lending — much of the latter targeting Black people. How many Wall Street executives go to jail? Basically zero. They walked away with many billions of dollars. That is on the same continuum as what the police did to that white brother in Buffalo and our Black brother in Minneapolis.

What happens when a whole culture becomes infested with gangsters at the very top? Neofascist leaders such as Donald Trump. The neoliberals as a class are complicitous. And that includes Black neoliberals too. It includes the decadent Black leadership class. Gangster culture is a problem across the board in America.

Why do you think the police killing of George Floyd has resonated with so many people in America and around the world? Especially our white brothers and sisters? There is nothing new about police thuggery and brutality against Black and other nonwhite people in America.

I do not believe there is an adequate answer to that question right now. History has a mystery and an unpredictability about it. We could chart out the factors, such as the pandemic and people being on lockdown, which forced them to think about issues many of them would have otherwise ignored.

We could also talk about Depression-like levels of unemployment and underemployment. That almost always generates some kind of social disruption.

We could talk about Trump's neofascist ways that are more and more difficult to deny. All of those factors play some role, but we never really know why what happened with George Floyd sparked this reaction, as opposed to the tragedy with Eric Garner. The American people saw him die, too. He was lynched publicly. But ultimately, I do not know.

But the crucial thing is we got to fortify ourselves for what is coming in terms of the backlash and keeping the struggle alive.

Given the legal precedents, Derek Chauvin and the other Minneapolis police officers who murdered George Floyd are not going to be convicted.

The system is unable to reform itself. Banning chokeholds is not going to result in police going to jail for their crimes, because the problem is systemic and includes the judges, the prosecutors, the jury and an entire American cultural problem. The system is ultimately too tight and inflexible to allow for the fundamental change that is required for real justice.  

This is another example of how and why Martin King Jr. was so very correct when he called for a nonviolent revolution in America. If a society cannot democratically share its wealth, power, respect and resources, it is not going to be a real democracy.

Do people of conscience push the American empire over the cliff and try to remake it, or do they try to hold onto it and fix it?

We must democratize it. Remember that Brother Martin King Jr. turned to Harry Belafonte and said, "I think we're integrating into a burning house." Harry said, "Martin, what do we do?" And he said, "We got to become firemen and women."

Now some people would say, "You've got to just burn it down or help to burn it down." No, you don't burn down the house when your babies are in there! You don't burn down the house when your mother is in there!

As the empire is about to go off the cliff, we the people must stop it and hold these greedy Wall Street elites accountable. We have to make sure that the military budget is massively reduced so that America can make a huge investment in its poor communities, especially Black, poor, and brown and indigenous people's communities.

We must have radical democratization because the American empire does have a history of freedom fighters inside it. That is where we as Black folks come from. Never forget that as the American empire burns down it will be poor Black and brown folks who will suffer first.

We have to fully democratize America to save it. But it can't be cheap, neoliberal so-called reformism, because that is not going to work. Certainly, it can't be the neofascists. We are even willing to vote for these milquetoast, mediocre neoliberals in order to push out the fascists, because the situation is so dire with Donald Trump and his Republican Party.

This is why Black Americans and many others are voting for this neoliberal disaster with Joe Biden and the Democrats, because we are trying to push out a neofascist catastrophe. People understand the difference between a disaster and a catastrophe. And the difference is huge.

If one were to take a snapshot of these last few weeks, and Trump's time in office more generally, it might look as though America is unmoored from time. Violent armed white mobs are patrolling American towns to stop Black Lives Matter activists and anti-fascists from protesting. The Ku Klux Klan is emboldened and encouraged by Donald Trump. Nazis and other fascists have been engaging in terrorist violence. Trumpism is a rejection of the civil rights movement and embraces a new type of Jim Crow. Police are running amok brutalizing nonwhite people and their allies who are marching and protesting for social justice. What advice do you have for people who feel disoriented right now?

Multiracial solidarity is so fundamental in this moment. You must come to terms with your fears because these are not the times for summer soldiers. We got to be all-season love and justice warriors.

When I was in Charlottesville standing in front of white supremacist gangsters in 2017, you look in the eyes of those folks and you saw folks who were willing to live and die to subordinate Black people, just like the Confederate Army did. For all their hatred and the corruption of their souls, they did have a particular kind of courage. But we have to have even more courage in our struggle for love and justice than the courage they have for hatred. White supremacists are willing to live and die for their cause. They really are. I saw it with my own eyes.

Donald Trump's supporters are willing to die and kill for him. The Democratic Party does not understand what it is up against. How are you making sense of this crisis? And how can good people of conscience prepare themselves for this perilous moment — especially as matters become even more dangerous with the approach of Election Day?                                          

Remember what Martin King Jr. told the marchers in Birmingham. He said, "When you come to this movement, I want you to put on your cemetery clothes, because the people who we are fighting are themselves willing to die. And if we are not willing to die, we'll never win."

Remember and draw strength from Martin King Jr. and his wisdom when he said, "I'd rather be dead than afraid."

We must come to the freedom struggle with our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready, because these folks are willing to die. You have got to keep fighting. Don't give up. Don't sell out. Don't cave in. You've got to stay in motion. You've got to keep on pushing and fighting, no matter what. Be faithful until death, until you can't push no more, and then it's over. You pass it on to the next generation and that is what is most crucial.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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