Interview with Sociologist James Petras
Centennial Radio Uruguay
June 8, 2020
(Translation from Spanish by Michael K. Smith)
Hernán Salina: The ongoing protests have displaced the topic of coronavirus a bit, which hasn't diminished in the United States, right?
Petras: Yes, the mobilizations and protests have changed their nature. The protests began against the repression of victims of racism, but now there are some social, political, and legal demands, among others, which could have an impact on the structure of power.
With more than 100,000 people demonstrating in various cities and with great mobilizations throughout the United States, hundreds of cities are on the march, and they are demanding among other things a transformation of the police, including the elimination of the police in some large cities, changes in the law, application of civil authority against the police, and some mayors who used to support the police are now requesting that they be removed and replaced.
In other words there is a transformation in the content, character, and operation of the capitalist state in the United States, still embryonic, but it is beginning to show itself.
The second important thing is the fact that the participants in these mobilizations are multi-ethnic, not just African Americans, there are whites, blacks, young people, members of the middle class, Latinos. It's not like the protests in the 1960s when the composition was much more African American.
And the third important point is the breadth of the coalition. There is a lot more to say, but the protest marches and confrontations represent a broad sector of the population. Whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and other groups, too. We have a broad coalition that could develop a political character. It already has a political character, but a lot is being channeled into the mobilizations, which have not taken on a partisan nature.
HS: There was a conflict or clash within the government, with the head of the Pentagon declaring himself opposed to the use of the U.S. military to repress this.
Petras: Yes, that's another important factor, there are divisions in the state. Many ex-generals are attacking the Trump government and the use of soldiers against civilians, that's an important change.
HS: Will this check Trump a little on the matter of repression, having to continue managing with just police forces?
Petras: Well, he's in a bind now. Trump wants to use the military to occupy cities and repress civilians, activists, and the political organizations that are taking action. But the military leaders don't want to meddle in this political conflict of Trump's, who is very unpopular among military leaders, at least among the generals.
Two things are possible. One is that Trump acts against the retired generals and tries to use active military leaders. The other is that the active military leaders begin to distance themselves from Trump and act jointly with the retired generals. In any case we have to see what the military leaders do in the face of permanent threats by Trump to mobilize the army and repress the population.
HS: What political changes could this movement end up generating?
Petras: Well, at a minimum there are going to be commissions that try to implement some measures giving more power to mayors and governors. That's very limited, because the present governors have a lot of sympathy for the police, or are at least subjected to their power.
What is clear is that the U.S. is a police state, the police have enormous autonomy and they can dictate what the civil leaders can do. There are police strikes, we must understand that the police union is a form of encouraging and justifying repression, and is not a union that defends the people. It's a union that privileges the police, justifies whatever crimes they commit, whatever murder they commit. Like we've seen in Minneapolis, the police justify everything, when they knocked a 75-year-old man to the ground (and left him bleeding from the ear), the police union protected them against any legal action.
HS: A movement of Black Panthers has been seen, young men and women with military arms in the front row of some mobilizations. Does this mean that organized armed groups are participating in the protests?
Petras: It's completely symbolic, it doesn't mean anything. The millions that are in the streets don't have arms, they're seeking a political struggle, the arms are symbolic.
HS: But then they aren't allowed to use arms like right wing protesters have done in the states that allow them to?
Petras: Yes, the right is using arms secretly, they don't have the capacity to mobilize militias in this situation. Trump sympathizers are still keeping their assumptions, they are awaiting a decision by Trump about whether to use the army and not form militias. But the popular force isn't disposed to use arms either.
In addition, on Facebook Mark Zuckerberg has used Trump's Twitter to denounce the movements. And the opposition is attacking Facebook now, saying that they should not give freedom to a president who is destroying the Constitution and all civil rights.
HS: Other topics from outside the US that you want to highlight this week?
JP: Yes, several things. First, in Venezuela they have defeated Trump's efforts to block Iran's oil ships. It is a great victory because Venezuela receives gasoline and now its economy can function.
Mexico has been in a situation of great difficulty with the coronavirus, it is another problem. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not responding adequately to the challenge of the disease.
Finally we have Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro is hiding the data on the number of infected and total deaths. The death toll figure is growing and democracy is under attack. I don't know what is going on among civilians right now but Bolsonaro is very discredited. And Washington continues to support Bolsonaro, Trump is Bolsonaro's best ally. It is a combination of tyrants on both sides.