Shortly after the world learned of the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Angela Davis remarked “this is an extraordinary moment. I have never experienced anything like the conditions we are currently experiencing.” Davis’ comment on the local-turned-global protests that emerged in the weeks following Floyd’s death were prescient. My recent article, “Universality, Black Lives Matter, and the George Floyd Uprising,” tries to make sense of these events.

Although police violence and terror is a routine part of life for many Americans, there remains a persistent and polite illusion that we are living in a robustly democratic and ‘post-racial/racist’ society. In response to the police violence that took George Floyd’s life,  millions of people took to the streets to demand an entirely new social system, as the polite illusion was shattered.

Identifying Universality in the George Floyd Uprising

The spirit of universality was alive in the George Floyd Uprising (henceforth GFU). This was not the universality of abstraction, but one of concrete universality. Let me clarify these terms.

The declaration that “All Lives Matter” (ALM) is a practice in abstract-universalism at its worst. It mutes the historical conditions under which the US social system emerged—a system build on racialized brutalization and hyper-exploitation—and simply says ‘hey, we’re all here now, and we all are important.’

The proper retort to this is, of course, “Black Lives Matter” (BLM). This is concretely identifying and siding with those who have historically been on the losing end of the US social/political/economic system. Those that struggle to grasp this reality might consider reading Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America.

In terms of theorizing uprisings, Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History is just as relevant today as it was a decade ago. In it he observes that “the spark that ‘lights a prairie fire’ is always a state murder,” and without a doubt the subsequent protests are used by the State as “a pretext for reinforcing the arsenal of the police and criminal justice system.”

This is precisely what we saw in response to the GFU, and other police killings in the US, and elsewhere. Rather than silently enduring the tragedy, quietly going home, or writing a letter to their senators, those engaged in the GFU had a different vision.

In the face of enormous State repression, the uprisings endured. Aspirations for police abolition and overcoming the decrepit capitalist mode of production were on the horizons of those engaged in these acts. They demanded the (im)possible and were joined by people around the world who shared similar aspirations.

The insurgent GFU was one of engaged universality for millions. The type of universalism that stands for the oppressed of the world who are still working to get the ‘universal rights and dignities’ heretofore denied.

As Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek theorize, the singularity of insurgent uprisings is a testament to their universalism. In simple terms, imagine the moment when hundreds, thousands, or millions of people from every possible background flood main street’s across the world, as a surge of necessity makes one feel as if they must change the system right now. This is precisely what scholars and activists noted in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

None of this minimizes the significance of the specific conditions that birthed the protests—the police killing of Black Americans. What it demonstrates is that uprisings have a dimension of singular-universality to them, allowing the workers of the world to build the future they wish to see.

This is much different than proclaiming ALM, because the singular-universality of the GFU was for all engaged in a political act specifically designed to overcome racist exploitation and oppression. Whereas ALM is a statement of aloof abstraction, BLM is one of an engaged political subject.

If we envision a form of universality that identifies with lack—the shared absence of rights and dignities—then we can theorize (and construct) a social system that no longer renders people as ‘surplus humanity.’ As Ilan Kapoor and Zahi Zalloua state, such a framework “foregrounds the struggles of the systematically dispossessed and excluded… who stand as a symptom of our global capitalist order.”

None of the above information obliges us to make the argument that ‘things are exactly the same today as they were 200 years ago.’ The emergence of a diversified power elite in the US, and the presence of—to use  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s terminology—“Black faces in high places” over the past fifty years must be acknowledged, as we try to develop a sophisticated understandings of the relationship between historical capitalism, racism, and politics in the United States.

Radical, Liberal, and Reactionary Stances on the Uprising

In response to the GFU, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observed, “for once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public. People are pulled from the margins into a powerful force that can no longer be ignored, beaten, or easily discarded.”

This reality of the GFU is not one to be casually dismissed as an act of ‘liberal identitarian’ politics, as some observers might do. The picture is more complicated.

For those looking to squash the power up the uprising, the subject engaged in such an act is trying to engage in what Alain Badiou calls covering over. Covering over tries to render the uprising’s radical potential “unintelligible by cloaking it in the confused discourse of the dominant” ideology. They pepper insurgents with predictable questions in an attempt to dishearten them (e.g., asking ‘what is it you really want? Did you vote, and if not, why are you complaining?’).

The GFU was never destined to be captured/recuperated any more than any emergent rebellion was/was-not going to be. Proclaiming it was always going to end up in shambles, or in the ‘graveyard of left-wing social movements’ (i.e., the Democratic Party) is surely an act of covering over.

During an uprising, it is unclear precisely how the end-goals—whatever they may be—will be achieved. None of this detracts from the consequences of the event unfolding in a potentially radical direction, as participants work towards building the society they hope to see.

Perhaps the agent of a covering over will blame ‘outside agitators’ for the uprising. This is due to the inability of reactionary politcal ideologies to envision a form of universalist solidarity. The possibilities for covering over are endless. Universalism remains sqaurely in the domain of left wing politics, refusing the reactionary path of scapegoating and using ‘outside enemies’ as a stand-in for the inherent antagonisms of our existing social system.

As this essay is being written, a reactionary political lurch is making it harder to learn about and discussions Black politics and history in school across the US. Shocking news and horrendous footage of the Memphis police brutalizing Tyre Nichols is generating fresh protests as well, as people question why a mere traffic stop led to the death of this 29 year old man. There is scarcely a day in capitalist America where these tragic issues are not on the minds of many.

The George Floyd Uprising was a universalist event, and the outcomes of it are yet to be determined. The least that critical thinkers and activists can do is stay engaged with these topics in a constructive way, avoiding unwarranted pessimism while simultaneously steering clear of cynical political ploys from those who wish to erase this radical energy.

Jason C. Mueller is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.

This article is based on: Jason C. Mueller. 2023. “Universality, Black Lives Matter, and the George Floyd Uprising.” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, online first, DOI: 10.1080/1600910X.2023.2168717.

Image: George Floyd Memorial via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)