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American Democracy Cannot Breathe

Yes, we must radically transform policing in America. But we cannot stop there. We must transform the pervasive systems of economic and carceral injustice that are choking our common life.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Since video emerged of George Floyd crying, “I can’t breathe” while Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin choked him to death with his knee, the world has erupted in public protests challenging systemic racism. While the vast majority of those marching across the country—black, white, brown, Native and Asian; gay, straight and trans—have been nonviolent in their public outcry, instances of looting and vandalism have elicited calls for “law and order” from President Trump and his Administration. After calling on law enforcement to “dominate” during a news conference, Trump walked through a park that had been cleared of nonviolent protesters by tear gas and rubber bullets and posed triumphantly with a Bible in his hand.  

Just as Southern politicians during the civil rights movement tried to turn public attention from the demand for equal justice to concerns about “law and order” and so-called traditional religious values, Trump and his enablers seem determined in their resolve to shift the nation’s focus away from the systemic injustices that deeply divide our society. 

But it is no coincidence that George Floyd was Black, nor that he was an unemployed restaurant worker.  Just as Black Americans are the majority of the victims of police violence, Black and brown people make up a disproportionate percentage of low-wage service workers who have been disproportionately impacted as US unemployment numbers have risen past 40 million during the pandemic.  For Black Americans, unemployment insurance is sadly a lot like the police — supposedly put in place to help people, but in reality often causing widespread and unchecked harm.  

The United States, past and present, is built upon a foundation of laws and institutions designed to exploit the labor of Black people as much as possible while constraining their liberty. In fact, labor and liberty have long been opposing polarities in the American project.  When the Emancipation Proclamation supposedly freed Black Americans in 1863, two institutions were immediately put in place to ensure big corporations could continue profiting off of free Black labor — the prison industrial complex and the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.  Industries, especially the restaurant industry, that resented suddenly having to pay Black workers, embraced the idea of workers being paid through customer tips and eventually won a carve out in the nation’s first minimum wage laws creating a sub-minimum wage for restaurant workers that remains in effect today.  The federal sub-minimum wage for restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour.  Tips are supposed to make up the difference, but don’t — and so in addition to customers inadequately subsidizing restaurant owners, our tax dollars do too, as restaurant workers rely on food stamps at twice the rate of other industries.

Meanwhile, the history of policing in the United States is also deeply tied to the exploitation of Black workers. Early on, policing expanded to protect the interests of white slave owners in quelling slave strikes and uprisings. In the wake of emancipation, laws were enacted across the United States implicitly criminalizing freed Blacks, who once incarcerated were then hired out to corporations through convict leasing programs. In fact, anti-loitering laws used by many local police forces as a justification for cracking down on protesters have their origins in these Jim Crow-era regulations.  Meanwhile, through convict leasing, penal systems were paid, but the incarcerated workers were not.  And like the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers and loitering laws, a version of convict leasing remains intact today.  

Indeed the exploitation of Black and low-wage workers in the United States was so patently unjust that at the turn of the last century that, even in the face of repressive policing, workers threatened to revolt. Which led to the creation of unemployment insurance as yet another way to mislead and manipulate workers into low-wage or no-wage work. Unemployment insurance was designed to relieve the pressure workers were putting on America’s brand of exploitative capitalism, not as a release valve for the pressure that capitalism was actually putting on workers. In fact, unemployment insurance has always been hard to qualify for and inadequate, forcing Americans to often work in low-wage jobs in order to feed their families and save their homes.  

During an unprecedented economic crisis, with unemployment rates surpassing those during the Great Depression, an analysis conducted by One Fair Wage shows that, on average, states are rejecting 44% of unemployment claims. This statistic is more like 60% for tipped service workers, who are being told that their subminimum wage plus tips is too little to meet minimum thresholds to qualify for benefits. And now, hundreds of thousands of tipped workers are being asked to return to work for the tipped workers’ subminimum wage at a time when tips have dramatically declined – according to some employers, by as much as 75%. The system seems ripe for another such potential revolt by workers — and the correct response from Congress would be to act boldly to resolve historical structural inequities through much-needed universal policies rather than relief programs that perpetuate the problem — a Paycheck Guarantee rather than feeding a broken unemployment insurance system; universal health care; universal health and safety protections, paid leave and hazard pay for all workers; and, of course, One Fair Wage — a full livable minimum wage for all workers with tips on top. Meanwhile, states, including New York and many others, should pass policies like One Fair Wage now to address structural and racial inequities and to help build momentum toward Congress doing so as well.

If the last Great Depression led to the passage of important laws, like the minimum wage, that left some workers out, this Great Depression should similarly put forward bold universal policy but also put equity at its center.  As protesters said then, we need to say now:  It’s time to fight, not starve.  

While we don’t yet know all the sources of disruption and distraction within the protests that have swept the nation, their impetus is clear. Four police officers abused their office to choke the life out of George Floyd. Millions of Americans who saw the video immediately responded by taking the streets to demand an end to the systemic racism that has trampled too many for far too long. Yes, we must radically transform policing in America. But we cannot stop there. We must transform the pervasive systems of economic and carceral injustice that are choking our common life. American democracy cannot breathe. Only by acting together can we save our common life.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is senior pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is organizing the largest digital gathering of poor and low-income people at Saru Jayaraman is the Director of the Social Movement Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and President of One Fair Wage, which is organizing a national uprising of unemployed service workers at