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The Left Remakes the World: Amna Akbar on Canceling Rent, Defunding Police & Where We Go from Here

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We look at another looming crisis for the American public: mass evictions. More than four months into a pandemic that has left millions unemployed, eviction freezes across the country are ending, even as case numbers rise and states reimpose lockdown measures. As the Cancel the Rent movement inspires rent strikes and protests nationwide, a coalition of labor unions, workers and racial and social justice groups in 25 states plans to stage a mass walkout this Monday called the “Strike for Black Lives.” We speak with Amna Akbar, law professor at Ohio State University, who wrote about how to respond to all of this in her op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times headlined “The Left Is Remaking the World.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. As COVID-19 cases hit a new high and at least 11 states report record hospitalizations, we look at another looming crisis for the American public: mass evictions.

We’re now more than four months into a pandemic that’s left millions unemployed. Eviction freezes across the country are ending even as case numbers rise and states reimpose lockdown measures. Many warn a tidal wave of evictions and a spike in homelessness during the pandemic could be next.

In Michigan, where a halt on evictions ends Thursday, the state estimates it’s a backlog of 75,000 eviction filings. Other states have already resumed eviction hearings, including Texas, Georgia, Ohio, where a Columbus convention center has been converted into a massive socially distanced housing court. The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project reports more than 20 million people could face eviction by the end of September, and those hardest hit will be Black and Latinx. This comes as the $600-a-week bump for unemployment benefits that Congress passed as a COVID relief measure is set to expire in a few weeks.

Facing these dire circumstances, activists are continuing their demand to Cancel the Rent — a movement that’s inspired rent strikes and protests nationwide. And a coalition of labor unions, workers, and racial and social justice groups in 25 states plan to stage a mass walkout this Monday called the “Strike for Black Lives.”

For more, we’re joined by Amna Akbar, law professor at Ohio State University, who wrote about how to respond to all of this in her op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times headlined “The Left Is Remaking the World.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us from Columbus, Ohio, Professor Akbar. The beginning of your piece, you say that the uprisings in response to the killing of George Floyd are far different than anything that has come before. Please explain.

AMNA AKBAR: Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Juan.

Well, the pandemic and the uprisings have raised fundamental questions about what the state does and does not, and for whom, who has to work, in what form and for what pay, and the interdependence of all of our lives. We have 18 million people unemployed in the country, and, as you were saying, 20 million people face possible eviction and houselessness by the fall. And the response from Trump and Tim Cook, recently, was to tell Americans to find something new. We had the one-time $1,200 payout from the feds and various forms of closings of housing court, which are now coming to a close, as you mentioned. There has been a total lack of imagination and, more importantly, political will to respond to the basic human needs of people. And if this is not the purpose of our coming together and electing people to represent us, we should be asking some hard questions of what the purpose of the state is.

But I want to take a moment to unpack “cancel rent” and “defund the police,” which are two really important demands that organizers and social movements are making across the country. Police and private property are central, defining institutions of life in the United States. We know the centrality of police to local budgets now, and the immense power that they have and their sprawling scale, because it has been on spectacular display for the last two months, since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

But it might be worth taking a moment to talk about private property, which is also everywhere and structures our everyday lives, but is arguably a bit more subterranean in how it does. Private property is the basis of our legal regime. It’s a settler regime, a capitalist regime, a racial regime. It creates these relationships where some people own property and most people don’t. And if you don’t own property, you have to pay for it. This is pretty weird, if you think about it. We are human. We have physical bodies. We need space to exist, to sleep, to eat, to take care of one another. But we live in a society where you need to pay for space to live. The private property regime then creates a direct contradiction with meeting people’s needs.

And so, both police and private property are rooted in the histories of enslavement and conquest. They are not systems rooted in collective care and social provision. And it’s not as if we have the police over here and private property over there. These are fundamentally interconnected institutions that prop one another up. They are central to the stories, the structures and the relationships that sustain things as they are. And so it might be helpful to think for a moment about the connection between these institutions, because part of what I argued in the piece is kind of this radical imagination coming out of today’s social movements that’s telling interwoven stories about the world that we live in and the world that we must build.

So, many police killings around the country have happened in gentrifying neighborhoods, including here in Columbus, where Columbus police killed Tyre King, Henry Green and Julius Tate, young Black men and boys, in gentrifying neighborhoods. Police arrest people for stealing food to eat or selling loosies to survive or living under a bridge or squatting in a home when they have nowhere else to go. And all over the country, sheriff’s offices work with landlords to evict people who can’t pay their rents. And so, contrary to this popular idea that we have the market over here and the state over there, we see that the state works to protect the more powerful players in the market by lending them untold volumes of arsenal.

And, of course, central to the defund demand is precisely this critique of neoliberalism, that the state has been stripped of virtually all of its provisioning function, which we see on spectacular display right now in response to COVID-19. We don’t guarantee housing. We don’t guarantee food. We don’t guarantee healthcare or PPE. Instead, all of our tax dollars are going to prisons, police and jails; sustain things as they are; enact so much violence on poor, working-class, Black and Brown people; and distract us from the real work of collective care and social provision.

And so, the pandemic and the uprising have put a magnifying glass on how the most powerful institutions in the most powerful country on Earth have absolutely failed to meet the needs of the vast majority of Americans. We have a federalist system with layers of government, right? We have local, state, federal. And none of it guarantees any of the basics that we need to survive. We’re always told it’s too expensive and we can’t afford it. But now we know that we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on building prisons, jails and detention centers to house 2.3 million people in cages. We pay the salaries and benefits of 800,000 police around the country for their tanks and guns and horses and bikes, Tasers and StingRays. And in that case, it’s no surprise that the police responded so quickly and in such a coordinated fashion across the country in response to the protests, and the state completely failed to respond to COVID-19.

And, of course, on the other hand, the pandemic and the uprising have reminded us of our collective power and our collective resilience. We have the power to consent or refuse. We have the power to build alternatives. So, when today’s movements and organizers are calling to cancel the rent or defund police, these demands are calling for material changes to make a real impact in the daily lives of everyday people. And the demands, in themselves, are throwing into crisis the very shape of the state today, because they ask the state to step in on behalf of people over property, and people over police. And we live in a society where both of those institutions — private property and policing — take precedent over the lives of working-class people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor Akbar, I wanted to ask you, though: What is singular about this movement compared to movements in the past that also believed that they were remaking the world? I’m speaking, for instance, of the anarchists, the Magonistas, in Mexico; the International Workers of the World in the early 1900s; the communist and social movements of the 1930s, right after the — in the wake of the Great Depression; the New Left movement of the 1960s, which I was a part of. Our slogan then was not “defund the police”; it was “off the pigs.” And yet, each of these movements thought that they were going to remake the world. However, capitalism proved to be a lot more resilient in its ability to co-opt and to adjust to the threats. I’m wondering how you think that this is going to be any different? And also, are you taking into account the potential for a fascist or right-wing response to the current movement?

AMNA AKBAR: Thanks, Juan. So, we are about a decade into sustained social movement activity in the United States. If you think back to Occupy, Occupy focused our attention on capitalism and income inequality through an exercise of prefigurative politics through the encampments that we saw all around the world. And then, through Ferguson and Baltimore, Black Lives Matter and more, all of those kind of protest moments made us confront the long history of anti-Black violence in the United States. Standing Rock made center stage Indigenous struggle and how the state and powerful corporations work together to take, take, take from the land in blatant violation of treaty rights, connecting Indigenous resistance to environmental justice, and environmental degradation to capitalism. And now with defund police, we have a new call, kind of a new moment, where left social movements, young people of color are calling for these various modes of reforms that are designed to imagine and start to build a different kind of world.

And now — you know, and then the moments I just named are kind of the spectacular headline moments, the moments of the whirlwind, and all the while, long before and long after, you have the slow work of organizing. So you have base building, political education, toolkits, campaigns, coalition building and canvassing. And so, in the last decade, we have built our power and our analysis, expanded our collective muscle for a wide array of strategies and tactics, and built all sorts of institutions, organizations, coalitions, magazines, podcasts, bail funds, mutual aid networks and more. And so, while there are certainly differences in analysis and theories of change across the left and working-class organizing, there’s also a growing overlap with more and more people understanding why the status quo can’t stand, how the status quo is a product of a global and local history, and the need to come together to build alternatives.

And so, whether this is a more powerful formation or powerful moment than any other one across the — you know, in the history of the United States or around the world, that I don’t know. But I do know that over the course of my life, this is certainly the strongest the left and working-class movements have been. And I feel hopeful about where we are. And, of course, I feel apprehensive, because our opponents are not going to pack up and go home, as Rachel Herzing put it the other day when I was talking to her. We are going to see, and we are seeing, state repression all over the country, whether it’s federal prosecutions of protesters or all sorts of local and state prosecutions, not to mention the ongoing criminalization and prosecution of working-class people for their survival. And so, the odds against us are long, but we are also stronger than we have been over the last few decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Amna Akbar, we will certainly continue to cover all of these issues, and we hope to get back to you soon. Professor Akbar teaches at Ohio State University. We’ll link to your column in The New York Times headlined “The Left Is Remaking the World.”

When we come back, we’ll be joined by the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, yet another hot spot in the United States. Stay with us.

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