In the first months of the pandemic some on the American left felt sure that the unfolding crisis would be accompanied by a renewal of the strike wave that had swept the public sector in recent years. “Essential workers” were expected to take advantage of their newfound status and to demand redress for their worsening and increasingly dangerous conditions of work. But the greatest crisis of capitalism and of work since the Great Depression did not materialize into mass strikes.
In its place came the largest uprising in the United States since the cycle of struggles in 1967 and 1968, a response that was not directly related to general condition of insecurity, state repression and economic suffering, but to a specific and highly visible act of police murder. Thousands fought the police and destroyed/looted property. But those who rioted at night often returned to work the next day. And even when workers fought side by side the night before, they seemed to rarely carry that sense of collective struggle to work, into a force against capital at the one point where some workers have some leverage in that fight — the workplace. Obligated to continue working as the deaths mounted, American workers of all races showed they were able to fight on behalf of African Americans who had been killed by police. But when it came to workers fighting for themselves as workers, against bosses who directly lord over them day in and day out, they demonstrated fewer capacities for mass action.
Did a “glass floor” prevent this militant, black-led uprising from entering the workplace?
This question has special resonance in Louisville, where the exoneration of Breonna Taylor’s murderers failed to provoke the same level of contestation experienced in other cities. In answer to the question “Why Didn’t Louisville Burn?” pointed to a gender bias in the protests, or to the charismatic influence of Louisville’s African American Attorney General, and also to the fact that the protests remained kettled in a locked-down downtown, despite the repeated chants to take the freeway: “Breewayy or the Freeway”. But the unfulfilled promise of this chant threatened more than a blockage of intra-city traffic, for the freeway also led to Worldport, one of the largest logistics hubs in the country.
In Louisville these questions are riddled with the problems of composition, strategy, and mediations. The one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder has come and gone, and the police death machine and capitalism continue to grind lives to dust. Perhaps in Louisville the possibilities exist which allow for the answer to the murder of Black people in urban spaces and the theft of Black proletarian life at the workplace.
Logistics of Racial Capitalism
Logistics, supply chains, and Black liberation is nothing new. Black revolutionaries have long used the logistical paths laid out by capitalism to spread revolution. The slave trade had its own logistics and counter logistics: slave ships filled with rebellions and insurrections, for example. Freed people were crucial in the building of logistics infrastructure for the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War. Ben Fletcher was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. The anti-apartheid struggle in the United States and globally was fought by port workers.
In fact, the question of logistics today bears a certain similarity with the logistics of the slave trade. As Stefano Harney tells us in Logistics Genealogies “…the Atlantic slave trade was also the birth of modern logistics because modern logistics is not just about how to transport large amounts of commodities or information or energy, or even how to move these efficiently, but also about the sociopathic demand for access: topographical, jurisdictional, but as importantly bodily and social access” (95). Harney’s point connects race, capitalism, and logistics to a new conceptual apparatus we can call the logistics of racial capitalism.
In the logistics of racial capitalism, we can study the infrastructure that is needed not only to organize incarceration and police violence, but the infrastructure and flows of people and commodities needed to produce profits. Policing, housing, and food–all this is only possible through logistics. Proletarians are still fighting the end result of a series of logistical operations that make these forms of oppression possible. Behind these forms, are the gigantic systems which ultimately kill the Black person, evict the family, and deny the food to proletarians. Logistics are the veins, blood, arteries, and skeleton upon which everything else hangs. Therefore, if we are going to defeat racial capitalism and anti-Blackness, we need a whole new body.
Many decades ago, W.E.B. Du Bois showed us the power of the General Strike by slaves in the South. They won the civil war by their decisive action. Not only were they a trojan horse in the South, but they were the literal hand that fed the Confederacy. But the strike’s capacity to affect the logistics of the Confederacy is often overlooked. Not only did the General Strike stop production, but it stopped the flow of goods necessary for the Confederacy. It was a general strike against the logistical operation of the Confederacy and the beginning of freed peoples’ decisive contribution to the logistical capacities of the Union Army.
Du Bois describes slaves running away from their plantations and joining the Union Army. While many freed people picked up the gun in the Union Army, many more picked up the shovel, wheelbarrow, and the axe. Freed people “built long stretches of log roads and bridges over swamps, cane breaks, and lagoons; built and cleared canals to enable the movement of gunboats; dug ditches; dragged guns through stinking and infested bayous; washed and cooked for soldiers; nursed them; and buried their bodies when death came. They drove thousands of transport wagons, artillery carriages, and bassoons to haul artillery, and cared for the hundreds of thousands of horses and mules that braced the movement of armies” (Glymph). In other words the Civil War was the most massive logistical operation any organization had taken up to that time. This left a footprint which can be seen in the logistical map of our current times.
The legacy of Civil War logistics is seen in where FedEx and UPS have centered their major logistical hubs. The Ohio River runs through Louisville and the Mississippi through Memphis.
Does a strike today in logistics also carry such a revolutionary potential? In the current moment to rely on strikes alone may not be capacious enough to win, so we look elsewhere and add the blockade and the occupation. The blockade, occupation, plus strike might be one of the solutions to uniting different proletarian fractions. To think of logistics is not to think of neutral infrastructure, but to think of power, and how race and class are encoded in the material construction of our world.
Worldport is the centerpiece of UPS’s logistical operations. UPS employed over 20,000 workers in 2012, making it the largest employer in the state. The company claims it is the “largest automated handling facility in the world”. Worldport is the size of 90 football fields, which allows for 20 airplane docks culminating in 130 daily aircraft turnovers. In the month of December Worldport sorts 416,000 packages per hour, or about four million packages a day ). In effect what is being produced is speed.
It is no accident that Worldport is in Louisville. 65% of the US population is within a day’s drive of Louisville or a few hours by air. Capital destroys space and time and we see this most powerfully in how UPS uses the speed of airplanes and differentials in time zones to its advantage, “Thus, with flights loading for departure from the Worldport at the end of twilight by 5:00am EST, the three-hour flights across the country bound to the West Coast, effectively lands then at 5:00am PST,” ultimately “Shrinking both time and distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts” . Marx’s point in the Grundrisse about capital annihilating space by time comes tol life with jaw dropping logistical prowess over the earth and labor power.
Logistics must span the globe but these hubs can also cluster, “Within a 150-mile radius, a massive logistical infrastructure has grown at the intersection of existing national road and rail system (CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National railway company, and the Paducah and Louisville Railways). In Louisville for example, at a distance of only a ten minute drive along major highways I-64 and I-65, companies are positioning their fulfillment centers and warehouses in high numbers and close proximity to this logistics hub” . It is noticeable that there is a Ford plant nestled in the airport complex near railroad lines. The plant employs 3,800 hourly employees assembling the Ford Escape and the Lincoln Corsair. The plant was recently shut down for a week due to a computer chip shortage.
Source: Jafari, 134
UPS is aware of potential disruptions and has tried to stay ahead of the curve in 2020. The company is throwing money at the usual groups such as the NAACP, and the newly built National Museum of African American History and Culture, and calling for Congress to pass various anti-racist legislation. Instead of seeing this as progress, this is classic corporate cooptation of a movement. In light of this corporate makeover, UPS has a history of racism towards Black workers. One example from 2016 is the story of Marvin Merrit from Riviera Beach, Florida who told a story of how his supervisor abused him “He’s walking right behind me, over my shoulder, harassing me. He shook his head, and he just called me a lazy n***** and walked away, which was so wrong”.
Black Lives Matter has correctly pointed out the abrupt ending of life that occurs to Black people through police murders. It is a reflection of how millions of proletarians perceive and experience injustice. At the current moment BLM’s horizon stops around those edges, leaving out how racial capitalism steals life at the workplace. It is another kind of ending life, but this one in the service of profitability, which no reform can save.
Riots have often started with smart phone videos capturing a horrific scene of police murdering a Black person. What is noticeable is that it has been in urban spaces where the violence of police is captured. But what about Black proletarians in the workplace? It is true that Black proletarians are not killed by the police in the workplace, but they are being killed. The questions are what is killing Black proletarians at work by, and how do they fight at the point of production? The answer to these questions helps us to see the limits of our struggles and what may or may not be possible. It is not that proletarians have not fought at work, but none of the struggles over racism at work have been particularly explosive. For example, after the major round of riots in May, workers, outside of a Brooklyn UPS hub gathered on July 20th to protest management’s harassment of a Black shop steward, but it was more spectacle than a material attack on UPS. In other words symbolic and weak forms of struggle have taken place, but nothing comparable to the riots. The question is less about our expectations, but what it reveals about the George Floyd Uprisings, and our current horizon of the possible.
Just as the riots were multi-racial, the potential for strikes, blockades, and occupations to be multi-racial seem to be there at UPS. For it is not only Black workers who are being killed at work, but other proletarians. While racial divisions at the workplace are always considerable, the death of workers, the injustices surrounding the pandemic, and Black Lives Matter have not lent to proletarians fighting as workers. What stands out is that proletarians are able to spontaneously coordinate struggle in the streets, but not at the workplace. Simplistic answers rush to fill in the gap: false consciousness, unions bureaucrats are the most commonly used to explain the difference. What they cannot answer is that rioters themselves had a class awareness in that they were looting wealthy stores. And like workers who face an army of trade union bureaucrats, rioters also had to overcome a sophisticated urban bureaucracy of NGOs. This forces a different explanation which I will return to later in the essay.
Logistics: Blockades, Riots, and Strikes
Louisville is a city of logistics and excellent study of what counter logistics might look like in the upcoming years. Here proletarians are concentrated in a dense work environment, they are structurally powerful, and find themselves in a tight labor market. All the objective factors seem to be in place for some serious counter-logistics. Actions in the logistics sector could have devastating consequences for UPS, particularly during the pandemic, where the company has seen an increase in package volume by 21% and not surprisingly increased profit.
Deborah Cowen describes cities functioning along the distribution node as having a “social structure as a distributive world city remains similar to that of some 50 years ago,” in that it has a “small percentage of professional, managerial, and technical occupations and a high proportion of working class occupations”. Louisville is further along the distribution axis than Chicago, because it is not a major node of consumption. Consumption oriented cities due to the realities of class must have a disproportionate amount of middle classes and bourgeois residents. They are the main drivers of consumption in the economy, not the proletariat. At least in Louisville, proletarians might be atomized, but they are not alone, they are the demographic majority. While this is the case for almost any city, the difference is that cities like Louisville are not also swamped with the professional middle classes like San Francisco, Seattle, or New York City.
Here is the key significance of “Breeway or Freeway” chant. If the freeways are shutdown, trucking will come to a stand still. An anonymous report back on Its Going Down said, the chant “functions as something of a watchword for the movement: if Breonna doesn’t get justice, we shut down the freeways. (It also functions as a way to give literal direction to the marches. Breeway, a family nickname for Breonna, has become the semi-official name for the corridor around Jefferson Square Park.)” But if the freeway leads to Worldport, what would workers think of the protestors or rioters if they showed up?
This is where we can see that contrary to claims of workers of color as fundamentally more radical than white workers, we see little evidence of this, if strike data is our metric. Workers at the point of production have largely refused to take up the larger social immiserations facing the proletariat. They will fight for their specific exploitation, but refuse to fight for anything more. In this sense the link between police murdering Black people and workplace struggles remains a sizable chasm with no clear bridge. If workers have failed to protect their own interests in the last decade, why would they fight for interests outside of the workplace?
One Dot = One Job. Manufacturing and Logistics - Professional Services - Healthcare, Education, and Government - Retail, Hospitality, and Other Services
The giant concentration of red dots bounded by Southside Drive, Outer Loop, and Crums Lane is the Louisville airport, UPS’s Worldport, the Ford Factory, and industrial-warehouse park.
Jasper Bernes points out that with possibility of disruption also comes the defensive ability of supply chains to withstand proletarian insurgency, “logistics has enabled capital to quickly neutralise and out manouevre whatever feeble resistance workers mount” by “unprecedented power to route around, and starve, and troublesome labour forces” (186). Meaning UPS will certainly reroute its planes to other hubs across the country, eat the cost, and contain and attack the disruption.
It is here where we will see the emergence of the police again, because sprawling logistics has come together with a world of security. Deborah Cowen writes “Supply chain security takes the protection of commodity flows, and the transportation and communication networks of infrastructure that support them, as its central concern”. If the old assembly line had the foreman to police workers, today it is the police who are the foreman. It is here where counter-logistics becomes an anti-police struggle, and Black liberation once again. But perhaps this is exactly the problem, that there are too many mediations, for such a connection to be made. And instead of concrete tactics and strategy, we enter the realm of revolutionary fantasy.
This is why asking how stopping circulation at Worldport fights anti-Blackness, the police, and stop the murder of Black people is relevant? Perhaps if a UPS worker was killed by the cops, a more organic case could be made for workplace actions. Barring such a literal scenario, it is not obvious at all. Especially in the context of a pandemic where millions of people are dependent on various goods being delivered to their home. What does it say to ourselves and to the world if we try to stop Worldport from functioning? What connects the imagination of the riot to the imagination of the strike and blockade?
It is tempting to claim that the airport occupation around the Muslim ban in 2017, the BLM blockade of a runway in London’s Heathrow Airport in 2017, and in Hong Kong in 2019 are the initial stages of the movement’s cognitive mapping of the infrastructure of capitalism. It is noticeable that in none of the occupations were workers involved as workers. In other words, are workers themselves creating this map or is it another sector of the proletariat? We can easily imagine a scenario where workers will rush to block protestors from occupying WorldPort. This would reflect a deep split between two factions of the proletariat.
It may also reflect something of a puzzle for both ends of revolutionaries: those who see the riots as a path towards revolution and those who see the workplace as a path towards revolutions. It would seem for the time being that the riots themselves reach a limit at the gates of work and that workers at the point of production refuse to leave the gates of work. In what sense are riots a path towards revolution if they simply cannot generalize to the point of production, unless the latter is no longer needed. Good luck getting food once the grocery store is looted empty. If the rioters show us a fundamentally new way of consumption—everything is for free, workers refuse to show us a new way of production. This forces us to reach some hard conclusions.
Proletarians today are not fighting to change the workplace let alone demolish capitalism. They are rioting because Black people are being killed by police. While the riots have been intense, forced a crisis, and divided much of society, it is at the same time a fairly specific attack with a fairly specific set of goals. In other words the rioters themselves have no horizon of attacking the workplace. We know this because workplaces have not been attacked for being workplaces as such. They are being attacked for the purposes of looting and a general sense that this will make the powerful feel some pain.
It is unclear if it is even possible to bridge the riot to strike in the United States. Is it because the workers rioting are not the ones who work at strategically important workplaces? Is it because there has not been an attempt to blockade strategic workplaces in this round of struggles, that we do not know what is actually possible? Or is it simply that proletarians in the riots have no interest in taking it to the workplaces? Undoubtedly many Black workers have participated in riots and protests and consider themselves part of BLM, but that's beside the point. The issue is whether they can flex their power at the point of production as workers. So far, the answer has been no.