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The 2020 BLM Uprising Lives On in Houston’s Struggle Against Police Violence

Against the growing and deadly profile of the far right, a BLM campaign in Houston is showing where we go from here.

A man pays his respects and kneels in front of a mural of George Floyd in Houston, Texas, on June 8, 2020.

The demonstrators repeatedly chanted “Oh sh*t!” outside the Texas District Attorney’s Office. These were the words spoken by Houston police officer Shane Privette after he just killed 29-year-old Jalen Randle. Just moments prior body camera footage also picked up Privette’s chilling declaration, “He ain’t gonna live to leave this neighborhood.” That protest on May 27, and many others like it, demanding “Justice for Jalen” have been called by Jalen’s father and mother, Warren Randle and Tiffany Rachal, with the grassroots support of Pleasantville, a historically Black neighborhood in Houston, where Jalen had lived with his family.

“It’s overwhelming,” Randle told Truthout, describing the “surreal situation that he’s never coming back.”

“It’s a struggle every single day,” Rachal added, after recounting her first birthday without receiving a call from her son.

In the summer before the midterms, Joe Biden delivered a slap in the face to the memory of the 2020 BLM uprising, declaring that “the answer is to fund the police.” Subsequently, New York Times columnist Charles Blow penned an understandably despairing editorial titled “Defund the Police is Dead. Now What?”

Blow was perhaps too quick to announce the exhaustion of this slogan, reflecting a concessionary retreat by progressives which has not deterred the far right. Nevertheless, an unfortunate assumption within much post-rebellion writing reduces the largest protest movement in U.S. history to slogans rather than the people and movements that made them possible. Whether the result of “cabin fever,” in Blow’s words, or genuine solidarity, mass participation numbered in the tens of millions, and their witnesses, far more. Against the temptation to conclude BLM campaigns have returned to square one, we might ask how their field of operations has changed following that summer’s earthquake. A careful look at Houston, George Floyd’s hometown, and Pleasantville may show us how 2020 has carried on in grassroots struggles and what new possibilities there might be for their growth.

Protesters hold signs in support of justice for Jalen Randle.
Protesters hold signs in support of justice for Jalen Randle.

“Let There Be No More Jalen Randles”

Jalen Randle was murdered on April 27, 2022. His last moments — recorded on body-cam footage released a day before the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder — are included in a video against police brutality produced by his family. The movement in Jalen’s name has organized on Instagram, and his parents remain determined in their demand for an indictment and conviction. Neither have been forthcoming from the Democratic Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, whose office has been busy during this time exacting reprisals on democratic socialist Judge Franklin Bynum for his bail reforms for poor defendants; or more recently, ordering the Texas Rangers to investigate local Judge Lina Hidalgo over bogus election fraud claims.

The campaign has, moreover, organized in a challenging political environment. While Hidalgo prevailed over her odious Republican challenger in November, the mutually agreed terms of their contest shifted public debate on to terrain favorable to the police. It was no surprise, then, that with the cooperation of both major parties on November 8, voters passed a ballot measure, granting additional funding to the Houston Police Department (HPD). It will now be up to grassroots campaigns like the Randle family’s to confront the armed hubris of the police, which in Houston sent its armed personnel into county budget meetings to intimidate participants weeks before an election.

Yet the space for grassroots movements has not been eliminated. Despite the obstacles, the Justice for Jalen campaign has continued to frustrate the baleful agendas of the legal system. In May, the family discredited the sanctity of police narratives with an independent autopsy, demonstrating Jalen was shot in the back of the neck. While HPD and the courts have since circled the wagons, the campaign has continued to plan monthly demonstrations and successfully keep Jalen Randle’s name in the news. The family’s campaign video, featuring English, Spanish and Vietnamese, concludes with the simple demand, “Let there be no more Jalen Randles.” In that spirit, on September 20, the Randle family, together with the families of Danny Ray Thomas and Pamela Turner, two other victims of police killings in the Houston area, organized a Rally for Justice and press conference outside the Harris County Criminal Courts. Rachal notes that her son and another victim of police violence are buried in the same Brookside cemetery.

“[The struggle] has to continue,” Rachal told Truthout. “In order to receive justice for all, we have to stand. We have to be accounted, because we are worthy. We are somebody…. If we don’t come together as the people, the movement will not move.” The work of connecting families in struggle also bears organic connections to the uprising, building upon efforts that have since been taken up by the family of George Floyd, such as their work with Daunte Wright’s family in Brooklyn Center or Joshua Feast’s in La Marque.

The uprising disrupted the typical playbook for local governments. Houston’s mass demonstration of 60,000 on June 2 that year was deftly hijacked by the city’s municipal leadership, featuring the participation of Mayor Sylvester Turner and former Police Chief Art Acevedo. Turner would address the day’s marchers — “We are listening” (today’s “I feel your pain”) — while Acevedo knelt with protestors as his department violently repressed them. Such tactics are easy when campaigns take place far from home, but they also leave local governments exposed when their walls of obstruction greet movements for justice in their own backyard.

Such was the case on July 28 this year, when Houston’s present Police Chief Troy Finner held a townhall at Pleasantville’s Judson Robinson Sr. Community Center. Under pressure from angry community members demanding answers surrounding police violence, Finner nearly stumbled into an admission of guilt, conceding that “we live in a racist society.”

“Most local politicians in Houston,” Randle said to Truthout, “are bandwagon people, where if its big enough, they jump on the bandwagon.”

“The representatives on our behalf that we think would have come in the front line to say, ‘enough is enough’ — has not happened,” Rachal corroborated. “It’s not going to change, until we force the change.”

The uprising has also made certain scenes and connections among people possible that years previously would be more unlikely. On May 12, just weeks following Jalen’s murder, the U.S.’s leading abolitionist and scholar-activist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, spoke at the University of Houston to deliver the inaugural George Floyd Memorial Lecture, established by the Floyd family in collaboration with the university. Sitting in the audience at her talk, entitled “Global Solidarity or Global Policing: A Lecture in Memory of George Floyd,” were Philonise and Keeta Floyd as well as members of the Randle family. The latter describes the ready support they’ve received from the former, both of whom would be acknowledged by name from the podium that evening.

During the campaign’s monthly protests, the most recent on October 27, demonstrators could be seen carrying the same printed signs bearing a picture of Jalen, centered above the slogans “Justice for Jalen” and “Black Lives Matter.” In the signs’ background stared the watermarked visages of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, and other victims of racist police violence across the country.

These signs also carried two quotes, one from the Black South African anti-apartheid leader, Desmond Tutu, and another from the renowned abolitionist and Black feminist, Angela Davis. On either side of Jalen’s picture, they read respectively, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” on the left, and on the right, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Like “Defund the Police [Refund Communities]” such ideas are built around sentiments that do not take elections as the acme of democratic commitments or political action but see mass movements from below as their truest expressions.

After two years of vicious and deadly white supremacist, anti-LGBTQ backlash from the far right, it is easy to overlook what that summer rebellion — multiracial, working-class and pro-LGBTQ — achieved. The criminal legal system needed to make a concession, so it sent Derek Chauvin to prison. In Texas alone, the tenures of police chiefs in Dallas, Austin and Houston all came to abrupt or bizarre ends in the wake of the protests. Nationally, one need only imagine how different January 6 or the election itself might have been for Donald Trump had the rebellion not defied him in the streets. More broadly, abolitionist politics became a popular, near hegemonic reference point in grassroots political culture, giving expression to a widespread sense that we must, indeed, “change everything.” Despite the sensationalized decline in the polled approval of “defund the police,” these same polls still suggest tens of millions of supporters and a base for unprecedented mass organizing in schools, communities, and workplaces. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes, the GOP’s disappointed hopes in crimewave politics during the midterms indicate BLM’s political reserves are stronger than appearances might suggest.

The movement’s infectious energy in 2020, briefly bearing witness to strike action by professional athletes and graduate workers, would continue to filter into workplaces long after the streets emptied. In George Floyd’s hometown, “No Justice, No Peace” became “No Justice, No Rent” in Houston’s first rent strike in decades the following spring. But nationally, it is perhaps no coincidence that the labor movement of a young, queer and multiracial working class after the BLM Summer has shown the most exciting activity and equally contagious organizing advances in decades. After the BLM-inspired attempt to organize Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse began in 2020, the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island stands as a beacon of solidarity and inspiration today. In Houston, two years after Starbucks fired a barista for writing “Defund the Police” on a coffee order, Starbucks workers in the city, like their counterparts across the country, won their first union election earlier this summer with another on the way.

Further traces, of course, abound: the BLM-inspired Stripper Strike in Portland, the fight against private police at Johns Hopkins University; Justice for Keith Davis Jr. and Tyrone West in Baltimore, for Jayland Walker in Akron, for Donovan Lewis in Columbus and for Paris Moore in Chicago; successful ballot initiatives against prison slavery in Alabama, Tennessee, Oregon and Vermont; the profusion of BLM murals reclaiming and repurposing public space in cities, and more. While these efforts remain precarious against the growing profile of the far right, they also suggest popular desires, mass constituencies and mobile elements for a new left that could defeat it permanently.

In this way, the summer’s unfinished uprising may still exist but, in the words of Robin D.G. Kelley, as a “love letter,” one that has made available new visions of life and liberation. The kind of devotion those visions once inspired in the ‘60s, the late Mike Davis noted, grounded lifelong fidelity to radical social change. Fidelity to our own moment might mean championing the racial justice campaigns of families like Jalen Randle’s as vigorously as socialists once defended the Scottsboro Boys. It might mean building alliances and shared agendas between such struggles and the new forces of change in workplaces today. It might mean finding and activating those millions of BLM rebels, described by Davis two years later as political “orphans,” having gone through the experience of an uprising but not further organizing equal to it. It might mean returning to what could have been two years ago when a radical mass movement made so much more possible — a new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a new vision of politics, of each other — and acting accordingly. If justice is love’s public expression, as Cornel West observes, then Randle’s words are indeed meant for us all: “If you love someone, you keep fighting.”