The ugly face of Obama's “hope we can believe in” has been starkly revealed. The extrajudicial killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, all unarmed black males killed by white police officers, have set off an emotional firestorm of protests and outrage on a scale not seen in the US in many years. Even more than the deaths themselves, it was the refusal of two separate grand juries to indict the police who killed Brown and Garner that pushed things over the edge. In particular, the video of the murder of Garner, choked to death as he begged police to stop with cries of, “I can’t breathe!” has shocked Americans and the world.
The response has been spontaneous, global, and organic, with tens of thousands of people from virtually every ethnic and cultural background participating in everything from silent “die-ins” to school walk-outs; from mass vigils to winding marches through city centers; from the occupation of highways and major intersections to individuals passionately yelling “black lives matter!” in busy public spaces.
Everyone from the homeless, to recent immigrants, construction workers, nurses, as well as entire faculties of medical and law students have organized and mobilized around this question. Even NBA and NFL players and other celebrities have expressed their solidarity. Many protesters have also connected these killings with the state’s brutality and collusion with drug cartels in Mexico, with protests in solidarity with Ferguson and Ayotzinapa overlapping in the last few weeks.
With the advent of social media, videos of police shootings and abuse are now widely available and the lie that the police are here to “serve and protect” has been exposed. Mainstream media coverage has, predictably, shifted from a somewhat more honest portrayal of the initial facts and public response, to a sensationalized focus on the most violent handfuls of window-smashing anarchists and police provocateurs. But there is far more to this movement than letting off steam and damaging a few cop cars. What we are witnessing is the early beginnings of a tide change in awareness of the real class interests and balance of forces in American society.
In the past, the KKK was a big force in the US, with points of support from the small-town South to the White House. It not only terrorized racial and ethnic minorities and their defenders, but regularly held mass, pro-racist rallies. Even just a few years ago, racial tensions tended to degenerate into polarized, elemental “race riots,” with looting and fighting between blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others. The response to this latest contemptible travesty of so-called bourgeois justice has been something altogether different. It represents the emergence of a new wave of united working class and youth action and solidarity, albeit at an embryonic, individual, and uncoordinated level. Reflecting the ever-greater integration and concentration of the economy, changing demographics, and increased access to culture and media, attitudes towards race have shifted dramatically over the last few years. Not only has a black president been elected, but it will be far more difficult for the ruling class to crassly play “the race card” and set the working class scrapping at each other’s throats in the future.
Without a clear lead given by the labor leaders on this or any other issue of vital importance to the working class, necessity has expressed itself through accident and made its way to the surface through this channel. The indignation over the unremitting racism and abuse has tapped into a deep reserve of frustration. Millions of Americans, and particularly the youth, have long felt impotent in the face of social and economic powers seemingly beyond their control. Tens of thousands of people who were previously “apathetic” or “apolitical” have now been explosively awakened to political consciousness. Illusions in the impartiality of the US justice system or in an allegedly “post-racial” America have been burst.
While the movement has no real leadership or clear demands, and is limited mostly to raw anti-racist solidarity and anger against police brutality, it nonetheless marks a qualitative change. Along with events such as the uprising in Wisconsin and Occupy, it is yet another important nodal point in the transformation of Americans’ consciousness. More and more people are drawing the conclusion that the problems we face have deep roots that cannot merely be ignored or willed away.
The United States has a long and sordid history of racism and state brutality. From the differential treatment of black and white rebels after Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, to the hanging, flaying, beheading, and quartering of Nat Turner following his failed slave uprising in 1831; from the police dogs set on peaceful marchers in Birmingham in 1963, to the police bombing of MOVE activists in Philadelphia in 1985; from the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, to the cold-blooded murder in 1999 of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot 19 times by the NYPD; the bloody thread of repression and horror can be traced back for centuries and continues on a daily basis.
According to the FBI’s own figures, there are over 400 “justifiable homicides” each year involving the police killing citizens. As these figures depend on self-reporting by the police departments themselves, the number of deaths and incidents of police violence while suspects are in custody is likely much higher. The Wall Street Journal recently investigated officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation's 110 largest police departments, and found that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters. USC criminologist Geoff Alpert has pointed out that around 98.9% of excessive force allegations are ultimately ruled as justified. Even the US Department of Justice, a key component of the state apparatus, has concluded that police departments in Albuquerque and Cleveland “engage in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
Although legalized discrimination and segregation were formally ended through mass struggles in the past, crushing racial disparity continues in practice. It can be seen in poverty levels, access to health care, housing, and education, incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and overall quality of life and expectancy. But it is perhaps most outrageous when it comes to the use of police violence. White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States—an average of 96 times a year. According to ProPublica, young black males are 21 times as likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts. “The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” In Ferguson, 92% of all people arrested in 2013 were black, although the overall population is 65% black.
Little wonder that whites are twice as likely as blacks to say they have confidence that their local police will treat blacks and whites equally (74% vs. 37%). Latinos, who are also victims of discrimination and racial profiling, had a similar view, with just 45% confident in the lack of bias of their local police. It would seem that the relationship between race or ethnicity and police violence is incontrovertible.
However, as with any multifaceted phenomenon, it is not quite so straightforward. A 2003 study found that the use of police violence can chiefly be tied to whether or not a neighborhood is “economically distressed.” I.e., the higher the poverty, the higher the crime, the higher the rate of police violence, no matter what racial demographic predominates in a particular area. As institutional discrimination means blacks and Latinos are generally more concentrated in poorer areas, a cycle of crime, racism, and police brutality is perpetuated.
The racism of the police is therefore not merely an ideological construction, the result of “bad people,” “bad will,” or “bad ideas.” Rather, it reflects a deeper objective reality. Social being determines social consciousness. Scarcity leads to a struggle over limited resources. Those who have the bulk of the wealth are in a minority, and must therefore hire a force able and willing to unleash devastating viciousness against the majority in order to “keep them in line.” But sheer violence is not sufficient. Other, far more subtle means must also be employed. The development of a system of skin-color-based discrimination during the rise of capitalism and the revival of chattel slavery became an indispensable weapon in the “divide and rule” arsenal of the capitalists. By getting the exploited and oppressed to fight each other over scraps, attention can be drawn away from the real relations of wealth and power in society.
It is the structural racism of the capitalist system that leads to a racist outlook and ideology—not the other way around. There's no question that there is a heavily racist component in the targeting, degree, and frequency of police brutality. Marxists do not reduce this or any other complex social phenomenon “only” and mechanically to class. But in the final analysis, if there were no classes, there would be no need for police, and without police, no police brutality. Only in a society of superabundance, in which there is no scarcity, and therefore nothing life and death to fight over, will people's prejudices begin to melt away. This is why Marxists continually explain that there is no lasting antidote to the venom of racism within the limits of capitalism, which has tailored and compartmentalized this society to benefit the rule of the bourgeoisie.
This does not mean that we must passively wait for socialism before we combat racism and police brutality. On the contrary! It is precisely during the process of the socialist revolution, which will combine political and economic struggles against the bosses, as well as against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and all forms of discrimination and oppression, that the necessary class unity to win will be forged. Only through common struggle against our common oppressors will the majority of workers fully understand that we have much in common with each other, and nothing in common with the bosses.
The working class can fight back and win
Only united and militant working class struggle can fight and defeat the might of the bosses. Many of the Black Panthers, along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, were drawing the same conclusion. Before he was murdered in cold blood by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, Fred Hampton summed it up as follows:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”
Given its position in society—organizing millions of workers in key industries within its ranks—the labor movement must be at the forefront of this struggle. Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. The current labor leaders’ policy of class collaboration leads them to pay only tepid lip service to this decisive question, when what is required is mass mobilization of the union rank and file on the streets, large-scale unionization drives, massive educational campaigns to root out racism in the workers’ organizations, strikes, general strikes, and the creation of a mass party of labor to fight the bosses politically. Nonetheless, even these token appeals for unity are a step forward from the past, when many unions were on the front lines of enforcing Jim Crow on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
We should also not lose sight of the fact that the increased militarization of the police is an expression of the weakness, not the strength of the bourgeois state. They must resort to naked, raw force and intimidation, as the economic carrots they dangled before the workers for decades after World War II are no longer available.
Laying the foundations for the future
The scandalous decisions not to indict the police involved in murdering Mike Brown and Eric Garner have brought people out on the streets in a way we haven't seen in the US quite some time. For many people, the realization that there is persistent racial, gender and other forms of discrimination, and that this is a systemic component of capitalism, is an important first step towards arriving at a more fully developed class consciousness. Political awakening around these issues is in many ways the "outer shell of an immature Bolshevism," to paraphrase Trotsky's characterization of the nationalism of the workers of the oppressed national minorities in tsarist Russia (versus the nationalism of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois).
The recent wave of multiracial protests and solidarity clearly marks another turning point in the polarization of US society—polarization, above all, along class lines—and not racial lines, as was more the case in decades past. But contrary to what many well-meaning activists believe, in their impatient desperation to "do something,” the main task of the Marxists is not to "build the movement." The worldwide outpouring of protest is ample proof that when conditions are ripe, movements will emerge as a result of the inner contradictions and dynamics of the system itself. But as Sam Adams once said—and he knew a thing or two about revolution—“our business is not to make events, but to wisely improve them.”
So while the US Marxists have participated in dozens of these protests, spoken at several, and even organized a handful, our primary task at the present time is to "patiently explain" and to connect with those seeking an explanation and longer-term perspective for how we can collectively change the system once and for all. Without serious organization and a clear set of demands linked to the broader issues facing the working class and youth—such as jobs, higher wages, indebtedness, healthcare, and education—the movement will inevitably tend to dissipate. However, all of these problems will remain, which will only generate more and even larger movements in the future.
Accepting that this poison can never be eliminated within the limits of this system is actually quite a big step to take, and not one most people take lightly. For if you follow your convictions to their logical conclusion, it means taking action to actually do something about it. As the saying goes, "if you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." It is the task of the Marxists to help people draw these revolutionary conclusions.
Experience shows that it is often only after a movement ebbs that we can enter into serious dialogue with the most far-sighted and self-sacrificing individuals, those who have gone through or keenly observed the experience, but are left wanting something more substantial. It will not be linear or automatic, but by participating in this and similar movements in the months and years ahead, we will win many new comrades to the banner of revolutionary Marxism, socialism, and the IMT.