Workers Vanguard No. 1058
12 December 2014
Police Reform Is a Hustle
Racist Cop Terror and the Fraud of Capitalist Democracy
Over 150 years later, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s 1857 ruling denying black slave Dred Scott’s petition for freedom echoes across America: black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Little more than a week after the cop who executed Michael Brown was given a free pass, a Staten Island grand jury decided that the New York City cop who killed Eric Garner had committed no crime. Among Garner’s last words were “it stops today.” But it didn’t, and it won’t short of getting rid of capitalism: an economic and social system rooted in brutal exploitation and racist oppression. It is this system, not “the people,” that the cops serve and protect.
Following the standard racist script, the St. Louis County prosecutor portrayed an unarmed black youth, Michael Brown, as a violent, lawless predator and his police killer as the victim. That wasn’t so easy in the killing of Garner. Countless millions saw the video of him pleading for his life while he was being strangled to death. Even some Republican Party leaders who usually revel in racist contempt for black people are now calling for a congressional investigation. Such is a measure of the difficulties the ruling class is having in preserving the narrative that the cops are defending society against dangerous “outlaws.”
This country’s rulers, a minuscule, ruthless class, are very well aware that they are sitting on top of a tinder pile of discontent that could be ignited by the spark of social protest. They own the banks and major industries, producing nothing themselves but reaping massive profits by further grinding down those still lucky enough to have a job while axing social programs for the rest. In order to keep in check the workers they exploit and the black people and other minorities they oppress, the capitalist class unleashes its repressive state apparatus—cops, courts, prisons and military—whose powers it is augmenting. Such is as clear as the assault rifles of the National Guard troops mobilized to put down protest in Ferguson. At the same time, the ruling class seeks to disguise what is the dictatorship of capital with the trappings of democracy and the illusion that the capitalist state is some kind of neutral body that represents everyone.
A popular protest slogan has been “black lives matter.” But not for the rulers of this class-divided society, built on a bedrock of racist oppression, from chattel slavery to wage slavery. Black people, forcibly segregated as a race-color caste at the bottom of society, have always been overrepresented in America’s reserve army of the unemployed, filling less desirable jobs when needed and cast aside in times of economic downturn. With the deindustrialization of much of the country, many black youth have simply been discarded as an expendable surplus population left to scramble to survive, to get gunned down by cops or to rot in America’s dungeons.
But there are still significant numbers of black workers in strategic industries who will be instrumental in any fight to put an end to this racist capitalist hell. The power of the working class is derived from its central role in production; by withholding their labor, workers can cut off the flow of profits, the capitalists’ lifeblood. The capitalist masters have long fomented racial antagonisms to divide workers and weaken their struggles against the bosses, not least by obscuring the fundamental class divide between labor as a whole and its exploiters.
and Body Cameras
The Democratic Party, originally the party of the slavocracy, has for decades been the U.S. bourgeoisie’s preferred instrument for trying to douse the flames of protest and channel anger over cop terror back into the capitalist “justice” system. Now Attorney General Eric Holder claims to be carrying out a “rigorous and independent” civil rights investigation into the killing of Michael Brown. Truth be told, Holder & Co. reserve their true rigor for those who have exposed U.S. imperialism’s dirty wars, drone attacks and torture chambers filled with non-white people. Chelsea Manning is behind bars in a military prison for 35 years for this “crime.” Historically, the Feds have set up leftists and black militants for intimidation and terror, most notoriously through the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, which killed 38 Black Panthers beginning in the late 1960s.
Those who put faith in Holder’s civil rights investigations into the Brown or Garner cases should consider the Department of Justice inquiry into the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin: No charges have been brought against George Zimmerman, the wannabe cop who stalked Martin and shot him dead. Or consider the fact that two federal investigations of the Cleveland police department in the last decade did nothing to prevent a cop from gunning down 12-year-old Tamir Rice last month. On the very rare occasion the Feds do bring charges against a killer cop and obtain a conviction, such as with the NYPD officer who took the life of Anthony Baez in 1994, the outcome is a relative slap on the wrist. The police then go on brutalizing those at the bottom of society.
After denouncing the “criminal” violence of the protesters in Ferguson two weeks ago, President Barack Obama hosted a carefully orchestrated White House summit meeting of black Democrats, preachers, cops and a select handful of young activists who have organized protests against racist cop terror. The purpose was to reinforce illusions that this brutal system and its police guard dogs can be reformed. To this end, the president announced the formation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to build “trust” between the police and the communities they daily terrorize.
Among the appointed leaders of this task force is the commissioner of the Philadelphia police department, one of the most notoriously racist and corrupt in the land. In 1985, the Philly cops dropped a bomb supplied by the FBI on the mainly black MOVE commune. Eleven black people, including five children, were killed and an entire black neighborhood burnt to the ground. Today, the Philadelphia police commissioner is a black man. So was the city’s Democratic mayor, Wilson Goode, at the time of the MOVE massacre.
A black man has sat in the Oval Office for the past six years and black life on the streets is as cheap as ever to the capitalist rulers. Obama’s sizable responsibility for this state of affairs is often excused by the claim that the Republicans in Congress have tied his hands. In fact, Obama has dutifully served Wall Street, acting as the black overseer for U.S. imperialism. Changing the skin color of the forces of state repression or their chief executives doesn’t change the class to which they are beholden.
Nor is the supply of Pentagon hand-me-downs from U.S. imperialism’s wars and occupations abroad to local police forces what makes the cops killers. To be sure, the armored personnel vehicles, helicopters and other high-tech weapons of war are deployed to intimidate and terrorize anyone “at home” perceived as stepping out of line. But like Michael Brown, most black people killed by cops are gunned down in the far more ordinary way, by a cop patrolling the neighborhood for “black suspects.” And Garner was strangled to death.
To quell the outrage over such blatant cop killings, NYC’s liberal Democratic Party mayor Bill de Blasio, working in coordination with the White House, promises to fast-track supplying the cops with body cameras. Why would anyone believe that such cameras will restrain the cops? A bystander videoing the police posse attacking Garner didn’t save his life, nor did it even lead to an indictment of the cop who choked him to death! But you can literally bet your life that the cops will have their cameras, and their guns, aimed right at you.
“A Nation of Laws”
The collective hypocritical howl against the “violence” of protesters emanating from bourgeois quarters after the Ferguson grand jury decision had Obama intoning, “We are a nation built on the rule of law.” The entire legal edifice of this country has always buttressed the rule of the property owners, including laws sanctifying chattel slavery. It took mass, militant struggle, more often than not met with violent resistance by the forces of capitalist repression, to smash such laws as the Jim Crow segregation codes and the bans on trade unions.
It took the Civil War—a revolutionary struggle in which 200,000 black troops, guns in hand, were crucial to turning the tide—to smash the rule of the slaveholders. The Northern capitalists, worried that the former slaves claiming even a small portion of the property of the plantations might give their wage slaves ideas, soon allied with the Southern propertied classes against the aspirations of the black freedmen. The promise of “40 acres and a mule” was scrapped, with political power in the Southern states restored to the major landowners.
The battles of the civil rights movement brought down the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South. This outcome was assisted by the Soviet Union’s exposures of the vicious racism in the South, which embarrassed a section of the U.S. bourgeoisie at a time when it claimed to be bringing democracy to black, brown and Asian peoples of the world. But while ending Jim Crow, the civil rights movement could not win black freedom because it never challenged the capitalist system to which black oppression is integral. In fact, liberal civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King looked to the representatives of this very system, particularly those in the Democratic Party, for redress.
From Harlem to Watts to Detroit, every ghetto upheaval in the 1960s provoked by police terror was an explosion of frustration and fury against relentless poverty, joblessness and dilapidated housing, schools and hospitals. Those conditions were and are interwoven into the economic and social structure of American capitalist society. There is no other road to eliminating the special oppression of black people than the victorious conquest of power by the U.S. proletariat. And there will be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black and white workers led by their multiracial vanguard party.
As we wrote in a document adopted at our founding conference in September 1966:
“For the last three summers ghettoes across the country have been rocked by elemental, spontaneous, non-political upheavals against the prevailing property relations and against the forces of the state which protect these relations.... Yet despite the vast energies expended and the casualties suffered, these outbreaks have changed nothing. This is a reflection of the urgent need for organizations of real struggle, which can organize and direct these energies toward conscious political objectives.”
—“Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,”
May-June 1967 (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9)
Today again the mass outrage against the cops needs an organized political expression. Not one that strengthens the hand of the Democrats, but one that mobilizes the oppressed in opposition to the capitalist rulers and their parties. A revolutionary workers party must be built to weld the social power of the multiracial labor movement, with its strategic component of black workers, to the anger of the ghetto masses.
By uniting in organizations representing their class interests, workers have been able to wrest concessions from the employers. The mass industrial unions were built in the 1930s through pitched battles with the bosses’ security guards, the cops and the National Guard. Black workers, who had been kept out of the lily-white craft unions, were brought into these battles, many of which were led by avowed socialists. Fighting with courage and determination, they wrote a proud page in the history of labor and black struggle in this country.
But short of a revolutionary struggle by the working class to reclaim the fruits of its labor through expropriating the property of the capitalist enemy, these victories still only brought a brief respite in the ongoing class war between the workers and their exploiters. Given that labor has for decades taken a beating in that war, and been mobilized less and less in action, waging such a struggle will take a big leap in consciousness and organization. It will take a fight to replace the current misleaders of the unions who have, for so long now, chained workers to the profitability of American capitalism.
To Fight for a Future Requires Learning from the Past
In an inchoate way, the boos that greeted Jesse Jackson when he went to Ferguson in August to try to corral protesters behind calls to “get out the vote” in the November midterm elections were a recognition that only a thin layer of black people benefited from the civil rights movement. A lyric from St. Louis rapper Tef Poe, “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement,” has been a refrain of some young black activists in Ferguson. But unless you learn the lessons of previous generations, including of those who challenged MLK’s “turn the other cheek” pacifism and Democratic Party liberalism, you can easily be doomed to the same political dead end.
The civil rights movement was far from homogeneous. Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initially accepted MLK’s strategy as good coin, its militant young activists were not committed to nonviolence as a principle. In 1966, after being arrested for the 27th time, the 24-year-old SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael defiantly said: “I ain’t going to jail no more.” Renouncing the credo of nonviolence, Carmichael raised the call for “black power.”
In its own way, this call reflected an attempt to grasp for solutions outside the framework of U.S. capitalist society. But as we warned in “Black and Red”: “The slogan ‘black power’ must be clearly defined in class, not racial terms, for otherwise the ‘black power’ movement may become the black wing of the Democratic Party in the South.” This is exactly what happened. A case in point is Georgia’s longtime Democratic Congressman John Lewis, who was a radical SNCC leader in the 1960s.
The potential to co-opt these militants was recognized by Republican Richard Nixon, who in his 1968 presidential campaign defended the call for black power as an expression of wanting a seat at the table “as owners, as entrepreneurs—to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action.” Although black people never got any significant share of the wealth or the real power in this society, the Black Power movement ultimately became a ticket for propelling a few black faces into high places such as big city mayors, whose job was to keep the black masses down.
In the late ’60s, the Black Panthers courageously stood up to the racist ruling class and its kill-crazy cops. Both the Panthers’ glorification of ghetto rage and their rejection of the organized working class as the agent of black freedom and socialist revolution left them more vulnerable to murderous state repression. They ran up against a systematic government campaign of assassination, provocations, frame-ups and imprisonment aimed at beheading the black struggle. In the end, the Panthers could only alternate between heroic adventurism, with its bitter consequences, and appeals to the liberal establishment. Many of the Panthers who were not simply killed or locked away eventually made their way to the Democratic Party.
Unchain Labor/Black Power!
Among those invited to Obama’s recent summit on Ferguson and the police was Ashley Yates of Millenial Activists United, an organization of young black women who were on the frontlines of the Ferguson protests. She explained her views in an interview:
“We are the generation that was ignited by Trayvon Martin’s murder and placed our faith in a justice system that failed us in a very public and intentional manner. Most of us were raised by parents that inherited the fruits of labor from the Civil Rights movement. They were placated, in a sense, by the stories of a reality that no longer seemed an issue for them. So as we navigate a society where those realities of segregation and oppression are supposed to be far behind us, yet are more present than ever before in our lives, we say no more. We are the descendants of those who already fought for these freedoms and we will not let their sacrifices, blood, sweat and tears be swept away.”
—thefeministwire.com, 3 October
Such young activists, for all their defiance, are going down the same blind alleys: lobbying for a federal investigation, grasping at the illusion of making the police accountable to the community, getting out the vote. It is small wonder these activists see no alternative, as the only force that can actually provide a way forward, the integrated labor movement, has been shackled by its pro-capitalist misleaders.
At the September convention of the Missouri AFL-CIO, the labor federation’s president, Richard Trumka, delivered a sometimes eloquent speech on the need for the labor movement to address the reality of racism. Pointing to the 1917 anti-black riots in East St. Louis in which racist mobs killed up to 200 black people and drove black workers out of industry to make room for white World War I veterans, Trumka recalled the words of Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs that the riots were “a foul blot upon the American labor movement.”
Today’s “foul blot” on organized labor is the fact that it includes the very racist killer cops who are taking black lives on a near-daily basis! Indeed, Trumka began his speech by decrying the tragedy that a union “brother”—that is, Ferguson cop Darren Wilson—killed a “sister’s son.” Michael Brown’s mother is a member of an AFL-CIO affiliate, the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Back in the days of the struggles that built the industrial unions, the police weren’t seen as “brothers.” On the contrary, they were correctly recognized as the armed enforcers of the bosses’ interests against the workers. The reason was obvious: the police were beating and shooting, often killing, strikers. Now, when unions even talk of participating in protests against police violence, their “union brothers” threaten retaliation. The NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association did so when the 1199SEIU union and the United Federation of Teachers said they were going to march in a Staten Island demonstration in August. In response, the SEIU tops distributed some signs that read: “Support NYPD. Stop Police Brutality.”
As is the case in many cities, the Greater St. Louis Labor Council has welcomed the local police “union” into its fold. Not surprisingly, far from taking up the fight against police terror, area unions have by and large not mobilized for the protests in Ferguson. The cops are sworn enemies of labor and have no place in the union movement. That the labor misleaders embrace the bosses’ thugs—the cops, prison guards and other armed security forces—is simply one of the more grotesque examples of their traitorous role as the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.
As we wrote in the 1978 preface to Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised) “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”:
“Unlike chattel slavery, wage slavery has placed in the hands of black workers the objective conditions for successful revolt. But this revolt will be successful only if it takes as its target the system of class exploitation, the common enemy of black and white workers. The struggle to win black activists to a proletarian perspective is intimately linked to the fight for a new, multiracial class-struggle leadership of organized labor which can transform the trade unions into a key weapon in the battle against racial oppression. Such a leadership must break the grip of the Democratic Party upon both organized labor and the black masses through the fight for working-class political independence. As black workers, the most combative element within the U.S. working class, are won to the cause and party of proletarian revolution, they will be in the front ranks of this class-struggle leadership. And it will be these black proletarian fighters who will write the finest pages of ‘black history’—the struggle to smash racist, imperialist America and open the road to real freedom for all mankind.”