Workers Vanguard No. 1061
6 February 2015
Ferguson and the Feds
Another Whitewash of Cop Terror
Two days after Martin Luther King Day, the Feds put out the word: Justice Department lawyers would recommend that no charges be brought against the cop Darren Wilson for gunning down unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. The FBI investigation found “no evidence” that Brown’s civil rights had been violated! Although the Justice Department has not yet closed the case, the message is clear: a cop’s badge is a license to kill in capitalist America.
When Ferguson erupted in protest last summer, President Barack Obama sent his attorney general Eric Holder to cool things down with promises of a “rigorous and independent” civil rights investigation into Brown’s killing as well as a review of the town’s police department. The preachers, black Democrats and trade-union misleaders got on board, pushing illusions that federal oversight would clean up the Ferguson police. Ferguson activists in Hands Up United raised the demand for “Eric Holder to use the full resources and power of the Department of Justice to implement a nationwide investigation of systematic police brutality and harassment in black and brown communities.”
We warned in a leaflet issued soon after Brown’s killing:
“There should be no illusions in the Democrats or the federal government, which oversees this rotten system that the cops ‘serve and protect.’ The notion that the Feds will rein in racist local law enforcement is a lie. FBI agents have been embedded in the Ku Klux Klan and involved in heinous crimes, such as the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and the 1979 Greensboro massacre of leftists and union organizers. With many in Ferguson seeking redress from a Department of Justice investigation, we warn that Attorney General Eric Holder & Co. are the top cops who step in to get people off the streets with the promise that justice may come in the sweet by-and-by, at best enacting cosmetic reforms.”
—“Ferguson: The Real Face
of Racist Capitalist America,” reprinted in WV No. 1051,
5 September 2014
The purpose of federal investigations of the police has never been to rein in racist cop terror, which is a daily part of life for the black and Latino masses whether or not the Feds have been in town. In Cleveland, Ohio, last year, cops gunned down 12-year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a park and then threw his 14-year-old sister to the ground and cuffed her. This after two previous federal investigations of the city’s police. Indeed, the very purpose of a federal investigation is to defuse anger over police atrocities and prevent social explosions, keeping the system of capitalist exploitation running smoothly.
The law establishing the guidelines for federal civil rights investigations into local police departments was cooked up in 1991 after the sadistic beating of black motorist Rodney King by a gang of Los Angeles cops was broadcast on national television. In April 1992, a jury in state court acquitted the four officers who had actually gone to trial, and L.A. exploded. The federal government dispatched military troops, federal agents and Border Patrol officers against poor, black and Latino Los Angeles. Months later, the Feds also “investigated” whether King’s civil rights had been violated. Only two of the more than a dozen cops involved were convicted and they served short sentences.
It’s no accident that Obama’s nominee to replace Eric Holder, Brooklyn federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, flaunts her tough-on-crime credentials under the catchphrase “Nana’s going to jail.” The function of the Department of Justice—which includes the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons—is to spy on political activists, enforce the racist “war on drugs,” victimize militant trade unionists and run prisons. Calling on the top overseer of the whole plantation to protect black people from his local subordinates is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.
For protesters who have taken to the streets across the country, the unrelenting cop killings have posed the question: which way forward? Given that federal oversight, civilian review boards and body cameras have made no difference, some express frustration with the Obama administration. But these activists then argue for more militant tactics…to pressure the government to clean up the police and enact other reforms to alleviate the desperate conditions of black people in America. Militancy in pursuit of the same reformist program is no answer. It is necessary to break with the strategy of pressure politics. To end police brutality and racial oppression in America requires a class-struggle fight for socialist revolution.
Activists at “Reclaim MLK” protests around the King holiday were motivated by the belief that the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. has been co-opted by the political establishment. In reality, King was always a part of that establishment, a figure whose entire political career was based on brokering reforms from the Democratic Party of Kennedy and Johnson. King was the best representative of the petty-bourgeois black leaders who advocated a program of reliance on federal intervention against the Jim Crow South. This strategy reflected fear and loathing of the poor and more militant black masses, who were beginning to organize self-defense against racist terror as part of the struggle against segregation in all spheres of life: schools, transportation, lunch counters, housing (see “On Federal Troops in Little Rock,” page 2).
MLK pushed a pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek solution to corral those working-class blacks and courageous youth whose militancy was starting to escape the bounds of impotent pressure politics. And in response to the unorganized upheavals of the ghetto masses against police terror, such as occurred in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, King proclaimed: “It was necessary that as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them.” King’s utility to the Feds was immeasurable as an authoritative black leader whose message was to disarm, go slow, and love and trust the forces of capitalist state repression. (For more on King, see “Selma: The Movie and the Real Story,” WV No. 1060, 23 January.)
It is necessary to junk the myth pushed by liberals in the current anti-police brutality protests that there was a golden age of good neighborhood policing, which could be restored today through civilian review boards and federal oversight. Those good old days existed precisely never. In an article titled “Stop Kidding Yourself: The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People” (lawcha.org, 29 December 2014), Sam Mitrani, author of the book The Rise of the Chicago Police Department, describes how “the police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice.” Emerging out of the bloody battles between cops and strikers in the mid-to-late 19th century, police forces were created to protect capitalism “from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.” In the antebellum South, the predecessors of modern police forces were the slave patrols.
Nonetheless, Mitrani retails the liberal absurdity that “a democratic police system is imaginable—one in which police are elected by and accountable to the people they patrol.” The fact is that the cops’ job is to defend the capitalist order through the violent repression of those capitalism exploits and oppresses. In the U.S., where capitalism had its roots in the system of chattel slavery, this violence is especially directed at black people. The cops cannot be reformed or gotten rid of short of a socialist revolution that shatters the system of wage slavery that police forces were created to defend.
The International Socialist Organization and other reformist groups were movers and shakers behind “The Gathering,” an anti-police brutality conference in New York City on January 30, where the issue of police accountability got a lot of play. A Spartacist supporter argued from the floor at the conference plenary: “All this talk about community control or having negotiations with the cops or dialogue is defeatist and won’t go anywhere. The point is that there is a social force in society that can actually bring change, and that is the working class.” The union movement in this country was built through hard-fought strikes in which workers had to fend off cop attacks. The potential power is there. And black workers, with their ties to the ghetto masses, will form an important link between the struggle against wage slavery and the fight for black freedom.
Today, as black youth continue to fall victim to racist cop brutality across the country, the labor movement is on its knees, failing to defend the jobs and wages of its own members, much less champion the causes of the oppressed. Responsibility in no small part lies with the existing leadership of the unions, which has undermined labor’s struggles and sped its decline by pledging loyalty to the profit system and tying the unions to the capitalist Democratic Party. To turn this situation around requires a political struggle against all the forces that build illusions in the agencies of the capitalist government and bourgeois politicians. We seek to win militant youth and workers away from the dead end of pressure politics, to a revolutionary proletarian perspective.