Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
Ferguson: The Real Face of Racist Capitalist America
Break with the Democrats!
Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by cop Darren Wilson on August 9 was met with demonstrations of anger in cities across the country. The utter racist contempt in which the cops hold black people was evident to everyone who saw the events in Ferguson. Everything the cops did was a calculated provocation. The young man’s body was left to lie in the hot sun for hours, not unlike the bodies of lynching victims left to hang from trees. When Brown’s friends and family left flowers and candles at the spot where he was killed, the cops tried to drive mourners away. One cop let his dog piss on the makeshift memorial, which police vehicles later drove over.
When people took to the town streets in protest, cops pointed guns in their faces and fired volleys of tear gas and wooden and rubber bullets. Hundreds of people from the broader St. Louis area and across the country piled in to Ferguson to express their outrage and their solidarity with the besieged community. Imposing a curfew and whipping up hysteria over “outside agitators” allowed the police to further ramp up the repression. Over 200 were arrested, most for failing to disperse, and many were injured. Meanwhile, Brown’s killer remains suspended with pay, i.e., on a paid vacation.
“It’s either stand up or die.” This statement by one protester gave voice to the fury over the daily reality of cop terror faced especially by black people in racist capitalist America. Just the most recent victims of police killings include: Eric Garner, killed by a police choke hold in Staten Island on July 17; John Crawford, gunned down on August 5 in an Ohio Wal-Mart because he was holding an air gun he had picked up off a shelf; Ezell Ford, shot dead by the LAPD on August 11 while complying with police instructions to lie on the ground; Dillon Delbert Taylor, an unarmed 20-year-old white man, gunned down by a Salt Lake City cop on the same day; Kajieme Powell, a mentally disturbed black man killed by St. Louis cops in a hail of a dozen bullets on August 19. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement produced a report last year listing 313 black people killed in 2012 by cops, security guards or vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin. That works out to one life snuffed out every 28 hours.
Reporters from Workers Vanguard attended an August 22 press conference in St. Louis, where young activists who had been participating in the Ferguson protests spoke of their bitter experiences with the cops, something shared by black youth throughout the country. If you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will be pulled over by the police and forced to “play Twister” on the hood of the car. You can be arrested or given a ticket for not showing your license or insurance fast enough. You can get hit with a warrant for outstanding tickets you never knew about.
Beneath the raw, bleeding abscess of police brutality, there is the slower destruction of the lives of black youth caused by capitalist economic decay. Having let industry rot while waging a one-sided class war against unions, the ruling class deems much of the black population to be surplus, no longer even needed as the “last hired, first fired.” If not gunned down in the streets, many are hauled off to prison. This mass incarceration is largely the result of the “war on drugs,” which Jesse Jackson and other black Democrats once fervently pushed.
The systematic oppression of black people, rooted in the economic foundations of American capitalism, is a legacy of slavery and the defeat of Reconstruction that followed the smashing of slavery in the Civil War. After the Great Migration that began during World War I, millions of black workers were integrated into the industrial economy in the Northern cities. However, the black population remained forcibly segregated at the bottom of society, constituting a race-color caste.
Despite widespread deindustrialization in recent decades, concentrations of organized labor, including a significant component of black workers, do exist. Those workers embody the possibility of fusing the power of labor with the anger of the dispossessed black masses. This requires breaking labor’s political chains to the capitalist Democratic Party, whose representatives came to Ferguson to douse the fires by urging a turn to the ballot box and preaching various empty “police reform” schemes.
The working class is the only force with the social power and class interest to do away with this rotten capitalist system and its racist police guard dogs. Because it is ingrained in the capitalist economy and every social institution in this country, racial oppression cannot be smashed without a thoroughgoing socialist revolution. In turn, the fight for black freedom must be emblazoned on labor’s banner if the working class is ever going to emancipate itself.
Democrats Move In
Working to defuse the situation in Ferguson, Barack Obama promised that Attorney General Eric Holder would head up an investigation into Michael Brown’s death. One young speaker at the August 22 press conference observed that the black president and attorney general only took notice of Ferguson after hearing about “the looting and the rioting.” Many who participated in the protests hope the federal investigation will be more than a whitewash, but also know that’s likely what it’s going to be. In fact, the whole purpose of any investigation is to refurbish the illusion that the capitalist government gives a damn about black people.
Earlier, black Democratic Party politicos like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson had arrived in Ferguson to put a lid on the protests. Sharpton, the featured speaker at Michael Brown’s funeral, used his sermon to attack the protesters and black youth in general. Bellowing, “we are not anti-police, we respect police,” Sharpton blamed black people for their own oppression, with bigoted claptrap about not being “a gangster or a thug” or engaging in “ghetto pity parties”!
Protesters from Ferguson made clear that they were fed up with being treated like animals by the lily-white police force and city administration. A “solution” Sharpton favors is hiring more black cops—as has been done in many cities in order to improve the effectiveness of the police in repressing the black population. So the authorities brought in black Missouri highway patrol captain Ron Johnson to be the “good cop.” But after hugging protesters and retailing anecdotes about his own son with tattoos and sagging pants, he enforced the city curfew and set the scene for the arrival of the National Guard.
Not everyone is buying the snake oil from Sharpton. But the same bourgeois reform politics have been served up by others in a different guise. One of the groups organizing black youth around the protests in the St. Louis area was the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS). While the OBS pays lip service to “the creation of a society free of all forms of exploitation and oppression,” its activity has centered on appeals to the White House to conduct a thorough investigation of the local police. Such pressure politics end up channeling black anger right back into the fold of the Democratic Party.
Another group active in the Ferguson protests was the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), whose members posture as more militant and were gone after by the cops. But the August 18 statement issued by the RCP neatly illustrates the contradiction between their anti-system verbiage and the actual content of their demands. It declaims: “We stand with the angry ones, the rebellious ones, the ones who will not take it.” Fine, but what do they propose? The RCP writes that Darren Wilson, “this murdering pig, must be charged and taken into custody. NOW!”
So the “revolutionary” RCP is fighting for...a good prosecutor to get rid of the bad cop! With this rehash of what Sharpton has to say about “bad apples” on the police force, the RCP sows dangerous illusions in the armed bodies at the core of the capitalist state. The truth is that murderous brutality is inherent to the job of the cops, which is to defend the ruling class by suppressing workers, blacks, immigrants and all other victims of capitalism’s ravages. And with greater social inequality that violence is all the more pronounced.
In Ferguson, police trained laser sights on activists and rolled out heavy hardware to intimidate protesters. As local musician Tef Poe put it: “I never imagined that a neighborhood I drove up and down as a teenager would resemble Gaza.” And in fact, the display of military-grade equipment presented the government with an image problem.
An article in the London Economist (23 August) set out the view that “smarter policing” would make “rioting” less likely. It continued: “A Pentagon programme that gives surplus military hardware to local law-enforcement agencies can make them seem like occupying armies rather than public servants. That is both costly and counterproductive.” Even this organ of finance capital recognizes that there is something irrational in such an arrangement. So now Commander-in-Chief Obama piously laments the blurring of the lines between “our military and our local law enforcement,” undoubtedly with the midterm elections in mind.
Many liberal reformers are demanding an end to the Pentagon program providing weaponry to the cops, instead preferring old-school police methods. Let’s be clear: the cops didn’t need special weapons to kill Michael Brown, just as the NYPD didn’t need any when they choked Eric Garner to death. As it happens, the Ferguson police department purchased its assault rifles and other weapons without recourse to the Pentagon program. The bourgeoisie will always ensure that its hired guns get what they need to crush “unrest,” including backup from the National Guard and ultimately the Army if necessary. The cops have acted and will act like an army of occupation in minority and poor communities, until workers seize power and sweep away the entire apparatus of the capitalist state.
Labor Must Fight Racial Oppression
The St. Louis area is a crossroads between North and South. Majority black Ferguson is one of a myriad of suburban hamlets a few miles from downtown St. Louis. Whites and more middle-class blacks live on its west side, while the population of the east side is more black and working-class, all ruled over by a white local government.
Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and many trade unionists participated in the Ferguson protests as individuals. The St. Louis Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and SEIU health care workers marched with union banners. However, these contingents were mobilized in lockstep with the Democrats and preachers who sought to divert protest into avenues acceptable to the capitalist rulers.
This country’s history has shown over and over again that the struggles of black people and labor go forward together or fall back separately. This was illustrated in the building of the industrial unions in the 1930s. To overcome the crippling ethnic and craft divisions among workers and the exclusion of most unskilled workers from the unions, it was necessary to wage war against the color bar. Trotskyists, Communists and other reds led several of the key class battles that forged the CIO industrial unions (see “Then and Now,” page 6). As part of the CIO organizing drive, thousands of workers in St. Louis joined the UE electrical workers union. In 1937, a 53-day sitdown strike at Emerson Electric was victorious, sparking strikes involving black and white workers at several other factories. These strikes drew on multiracial support from the broader community, including a campaign that forced the St. Louis relief board to pay relief (welfare) to the strikers.
The notion of workers collectively engaging in hard struggle in their own interests, much less in those of the black masses, may come off as fantastical today. Responsibility for this lies mainly with the conservative bureaucrats atop the labor movement, who have sapped workers’ fighting spirit by allowing the unions to be eviscerated while barely lifting a finger in defense of minorities. The whole perspective of the labor tops is predicated on the lie that the working class and the owners of industry share a common interest in the profitability of American capitalism. By refusing to actively fight against anti-black racism, repression and anti-immigrant bigotry, labor misleaders have criminally aided the rulers in weakening and dividing the working class. With a class-struggle leadership, the unions could become battalions of labor, fighting for jobs for all and against every manifestation of oppression.
The Fight for Black Liberation
Liberals and Democratic politicians are fond of urging young people today to take the path of the 1950s-’60s civil rights movement, by which they mean respect for bourgeois law and its enforcers and the strategy of operating within the system, especially through the ballot box. The black middle-class leadership of the civil rights movement, epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., subordinated the fight for black rights to Democratic Party liberalism. The mass struggles succeeded in dismantling the Jim Crow system of legal segregation and passing voting rights legislation (today under steady attack). The smug racist and anti-Communist consensus of the 1950s was broken down, and the door opened for the protests against the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam.
But in the North, the liberal formula for equal rights under the law provided no answers to the miserable conditions of black life entrenched in American capitalist society: joblessness, crumbling homes, overcrowded schools, racist cop terror, etc. Following the elemental ghetto rebellions that exploded in the 1960s, a slew of black mayors and other officeholders were elected in order to more effectively enforce poverty and repression. The upheavals also convinced the rulers to fund more social programs to pacify the ghettos, before going on to slash such programs in subsequent decades.
Today, those who aspire to be new liberal civil rights leaders have no better answers than their forebears. Special prosecutors, police review boards, investigations by Holder, a “review” by Obama of police weaponry and training are all about cleaning up the image of U.S. capitalism’s racist machinery of repression. The Democrats only want to mobilize black people as voting cattle for the umpteenth time. Tellingly, the NAACP has announced a door-to-door voter registration campaign, with the macabre slogan: “Mike Brown Can’t Vote, But I Can.”
The Democratic Party is a political vehicle for the tiny elite that profits from the exploitation of workers and lords over the oppression of blacks. What is required is a new party based on the needs of working people, a revolutionary workers party. Fighting to build such a party, our organization stands on the program of revolutionary integrationism, which means combating all aspects of racial oppression as part of the fight for an egalitarian socialist order—the only way to achieve real equality. For black liberation through socialist revolution!