Workers Vanguard No. 1067
1 May 2015
Walter Scott Gunned Down in Charleston
Racist Cop Terror: Time for Labor to Take a Stand
The widely viewed video images from North Charleston, South Carolina, are yet another grim reminder of the racist police terror that is a daily and deadly fact of life for the mass of the black population in capitalist America. A white cop pulled over 50-year-old Walter Scott on April 4, supposedly for driving with a faulty taillight. When Scott makes a break for it, Officer Michael Slager squeezes off eight shots in rapid succession. Hit five times from behind, Scott crumples to the ground, where he is handcuffed and left to die. Slager then plants his taser next to the body. A black cop, Clarence Habersham, arrives moments later and does nothing to save Scott’s life.
Walter Scott’s brother Rodney, a member of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, referred to Slager “using my brother for target practice.” This coldblooded execution, evocative of an overseer gunning down a runaway slave, is just one of many in the past year to have touched a raw nerve with black people across the country. Another is the gruesome killing of Freddie Gray, whose voice box was crushed and spinal cord almost completely severed by Baltimore police. As enforcers of a system rooted in ruthless exploitation and racial oppression, cops harass, brutalize and kill black and Latino people without stop and attack striking workers when they set up effective picket lines.
Hundreds of mourners attended Walter Scott’s funeral on April 11, and the NAACP and Black Lives Matter among others have held a series of rallies, vigils and meetings. In addition to Rodney, other relatives of Walter Scott are also members of ILA Local 1422, as are relatives of Denzel Curnell and Asberry Wylder, previous victims of trigger-happy Charleston-area cops. Local 1422 (whose membership is made up of black workers) has made its union hall available as an organizing center for protest, but to date has given no indication that it will call out its members.
In response to the killings of Scott and Gray, and the long roster of others whose lives have been snuffed out by the police, a clarion call for massive labor-centered protest should ring out. What is necessary is for the social power of the working class to be mobilized independently of the capitalist class enemy and its political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. If, say, Local 1422 were to place itself at the front of protest against police terror, it would draw in other unions and demonstrate the kind of muscle that could put the cops on notice. And in mobilizing under their own banners, workers could get a sense of their social power and gain confidence for the battles to come. Such an action would also drive home to workers everywhere that they have a vital interest in the fight against black oppression.
Longshoremen are in a position to show the way. The ILA in the “right to work” South is a bulwark of labor/black power, with an ability to cut off the flow of goods (and therefore profits) and a real authority in the broader black community. Today, any ILA action would resonate far beyond the waterfront. In a state where unionization is at rock bottom and poverty is rife, Local 1422 has admirably taken up important causes over the years. It has supplied its hall as a base, and its members as volunteers, for numerous union organizing efforts, including sanitation workers and port truckers, and other crucial struggles such as for immigrant rights.
But at the same time, the Local 1422 leadership has shied away from militant mobilizations of the union in its own name, not wanting to alienate false “friend of labor” Democrats, who no less than the Republicans build up the police and their repressive powers. In this vein, Local 1422 president Kenneth Riley pledged in an April 9 statement on the killing of Walter Scott that the union “will continue to work with community leaders and lawmakers throughout the State of South Carolina to prevent these types of tragedies from ever happening again.”
In response to an appeal from Local 1422 for solidarity from its allies in the workers movement, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in the Bay Area has announced it will stop work at the Port of Oakland on May Day to protest against the killer cops and will march to City Hall. This planned shutdown points to the kind of working-class action that is needed. But an independent demonstration of union power would have to be counterposed to support for Democrats and liberal police reform schemes. However, that is not the policy of the ILWU officialdom.
A similar Local 10 work stoppage was held in October 2010 to demand “justice for Oscar Grant,” who was shot dead by a BART transit cop on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland. At the rally associated with the port shutdown, left-talking union bureaucrats channeled anger over Grant’s killing into appeals for the capitalist state to “jail the killer cops.” Such demands lull the working class and black people into believing the illusion that the courts of the class enemy will punish its armed thugs.
Truth is, under capitalism, the role of the courts and prosecutors is to lock up the many victims of the marauding cops, not the other way around. According to an analysis by the Washington Post (April 11), among the thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police since 2005, only 54 officers were ever charged, with most of those later cleared or acquitted. No South Carolina cop has been convicted in the last five years. On the rare occasion an officer is found guilty, he almost always gets just a slap on the wrist, like Oscar Grant’s killer.
The reason is that the cops are the guard dogs of capitalist rule. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin put it: “Forming a professional caste of men trained in the practice of violence upon the poor, men who receive somewhat higher pay and the privileges that go with authority (to say nothing of ‘gratuities’), the police everywhere, in every republic, however democratic, where the bourgeoisie is in power, always remains the unfailing weapon, the chief support and protection of the bourgeoisie.”
At first, city and state officials all rushed to defend the North Charleston killer cop, who had shared a laugh over his “pumping” adrenaline with a senior officer as Scott bled out. But the video, recorded and given to the Scott family by witness Feidin Santana, caught out the cops in their lies, showing the taser being planted (and CPR not being administered). If this thug in blue had simply blown away his victim, he undoubtedly would still be in uniform, video or no. In response to the ensuing uproar, bourgeois politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, scrambled to shore up public trust in the forces of “law and order” by issuing empty condemnations of Slager. The filing of murder charges against Slager was intended to put matters to rest so the police could better go about their business.
As usual when the image of the police is in need of some repair, black preachers and Democratic Party hucksters like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson (who delivered a speech to a sizable crowd at the Local 1422 hall) showed up to push the lie that the racist killers can be transformed into something more benign. Things would be different, it is claimed, if there were more black cops in North Charleston, or if the Feds came in to clean up the racist police. More body cameras and national legislation on policing standards, we are told, would improve accountability. This is a lie: the cops will never be “accountable to the community.”
These so-called reforms would change nothing fundamental. Black cops (like Habersham) do the same job as their white counterparts. The federal government isn’t going to help—it oversees the whole plantation of racist American capitalism. Needless to say, cop abuse of the black masses remains pervasive where the Justice Department has intervened into municipal police departments, such as in Los Angeles and Cleveland. And the Obama administration gave a free pass to the killers of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. As for video, its proliferation in recent years has not slowed cop marauding in the slightest. Racist police brutality will not end short of the overthrow of the very capitalist system that cops “serve and protect.”
Labor Rights and Black Rights Go Hand in Hand
The cops run roughshod over the vast numbers of black people condemned to poverty and misery by a system that has no jobs to provide them. Many are swept up in the racist “war on drugs,” and more and more have fallen prey to the revived practice of imprisoning debtors, including Walter Scott who was ensnared in a cycle of unpaid child support, stints in jail and lost jobs. But the fundamental purpose of the machinery of state repression—the cops, the courts, the prisons—is to suppress the one force in this society that does have the social power, based on its role in production, to prevail against racist American capitalism: the multiracial working class.
ILA Local 1422 itself is no stranger to organized state violence. When picketing in January 2000 to stop a non-union operator from working a ship, unionists were met by an army of 600 municipal, county and state police clad in riot gear and backed with armored vehicles and helicopters. Firing tear gas, shock grenades and pellet bags, the cops waded into the union picket swinging long wooden clubs. The furious assault came only days after a Local 1422 contingent had participated in a 50,000-strong protest against the Confederate flag being flown atop the state capitol in Columbia.
Local 1422 backed down the union-busters, who returned the jobs to the ILA. The defiant stand of ILA members, a taste of the hard-fought class struggle by which the labor movement has won its major gains, inspired broad layers of the working class in South Carolina and beyond. The Charleston Five, arrested for defending their union that day, were saved from years in prison through a campaign of international labor solidarity.
There is an inseparable connection between the fight for the rights of labor and of black people. Today, the need for the revitalization of the labor movement is sharply posed. A key task is organizing the “open shop” bastion that is the South, where much of the country’s industry has shifted. This task is impossible without taking head-on the race-color caste oppression of black people that is a bedrock of the capitalist order in this country. Racism has proved invaluable to the capitalist rulers in dividing workers and weakening their struggles against the bosses.
ILA Local 1422 and South Carolina AFL-CIO officials are assisting the campaign by the IAM machinists union to organize the Boeing manufacturing facility in North Charleston. To date, the IAM bureaucrats have pursued an entirely legalistic, and losing, strategy. In the face of a vicious anti-union campaign by the company and bourgeois politicians (chief among them the union-hating Republican governor Nikki Haley), the IAM recently postponed its representation vote. A show of labor power in defense of the black population against unbridled police violence would breathe new life into the stalled organizing drive. If the union movement signaled in action that it would wage a fight in the interests of workers and the oppressed, it would inspire black and white workers alike to support the union organizing drive.
Mass pickets, occupations and solidarity strikes were the tools of the workers who built the CIO industrial unions in the 1930s, not just in the North. In fact, one of the most effective sit-down strikes of the period took place in Birmingham, Alabama. On Christmas Eve in 1936, black steel workers, led by two members of the Communist Party, struck the American Casting Company. The victory was a springboard to the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers Organizing Committee obtaining exclusive bargaining rights in the city’s steel industry five years later, even as the Birmingham police chief vowed to quash all strikes. The broader fight to organize the South was shipwrecked by the trade-union bureaucracy’s alliance with the Democrats, which in the South meant the racist Dixiecrats.
What the labor movement needs is a new, class-struggle leadership. Those sitting atop today’s unions are prostrate before the capitalist rulers. Their treachery to the working class is perhaps nowhere more evident than when they embrace cops, prison guards and other armed security forces as “union brothers.” These enemies of workers and black people are professional strikebreakers and the whip hand of the bosses. They have no place in the workers movement. Tellingly, the Fraternal Order of Police in the Charleston area vituperated against “professional race agitators” after the shooting of Walter Scott, and its Baltimore branch, fully backing the killers of Freddie Gray, denounced protesters as “a lynch mob.”
A genuine fight against police terror can only proceed from a standpoint of implacable opposition to the capitalists, their state and political parties. It must also entail an unwavering commitment to the fight against all aspects of black oppression, attacks on immigrants and every other manifestation of the tyranny and barbarity of this capitalist profit system. To lead this struggle requires the forging of a multiracial revolutionary workers party. Such a party would mobilize labor/black power in the workplace and on the streets not just against the latest outrage of capitalism but with the aim of putting an end to the reign of the capitalist exploiters. Socialist revolution will sweep aside the machinery of capitalist state terror and install in its place a workers government where those who labor rule, opening the road to freedom for all.