Workers Vanguard No. 1068
15 May 2015
Break with the Democrats! For a Multiracial Workers Party!
Baltimore: Racist Cop Terror and Capitalist Decay
The filing of charges on May 1 against six Baltimore cops involved in the killing of Freddie Gray was aimed at putting a lid on the seething discontent of the majority black city, which had erupted in an elemental outpouring of rage four days earlier. The capitalist ruling class and its black Democratic Party frontmen got some blowback against their system of immiseration and racist cop terror; now they hope that things can go back to normal. But for most people in the inner-city slums of Baltimore, normal life means intolerable poverty, urban decay and state violence.
After Gray’s funeral on April 27, riot cops had swarmed into West Baltimore’s Mondawmin neighborhood. The cops blockaded roads and stopped buses as they corralled youth into the area of the Mondawmin Mall. Pent-up ghetto fury exploded in the face of these cop provocations. A few stores were trashed and a CVS pharmacy was burned. The state was quick to send in the National Guard and a curfew was imposed. We said: “National Guard out now! Down with the cops’ state of siege! Free all those arrested and drop all charges!” (“Black Baltimore’s Justified Rage,” WV No. 1067, 1 May).
The Guard has now been withdrawn, a portion of the nearly 500 arrested have been released and the curfew has been lifted for adults. (Baltimore still maintains one of the strictest youth curfews in the country—kids younger than 14 have to be indoors by 9 p.m.) However, charges are still pending against many and the Baltimore police threaten that those arrested and released could still face charges.
The disparity between the treatment of the perpetrators of cop terror and their victims was seen by the fact that the six cops were all immediately released on bail. In contrast, Allen Bullock, an 18-year-old protester who allegedly smashed a traffic cone through a police car’s windshield, was held in jail for nearly two weeks. It took his parents that long to raise the money for his bail, which was set at $500,000—higher than that for any of the killer cops.
Even though the six cops have been charged, it does not mean that they will end up behind bars. Killer cops are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely convicted; on April 20, the Chicago cop who killed Rekia Boyd in 2012 (the first cop in that city in more than 15 years to face charges in a fatal shooting) was let off. As we noted after the acquittal of four New York City cops who blew away African immigrant Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999: “By the standards of bourgeois legality, the cops were not guilty of any crime when they gunned down the 22-year-old unarmed black man. They were doing the job they are paid to do under racist capitalism” (WV No. 731, 10 March 2000).
That job also includes attacking the picket lines of striking workers, detaining immigrants, rounding up Muslims under the “war on terror” and targeting those who protest against the depravities of the capitalist profit system. It does not matter if the cops are black or white, have attended “sensitivity training” or wear body cameras. Indeed, three of the six cops who arrested Freddie Gray, took him for a “rough ride” in the back of their van and broke his neck were black.
The city filed charges to clean up appearances so that the police can better go about their business of repression. The cops’ masters in Washington also stepped in to help quell the flames of protest by announcing a federal investigation of the Baltimore police under the auspices of President Obama’s new attorney general, Loretta Lynch. From the White House on down, bourgeois politicians speak of the need to “rebuild trust” in law enforcement, worried that the illusion that the police “serve and protect” the population as a whole has become very threadbare. In fact, the purpose of the police, together with the courts, prisons and military at the core of the capitalist state, is to enforce the rule of the capitalist exploiters through the violent suppression of the working class, black people and all the oppressed.
The reformist left has done its part to spread the lie that the police can be made accountable to the “will of the people.” The International Socialist Organization among others repeats the call to “send the killer cops to jail,” channeling anger over cop terror right back into the very “justice” system that upholds state violence in every way. For its part, the Workers World Party ludicrously claims of Loretta Lynch, now top cop of U.S. capitalism: “The ruling class is trying to steer her in a pro-police direction” (workers.org, 27 April). They go on, “Whether Lynch will actually play the role that is expected of her remains to be seen.” But make no mistake: her entire career as a prosecutor has been as a legal enforcer of state repression.
The crimes of the killer cops should be met by massive, militant protest centered on the social power of the multiracial working class. But the pretenses of the socialist fakers to the contrary, the capitalist state and its agents cannot be made to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed. The truth is that there will be no end to racist police brutality until the capitalist system the cops serve is uprooted through a proletarian socialist revolution.
From 1968 to 2015: Capitalists Loot Baltimore
Baltimore is a testament to the bankruptcy of police reform and other such schemes. Many were implemented there decades ago, not least the installation of “black faces in high places.” In the wake of the unrest, Baltimore’s black Democratic mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched a public-private partnership for urban renewal, which she called a “once-in-a-generation effort to tackle inequality.” Anti-poverty programs were introduced in various cities more than a generation ago in response to the ghetto rebellions that erupted between 1964 and 1968. Once the turmoil was quelled, these programs were cut way back; meanwhile, black people continued to bear the brunt of the normal brutal workings of the capitalist system. By the end of that decade, a racist backlash had already begun.
Baltimore was among the many cities across the country that exploded in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Some 3,000 U.S. Army soldiers and almost the entire Maryland National Guard were dispatched to suppress the uprising. Over 5,000 people were arrested and hundreds injured. Afterwards, there was an acceleration of “white flight” from the city, which had begun a decade earlier with school desegregation.
The ghetto upheavals of the 1960s, more often than not sparked by incidents of police violence, marked the end of the civil rights movement, which had raised great hopes and engendered enormous activism but had proven incapable of meaningfully altering the fundamental plight of black people. The mass struggles of the civil rights movement put an end to the system of Jim Crow segregation in the South, but the movement broke apart when confronted with the de facto segregation in the Northern ghettos, where black people already had formal legal equality. The liberal pacifism and legalism of the civil rights movement were unable to challenge the systemic oppression of black people that is at the heart of American capitalism, expressed in racist cop terror, chronic unemployment, decrepit housing, crumbling schools, poverty and hunger.
From the formation of the Spartacist tendency in the early 1960s, we have advanced a program of revolutionary integrationism—the fight for the assimilation of black people into an egalitarian socialist society, which is the only way to achieve real equality. As one of our early documents laid out:
“Any organization which claims a revolutionary perspective for the United States must confront the special oppression of black people—the forced segregation of blacks at the bottom of capitalist society and the poisonous racism which divides the working class and cripples its struggles. There will be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black and white workers led by their multiracial vanguard party. Moreover, there is no other road to eliminating the special oppression of black people than the victorious conquest of power by the U.S. proletariat.”
—Preface, Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised) (1978)
This perspective is sharply counterposed to liberal integrationism—which is based upon the deception that black freedom can be achieved within the confines of the racist capitalist system—and also to black nationalism—which rejects and despairs of integrated class struggle.
The 1960s riots came in a period of broader social ferment, from the battles against racial segregation to growing opposition to the Vietnam War. At the time, the government not only unleashed murderous repression but also co-opted a layer of black activists into helping administer “war on poverty” programs to re-establish control over the rebellious ghettos. Some of them were installed as big-city mayors and in other elected offices. As we noted back in 1966:
“Black Democrats sitting in Congress or on some city council cannot change the conditions of the masses of people. These black Democrats enrich only themselves as agents of [then-President Lyndon] Johnson’s party. As long as they can prolong the illusion that the masses can use the Democratic Party to change their conditions, they can deliver the vote from the ghettoes. But such Democrats always desert the masses at critical points, as did the Negro councilman in Cleveland who called for the National Guard to suppress the people of Hough. The role of a political party is to gain and maintain state power for a particular class.”
—“Storms in the Ghetto,” Spartacist No. 7, September-October 1966
The Democrats, no less than the Republicans, are a party of the capitalist class. There are plenty of black Democrats in office today, from Baltimore’s mayor, police commissioner and state’s attorney, right up to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, her predecessor Eric Holder and President Barack Obama. And what good has it done black workers and the poor? By almost every measure, things are worse today than they were at the end of the 1960s. There are vastly greater numbers of black people in prison and vastly fewer numbers of decent-paying jobs. What is needed to lead a struggle against the ravages of racist U.S. capitalism is a party of the multiracial working class, one committed to the fight for a workers America.
During the recent unrest in Baltimore, black Democrats joined outright racists and the capitalist media in vilifying black youth for “looting.” This is rich given that it is the capitalists themselves who have looted and destroyed the city. “They want to act like the CVS is the Taj Mahal. They have dilapidated buildings everywhere,” said one resident.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Mid-Atlantic seaport of Baltimore was a center of steel and auto production as well as shipbuilding. Good union jobs were available that provided something approaching a decent life for some black as well as white workers. Even then, black people were the “last hired, first fired” and often worked the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs, including in the unionized plants. But when the declining competitiveness of American industry became unmistakable in the 1970s, the U.S. capitalists started to shutter factories and move their investments elsewhere in a bid to maintain profits. Black workers in the main became the “first fired, never rehired.”
The Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point was at one time the hub of manufacturing in Baltimore. In the late 1950s, Sparrows Point was the most productive steel mill in the world and employed 30,000 at its peak. Major layoffs began in 1971, although 17,000 workers remained as late as 1979. Subsequently, full-scale deindustrialization set in. The half dozen shipyards in the early 1970s were down to only one by 1993, which later went bankrupt. The General Motors plant shut down in 2005. By 2012, there were 160,000 fewer manufacturing jobs in the Baltimore area than in 1957. The devastation of Baltimore is a tale familiar in many other cities across the country where low-wage jobs, often temporary or part-time, are increasingly the norm.
The looting of industry in this country was also a cudgel for the capitalists to wrest massive givebacks from the unions in a one-sided, now decades-long class war. All along, union members have been repeatedly stabbed in the back by the pro-capitalist labor misleaders, who have subordinated the interests of labor to company profitability. The end result is that the unions have been severely crippled, while pay and working conditions of American workers have been driven down across the board. To turn the tide will require some sharp class battles, out of which a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions must be forged.
This war on labor has gone along with an earlier and ongoing assault on the gains of the civil rights struggles, from busing for school integration to voting rights. With jobs for black youth all but dried up, the capitalist rulers have written off the ghettos, slashing social services and education to the bone while building up the prisons. As victims of the hard lines of racial segregation in Baltimore and across the country, those black people with jobs were largely fleeced of their personal assets. Locked out of traditional mortgages and forced into predatory subprime borrowing, large numbers were thrown onto the streets when the housing bubble burst in 2007.
Freddie Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, where 50 percent of people of working age are unemployed and over a quarter of the buildings are vacant, has the highest number of people in jail and prison of any census tract in Maryland. Between 2005 and 2009, fully a quarter of juveniles in that neighborhood had been arrested. At any given point, over half of Baltimore’s black youth are in the clutches of the state, whether jail, prison, bail, probation or parole.
Mass incarceration is largely the result of the racist “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing guidelines pushed by Democrats as well as Republicans. Today, some elements within the bourgeoisie are concerned that the country’s world-leading levels of incarceration are somewhat too high, particularly because of the financial cost. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has sought of late to build up a black voting base by hypocritically intoning against “the era of mass incarceration.” Now that the damage is done, she wants to distance herself from the policies of previous Democratic administrations, such as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed in 1994 by her husband, then-President Bill Clinton. The leading sponsor of that act, which provided for 100,000 more cops and pumped nearly $10 billion into new prison construction, was then-Senator Joseph Biden, now Obama’s vice president. Bill Clinton’s administration was also responsible for “ending welfare as we know it,” condemning already poverty-stricken families to complete destitution.
The Need for Revolutionary Leadership
On May 2, one day after the killer cops were charged, a demonstration was held in front of City Hall with the celebratory theme “Baltimore United.” Workers Vanguard salesmen reported that while the 4,000 who attended were relieved that charges were filed, not everyone was buying into the celebration. No surprise, sinister phalanxes of cops in riot gear and National Guardsmen were massed behind the speakers’ platform. Our placard calling for the “National Guard Out!” attracted a lot of favorable attention from protesters, including from a black Vietnam vet. When asked what he thought of the rally being pitched as a party, his answer was to point to the police snipers on the roof nearby.
Many of the speakers at the rally pushed voter registration. In a town like Ferguson, Missouri, where the local government and police force were almost all white, calls for voter registration to elect black politicians last year gained some traction. But with numerous black officials running Baltimore, the hollowness of getting out the vote for these Democrats is all too apparent. On this score, liberal Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper admitted in a 29 April article on Salon.com that she was “conflicted” over what it means that three of her fellow black women (Rawlings-Blake, Lynch and Maryland National Guard general Linda Singh) “have an unprecedented amount of municipal, national and military power to put down a rebellion.”
The main rally organizer was Malik Shabazz of Black Lawyers for Justice. A former member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), this all-purpose bigot is notorious for his anti-Jewish and anti-gay rants. Reactionary black nationalists like Shabazz and the NOI express the aspirations of black petty entrepreneurs who want to carve out the ghettos as their own fiefdoms. As NOI leader Louis Farrakhan grotesquely put it: “We could effect a change in the lifestyle of our people that would allow us to do more with less wages” (A Torchlight for America ).
In promoting “black capitalism,” these nationalists seek to divert anger that should be directed at the capitalist class enemy into the scapegoating of immigrants—a program that only reinforces the segregation of the black masses. In the 1990s, the NOI Security Agency had a contract to police government-subsidized housing projects in Baltimore and elsewhere. Today, Rawlings-Blake has thanked the NOI for its efforts to “keep calm and peace in our city.”
The capitalist masters have long fomented racial antagonisms to divide the working class and weaken its struggles as a means to ratchet up the exploitation of all labor. The ongoing attacks on the unions and black people over the last four decades underscore the point made by Karl Marx at the time of the Civil War: “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” The working class as a whole confronts the same prospect of immiseration and hopelessness that is inflicted in a more intensified form on the bulk of the black population.
A program for black emancipation must start from the standpoint that the whole system of racist capitalist oppression has to be brought down. The current generation of youth protesting cop terror has grown up in a period of a dearth of mass social and class struggle, so many have no understanding of the possibility of such a revolutionary social transformation, much less the motor force to bring it about. The working class, concentrated at the point of production, uniquely has the social power and objective interest not only to challenge the capitalist exploiters but to overthrow their entire rotten system. That power is derived from its ability to cut off the flow of profits by withholding its labor; but it will take a leap in consciousness and organization for the proletariat to bring its power to bear in the fight for its own emancipation from capitalist wage slavery and for the liberation of the oppressed.
A small taste of the labor mobilization needed in defense of the black population was shown by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10, which shut down the Port of Oakland for one shift on May Day. A contingent of up to 300 longshoremen with a union banner demanding “Stop Police Terror!” headed up a 3,000-strong march to Oakland City Hall that day. ILWU members also carried placards with photos of longshoremen’s relatives who had been killed by the cops, including 24-year-old Richard “Pedie” Perez. The majority black Local 10 represents a living link that could fuse the social power of labor to the anger of the downtrodden ghetto masses. But the potential power of the ILWU and other unions is kept under wraps by the labor bureaucracy, which is wedded to the rule of the U.S. imperialists and preaches reliance on Democratic Party politicians.
Plebeian discontent and the disgruntlement of working people can go in many different directions but will not in and of themselves lead to revolutionary consciousness. The spontaneous displays of anger by the dispossessed in Baltimore, Ferguson and beyond will once again be dissipated into the swamp of liberal reformism absent the intervention of a proletarian vanguard party. It is the purpose of the Spartacist League to build such a party, which would act as a tribune of the people, combating every manifestation of oppression. The vital struggles for labor’s immediate interests are also in the immediate interests of the ghetto masses—the fight to organize the unorganized, end “two-tier” wage scales, for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to provide jobs for all.
A revolutionary workers party would not only arm workers with the program to fight for such felt needs but render the advanced sections of the working class conscious of its historic role as the gravedigger of capitalism. The proletariat must rip the productive wealth out of the hands of the greedy and irresponsible capitalists and begin building a collectivized, planned economy based on social need, not profit. When working people run society, there will be massive investment in quality housing, education and health care for all. Black workers, who remain a strategic component of the American working class, will play a central role in the struggle for workers rule. For black liberation through socialist revolution!