Workers Vanguard No. 884

19 January 2007


NYC: Outrage Over Racist Cop Shootings

Beware Police "Reform" Schemes—For Labor Protest Against Cop Terror!

New York City continues to seethe over the NYPD killing of Sean Bell, a young black man from Queens who was gunned down outside his bachelor’s party on November 25. Tens of thousands of protesters, overwhelmingly black working people and youth, filled 20 blocks of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on December 16 in a march organized by Al Sharpton and other Democratic Party politicians as well as labor officials. It was billed as a silent protest. But the crowd repeatedly burst into chants counting off: “One, two, three...” up to 50—the number of rounds that an undercover squad fired at Bell and his companions, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman.

Protesters were furious that police marauded through Queens following Bell’s killing and smashed into homes under the guise of looking for a mythical “fourth man” with a gun—an attempt to cover the cops’ bloody tracks by making criminals out of their victims. In the three weeks after Sean Bell’s death, the NYPD shot five more men, killing two: black teenager Timur Person and Anatoly Dmitriev, a 62-year-old Russian immigrant shot down only hours after the Fifth Avenue march ended. On January 7, 38-year-old black Brooklyn resident Blondel Lassegue died after police shocked him with a high-voltage Taser gun.

Anger over police violence has been spreading throughout the U.S. This was seen in Houston after police in November pulled over a car driven by a black professional football player, Texans’ lineman Fred Weary, and knocked him to the ground with a Taser jolt…for changing lanes without signaling! In New Orleans, seven cops face murder or attempted murder charges for killing two people and wounding four others attempting to flee the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

The daily humiliations and raw racist terror meted out by the police is integral to the systematic oppression of black people that is rooted in the bedrock of American capitalism. The cops, courts, prisons and armed forces make up the core of the capitalist state, an instrument for organized violence to ensure the rule of one class, the capitalists, over the working class. It is the cops’ job to enforce the conditions that make life in this society a nightmare for the black masses: huge rates of unemployment, decrepit public housing and schools, hospital closings, mass incarceration of youth. As a New York Spartacist League leaflet distributed on December 16 and at other protests stated: “The hard truth is that the only way to eliminate police brutality is to do away with the system of racist American capitalism, for which the ‘gang in blue uniforms’ is the front line of defense” (see “50 Rounds: NYPD Killers,” WV No. 882, 8 December 2006).

The stated intent of the Fifth Avenue march was to call to “shop for justice”—a meaningless consumer boycott of ritzy stores. The real purpose of the march organizers was to dissipate anger by pushing “reform” schemes intended to clean up the cops’ bloody image and thereby preserve the authority of capitalist “law and order.”

The march leaders raised a laundry list of proposals, the likes of which have been repeatedly raised in the past, including after Amadou Diallo was killed by the NYPD in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999: more “cultural sensitivity” training, strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board, more women and minority cops. The city has had some form of civilian complaint process since 1953, proof enough that civilian review boards serve only to whitewash the cops while providing the illusion of accountability. As for more minority police, the vice squad that gunned down Sean Bell was already a “rainbow coalition” of black, white and Latino cops. March organizers also called for the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the entire racist “justice” system, to issue annual reports on police misconduct and demanded better salaries and benefits for the cops!

Anger over cop terror does need an organized expression—one that can weld the anger of the inner city with the social power of the multiracial working class. New York City got a taste of that power in December 2005, when subway and bus workers in Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 struck for three days in defiance of the state Taylor Law, which bans public workers strikes, and crippled the finance capital of the U.S. A labor-centered protest against police terror would give the cops pause. More importantly, it would serve to imbue the working class with the understanding that its interests are inseparably linked to the fight for black freedom, which requires the overthrow of the capitalist system through proletarian revolution.

At a Partisan Defense Committee fund-raiser for class-war prisoners held the day after the Fifth Avenue protest, Tom Cowperthwaite, a spokesman for the Labor Black League for Social Defense and a member of TWU Local 100, pointed out: “A lot of New Yorkers know that what happened to Sean Bell and Timur Person could happen to any one of them. They’ve been to plenty of marches like the one yesterday. Many realize that union protest and strike action by unions like TWU Local 100, the Teamsters, ATU [transit workers], DC 37 [city workers], 32-BJ [building service workers] and 1199SEIU [health care workers] would pack more punch than any such pro-Democratic Party rallies.” Sean Bell’s mother is herself an SEIU member and his father is a retired Local 100 member.

Cowperthwaite held up a sign he carried that was warmly received by marchers: “When Our Union Was on Strike They Called Us ‘Thugs’—But the Thugs Are the Racist Cops in Blue.” He said, “It’s going to take political struggle within the unions to forge a class-struggle leadership that will break with the Democrats and all capitalist parties, that will defy strikebreaking laws like the Taylor Law, that will link the power of labor to the just rage and aspirations of the ghettos and barrios.”

Opposing a class-struggle perspective, the reformist left has offered its own schemes to clean up the cops while prostrating itself before Democratic Party pols. Along with the black nationalist December 12th Movement, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) calls for firing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Perhaps the ISO would prefer Harold Hurtt, Houston’s black police chief, who has singled out destitute Katrina evacuees as responsible for a rise in crime in his city. With sheer cynicism, the ISO admits that swapping chiefs will do nothing but says you have to call for this anyway as a “first punch,” just as “firing Rumsfeld didn’t end the occupation of Iraq, but it was an important victory for the antiwar movement” (Socialist Worker online, 5 January). No doubt the ISO and other reformists, whose “antiwar movement” was based on appealing to Bush’s Democratic Party opponents, took heart in Rumsfeld’s departure. But they should try selling this line to the peoples of Iraq, who now face an escalation of the murderous U.S. occupation under his successor.

At the Fifth Avenue march, the Workers World Party (WWP) carried signs calling to “Disarm the Police.” The WWP pushes the ludicrous notion that under sufficient popular pressure, the capitalists can be induced to disarm the guardians of their system of exploitation and oppression. In the protests over Sean Bell’s killing, the WWP has promoted Brooklyn city councilman Charles Barron, whose occasional radical rhetoric and past membership in the Black Panther Party gives him more “street cred” than currently possessed by Al Sharpton, a former WWP favorite who wore a wire for the Feds in the 1980s.

The WWP calls Barron a “Black revolutionary and anti-imperialist fighter” (Workers World online, 14 August 2006). In fact, he is a capitalist Democratic Party politician, one of several who flanked billionaire Republican mayor Bloomberg when he appealed for “dialogue” after Bell’s killing. Barron says, “If we don’t get an indictment, there is going to be an explosion!” (WNYC News, 22 December 2006). His role is to get ahead of any such explosion in order to contain it. In the latest effort in that regard, Barron and the December 12th Movement are organizing a protest march to the United Nations, portraying that den of imperialist thieves and their victims as a vehicle for justice.

Providing a veneer of Marxist orthodoxy, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a WWP split product, notes the historical role of the police as protectors of private property in class society in a Socialism & Liberation (January 2007) article titled “Police Brutality, Cops and Capitalism.” The PSL writes, “As long as this society is built on racism and exploitation, cops will do their job of repressing and terrorizing us, especially in the most oppressed communities. No reform is going to change that basic mission.” But this statement of fact is just window-dressing for the PSL’s utterly reformist program, which centers on the fatuous demand for “community control” of the police.

Under the rubric of the “self-organization of the oppressed communities against police occupation,” the PSL calls for committees to “monitor every police action” whose “recommendations should be enforced.” Socialist Alternative (SAlt), which is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), similarly calls for “independent, elected labor-community bodies to investigate charges of police abuse and review police activities with powers to meaningfully punish misconduct.”

These reformists promote the dangerous illusion that the capitalist rulers can be compelled to cede control of the police to the exploited and oppressed masses—the very people the cops are paid to repress. Their “community control” rhetoric obscures the class divide in this society and serves to reinforce the ties of the oppressed masses to Sharpton, Barron & Co., who act as overseers in the ghettos for the racist capitalist rulers. Trampling on the class line, SAlt/CWI even embrace the cops as “workers in uniform.” The racist, strikebreaking cops are the guard dogs of the class enemy. We say: cops, prison, security guards, out of the labor movement!

Serving to divert the outrage of black youth over cop terror, the separatist New Black Panther Party (NBPP) calls for boycotting “nonblack businesses.” It also demands that liquor stores and strip clubs be shut down—a call to “clean up” the ghetto for the capitalists and their racist cops. The NBPP’s reactionary garbage, which pits black people against Arabs, Asians, Jews and others, is poison to the cause of multiracial class struggle. The organization’s very name is a fraud. The original Black Panther Party, a nationalist group that emerged in the 1960s by organizing black self-defense against police terror, at least saw itself as fighting for social revolution, although it rejected mobilizing the integrated working class to sweep away the capitalist system. Thirty-eight Panthers were killed by the police and FBI in the government’s drive to destroy the organization (see “Class Struggle and the Fight for Black Liberation,” WV No. 870, 12 May 2006).

The fight for justice for the countless victims of cop terror demands the independent mobilization of the working class and the oppressed against the Democratic and Republican parties of capital. Integral to that task is combatting the illusions in American democracy—the political shell for the dictatorship of the U.S. capitalist class over the working class and the poor—that are reinforced by reformist “leftists.” As Marxists, we fight to forge the revolutionary workers party that is essential to leading the multiracial proletariat in the overturn of the murderous capitalist system. Nothing short of a socialist revolution that smashes the capitalist state machinery and replaces it with a workers state—where those who labor rule—can disarm the killer cops and open the road to black liberation.