Workers Vanguard No. 899

28 September 2007


Jena Six: Racist "Justice" U.S.A.

Break with the Democrats! For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!

Finish the Civil War—For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

(Young Spartacus pages)

On September 20, as many as 50,000 protesters—overwhelmingly black and comprising workers, students, retirees and church groups—poured into the small rural town of Jena, Louisiana. Alerted by black radio and Internet networks, they came on buses from all over the South, from Detroit and Harlem and as far away as Los Angeles, to express their outrage at the Jim Crow “justice” meted out to six black Jena high school students. After months of racist insults and threats prompted by black students sitting under the “white tree,” with racists putting hangman’s nooses on the tree, five of the youth were charged with attempted murder following a schoolyard scuffle with a white student, while the sixth was charged as a juvenile (see “Outrage Over Jim Crow Justice in Louisiana,” WV No. 896, 3 August). On campuses and workplaces across the country, the case of the Jena Six has touched a raw nerve among black people. One protester in Jena held up a sign reading, “There Would Be More of Us Here But So Many of Us Are in Jail.”

The day after the protesters left, Jim Crow justice in Jena reasserted itself. Earlier, 17-year-old Mychal Bell, the only one of the six students who has been continuously imprisoned since the schoolyard fight, saw his aggravated assault and conspiracy charges thrown out because he had been tried as an adult. But outrageously, on September 21 he was denied bail. Bell remains incarcerated in a town in the central Louisiana pine woods that has been a stronghold for KKKer David Duke. The other five still await trial, although charges against four of them have been reduced. Hours after the Jena demonstration, two young whites, one an admitted Klansman, provocatively drove through the nearby city of Alexandria, threatening people who had returned from the protest by dragging two nooses from their pickup truck, which contained a rifle and brass knuckles. Free Mychal Bell now! Drop all the charges against the Jena Six!

“Jena justice” is not some aberration. In Georgia, black youth Genarlow Wilson is still in prison for having had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. After a court reduced his sentence to time already served, prosecutors appealed the ruling, keeping him behind bars. In New York City, Sean Bell, a young black man celebrating his upcoming wedding, was cut down in a hail of 50 cop bullets last December, and six months later black and Latino high school students in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood were rounded up by cops as they tried to attend a friend’s wake. The prisons, and the barbaric death rows within the prisons, are overflowing with black men in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Many of the protesters who poured into Jena appreciated the connection made by Spartacist League and Spartacus Youth Club comrades between the case of the Jena Six and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst racist atrocities in modern U.S. history. But Democratic politicians Jesse Jackson Sr. and Al Sharpton, central leaders of the Jena protest, did not organize any significant protests over Katrina. The Katrina disaster could not be blamed solely on the criminal policies of the Bush administration but also indicted the Democratic Party, which for decades helped preside over the deterioration of the flood control system and ran the notoriously racist and corrupt New Orleans cops. A featured speaker on September 20 was New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who ordered the city’s evacuation while abandoning those without cars—overwhelmingly black and poor—to the Katrina floodwaters. We wrote in a 4 September 2005 Spartacist League statement titled “New Orleans: Racist Atrocity” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005):

“This disaster has laid bare the class and race divisions in America. The logic of U.S. capitalism is that whites mainly lost property, blacks mainly lost lives. It is overwhelmingly black people, deemed ‘expendable’ by the rulers, who suffered and died by the thousands in this two-thirds black city…. This catastrophic destruction of lives and livelihoods underlines that the oppression of black people is rooted in the very bedrock of American capitalism and will not be ended short of a socialist revolution that rips power and the means of production from the greedy rulers and places them in the hands of the working people.”

We look to the working class and its strategic black component as the social force that can overturn the capitalist order. With its hands on the means of production—the factories, mines, transportation systems—the working class produces the profits of the capitalist exploiters. We fight to build a workers party based on the perspective of revolutionary integrationism. While combatting racist segregation and state repression, we understand that black liberation can be achieved only through the integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. This program is counterposed to the liberal myth that black people—an oppressed race-color caste—can achieve equality within the confines of the capitalist profit system. It is also counterposed to black nationalism, which capitulates to and helps perpetuate the racist segregation fostered by this country’s rulers and despairs of multiracial class struggle.

Liberal Misleaders

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, whose longtime role as “black leaders” has been to quell social unrest, came down to Jena to preach reliance on the same “justice” system that from the county sheriff on up is a machine of racial and class oppression. Sharpton called in Jena for “federal intervention to protect people from Southern injustice,” intoning that “our fathers in the 1960’s had to penetrate the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, we have to do the same thing” (Associated Press, 20 September).

It is a lie that the federal government is a friend of black equality. Fifty years ago during the battle to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, President Eisenhower sent in troops to head off efforts by black people to defend themselves against racist mobs and KKK nightriders. Federal intervention into anti-racist and other social struggles has meant spying on and murderous repression of activists. President Bush, cynically claiming to be “saddened” by the events in Jena, noted that “the Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation.” We’re sure they are—just like they “monitored” the Black Panther Party and thousands of other radicals, black and white, in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War and New Left movements.

Under the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), 38 Black Panther Party members were killed and hundreds of others framed up. FBI “infiltrators” made up about 20 percent of Ku Klux Klan membership in the 1960s and were involved in bombings and murders, including the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in her car in 1965. The November 1979 Klan/Nazi massacre of five leftists and union officials in Greensboro, North Carolina, was aided by a government agent who helped train the killers and by a “former” FBI informant who rode shotgun in the fascists’ motorcade of death.

A living symbol of the system of racist capitalist injustice today is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and later a MOVE supporter and radical journalist who has been imprisoned on death row for a quarter century, framed up on false charges of killing a Philadelphia policeman in December 1981. From the time he was a 15-year-old leader of the Philadelphia Panthers in the late 1960s, Mumia was a target of COINTELPRO spying and harassment. The cops, prosecutors, bourgeois politicians and their media jackals have howled for Mumia’s legal lynching because they see in him the spectre of black revolt.

The big-name black liberals who organized the Jena Six protest have done nothing at all comparable on behalf of Mumia. While Jena is a small Southern town, Philadelphia is a major Northern city long run by the Democratic Party machine. And it was the local Democrats who joined with the cops and prosecutors in putting Mumia on death row. The D.A. who prosecuted Mumia in 1982, Ed Rendell, is now the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. Since first taking up Mumia’s cause two decades ago, the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee have urged all opponents of racist oppression to join the fight for his freedom and to abolish the racist death penalty. But we understand that this fight must be waged independently of the capitalist courts and political parties that conspired to railroad Mumia.

Democrats: The Other Party of Racist Capitalist Rule

What politicians like Sharpton, who admits that he wore a wire for the FBI in the 1980s, want above all else is to keep black people tied to the Democratic Party as the “lesser evil” to the Republicans, who openly appeal to the white racist vote. All the major GOP presidential candidates recently refused to appear in a debate at Baltimore’s historically black Morgan State University. In an earlier calculated insult, all but one Republican candidate turned down the chance to debate on the Spanish-language Univision network. In his New York Times (24 August) column, liberal commentator Paul Krugman noted that the Republicans’ “electoral strategy has depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity.” He pointed out that “Rudy Giuliani remains the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination,” despite his big-city social life and record on abortion, because he “comes across as an authoritarian, willing in particular to crack down on you-know-who.”

The impoverishment of the black populace is perpetuated by the American capitalist government—federal, state and city—whether run by Democrats or Republicans. It was the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s that axed the main federal welfare program, thereby condemning millions of women and children, disproportionately black, to destitution while further depressing wages at the low end of the labor market, where black workers are concentrated. Today in response to the Jena atrocity, Hillary Clinton has joined the call for an “investigation,” while Barack Obama says he just wants “fairness” and claims it “isn’t a matter of black and white.” Tell that to the marchers who passed Confederate flags on the way out of Jena!

The bulk of the “socialist” left, which sows the illusion that the capitalist system can be reformed to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed, has offered no criticism of the Sharpton and Jackson leadership of the Jena protest. Typical are the eccentric Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), who went to Jena with stickers to “Impeach Bush!”—their longstanding gimmick to promote the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war. The RCP’s Revolution has pumped out a lot of newsprint on Jena that includes some ritualistic denunciations of capitalism and white supremacy. But you won’t hear from them that Jackson, Sharpton & Co. have repeatedly moved to steer anger over racist abuses into toothless “reforms” and bourgeois electoral politics.

MLK and the Failure of Liberal Reformism

There was a lot of talk at the Jena protest about the need for a “new civil rights movement.” It’s obvious to millions of oppressed black people that something needs to be done. The bipartisan “war on drugs” campaign has led to the mass incarceration of black as well as Latino youth. A decision by the Supreme Court this summer effectively put the last nail in the coffin of school integration. The mass of black people is forced to live in ghettos that are little more than rotting shells: no jobs, no health care, primary and high schools little more than prisons. In some inner cities, infant mortality rates approach Third World conditions.

The civil rights movement succeeded in eliminating legalized racial segregation (the Jim Crow system) in the South. That system had taken hold in the late 19th century after the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, the period of racial equality and black political empowerment that followed the smashing of the slavocracy in the Civil War. An important factor leading to the end of Jim Crow was that by the late 1950s legalized segregation had become an increasing embarrassment for the U.S. imperialist rulers in their Cold War with the Soviet Union, especially in the former colonial countries of Asia and Africa.

But the civil rights movement was defeated in the mid 1960s when it came North, where blacks already had the same formal democratic rights as whites but remained segregated at the bottom of society. For here it ran straight into the conditions of black impoverishment and oppression rooted in the basic structure of American capitalist society: mass unemployment, rat-infested slums, rampant police brutality. These conditions could not be eradicated by Congress passing a new civil rights act.

However, the civil rights movement—in which the black masses courageously confronted the white-supremacist police states of the South—also had the possibility of developing into a working-class-centered struggle for black equality. Such a struggle was obstructed and sabotaged by Martin Luther King Jr. and the other black misleaders who tied the movement to the Democratic Party of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

The main organization of young civil rights militants in the South was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which in the early 1960s underwent a leftward radicalization. Through their own bitter experience, SNCC militants came to recognize that the Kennedy/Johnson White House was a lot closer to the racist Dixiecrats than it was to them. At the same time, they also came to recognize that the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, were a party of imperialist militarism, seeking to overthrow the Cuban Revolution and escalating the war in Vietnam in the name of anti-Communism.

Tensions between the young militants and King & Co. came to the surface during the 1963 March on Washington. The liberal leaders pressured then SNCC chairman John Lewis into deleting from his prepared speech the following passage: “We cannot depend on any political party for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.” Subsequently, Lewis, like many other activists, came to terms with the racist capitalist order, becoming a Democratic Congressman.

To black people, King preached “non-violent resistance” in the face of racist police repression as well as attacks by the Klan. And when in the summer of 1965 blacks in the Watts district of Los Angeles rose up against police brutality, King, at the behest of Lyndon Johnson, endorsed their bloody suppression by the L.A. cops and National Guard. King’s support for the suppression of the Watts rebellion widely discredited him among young black militants who were already derisively calling him “De Lawd.”

Our own political tendency emerged during this convulsive period. The Spartacist League originated as a left opposition, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), in the once-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). When the Southern civil rights struggles erupted in the late 1950s, the SWP was beginning to move away from the Trotskyist program, finally descending into reformism in 1965. The SWP leadership abstained from intervening in the mass struggles for democratic rights while acting as cheerleaders for both King and the black nationalists of the Nation of Islam.

The RT fought for the SWP to intervene into the civil rights movement based on a program of linking the struggle for black democratic rights and social equality with the working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation. Concretely, we called on civil rights militants to break with the Democratic Party and form a Freedom Labor Party. We called as well for a Southern organizing drive backed by the labor movement. Then as now, only on the basis of common class interests and struggle can the deep racial divide between black and white workers be overcome. After being expelled from the SWP, the early Spartacist League intervened in the civil rights movement in both the South and North, to the best of the ability of our very small forces.

Recoiling against the liberal reformism of King and identifying the labor movement with its bureaucratic misleaders, many SNCC and other militants turned toward black nationalism. Black nationalism or, more accurately, separatism is at bottom a doctrine of despair. This outlook accepts that the racist character of American society is unchangeable and that no significant section of the white populace can be won to the struggle for black equality. The best of the young black radicals of this period were represented by the Black Panther Party, which was destroyed largely through murderous state repression. Many Panthers subsequently returned to the fold of liberal reformism and the Democratic Party.

The Class-Struggle Road to Black Liberation

Black nationalism obscures the class divide in this society, denying the potential power that black workers have as a strategic component of the multiracial proletariat. Despite the destruction of many industrial jobs and erosion of union strength, black workers, whose rate of union membership is significantly higher than that of white workers, continue to be integrated into such industries as steel, auto, urban transit and longshore. The proletariat alone has the power to shatter this racist, capitalist system. Won to a revolutionary program and under the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party, black workers will be the living link between the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses and the social power of the proletariat.

The two main obstacles preventing black workers from playing that historic role are the Democratic Party, especially its black component, and the trade-union bureaucracy, which chains workers to the capitalist Democrats. Beginning in the mid 1960s, the Republican Party positioned itself as the party of the “white backlash” while the Democrats moved to co-opt young black activists into the government bureaucracy. Black Democrats became mayors of major cities, where they acted as overseers of the ghetto masses and implemented the killing cuts in social welfare programs. One of those mayors, Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, ordered the firebombing of the MOVE commune in May 1985, killing eleven black men, women and children and destroying an entire black neighborhood in the process.

The failure of the trade-union misleadership to mobilize labor’s power to combat the oppression of black people is a major factor underlying the decline of the union movement. This is nowhere clearer than in the South, where the legacy of Jim Crow racism has made it the main regional bastion of anti-labor reaction since the building of the integrated industrial unions in the 1930s. Nonetheless, black workers retain considerable social power alongside their white and Latino class brothers and sisters. The strike of 7,000 shipyard workers at Northrop Grumman, the world’s largest naval shipbuilder, in Pascagoula, Mississippi, earlier this year demonstrated the potential power of the integrated labor movement, which under class-struggle leadership could spearhead a drive to organize the open shop South.

Organizing the region’s working class, which now includes increasing numbers of immigrants, especially from Latin America, cannot be achieved on the basis of narrow business unionism. Labor needs a leadership which does not bow to this country’s harsh anti-labor laws and which mobilizes unions to fight the systematic oppression of black people and to defend the rights of immigrants and all the oppressed. Black and working-class militants must stand for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

Our perspective of revolutionary integrationism is premised on the understanding that black freedom requires smashing the capitalist system and constructing an egalitarian socialist society. There will be no social revolution in this country without a united struggle of black, white and immigrant workers led by their multiracial workers party. As stated in the preamble to the program of the Labor Black Leagues, which are fraternally allied to the Spartacist League: “The civil rights movement, tied to pro-Democratic Party pressure politics and sold out by liberal reformism, failed to complete the unfinished business of the Civil War. We fight to win the entire working class, including white workers as well as the growing number of Latino and other immigrants, to the fight for black liberation, strategic to the American revolution.”