Workers Vanguard No. 935
24 April 2009
Racist Police Terror U.S.A.
Oscar Grant Executed in Cold Blood, Black Oakland Under Siege
OAKLAND—The coldblooded execution of Oscar Grant III, a young black apprentice grocery butcher and father of a four-year-old girl, by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop Johannes Mehserle in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day threw a spotlight on the deadly police terror that is a fact of life for black people in racist America. The video images taken by horrified BART passengers showed Mehserle stand over Grant, methodically draw his Sig Sauer P226 semiautomatic and fire into Grant’s back as another cop held him face down with his hands behind his back. At protests after the brutal killing, demonstrators have carried signs reading “We Are All Oscar Grant” (see “Oscar Grant Killed in Cold Blood by BART Cop,” WV No. 928, 16 January).
The killing of Grant in Oakland, where liberal black Democrat Ron Dellums is mayor, brutally exposes the hoax that the election of a black man, Barack Obama, as U.S. president represents progress toward black equality. Underlining the fallacy of such illusions, in Chicago police killed two black men during a five-day period in March, while the NYPD killed two people in April. Obama’s “stimulus package” for the moribund U.S. economy includes plans to spend billions to beef up the police by hiring 100,000 more thugs in blue: any prospect of a decent job is fading fast for millions of laid-off workers and unemployed youth, but the ruling class has plenty of money to pay its hired guns to intimidate and repress the ghetto masses and those who might protest being thrown on capitalism’s scrap heap.
“When is this going to stop?” cried a black man outside Grant’s memorial. “I’m sick of people acting like we deserve what we get, that because we are black, they can shoot us in the back and get away with it.” More than 1,000 people, largely black and Latino, turned out for the memorial on January 7. Later that night, protesters took their justified outrage to the streets of Oakland, where they were met by an army of Oakland cops (OPD) equipped with riot gear, helicopters and an armored vehicle. The cops fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protesters and arrested more than 100 people. Among those arrested and slapped with felony charges were David Santos, a 16-year-old supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and JR Valrey, a KPFA programmer and journalist for the San Francisco Bay View who was trying to photograph the police violence. Drop all charges against the anti-racist protesters!
Along with the mailed fist of state repression came the velvet glove: the cops’ masters, from Dellums to California Attorney General Jerry Brown, stepped in to try to dampen the flames of protest with calls for an investigation of Grant’s killing. Behind them in trying to keep the peace was a cabal of black preachers and the newly formed Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), which hasn’t been heard from since late February. Echoed by the cringing reformist left, CAPE advanced various schemes for police reform while appealing for redress to state agencies and officials, from Dellums and Brown to the Feds.
The Labor Black League for Social Defense, which is fraternally allied with the Spartacist League, intervened in the protests over the killing of Oscar Grant to fight for a class-struggle perspective. A January 12 LBL statement, “Mobilize the Power of the Multiracial Unions in Protest!” (reprinted in WV No. 928, 16 January), declared:
“The hard truth is that there will be no end to police brutality short of the destruction of this entire system of capitalist exploitation and racial oppression. But a massive protest based on the organized muscle of the labor movement would give the cops and their capitalist masters some pause. And it would drive home the point that the interests of the working class are inseparably linked to the defense of the ghettos and barrios, the defense of immigrant rights and the fight for black freedom.”
What prevents labor from waging such fights in its own defense and on behalf of all of the oppressed are the suicidal illusions in the possibility of reforming the system that are pushed by the patriotic, pro-capitalist union bureaucrats. The labor tops promote such illusions above all by chaining the working class politically to the class enemy through support to the capitalist Democratic Party.
“Reforming” the Repressive Apparatus of the State
The capitalist politicians had scarcely dried their crocodile tears after the cop killing of Grant when four cops were killed in a March 21 shootout in the streets of the East Oakland ghetto. The SWAT team had charged into that deadly confrontation with 26-year-old black parolee Lovelle Mixon, who was also killed. A fifth cop was wounded in the shootout: Pat Gonzales, who in 2007 killed 20-year-old Gary King, shooting him in the back in the street near King’s home. In 2008, the trigger-happy Oakland cops gunned down five more young black and Latino men.
Now, from Oakland City Hall to the California governor’s office and right on up to the White House, the bourgeois politicians have closed ranks to salute the “heroism” of the police amid cries to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state. In a chilling and ominous display of police power, reminiscent of Nazi Third Reich Nuremburg rallies, thousands of cops from all over the country marched into Oakland’s Oracle Arena for a March 27 memorial. They were joined by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, liberal black Congresswoman Barbara Lee and other politicians.
The consummately corrupt and brutal Oakland Police Department is being rehabilitated and the memory of Oscar Grant buried under an avalanche of demands for more police patrols, stricter parole guidelines and harsher jail sentences. The capitalist media and the entire spectrum of established black “leaders” are also screaming for more stringent gun control laws to strengthen the state’s monopoly of violence. We defend the basic democratic right to bear arms: No to gun control!
A frenzy is being whipped up on behalf of the cops. A column by retired San Francisco Deputy Police Chief Kevin Mullen in the San Francisco Chronicle (29 March) chillingly made clear the rulers’ contempt for the ghetto masses: “For sure, fix the parole system and, while you’re at it, pour money into the schools and fix the mental-health system as well. But unless the hate and grievance peddlers are stilled, and inner-city attitudes evolve, not much will really change.”
According to an AP dispatch, “one of the most affecting tributes” at the pro-cop media event came from Captain Edward Tracey, commander of the SWAT team. “These were my men,” Tracey said. “They died doing what they loved: riding in motorcycles, kicking in doors, serving in SWAT.” In his condolences, President Obama added, “Their loss reminds us that the work to which they dedicated their lives remains undone.” So many doors to kick down, so many minority youth to shoot, so little time.
Even amid the outpouring of support for the dead cops, some 500 people came out to the funeral for Lovelle Mixon. Flowers and condolence messages were laid at a memorial site for him, and one text message captured a cry of rage and defiance against the police: “Us: 4—Them: 1.” The black-oriented press, talk radio and various blogs testify to the divisions among the black population over the role of the police, with some dreaming of getting the cops “out of the black community,” while others imagine ways to make the cops less racist or less violent.
Mehserle, the BART cop who faces murder charges in the killing of Oscar Grant, conveniently got his preliminary hearing date postponed, with his lawyer claiming distress over the death of the four OPD cops. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) bleats that this only reinforces the need to press “for the police to be held accountable in Oscar’s death.” But Mehserle’s arrest, which was promoted by the ISO, the RCP, the Party for Socialism and Liberation and the “By Any Means Necessary” coalition, was only meant to quell protest. The cops aren’t going to be held “accountable” for their crimes for the simple reason that their purpose, together with that of the courts and the prisons, is to enforce the rule of the capitalist exploiters through the violent suppression of the working class, blacks and all the oppressed. Even in the increasingly unlikely event that Mehserle is thrown behind bars, the purpose will simply be to give the state’s armed thugs a more “democratic” facade (see article, page 6).
Oakland and the cities surrounding it have served as a virtual laboratory for the liberal schemes advanced by CAPE and the reformist left, such as police “civilian review boards.” This con game started some 36 years ago when Berkeley established the first police review board in the country. Of course, that never stopped Berkeley cops from blowing away black people, like grandmother Anita Gay, shot down on her own front porch in February 2008. The Oakland Citizens’ Police Review Board (CPRB) was established in 1980 following an OPD killing spree that wiped out nine black people the previous year. One of those killed, Charles Briscoe, was an International Association of Machinists shop steward at the Alameda Naval Air Station, then a major industrial concentration of integrated, unionized workers. Five hundred of Briscoe’s union brothers and sisters jammed an Oakland City Council meeting, making palpable the potential for mobilizing the social power of the multiracial working class against cop terror. The CPRB was established to head off any such possibility and to whitewash the OPD with the illusion that they can be reformed to serve “the people.”
The Class Divide in the Racial Divide
Writing of the young black man who shot the four Oakland cops, an article in the black newspaper the San Francisco Bay View (24 March) noted: “Lovelle Mixon was America’s worst nightmare: the Black man with nothing to lose.” Mixon grew up on the mean streets of the East Oakland ghetto, cast off like countless thousands of black youth in the inner cities of this country whose lives are deemed worthless by America’s capitalist rulers.
During World War II, when shipbuilders in the Oakland region desperately needed their labor, untrained and often semiliterate black youth recruited from the rural South were, in a matter of months, taught to read and write and became skilled apprentices. Today, the shipyards are barely a dim memory, and the factories that once thrived in the area were shut down in the 1980s deindustrialization of America. The black ghetto poor who once served as a “reserve army of labor” to be maintained, albeit minimally, are now written off by American capitalism as expendable. Like Lovelle Mixon, the most likely “future” for black inner-city youth is jail or an early death at the hands of the cops, one of their peers or the many diseases of poverty that are rampant.
At a meeting in Oakland of clergy, city leaders and the cops to “create an action plan to address youth violence,” an adviser to Dellums decried spending time and effort on “people who are unskilled, uneducated and end up in prison” (Oakland Tribune, 25 March). This was echoed in an opinion piece in the 29 March San Francisco Chronicle by black liberal Brenda Payton. Speaking of her neighborhood just up the hill from “Oakland’s killing fields,” Payton contrasts the good people there, with their neighborhood meetings, block parties and Christmas caroling, to the “violence and crime bred from ignorance, family breakdown and lack of opportunity” just blocks away. Another piece, by a former resident of Oakland, now a director of juvenile detention in Washington, D.C., opined: “A leading cause of street violence is the lack of trust between the community and law enforcement. The tension in Oakland since the murder of Oscar Grant had amassed into a powder keg and it ignited. Whether Mixon lit it intentionally we may never know, but it was lit. And now, before it gets even worse, a deliberate, public, sincere healing is needed in Oakland.”
Here is the real face of CAPE’s appeals for community “healing centers” and police reform, embraced by Dellums and other black elected officials—to rehabilitate the cops as “servants” of the community so that they can more effectively go after the “criminal” black youth in the ghetto. This is the voice of the black petty bourgeoisie, a small but significant layer who were the main beneficiaries of the limited gains of the civil rights movement as well as of the later “war on poverty” programs aimed at pacifying the ghetto upheavals of the mid 1960s. Barack Obama is representative of the layer of petty-bourgeois blacks who got their piece of the action either by administering these programs or by pushing through narrowly opened doors to privileged spheres that were previously barred to black people. Obama’s move into the Oval Office was prefigured by decades of big city black mayors, who were put into office precisely to put the lid on social struggles.
A 29 March opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, titled “Speak Out Again, Mr. President,” appealed to Obama to replay his “More Perfect Union” speech in Oakland in order to bridge “Oakland’s racial and social divides.” That speech was an effective demonstration of Obama’s credentials to become Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, as he used a little bit of truth—acknowledging America’s roots in slavery and racial oppression—the better to push the big lie that racism and inequality are just past history. Obama’s speech denounced welfare, conciliated racist opposition to affirmative action and condemned black people for “complicity in our condition,” echoing the line of Booker T. Washington, who over a century ago told blacks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (that is, if they had any).
Writing of the racist killing of a black Howard University student by black cops in 2000 in majority-black Prince George’s County, outside Washington, D.C., black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed the political sensibilities of much of the black middle class: “Just as affluent white people aren’t too interested in the plight of poor whites, neither are affluent blacks especially concerned with their brothers in the ghetto—in fact, they may be even more eager to distance themselves from the ghetto than white people are trying to distance themselves from the trailer park” (Washington Monthly, June 2001).
But in racist America, even those blacks who have “made it” are still branded by the color of their skin. Mayor Dellums, chief executive officer of Oakland, who has probably done more to expand the OPD than any recent mayor, was barred from speaking at the memorial to the cops. Despised by a police force that hasn’t forgotten his association with the Black Panther Party (BPP) many years ago, he sat silent on the podium, humiliated amidst a sea of armed cops, while columnists in the local press ominously intoned that he got what he deserved.
And today the Brenda Paytons, so uneasy at being only one block away from “Oakland’s killing fields,” could also themselves be one paycheck away from sharing the situation of their less affluent black brothers and sisters. Close to 70 percent of black middle-class households have no net financial assets, and a report by the Pew Research Center states that 45 percent of their children end up “near poor.”
Down With the Racist “War on Crime”!
Heightened cop terror has been the handmaiden of a drive for gentrification, particularly in the West Oakland ghetto, which butts up against the downtown area. An “anti-crime” crusade was initiated by the previous Democratic Party mayor, Jerry Brown. Following his mayoral election in 1998, Brown presided over the OPD “Riders,” who rampaged through West Oakland, torturing and framing up their victims. The Riders were so notorious that three of them were put on trial, only to be acquitted on all counts. Under Dellums, more cops have been put on the streets with the purpose of making Oakland safe for a new influx of well-heeled petty-bourgeois elements. Once, these people would have been overwhelmingly white; but Oakland now has a significant layer of black professionals, executives and government administrators whose bread and butter depends on keeping the black ghetto masses down.
The upscale black petty bourgeoisie regards “crime” as the scourge of Oakland and wants more cops for their own protection. They see the ghetto masses as “bringing down the community,” a sentiment also spread from the church pulpit and too often shared within the black working class. Blaming the black poor for their own oppression is equally the program of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which has long offered to police housing projects in the ghettos. At an Oakland meeting to protest the killing of Oscar Grant, Farrakhan took black protesters to task for marching only against Oakland District Attorney Tom Orloff and not protesting “when day after day we are killing each other.”
The desperate conditions of life in the vast ghetto wastelands of America have also produced a reactive glorification of lumpenism, gang warfare and other pathological behavior among inner-city youth. How could it be otherwise? There are no jobs. Parents have been cut off welfare. Whatever social infrastructure existed—schools, hospitals, community centers—was gutted long ago. While slashing any and all known social programs benefiting the ghetto poor, billions have been poured into prisons. In California, one out of every 12 black men in their twenties is behind bars in the state’s overflowing prisons—the majority of them snared under the racist “war on drugs.” In a society where the rate of joblessness among ex-cons is more than 75 percent and rates of rearrest nearly 45 percent, Lovelle Mixon was a marked man with little future except jail or the morgue.
An elementary demand, part of the Ten-Point Program of the Labor Black League, is for the decriminalization of drugs, which would take the money and thus the crime out of drug dealing. But to really change the systematic demonization and degradation of black youth trapped in ever more hellish conditions requires shattering the entire system of racist American capitalism, in which the subjugation and segregation of the majority of the black population at the bottom of this society is rooted. Only then will it be possible to eliminate the material roots of black oppression through the integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society based on a collectivized economy, with jobs and quality housing, health care and education for all.
“Community Control of the Police”—A Liberal Hoax
Arguing that the solution to police terror “is not simply removing individual racist police officers,” an article in the San Francisco Bay View (26 March) opines that the solution is “a police force that comes from within the oppressed community and that is democratically controlled by that community.” It points to the “American roots” of this demand in the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party of 40 years ago.
The best of a generation of radical black nationalists, the Black Panther Party was born in Oakland in response to the failure of the liberal-led, pro-Democratic Party civil rights movement to challenge the oppressive conditions of life for blacks in the ghettos when it came North in the mid 1960s. In the late ’60s, the BPP heroically organized armed patrols of the Oakland ghetto against cop terror. But while subjectively revolutionary, the Panthers, like other components of the New Left, identified the organized working class with the ossified, racist Cold War trade-union bureaucracy atop the AFL-CIO; dismissing the workers as “bought off,” they saw the ghetto poor as the vanguard of revolution. Absent a Marxist program, the Panthers, under the pressure of events, especially state terror, adopted explicitly reformist politics, such as the “breakfast for children” program and the call for community control of the police, which combined liberal illusions in the bourgeois state with dreams of ending black oppression through “control” of ghetto institutions. (For more on the BPP, see Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], September 1978.)
Even if it could be accomplished, black “control” of the inner cities would not put an end to endemic poverty, joblessness, crime, gutted housing and broken-down schools. The liberation of black people in America requires a massive reallocation of wealth and resources, which is possible only with the expropriation of the bloodsucking capitalist class as a whole and the creation of a workers state where production is based on human need, not profit. The capitalist state cannot be taken over and used for this purpose but must be destroyed and replaced with a very different kind of state where those who labor rule. The multiracial working class, including its strategic black component, is the only class with the social power and objective interest to smash the rule of the bourgeoisie and its system of exploitation and vicious racial oppression. To lead this struggle requires a revolutionary workers party built in unwavering opposition to all the state agencies and political parties of the capitalist class enemy and in unwavering commitment to the fight for black freedom as the key to breaking the chains of capitalist wage slavery in America.
Democratic Party: Graveyard of Labor/Black Struggle
In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party stood up to the racist violence of the trigger-happy cops, soon bringing down upon them the fury of the capitalist state. Under the impact of murderous repression which took the lives of 38 Panthers, the BPP lurched to the right and split in 1971. The wing led by Huey Newton used the Panthers’ authority to build up the Democratic Party’s base in Oakland. Bobby Seale ran for Oakland mayor as a Democrat in 1973. Five years later in 1978 the city’s first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, took office, putting an end to a half-century of control of Oakland by the right-wing Republican Knowland regime. By 1983, conditions for blacks were worse than ever as unemployment and cop terror mounted. That year, when the Spartacist League ran Martha Phillips as a candidate for Oakland City Council, we wrote: “The city of Oakland is itself the best argument against the Democratic Party.”
Not accidentally, Ron Dellums played a key role in husbanding the Panthers into the Democratic Party. He is the embodiment of the Bay Area “progressive” black/labor coalition whose purpose has been to divert working-class and black struggle away from any challenge to capitalist rule. Getting his start as a community organizer during the heyday of the 1960s anti-poverty programs, he served to keep the antiwar movement safe for the capitalists by helping to channel it into Democratic Party electoralism. Elected to Congress in 1970, he actively sought appointment to the House Armed Services Committee, where he worked to repackage the imperialist military as a force for “human rights.” Dellums is best known as the force behind the 1986 amendment for divestment from South Africa adopted by the U.S. Congress over Reagan’s veto. This piece of legislation was a signal that the U.S. rulers were willing to let their longtime allies, the brutal apartheid government, go down to defeat so long as what got installed in its place was a regime of black front men (led by the formerly outlawed African National Congress) to oversee the same exploitation of the mainly black working masses for the benefit of the white ruling class and its imperialist big brothers.
In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Dellums was asked what it was like moving from Congress to the local stage. He replied that the local stage was not new to him, “but it is different . You’re the chief executive officer, so it’s the executive branch.” Unlike parliamentary talk shops such as the U.S. Congress, the executive officers of the government have the job of running the racist capitalist state (see “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009). Just as Obama is now Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, it is Dellums who commands the racist OPD and slashes the jobs and wages of city workers. In 2007, this supposed “friend of labor” moved against Waste Management sanitation workers fighting a union-busting lockout by threatening to make the city’s garbage collection non-union.
Obscenely, Dellums was a keynote speaker at CAPE’s January 14 protest against the killing of Oscar Grant. In response to news of the arrest of Mehserle, Dellums declared: “You guys were able to make the system bend to the will of the people.” This was CAPE’s reward for having organized squads of marshals, including city workers mobilized for this purpose by their union tops, to prevent protesters from “getting out of hand.” Scandalously, CAPE joined Dellums in bad-mouthing the “violent” protesters.
As the Bay Area LBL wrote in its January 12 protest statement: “The mass outrage against cop terror needs an organized political expression, and not one that strengthens the hand of the Democratic Party, the political tool of the very capitalist rulers whose interests the cops ‘serve and protect.’” The Bay Area’s multiracial unions—longshore, municipal and transit workers—can strike a powerful blow against the racist killers in blue. To shut down the city and port of Oakland for a day would do more for the victims of police brutality than a thousand demonstrations pleading for “accountability.” Black workers who are a vital part of the Bay Area unions are an equally vital link to the ghetto masses. But the central obstacle to mobilizing labor’s power is the pro-capitalist bureaucrats who chain the unions to the Democratic Party and push the lie that workers and bosses have common “national interests.” Far from mobilizing against police terror, they have organized these hired thugs for capitalism into the unions. The SEIU, the same union that organizes BART maintenance workers and Oakland city workers, includes the BART cops! As the LBL Ten-Point Program demands: “Cops, prison guards and security guards out of the unions!”
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. A multiracial, revolutionary workers party that champions the cause of all of the oppressed can be forged only in political combat against the misleaders of labor and their leftist outriders. Led by such a party, the victorious workers revolution will shatter the power of the racist rulers and their state. Only then will justice be meted out to Mehserle and his ilk and the basis laid for eradicating all inequalities based on class and race and for using the wealth of this country and all the world for the benefit of those whose labor produced it.