Workers Vanguard No. 955
26 March 2010
From Slavery to Mass Incarceration
Black Liberation and the Fight for a Socialist America
We print below, in slightly edited form, a Black History forum given in Oakland, California, on February 27 by Spartacist League Central Committee member Reuben Samuels.
Welcome to Lockdown America. As I speak, over 7.3 million men, women and children are in jail or prison or on parole or probation. The U.S. may not manufacture many automobiles now, but with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it leads with one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. There is a direct relation between these two facts, as displayed by the charts showing the steady decline in manufacturing jobs since World War II and the massive increase in the prison population since 1980.
Of the 2.3 million men, women and children behind bars, 70 percent are black or Latino. At the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, 100,000 black people were behind bars. Today there are over 900,000 blacks stuffed into America’s overcrowded dungeons. Fifty-five years after Brown promised equal educational opportunity, five times as many black men are in prison as in four-year colleges and universities.
Some worry about life after death. For us the question should be, is there life after birth? Death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was right when he said in his February 7 commentary, “When Young People Are the Enemy”: “How a society treats its poorest, least defended children is a measure of its madness.” Last August, the New York Times (10 August 2009) reported: “About two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates...have at least one mental illness, and are more in need of therapy than punishment.” One out of every four incarcerated Latino children is held in an adult prison. You’re not old enough to screw, drink or buy a cigarette, but you’re old enough to be sent away to the state pen, where young prisoners are especially vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.
Meanwhile, the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is still open for business, and U.S. imperialism’s black Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama has ramped up the number of secret, Special Forces-run, black-site torture chambers for his Afghanistan surge. Transparency, anyone? The esteemed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), who saw the inside of tsarist prison camps in Siberian exile, put the question this way in The House of the Dead: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” In California, 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. Last October the ACLU hailed it as a victory when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled six to five that a jury should decide if a woman in late-stage labor needs to be shackled to her bed during delivery, a common practice in America’s dungeons.
Imprisonment for black males without a high school education tripled between 1978 and 1998 to 59 percent, whereas the rate for blacks with some college decreased from 6 to 5 percent—even though the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last year demonstrates that the fate of educated black people is anything but secure in racist capitalist America. Nevertheless, those middle-class blacks who have turned their backs on the ghetto poor have found their spokesman in Obama, who disses black fathers with statements like, “what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child—but the courage to raise one.” This, as one in four black children by age 14 loses a father to prison.
Last February, Cornel West, the sometime Obama booster, popular hip-hop professor of religion at Princeton and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, ventured down to the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility near Trenton, New Jersey. In the spirit of the newly inaugurated president Obama’s hope-hype, he told a select audience of 200 young inmates:
“In the midst of 244 years of slavery, when they had no control over land, territory, no rights, they held together in the dark and raised their voices to create the spiritual.”
He then asked: “You all still listen to the spiritual, don’t you?”
We still ain’t got no land, no job either, dad’s in jail, the bank’s got the house, but we’ve still got spirituals. No wonder Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people—and the pushers in the pulpits do no hard time.
The Civil Rights Movement
Black Columbia University professor Manning Marable, a leader of the Committees of Correspondence, called mass black incarceration “the great moral and political challenge of our time.” How to meet this challenge? In an August 2000 piece titled, “Racism, Prisons and the Future of Black America,” Marable looks back to:
“the black freedom struggle of the 1960s [that] was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle class Americans that Jim Crow was economically inefficient, and that politically it could not be sustained or justified. The movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had for decades.”
From the outset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership represented by Martin Luther King Jr. The aim of their “creative disruption” was to pressure the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to grant formal, legal equality. They did, in part because Jim Crow had become an embarrassment to U.S. imperialism’s posture as the defender of “democracy” against the Soviet degenerated workers state.
The bankruptcy of the civil rights movement’s leadership and its liberal program was revealed when the movement went North, where black people already had formal legal equality. As the French writer Anatole France wrote about legal equality in the late 19th century: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” The struggle for a fundamental change in conditions of life in the ghettos—for real equality, jobs, decent housing and adequate schools—collided head-on with the economic realities of American capitalism.
From slavery to convict labor, from the chain gang to the assembly line, American capitalism has been built upon the lash-scarred backs of black labor. Any organization that claims a revolutionary perspective for the United States must confront the special oppression of black people—their forced segregation at the bottom of capitalist society and the poisonous racism that divides the working class and cripples its struggles.
Counterposed to liberal integrationism, which holds that black equality can be achieved within the American capitalist system of racial subjugation and ruthless labor exploitation, we advocate revolutionary integrationism: the understanding that black freedom requires smashing the capitalist system and constructing an egalitarian socialist society. This perspective is also counterposed to petty-bourgeois black nationalism and black capitalism, an ideology of defeatism that would deny blacks their birthright: the wealth and culture their labor has played a decisive role in creating. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky told his American supporters in 1939: “We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class.”
Early America and Slavery
The capitalist ruling class is also acutely aware of this fact. Shortly after this republic was founded, the black slaves of the French colony that is now Haiti, roused by the French Revolution, were organized into an armed force that won their freedom by defeating Europe’s mightiest armies, inspiring slave rebellions throughout the Americas.
Since then, if not before, America’s rulers have been haunted by the spectre of black insurrection and social revolution. The payback to Haiti was 200 years of political isolation, economic depredation and military occupation. The response at home: the incarceration and criminalization of black people that is woven into the very fabric of this country.
In 1793, the same year that slavery was abolished in Haiti, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the U.S., which would vastly expand both the scope and the profitability of the Southern plantation-based slave economy. The surplus value extracted through the oldest form of exploitation would fuel the birth of industrial capitalism in the U.S. and, with it, capitalism’s gravedigger, the proletariat.
Also in 1793, Congress passed the first national crime bill, the Fugitive Slave Act. The law fleshed out the slave-catching clause in Article 4, Section 2, of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution—that very document that President Obama as a candidate claimed “had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.”
The Bourgeois State and the Civil War
The instrument for criminalization and incarceration is the state, an instrument of organized violence for the suppression of one class by another. Friedrich Engels explained in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that the state consists “not merely of armed men [like the police and army], but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds.” Writing at the dawn of modern imperialism, he described how this state or public power
“grows stronger, however to the extent that class antagonisms within the state become exacerbated and adjacent states become larger and more populous. We have only to look at our present-day Europe, where class struggle and competition for conquests have raised the public power to such a level that it threatens to swallow the whole of society and even the state.”
By the time Engels was writing, he could have added the United States. How apt that Thomas Hobbes, writing in 1660 after the English Civil War, named his classic work on the state, The Leviathan, after the most diabolical of biblical monsters. No exploiting class but the bourgeoisie has built such monstrous institutions of coercion, suppression and destruction—this Leviathan that swallows up the whole of society—in order to struggle to the death to avoid leaving the stage of history.
It was not words of eloquent moral suasion, or freedom protests and petitions or “creative disruption” that crushed the slaveowning Confederacy in the Civil War, but the Union Army—two and a half million strong, including the decisive mobilization of 200,000 black soldiers and sailors. The Civil War—the Second American Revolution—was the last of the world’s great bourgeois revolutions that began with the English Civil War of the 17th century and included the French Revolution of the 18th century.
Reconstruction and Betrayal
Yet the Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, with all the contradictions that implies. A barbaric and archaic system of exploitation had been overthrown. But what would replace slavery? The ensuing period of Radical Reconstruction, imposed on the South with Union army bayonets, was the most democratic and egalitarian period in American history. Public schools were established where previously it had been a crime punishable by death to teach blacks to read and write. It gave us the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, which overturned the notorious 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that declared blacks “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
But Northern capital eyed the devastated South not as a laboratory for a radical-democratic experiment, but as an opportunity to profitably exploit Southern resources and cheap labor. Cotton was still king in the South and Northern textile mills obtained nearly all their cotton from the South, from which they produced $100 million worth of cloth a year.
The Compromise of 1877, which withdrew the last Union troops from the South, sealed the betrayal of black freedom. Reconstruction governments were overthrown and in the late 19th century replaced with governments based on Jim Crow lynch law terror. The precise number of lynchings will never be known. One generally accepted figure is that of the 3,943 lynchings between 1880 and 1930, 3,220, or 82 percent, had black victims.
The death penalty, where judges in black robes supplant racist mobs in white sheets, is the lynch rope made legal. A suit brought before the Supreme Court by black Georgia death row prisoner Warren McCleskey showed that black people in Georgia convicted of killing whites were sentenced to death 22 times more frequently than those convicted of killing blacks. In rejecting McCleskey’s appeal in 1987, the Supreme Court openly acknowledged that to accept his premise would throw “into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.” We can all agree with that. McCleskey has been called the Dred Scott decision of our time. We say: Abolish the racist death penalty!
Class War vs. Convict Lease
To recreate the cheap labor so coveted by Northern and Southern capital, the freed slave had to be forced back into bondage, especially on the plantations. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which codified emancipation, also contained the exception with which to forge new chains for the freed black:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” [emphasis added]
Under that exception, every former slave state passed a plethora of laws that criminalized vagrancy, loitering, gambling, using “obscene language,” homosexuality, bigamy, “miscegenation.” These were punishable by long sentences or a fine so high no poor man could pay it, so that the convict was “leased out” for a term of labor to pay off the fine.
As an 1892 letter published in the Washington, D.C. Evening Star pointed out:
“The lease system brings the state a revenue and relieves it of the cost of building and maintaining prisons. The fact that the convicts labor is in this way brought into direct competition with free labor does not seem to be taken into account. The contractors, who get these laborers for 30 or 40 cents per day, can drive out of the market the man who employs free labor at $1 a day.”
— Quoted in Ida B. Wells, ed., The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893)
Just as slave labor in the Caribbean helped fuel the industrial revolution in England, it was convict labor that would lay the foundation for the growth of industry in the South (even as the South remained largely agricultural). Slavery was inhuman. But as the chattel slave was an expensive piece of “property,” there were some economic deterrents to the regular use of the most extreme forms of plantation brutality. No such limit existed for convict labor. According to David M. Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery (1997), much of the railroad system in the South was built by leased convicts packed in rolling iron cages moved from job to job, working in such hellish conditions that they rarely survived past two years.
Coal fueled the advance of industry in the South, employing black and white together under hellish conditions. There was a popular saying that down in that inferno all are black, even though the dirtiest jobs were reserved for those who started off the shift with coal-colored skin. Despite deep race-hatred elsewhere, those conditions mandated biracial solidarity in bitter class war.
The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) deployed convict labor from 1871 in eastern Tennessee coal fields. Free miners were organized by the Knights of Labor. When their contract expired in April 1891, TCI locked them out and brought in convicts to break the union. There ensued two years of class war. Armed miners up to 3,000-strong marched to stockades holding convict laborers, overwhelmed the guards and released the convicts, sometimes burning the stockades to the ground.
The miners were finally outgunned and outnumbered by a state militia reinforced with army Gatling guns and field artillery. Defeated on the battlefield, the miners nevertheless celebrated something of a victory when the convict lease was not renewed, and TCI was forced to pull up stakes and move its headquarters to Birmingham, where it also operated mines with convict labor. That saga is the subject of Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller Slavery by Another Name (2008). In Birmingham, also, the deployment of convict labor met with fierce resistance by the besieged biracial United Mineworkers, a history unfortunately downplayed by Blackmon.
The post-Reconstruction “Redeemer” governments, based on open black disenfranchisement and Jim Crow terror, made the legal pretense of the horrendous convict lease system unnecessary. In Tennessee, the state simply took over the mines and worked them with prison labor. In 1912 Alabama also took over the TCI mines and worked them with convict labor for another 16 years. Elsewhere in the South, Blackmon writes:
“As African Americans across the region were ground into political and economic penury, the difference in the costs of legally enslaved and free, but impoverished, labor narrowed dramatically....
“Moreover, while thousands of state prisoners in Georgia, the Carolinas, and other states were no longer leased to private corporations, they were being forced into an ‘improved’ method of coercing labor and intimidating African Americans—the chain gang.”
In Mississippi and Louisiana, abolition of convict leasing was part of a “reform” package that had as its purpose the complete triumph of white supremacy in political affairs. There, the massive Parchman and Angola prison plantations were made state institutions. Today Angola State Prison is the largest maximum security prison in the country. With long rows of stooped black bodies working under the hot sun, and armed overseers called “trustees” at the end of each row, chattel slavery underwent a 20th-century renaissance.
If I have concentrated on the South it is because its Jim Crow laws and black codes, and not the early 19th-century Quaker vision of the pen as a place of penitence and rehabilitation, shaped the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
American Imperialist Decline
The militant class struggle of the 1930s that built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) finally integrated black labor into powerful industrial unions, if only at the bottom of the workforce. World War II not only pulled the United States out of the Great Depression but intensified the “Great Migration” of millions of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. During the war, it took only 90 days to turn illiterate black rural youth, whose only experience had been chopping weeds in cotton fields, into literate apprentices with high-grade industrial skills. A black proletariat was being forged, strategically integrated into basic American industry, representing the link between the anger of the ghetto and the power of organized labor.
With its imperialist competitors like Japan and Germany devastated, the U.S. emerged from World War II the pre-eminent capitalist power, producing one half of the world’s goods. That pre-eminence continued well into the 1950s. With profits fat, at least industrial workers were able to achieve some real gains, but not without hard class struggle. At the same time, as U.S. imperialism’s Cold War against the Soviet Union was being launched, and following a massive postwar strike wave, the power of the state to police and shackle labor was magnified. The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the secondary boycott and banned Communists and other leftists from serving as union officers. In 1955, the AFL and CIO were fused under a homogenized leadership of Cold War fanatics. It was no accident that U.S. union membership began to decline in the mid 1950s, having reached its historic peak in 1954. In 1959, 500,000 steelworkers struck for 116 days; they only returned to work under government intervention and Taft-Hartley injunction. As Leon Trotsky had warned:
“Monopoly capitalism is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy, who pick up the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class.”
— “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940)
Meanwhile, America’s imperialist competitors were rebuilding their plants with the latest technology and much higher productivity. By 1960, U.S. per-hour manufacturing costs were three times those in Europe and ten times those in Japan. Because of increased competition and overproduction, prices were falling worldwide by the early 1970s. But in the U.S. during the same period, the rate of worker compensation increased as strike activity soared. Thus, the rate of profit fell for non-financial corporations from a peak of 10 percent in 1965 to less than 6 percent in the second half of the 1970s, a fall of more than a third.
The struggle for black equality in the 1950s broke the back of the Cold War anti-Communist consensus and in the 1960s intersected growing opposition to U.S. imperialism’s losing war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants. While the bourgeoisie was willing to permit the gradual abolition of legal segregation and a little upward mobility for a small layer of blacks, it unleashed a campaign of “white backlash” and police terror aimed at reining in and suppressing the struggle for black freedom.
Vicious police repression in major U.S. cities precipitated black ghetto eruptions across the country, which were reflected in widespread disaffection among black soldiers in the U.S. military. Meanwhile, working-class upheavals shook America’s allies: France in 1968, Italy in 1969 and Portugal in 1974-75. These reverberated across the Atlantic. In the U.S., when 210,000 postal workers walked out in 1970, defying a federal strike ban, President Nixon called out 26,000 National Guard and Army troops to scab. But only 16,000 showed up; to say they were worse than useless would be an understatement. The potential for an explosive and revolutionary transformation of American society was evident. Once again the spectre of black and red haunted the country’s rulers.
The response was the bipartisan “war on crime” launched in 1968 by the “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act,” passed under Democratic president Johnson and a Democratic Congress. The Cold War domestic Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which originally targeted the Stalinists and Trotskyists, was now expanded to include the New Left, black radicals and other social activists. The militant Black Panther Party in particular was in COINTELPRO’s crosshairs. The Panthers represented the best of a generation of black activists who courageously stood up to the racist ruling class and its kill-crazy cops. In 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover vowed, “The Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teachings, they will be dead revolutionaries.” Under the ruthless COINTELPRO vendetta, 38 Panthers were assassinated and hundreds were railroaded to scores of years in prison hellholes—and many are there today, like Mumia Abu-Jamal.
A Lumpen Vanguard?
Unfortunately, the Panthers, along with most of the New Left, rejected the organized working class as the agent of black freedom and socialist revolution. Inspired by the Caribbean-born black psychiatrist and nationalist Frantz Fanon, the Panthers turned to the most wretched and the most despised layer of black ghetto youth to be the vanguard of the black struggle. The underlying ideology of the Panthers was that of Fanon: that the most oppressed are the most revolutionary. But, in fact, the lumpenproletariat in the ghetto, removed from the means of production, has no real social power. Moreover, as Marx noted in his 1850 work, The Class Struggles in France, this layer, which also includes prostitutes and pimps and petty thieves who mostly prey on workers, are “thoroughly malleable, as capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices as of the basest banditry and the foulest corruption.”
Incarcerated black militants served as a transmission belt for social protest into America’s penitentiaries, which are but a concentrated expression of racist, capitalist barbarism. What such heroic figures as Malcolm X and George Jackson demonstrate is that some individuals, politicized and radicalized by their own experiences, transcend their background to choose a social solution to their oppression. As a black supporter wrote us from Soledad Prison some 33 years ago, “For the bulk of the lumpenproletariat its social and economic stake in capitalist society—its largely parasitic relationship within capitalist society—is dependent upon the continuance of such an economic system.”
One-Sided Class War
Back on the economic front, the decline of American industry was accelerated by its aging capital stock. New investment went not into retooling and modernization of industry, but into speculative capital or into moving American plants to the low-wage, non-union South and low-wage countries abroad. Organizing the South meant taking Jim Crow racism and the Democratic Party head-on—anathema to the pro-Democratic Party labor tops. International class solidarity with superexploited workers abroad, whose conditions were enforced by brutal U.S.-backed, anti-Communist dictatorships, meant taking on the Cold War establishment, of which the labor bureaucracy was still very much a part.
The labor bureaucrats supported the election of Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter, who openly proclaimed the virtues of “ethnic purity.” In 1979 Carter appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve, the same Volcker who is now Obama’s point man on economic “reform.” After his appointment by Carter, Volcker gave away his game plan for reversing Wall Street’s declining rate of profit in a New York Times (18 October 1979) interview: “The standard of living of the average American has to decline.... I don’t think you can escape that.” The Fed chairman proceeded to drastically tighten the money supply, forcing interest rates up to 16.4 percent and driving economic activity down, creating what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Iranians were blamed—some things never change. It was not the ayatollahs in Tehran but the people running Wall Street and the Fed who were responsible.
To let folks know what was coming, Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a ringing endorsement of “states rights” before a cheering crowd of some 10,000 whites. Philadelphia, which as you may recall was the setting for the film Mississippi Burning, is where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered 16 years earlier. Obama’s admiration for Reagan, after “all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s,” should be seen in this context.
Soon after taking office, Reagan fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, a blow from which the labor movement has not recovered. Volcker stayed on as Fed chief, while unemployment reached 10.8 percent at the end of 1982. In the “miracle of the free market,” growing unemployment and the industrial reserve army replace the overseer’s whip and the trustee’s gun to discipline and drive down the wages of the working class. In addition, the ranks of the industrial reserve army were swelled with the profound deindustrialization that began under Carter and accelerated under Reagan. Between 1980 and 1985 the Department of Labor estimated that some 2.3 million manufacturing jobs disappeared for good. As auto plant after auto plant closed, Detroit lost half its population during the ’80s. By 1990, this once-proud center of industrial might and multiracial class struggle was 80 percent black and the poverty rate was 33 percent.
The “War on Drugs”
The economic whip of unemployment was augmented by the vast expansion of police powers and prisons under the bipartisan “war on crime” and “war on drugs.” In 1973, New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller launched the harshest drug laws in the country, with mandatory minimum sentences of 15 to life for selling two ounces or possession of four ounces of heroin, morphine, coke or cannabis. As WV reported in “New York Tinkers with Rockefeller Laws: Down With the Racist ‘War on Drugs’!” (WV No. 949, 1 January), these laws, which have recently undergone some paltry reforms, provided a blueprint for similar draconian laws across the country. By the 1980s, the “war on drugs” was a major contributing factor to the historic rise in the prison population. From a figure of about 40,000 people incarcerated in prison or jail for a drug offense in 1980, there has since been a 1,100 percent increase to more than 500,000 prisoners today, with black people accounting for more than 60 percent of drug convictions.
Democrats, and especially black Democrats, have been among the most fervent drug warmongers. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s Web site, referring to the “war on drugs” and other government policies, brags that “long before” they “became accepted public policy positions, Reverend Jesse Jackson advocated them.” And taking the “war on drugs” global has long been Al Sharpton’s mantra. He declared: “We have to use trade leverage to go after the countries that produce the drugs—who openly allow drugs to be in their economy—and put them out of business.” Obama, as well as Bush before him, has used the pretense of the global “war on drugs” to build military bases and back death squads in Colombia and wage murderous repression on both sides of the Mexican border (see “Mexico: Down With ‘Drug Wars’ Militarization!” WV No. 953, 26 February). Thanks, Al.
While some reformist outfits bewail the blatant racist profiling by the drug police, most do not raise the elementary democratic demand to decriminalize drugs. Indicative of this is a catchy chant from the Revolutionary Communist Party that only a somewhat demented Maoist could learn to love: “The war on drugs is a war on the people. The fascist crackdown is worse than crack.”
A recent article in Progressive Labor’s paper, Challenge (3 March), actually equated drug treatment centers with police terror and capitalist exploitation, opining: “Having drug clinics in a mainly black and Latino neighborhood is no solution for health care, and is a result of the ruling class’ racist attempt to oppress workers.” As for the reformism-at-a-snail’s-pace International Socialist Organization, now that even Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a debate on legalizing marijuana, they have come out for it as well—but don’t hold your breath.
As we wrote in WV No. 949, we support any mitigation of the Rockefeller or other drug laws. But no amount of tinkering will change the reactionary nature of these laws or their racist enforcement. We oppose all laws against “crimes without victims”—such as drug use, prostitution, gambling and pornography. Such laws are at bottom designed to maintain social control. By removing the superprofits that come with the illegal, underground nature of the drug trade, decriminalization would also reduce the crime and other social pathology associated with it. We oppose drug testing in the workplace, which employers use to cow the entire workforce and weed out militants.
There is a saying as true as it is old: There is nothing so bad that a cop can’t make it worse. Yes, drug addiction can be a terrible thing, but addiction is a medical problem. As anyone can attest who has worked with addicts and understands the physiology and psychology of addiction, nothing creates or aggravates addiction faster than the stress and trauma of police and prison. That is why overcrowded prisons are a breeding ground for drug addiction, just as they are breeding grounds for communicable diseases.
By targeting prostitutes and drug addicts, the state also targets those who are at high risk for HIV, and one in every four Americans living with HIV passes through a prison. As of 2005, blacks and Latinos represented 71 percent of all new AIDS cases and the majority of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Immigrants and Incarceration
It took a Civil War to smash slavery and create the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship not only to blacks but also to the children of immigrants born on American soil. While the American ruling class has always used racial and ethnic divisions to keep working people and the oppressed divided, the truth is that immigrant rights and black freedom either go forward hand in hand, or they fall back separately.
Today, some 400,000 immigrants pass through wretched detention facilities, some dying though sheer lack of medical attention and then “disappearing.” No wonder the Obama administration, like Bush’s, even refuses to make legally enforceable rules for immigration detention. We demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants, no matter how they made it here.
At the same time, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions, including 1.4 million black men. In Florida, over 30 percent of black men can’t vote. We categorically oppose every instance of black disenfranchisement. Full voting rights for prisoners and convicted felons!
In 2007, before the current economic crisis, the National Institute of Justice found that 60 percent of all felons remain unemployed a year after their release. We say: abolish every one of California’s 210 laws and regulations that prevent felons from getting jobs or licenses—even to be a barber, an interior designer or a guide dog trainer. Strike down criminal background checks for employment applications! Full access for ex-cons to all public services, like public housing!
At the same time, we oppose so-called “Second Chance” or “Ex-Offender” programs, which are meant to replace union jobs and exploit ex-cons as cheap labor with no benefits or protection. One such program was recently instituted in Chicago transit (see “Down With Racist, Anti-Union ‘Ex-Offender Apprentice’ Scheme!” WV No. 923, 24 October 2008). We say: Equal pay for equal work! Organize ex-cons like anyone else into the unions with full union wages, benefits and protection!
Impulse to Genocide
As the first to be fired and the last to be hired, black people were always over-represented in America’s industrial reserve army. But now the ravages of decaying American capitalism are driving many black workers out of the productive economy and into the ranks of the lumpenproletariat as an outlaw caste.
In the 1990s, Washington and California led the states in passing “Three Strikes Laws,” which established mandatory sentences for a third felony conviction. The ’90s also saw the resurrection of post-Civil War “black codes” in the form of so-called “quality of life,” “zero tolerance” and “anti-gang” laws and policies. These laws criminalized black and Latino youth, often for minor acts of misbehavior, and the poor and the homeless for their poverty. Following the so-called “’90s boom” of the Democratic Clinton administration, by 2000 one out of every three black men in their 20s was in prison or unemployed. As we wrote in the article “Lockdown U.S.A.” (WV No. 618, 10 March 1995): “The bourgeoisie’s vicious drive to imprison and execute the ever-increasing numbers of ghetto youth reflects a sinister impulse to genocide against a layer of the black population.”
Black Panther Party supporter, former Communist Party member and UC Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis has written:
“Taking into account the structural similarities and profitability of business-government linkages in the realms of military production and public punishment, the expanding penal system can now be characterized as a ‘prison industrial complex’.”
—“Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” ColorLines (Fall 1998)
Following the Civil War, as we have seen, racist incarceration was used to force freedmen back onto the plantations or into the mines as convict laborers. But to treat today’s prisons as profit centers—when in fact the main activity is enforced inactivity punctuated by grotesque violence—disguises their core role as institutions of organized class repression and prettifies the irrational, rotting capitalist system they represent and defend. SCI-Greene, the Pennsylvania Supermax where Mumia Abu-Jamal is locked down 23 hours a day on death row, is not a profit center, although it is just as indispensable to the defense of the predatory profit system as the 82nd Airborne.
Black lumpenization is not some racist conspiracy between the White House and Wall Street, but part of the normal workings of the capitalist marketplace. As described by Marx in his renowned work, Capital (1867):
“The greater the social wealth and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labour, the greater is the industrial reserve army.... But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labour army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse ratio to its torment of labour. The more extensive, finally, the lazarus-layers of the working class, and the industrial reserve army, the greater is official pauperism. This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.” [emphasis in original]
Since 2000, the U.S. has lost another five million manufacturing jobs. The existence of a strong, skilled black proletariat is the product of an exceptional conjuncture in American history, and we must do our best to defend and extend it against all the ravages of American capitalism and the treachery of the pro-imperialist union bureaucracy. For black workers remain indispensable to a revolutionary rejuvenation of American labor —and does it need rejuvenating!
Education and Revolution
A call for the March 4 “Day of Action to Defend Education” asks: “But if there’s money for wars, bank bailouts, and prisons, why is there no money for public education?” In his autobiography, the former slave Frederick Douglass quoted his former master that to educate a man “would forever unfit him to be a slave.” That is why it was a crime punishable by hanging to teach slaves to read or write. Visit inner-city schools today and you wonder if those codes are still in effect. Right now putrescent American capitalism has no need to educate working-class or poor youth; it has no room for those skilled black apprentices that filled the shipyards during World War II. Many of the black and Latino youth for whom the bourgeoisie cannot provide a future end up in prison.
Our Spartacus Youth Clubs demand free, quality public education for all, from preschool to postgrad, and a living stipend so working people and the poor—and felons—can afford college. We demand a massive expansion of remedial and bilingual education for inner-city schools and neighborhoods. But equal and adequate education is rendered meaningless if the majority of blacks and other socially downtrodden people are excluded from using the results by a decaying social order that has consigned three generations of black youth to the scrap heap.
Labor has created the social wealth that has made human culture, science and technology possible. That is why we insist that the struggle for equal education is part of the perspective for the overthrow of disintegrating capitalism, which threatens the whole culture of mankind, and its replacement with a centrally planned socialist economy on a global scale. Only that will make accessible the fruits of human culture to be fully utilized for the benefit of humanity at large.
If that seems utopian, look at the Cuban deformed workers state for only a foretaste of what is possible. We stand for the unconditional military defense of Cuba because there the capitalists were thrown out of power—although a proletarian political revolution remains on the agenda to get rid of the Stalinist bureaucrats running the country. From this former sugar colony, 400 doctors, whose entire education and training was paid for by the state, are now in Haiti providing top quality medical services to earthquake victims.
Marxism rejects the religious dogma of punishment, whether it is retributive or penitential. What is utopian is thinking you can reform the capitalist Leviathan and abolish its dungeons without overthrowing the whole damn capitalist-imperialist system. Only then can we consign the modern instruments of torture, incarceration and death to the museum, alongside the rack, the pillory and the whipping post.
For a Revolutionary Workers Party
Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, Marx wrote in Capital (1867): “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” You will find those words on the membership cards of our Labor Black League for Social Defense.
You are not going to get labor and black freedom by backing the Democratic Party of racism and imperialist war. Yes, they claim to feel your pain, and the reformists push Democratic Party lesser-evilism. When the Democrats get into office they can do greater evil with lesser resistance. And you’re not going to get any satisfaction with those green-washers of capital and pacifiers of the people, the Greens or the Peace and Freedom Party either.
Don’t buy the substitute, the imitation or the fake. Let’s get on with the immensely difficult and challenging task in this post-Soviet trough of building the kind of party needed for the inevitable social and class battles ahead, one that is proletarian, internationalist and revolutionary. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Finish the Civil War! Break with the Democrats! Build a workers party that fights for a socialist future!