Leaflet dated 12 December 2014
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Whether slaves or freemen, blacks were not citizens, and were unequal to whites before the law. This ruling – the infamous Dred Scott decision – codified what had been a guiding principle for generations, i.e., the racist belief that blacks are inferior to whites.
It took a bloody civil war to destroy slavery and put in place a regime of formal equality, subsequently undermined in both the Jim Crow South and the North. A sustained civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, threatening to unleash the power of the black masses, frightened the authorities into adopting a series of measures, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to enshrine legal equality and prohibit overt racial discrimination.
While the overturn of state-sanctioned segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism was a victory for all the oppressed, it could only be a half-victory in a society whose maintenance – both historically and today – requires a divided-and-conquered working population. Racism is a defining feature of capitalism in the “world’s greatest democracy.” Even with a black man in the White House, people of color in the U.S. are essentially second-class citizens.
On average, a white cop kills a black person every three or four days in the United States. Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York – both of them unarmed when killed by a white police officer – became emblematic of this routine violence particularly after the outrageous decisions of grand juries not to indict their killers, Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo.
“You can indict a ham sandwich,” famously quipped former New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler. If a prosecutor actually wants a grand jury to indict someone, it is exceedingly easy: “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them” (fivethirtyeight.com, 24 November 2014). At the state level, where cases of police brutality are normally handled, the “failure” rate would appear to be higher, as cops frequently escape indictment for killing black people.
The Brown and Garner decisions are illustrative: grand juries let the cops off the hook after prosecutors presented what amounted to a case for the defense instead of seeking to secure an indictment by offering evidence and a narrative pointing to the need for a trial. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Brown case, has brought before a grand jury a total of five police officers who shot and killed suspects while on duty, “failing” to get an indictment every single time.
Garner’s murder was captured on a now-infamous video of Pantaleo, aided by several other cops, choking the father of six as he pleaded “I can’t breathe” before losing consciousness. The coroner “found that Mr. Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the chokehold – a maneuver banned by the Police Department in 1993 – and the compression of his chest by police officers” (New York Times, 4 December 2014).
As if to underscore the injustice in the Garner case, New York prosecutors did manage to get a grand jury to indict Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Garner’s murder, on weapons charges related to an incident alleged to have happened three weeks after the killing. That Orta is being railroaded for his role in exposing Pantaleo’s crime is suggested by the assertion of the cop “union,” the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, that it is “criminals like Mr. Orta who carry illegal firearms who stand to benefit the most by demonizing the good work of police officers” (Reuters, 3 August 2014).
As thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the “good work of police officers” in reaction to the grand jury decision in the Garner case, NYPD thugs arrested more than two hundred protestors. Cops in Berkeley, California arrested over a hundred, as they have in Ferguson, ground zero of recent mass unrest. Ferguson has become a virtual police state with National Guard deployments ordered by Democratic Governor Jay Nixon and local cops equipped with military-grade weaponry.
Although sometimes of humble origin, cops are not part of the working class. They are the “first line of defense” of a social order that systematically subordinates working people. They are the domestic forces of repression who step in when the “normal” mechanisms of social pacification (e.g., the free market, the perception of the legitimacy of the government) fail to contain mass anger over the conditions of life in a class-divided, racist society. (See “Cops, Crime & Capitalism.”)
Police, prosecutors, judges and government officials are, along with the military, the core elements of the state. History shows that all states serve the interests of a definite class, and in the U.S. today the state serves the interests of the capitalist ruling class. Working people may wrest concessions from the state – important gains such as formal equality before the law and civil rights – but they cannot control it, cannot bend it to serve their will.
Even the most “democratic” political systems under capitalism are governed by states committed to ensuring the wealth and privileges of a class of exploiters, i.e., those who own the major means of production and distribution. As capitalism descends further and further into irrationality – deepening economic crises and environmental destruction – the intensification of social contradictions finds expression in the increasingly draconian actions of the state, which engages in mass surveillance of the population, mass incarceration of minorities, foreign wars of aggression and so on.
In the struggle against oppression, opponents of the system must fight every incursion on democratic rights and freedoms, such as the right of black people not to be murdered with impunity by racist police. It is necessary to demand that the killer cops be jailed, just as it is necessary to call for charges to be dropped against demonstrators. While locking up Wilson and Pantaleo or freeing arrested protestors will not overturn the system, it would be a small victory for the oppressed and a small setback for the oppressors. (See “On Jailing Killer Cops.”)
Thousands of people in every major U.S. city have staged “die-ins” and marched to chants of “Black lives matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” Police and politicians are scrambling to put a lid back on the situation. They are using both the “carrot” of proposing band-aid reforms (e.g., making cops display their badge numbers, outlawing police chokeholds) and the “stick” of violently repressing protestors demonized as “rioters” and “looters.” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the Garner case, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton have announced that NYPD officers will have to take a new three-day retraining course. Obama has launched a “task force” to propose remedial measures such as body cameras on cops. Black minister Al Sharpton, advisor to Obama and one-time FBI informant, has sought to calm tempers by begging the white millionaires’ club in Congress “to follow in the president’s footsteps and take legislative action to protect us, the citizens” (Huffington Post, 8 December 2014).
Sharpton and his ilk want to channel mass anger into dead-end campaigns to reform the police – when the truth is that the capitalist state can never be turned into an instrument serving the interests of its victims. Regardless of what is permitted by the “legislative action” of Congress, black people and the broader working class have a right to defend themselves against cop violence by any means necessary.
The power to uproot capitalism is in the hands of those who keep its wheels turning by going to work every day in the factories, construction sites, office towers, retail outlets and other places in which wage labor is employed by capital. The working class – comprised of people of all ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations – is uniquely situated in modern society: it alone has the objective interests and ability to overturn capitalism and create a socialist world free of racism and other forms of oppression.
In its present condition, however, the working class is not ready – and is not even conscious of the need – to carry out its great historic task. Its organizations, primarily the trade unions, are weak and led by bureaucrats more interested in preserving what remains of their petty privileges than in bettering the lives of their members. The labor bureaucracy is wedded to the Democratic Party and a policy of collaboration with the capitalists, not class struggle.
Yet the grip of the bureaucrats on the working class can be challenged by the intervention of class-struggle militants, who are sometimes able to initiate important actions even in ordinary times. One of the clearest examples is provided by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In 1984, black and white members of ILWU Local 10 (San Francisco) engaged in an 11-day illegal strike, refusing to unload apartheid cargo in solidarity with the masses of South Africa (see “11-Day Anti-Apartheid Struggle On San Francisco Docks”). On 24 April 1999, the ILWU shut down the entire west coast of the U.S. in defense of black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal (see “Labor: Fight to Free Mumia”). And after white cop Johannes Mehserle gunned down Oscar Grant, a young unarmed black man, in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009, Locals 10 and 34 of the ILWU, along with workers in the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, closed down all ports in the Bay Area on 23 October 2010 (see “Killer Cops & Democrats”).
Such actions are glimmers of what would be possible on a broader scale if the multiracial working class, unrestrained by sell-out leaders, were to flex its muscle. Beyond instilling fear in the hearts of the powers-that-be, militant labor actions are training exercises for working-class activists. Capitalism inevitably generates crises, and on rare occasions these crises create revolutionary opportunities during which bold moves by experienced militants can galvanize millions of workers and open the road to fundamental change.
It is necessary to gather the most politically advanced elements of the working class and oppressed together in a revolutionary organization committed to advancing a program that connects the immediate, day-to-day needs and concerns of working people (whether for a decent living or for protection against racist police violence) to the historical project of expropriating capitalist property and supplanting the capitalist state with institutions of workers’ power. A mass revolutionary party with deep roots in all sectors of the working class can be built, but it requires the dedication of smaller numbers of activists today to begin to take seriously the need to study history – above all the lessons of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky – and engage in vigorous discussion and debate of the essential elements of a revolutionary program. The International Bolshevik Tendency seeks to participate in the process of building a revolutionary party in the U.S. and around the world.