In 1917 No.33 (2011), we noted that the Internationalist Group (IG) had ignored the 23 October 2010 port shutdown in the San Francisco Bay Area protesting the racist cop murder of Oscar Grant. This important action was initiated by class-struggle militant Jack Heyman, whose activities in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) the IG had previously promoted with enthusiasm. We speculated that the IG’s reticence might have resulted from a reluctance to endorse the union’s call to “jail killer cops,” a demand that has been a point of contention between the IBT and the degenerated Spartacist League (SL). The IG did not express an opinion one way or the other:
“Unwilling either to defend or to distance itself from the SL’s brainless sectarian repudiation of the call to ‘Jail Killer Cops,’ the IG has opted to ignore the most important labor action against racist capitalist injustice since the 1999 ILWU shutdown of U.S. West Coast ports in solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal (also initiated by Heyman).”
—“Another ‘Blank Page’,” 1917 No.33
Our polemic apparently touched a nerve, and the IG broke its silence on the issue with an April statement entitled “ILWU Shuts Ports Demanding Justice for Oscar Grant.” The IG allows that “the ILWU action points toward a real mobilization of workers’ power in militant class struggle against the brutal enforcers of capitalist ‘law and order’,” but explains that “the Internationalist Group did not endorse the October 23 rally [organized by the union as part of the port shutdown] because of disagreement with the ‘jail killer cops’ slogan.”
In the lead-up to the action, Heyman wrote:
“Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has called for a labor and community rally October 23rd in Oakland to demand justice for Oscar Grant and the jailing of killer cops. Bay Area ports will shut down that day to stand with the black community and others against the scourge of police brutality.”
—Counterpunch, 18 October 2010
The IG chose to interpret this call as sowing reformist illusions:
“Heyman, a militant union activist in ILWU Local 10, who was one of the main organizers of the October 23 union action, wrote that ‘killer cops belong in jail’ while correctly observing ‘that’s not how justice in capitalist America works’ (Counterpunch, 18 October 2010). But in supporting the call to jail killer cops, he and others suggest that it could work that way.”
In order to give its argument some plausibility, the IG equates calls for jailing killer cops with advocacy of “‘community policing,’ hiring more black cops, putting in black police chiefs, black mayors and governors, and even a black president.” Yet demanding that murderous cops who carry out extra-legal executions be prosecuted and sent to prison does not amount to a call to reform the capitalist state. The IG does recognize that, “the racist police figure they have a license to kill with impunity, and they do” and also notes that “Police routinely kill innocent black people with impunity across the country.” So should Marxists be indifferent to such outrageous crimes? Only sectarian imbeciles could denounce the demand that the perpetrators of such racist murders be held to account as reformism.
The fact that the police are essentially above the law—i.e., that they routinely trample civil liberties, rights and freedoms supposedly guaranteed by bourgeois legality—is widely recognized by the victims of capitalist rule. Far from “propagating the bourgeois democratic myth that under pressure, the state can be made to serve the interests of the masses,” organizing wide-spread opposition to particularly egregious cases—like the cold-blooded execution of Oscar Grant—can provide an opportunity to help militant workers and rebellious youth see that the pervasive and systemic racism of American capitalism can only be ended through socialist revolution.
While essentially agreeing with the SL on this issue, the IG gently chides Workers Vanguard for “not distinguish[ing the reformists spreading illusions] from the masses demanding justice”:
“An oppressed population demanding that a particular cop guilty of a heinous crime be jailed is desperately seeking some measure of justice.…However, when leftists call to ‘jail killer cops’ in general, they are propagating the bourgeois democratic myth that under pressure, the state can be made to serve the interests of the masses.”
The IG apparently agrees that Mehserle “should certainly be behind bars for the rest of his life,” i.e., in jail. In that case, why should they object to the proposition that other cops who commit equivalent crimes also “be behind bars for the rest of [their lives]”? American capitalism is deeply racist and incapable of operating on a genuinely democratic basis, but Marxists are not indifferent to violations of formal democratic rights.
In a 2009 polemic, the SL wrote:
“the BT’s cry to ‘jail the killer cops’ borrows from the social-democratic lie that this state can be made accountable to the ‘will of the people.’ The BT says so itself, writing, ‘whenever a few cops can be held accountable for a few of their crimes it is a small victory for their victims.’ In reality, even on those rare occasions where the rulers find it necessary to punish one of their murderous gendarmes, the purpose is to refurbish illusions in the state as some kind of ‘neutral’ arbiter.”
—Workers Vanguard, 24 April 2009
This went too far for the IG, which, in its recent statement, commented:
“By one-sidedly arguing that any jailing of an individual cop would just be to ‘refurbish illusions’ in the supposed neutrality of the state [the SL] even suggests that this would actually be a bad thing.”
Yet in an effort to avoid being too closely associated with our criticisms, the IG approvingly cited some earlier SL smears:
“The SL recalled a BT article on ‘Cops, Crime & Capitalism’ (October 1992) which grotesquely went on and on about the problem of urban ‘crime’ in black neighborhoods—the codeword of racist support for the police—in the aftermath of the 1992 protests against the acquittal of the racist Los Angeles cops who beat Rodney King.”
Anyone who actually reads “Cops, Crime & Capitalism” (1917 West No.2) will see that this is a complete misrepresentation. Far from complaining about “black crime,” we explained the intimate connection between the pervasive racism of American capitalism and state repression:
“Working people, blacks and other oppressed layers are ambivalent about crime. Black people, for example, are the most frequent victims of crime, and many want more police protection for their neighborhoods. On the other hand, they are also the most likely victims of police brutality and misconduct. Blacks, especially young males, have been so uniformly stereotyped as criminals that much of the bourgeois rhetoric about law and order is racist code for ‘get the blacks.’ It is estimated that a black male is almost six times as likely as a white male to do time in a state prison during his lifetime.”
The statement discussed the social conditions that engender anti-social behavior and how the legal framework of the “war on drugs” provides a “pretext for police oppression of black youth.”
The IG’s recent leaflet includes the slanderous assertion that: “The BT also called then [i.e., in 1992] for ‘workers defense guards’ to ‘prevent bloody spontaneous explosions, like riots.’ ” The IG cannot cite a source for this accusation because it is pure invention. What we actually wrote was:
“Only the proletariat has the social power and the objective interest to eliminate the causes of crime. A strong workers movement which established integrated workers defense guards could take a big step toward defending workers and the oppressed from both crime and police brutality. Workers defense guards would have nothing in common with the Guardian Angels (or equivalent community policing scams) who work with the police, nor with vigilantes who are often racist, ethnically-based gangs defending ‘their turf’ against ‘outsiders.’
“To be effective workers defense guards should be integrated to cut through the racism which so divides the working class. They would generally be initiated in response to attacks upon workers’ picket lines by the capitalist state, its fascist allies or the private goons of individual employers. Once engaged in class struggle, workers will quickly see the usefulness of defense guards in protecting workers and the oppressed in other areas of their social life, including the fight to be free of crime and police harassment.”
—“Cops, Crime & Capitalism”
In our statement on the Rodney King protests (“LA: Days of Rage,” May 1992), we stated “as revolutionary Marxists, we share the rage of South-Central Los Angeles,” and concluded:
“In the wake of the LA events, bourgeois media and politicians are quick to remind us that ‘rioting accomplishes nothing.’ This may be true in the long term, but it is also true that every paltry reform or gesture toward racial justice that the capitalist state has made in the past has been in direct response to anger in the streets. LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’ in the 1960s was aimed at keeping social peace in the wake of nationwide ghetto explosions. When things settled down, the ‘Great Society’ spigot was almost entirely turned off. The only reason that one of Rodney King’s club-wielding assailants, Laurence Powell, will stand trial a second time (unfortunately not before an all-black and Hispanic jury) is because of the South-Central eruption. Voting for BEOs [black elected officials] and Democrats, on the other hand, has only led to a deepening of black poverty and an escalation of police brutality.
“The bourgeois media is full of admonishments that all citizens must ‘respect the law.’ But since when has the American legal system ever treated blacks as equals?…
“Marxists can have nothing but contempt for the hypocritical condemnations of ‘violence’ and ‘lawlessness’ now gushing forth from newsrooms, pulpits and capitalist presidential aspirants. Yet serious militants must also recognize that racism, poverty and the violence of the capitalist state will not be ended by unorganized explosions of black and minority rage, however justified. Because the black masses lack the program and the leadership to fight for a real social revolution, their spontaneous anger often strikes at the wrong targets, and leaves their real exploiters and oppressors untouched.”
This is not the first time the IG has slandered us in regard to the 1992 events. In a 25 July 1996 statement (reprinted in our Trotskyist Bulletin No.6), Abram Negrete, a leading IG member, falsely alleged that the IBT “called for workers’ defense guards (sic) to stop ‘violence’ like the Los Angeles upheaval.” We rebutted this baseless accusation in a 15 December 1996 letter to the IG (also reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No.6), and invited the IG to withdraw it. The IG, which neither responded to our letter nor repudiated Negrete’s outrageous charge, has chosen instead to cynically recycle it in its recent statement.
The political dispute over “jailing killer cops” is linked to a variety of other questions. In a 28 July 2009 letter to the SL’s Canadian affiliate we observed: “When it was a revolutionary organization, the SL understood that bourgeois democratic rights can only be preserved by opposing egregious violations committed by state authorities. And it knew how to address such issues without creating illusions.” We pointed to the attitude taken by Workers Vanguard (then edited by IG leader Jan Norden) toward the post-Watergate investigations of the illegal actions of America’s political police:
“Without exception the entire secret police—the most felonious organization in the country—is guilty of the same charges [brought against John J. Kearney, head of the FBI’s ‘Squad 47’ charged with illegal phone taps and letter opening in New York] and probably much more that is far worse. From Kearney of ‘Squad 47’ to William Calley [a junior American army officer who ordered the massacre of civilians in the village of My Lai during the Vietnam War], to Adolph Eichmann, capitalism’s butchers and hit men are always ‘only following orders.’ And while we demand that the big guns who gave the orders be brought to justice, the scum who actually pull the triggers must not be allowed to beat the rap. Put away all the FBI/CIA criminals! Smash the capitalist secret police though workers revolution!”
—Workers Vanguard, 21 April 1978
This approach is no less valid today. In our letter we also recalled that, when U.S. federal agents dragged Spartacist supporter Jane Margolis out of the national convention of the Communication Workers of America in July 1979, the SL responded by suing the U.S. Secret Service:
“This is no ordinary lawsuit. At its heart, the case of Jane Margolis versus the Secret Service poses a significant question concerning the independence of the labor movement from coercive state control.…
“The facts of this case are without precedent in the history of the organized labor movement in America. Never before have federal police agents disrupted a national convention of a major trade union to forcibly remove an elected delegate.…”
—Workers Vanguard, 23 November 1979
The statement observed that “the rights of labor are the cornerstone of democratic rights generally.…” The democratic right not to be executed by racist cops is one of vital interest to working people and the oppressed, and Marxists have a duty to fight to ensure that “the scum who actually pull the triggers” do not “beat the rap.”
The SL’s suit against the Secret Service was followed in the early 1980s by successful lawsuits in defense of democratic rights against the anti-communist Moonie cult, California Attorney General George Deukmejian, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General. We consider all of those initiatives to have been valuable contributions to the protection of the democratic rights of the entire left and labor movement. The opposition of the SL and IG to raising the demand to “jail killer cops” should logically compel them to denounce such lawsuits on the grounds of promoting illusions in the possibility of reforming the capitalist state. The SL has thus far refused comment, and we anticipate that the IG will be similarly anxious to avoid addressing this awkward question.
We very much regret that the leading comrades of the IG, with whom we share much history and many programmatic positions, seem incapable of transcending the pervasive cynicism that characterized the thoroughly degenerated Spartacist League of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet their treatment of the “killer cops” issue provides another example of how, when faced with difficult political questions, they have a persistent tendency to resort to evasions and slander. The IG leadership’s chronic inability to “face reality squarely” and “be true in little things as in big ones” belies its claim to uphold the banner of Trotsky’s Fourth International.