Polemic with the Spartacist League
On Jailing Killer Cops
In the early hours of 1 January, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man who had been out celebrating the New Year, was killed by a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police in Oakland, California. Cell phone footage of the murder revealed that Grant, who was unarmed and lying face-down on the ground, was shot in the back by Johannes Mehserle, a 27-year-old white cop.
While police initially refused to arrest Mehserle, the mass outrage following circulation of cell phone images of the execution made it impossible for state authorities to ignore the crime. On 13 January, Mehserle was arrested and subsequently released on bail. Prior to Mehserles arrest, Oakland police viciously attacked a 7 January demonstration and arrested 100 of those protesting the racist killing of Grant.
While every leftist in the Bay Area supports the demand for immediately dropping all charges against the arrested protesters, the former Trotskyists of the Spartacist League (SL) apparently think that it is a mistake to call for jailing Mehserle. In a 12 January statement they wrote:
At the Oakland protest [on 7 January], placards from the ANSWER coalition, led by the reformist Party for Socialism and Liberation, called to Jail Killer Cops! In your dreams. The capitalist rulers are hardly going to jail their own police guard dogs. And, even if one cop were charged and imprisoned, it wouldnt stop police brutality and terror. The cops serve, together with the military and the prisons, as the core of a state whose purpose is the repression of the working class and oppressed by any means necessary.
It is quite true that jailing Mehserle wouldnt stop police brutality and terror. But that is no reason not to demand that he spend the rest of his miserable life behind bars.
Grants murder provides a graphic reminder that Barack Obamas ascent to the presidency has not changed the fact that American free enterprise has its roots in slavery and brutal racial oppression. Marxism teaches that the entire capitalist justice system, from cops to courts to jails, serves and protects a social system predicated on exploitation and inequality. Racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of American capitalismit always has been and always will be. This is why revolutionaries, while opposing all concrete manifestations of racial oppression, do not promote the illusion that capitalism can somehow be purged of racism. Our program calls for Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Advocacy of a revolutionary solution to social oppression does not, however, mean that Marxists are not also prepared to advance certain concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. An obvious example is the call to drop legal proceedings against those who were arrested on 7 January while protesting this hideous crime. It is equally necessary to demand, not only that Mehserles bail be revoked, but that this racist killer be jailed for life.
This is not the first time that this issue has come up. The SL raised exactly the same criticism after New York City police gunned down Amadou Diallo, a young black immigrant, in February 1999. We responded as follows in a statement on the acquittal of the four killer cops:
While the SL leaders did not respond to our criticism, we note that they have not repudiated either the call to free Mumia Abu-Jamal or the demand for the abolition of the racist death penalty. It is not clear to us whether the ostentatiously sectarian impulse evident in opposing the call to jail killer copsan impulse increasingly, if inconsistently, exhibited by the Spartacists in relation to a variety of other issues (see, for example, Of Presidents & Principles, 1917 No.30, 2008) is motivated by a desire to flaunt the uniquely correct insights of their peerless leader, James M. Robertson, or is merely an attempt to give their growing abstentionism a suitably programmatic cover. Whatever the motivation, it is just plain wrong.
Posted: 29 January 2009